Last week, Colin Holter made a comment on these pages about boredom that struck me, in which he suggested that boredom has as much to do with what we bring to an experience as with that experience itself. This is a great point from which to begin a consideration of boredom, which has less to do with some quality inherent in the music at hand than with a certain relationship (or perhaps lack of relationship) between the listener and the music. When we say that music is boring, we typically mean that our listening experience failed to deliver what people turn to music for, which is above all a sense of connection.
In this respect, music is often boring when we are listening for something that is not there. That is why hard-rock fans looking for a physical connection might shy away from music that fails to deliver the desired visceral punch; or why academics looking for an intellectual connection shy away from music that does not yield to analysis; or why listeners seeking an emotional connection have difficulty taking interest in music composed via elaborate formal schemes.
When we say something is boring, we mean that it has become too familiar, or at least seems that way—the level of helpful familiarity has been exceeded, so that renewed contact deadens the experience rather than enriches it. This seems related to an essentially passive view of experience, in which we receive stimulation from a force outside of ourselves rather than a kindling of spirit within. The very perception of ourselves as passive observers rather than full participants in an experience defines boredom, which leads to the desire for novelty and fancy, which are poor cousins of newness and imagination.
Boredom is a message: it indicates our failure to appreciate certain kinds of experience, perhaps more than any failure of those experiences themselves. That’s why boredom ought to be cause for regret rather than smugness or gloating, or at least a force that challenges us to engage more deeply. There’s no joy to be had and no pride in not enjoying something; one does not attain a superior place “above” something else by putting it down. And it’s a well-known fact that affective non-engagement is one of the hallmarks of schizophrenic thought patterns.
Have I written any boring music? That depends on who you ask, but more often than once I’ve overheard the dreaded accusation in a restroom during intermission—and I was sure glad that I wasn’t sufficiently famous to be spotted as the offender! In one case, I kept an eye on one of my would-be critics during the second half of the concert, during which his PDA flashed noticeably. This eased my nerves a bit—until I thought about how much music I have personally considered boring, and made a pact with myself to make “boring” the start of a more serious exploration.