Time to Listen

When I was a student, I challenged myself to listen to as many works by as many different composers as possible. Since I worked in the recordings section of my school’s music library, I enjoyed the advantage of free access to our vast collection of CDs and LPs, and I used to browse through these physical objects, seeking out all the collections of contemporary pieces that I could find. In this way, I discovered the music of Lachenmann, Shatin, Birtwistle, Wolfe, and many other composers whose works I continue to enjoy to this day. In addition, I used to participate in monthly listening parties with a group of similar-minded composers. We would have dinner and then one of us would play new recordings that might be of interest to everyone. These evenings were filled with fascinating discussions—through which I possibly learned more than in my course studies—and they also introduced me to Scelsi, Xenakis, and other creators of beautiful music.

Looking back on those days, the greatest predictor of future success among my contemporaries was the amount of time and energy individuals spent listening to music. Those students who remained open to the ideas they could glean from new artistic experiences invariably grew into the colleagues from whom I continue to learn.

Each new musical experience built upon all the previous ones, gradually and inexorably altering my aesthetic predilections. As my taste evolved, composers whose music I found to be too abstract in my first encounters often morphed into the center of my preferred palate. Conversely, I now eschew much of the music that initially grabbed me decades ago, believing it to be cloying and obvious.

My current problem is that my musical explorations haven’t kept pace with the changes in my personal taste, nor with the wealth of interesting music that contemporary composers continue to produce. I rarely encounter the sort of unstructured stretches of time that would allow me the freedom to explore music from among the dozens of new composers whose works friends and colleagues recommend as being aesthetically up my alley. Further complicating matters are the giants of the 20th century whose works I’ve found to be incredibly moving and yet have only experienced in small doses. Even as the internet has greatly increased my access to an incredible variety of music that’s available nearly everywhere and at a moment’s notice, my ability to take advantage of this abundance has diminished nearly as profoundly.

In order to stop this gradual erosion of my knowledge of the contemporary repertoire, I’ve embarked on a new listening project. Each week, I try to carve out blocks within my schedule during which I concentrate on experiencing a piece that is either new to me or that I’ve only heard in less than ideal circumstances. I’m trying to force myself to move beyond the paralysis that can set in as I face the infinite variety of sounds available to me at all times in order to choose one or two works on which I will focus during each session. I’m hoping that this venture might work over time to stem the deterioration of my listening skills, and that it will allow me to remain more current in my awareness of the wealth of music available to listeners today.

6 thoughts on “Time to Listen

  1. Colin Holter

    You’ve identified a real problem in the field of contemporary music: There’s no way that we – we, professionals who have a responsibility to be familiar with the activity taking place in our profession – can consume enough of our product to have a handle on “the state of the art.” (A corollary to this problem is that the burden of proving any statement anyone makes about “what’s going on” in new music today has become virtually unshoulderable.) I can’t claim to have a solution, but I do think that a good starting point might be a shift away from conceiving of composition as a contribution to an immense and exponentially growing corpus of music and toward acknowledging the social and socially conditioned wages of composition at a particular time and place (i.e., now and wherever you are) – wages which of course have been there all along.

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  2. Smooke

    Colin -
    Thank you for responding. I guess that I can’t give up the fight despite the clear impossibility of the task. Something about the process being worthwhile in its own right, and, yes, also tending to my own garden.

    Chaz -
    Thank you for asking. Here are some that I’ve found particularly interesting: It all began with someone telling me that I should look into Boulez “Rituels” and Lutoslawski “Livre” (I always need to listen to more orchestral music since my natural tendencies go more towards small ensembles). Based on a friend’s recommendation, I’ve also been exploring and really loving the music of Donnacha Dennehy (who is at Princeton this year). Another friend tells me that I should be listening to Andrew Norman, so I’m planning to look into his music next. Innova Records has a soundcloud account with samples from their recent recordings, and I was particularly struck by the Mary Ellen Childs, Kurt Rohde (I definitely need to listen to more of his music!), and Mark Winges from among their recent releases. And in a completely different vein, I’ve been enjoying early 20th century country yodelers like Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell.

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  3. Pingback: Time To Listen? « How Do You Listen To Music?

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