Having recently finished a project and waiting for it to be mastered, I found myself spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces. I did this listening while doing other things like making toast or tidying up the apartment, and more often than not I listened from another room, letting the sounds move down the hallway and bend around corners so I could take them in from a distance. Why was I listening and what was I trying to notice?
A first reason for listening was to get to know the music. The pieces had been done relatively quickly—quickly enough that prior to finishing the music I had never quite gotten to know it. Over the past few years, my composing has been partly based upon improvisation. (Isn’t all composing at some point improvisation?) This means that I end up reaching for things in one-time performances without fully knowing what it is that I’m reaching for. I just play—trying to make something that seems balanced and enchanting in the moment, or at least not immediately annoying. Later, when I’m editing, I’ll listen to the pieces repeatedly, but since I’ll be focused on the minutiae of fixing little annoying errors, I won’t hear how the pieces flow and won’t understand what it was that I had originally been reaching for. It’s only once the pieces are done (little errors now minimized) that I can begin listening while doing other things and get to know the music in a general way. Now I can hear the performance almost as an outsider would—as if observing it from a distance. This explains why I’ll listen from another room.
I was also listening for something more amorphous: how the music makes me feel, its overall mood, and how it sustains and paces my feeling for the duration of its sounding. Let me re-phrase that: music probably doesn’t make us feel anything—we arrive at feelings with the help of the music. Listening, in other words, is an encounter between the hearer and the sounding. Listening from another room while doing other things is an encounter that helps me gauge how the music inflects those other things I’m doing, as if the sounds are scents, or casting shadows. In a way, I was trying to assess if this music could be actually useful. For instance, could I, or someone else, make toast or fall asleep to this music? I’m happy to report that the answer to both these questions is yes!
A third thing I was listening for was durability: how do these pieces hold up over repeated listenings? How do they wear as I get to know them better? Do some pieces become more annoying, more cloying, the more I listen to them? Do some pieces get better or simply hold their value? Here’s an example: there was one piece in the series—originally the ninth piece, now the fifth—that had always struck me as slightly better than the others. Even though all the pieces were created the same way, each one based upon brief musical improvisations, this particular piece had a weight to it. If it wasn’t better, it at least sounded more assured, almost as if it were a model for the others to aspire to. Maybe I got lucky with it, or maybe, since it was originally the ninth piece in a series of twenty, I had begun to hit my stride with it? In any case, repeated listening did two things: it confirmed my initial positive impression of this model piece, and it confirmed the durability if not of the piece, then at least of that initial positive impression. This was an important realization insofar as there are times when a music seems to change over time simply because my tastes have changed. Funny how that works.
A final reason I was listening was to let go of the music. While I’m working on a project and listening to it over and over, its sounds loom large in my mind’s ear and I often hear bits of the pieces on repeat in my head when I’m least expecting it, as if I’ve created my own earworms. I began this project one year ago, then left it for a time, then came back to it. During that time, the pieces were in the foreground of my attention. But now I need to shift them to the background. I’m done with this music and the fundamental reason I’m spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces from another room while doing other things is to say goodbye to them.
“I had grown up with a different head, an old-fashioned one, and that sea of possibilities and different tasks seemed to me like something cooked up for people other than myself.” – Alessandro Baricco
Last year I noticed a book for sale at, of all places, the checkout counter of the food emporium Eataly. The book was The Barbarians: An Essay On the Mutation of Culture by the Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco. I made a note to check it and finally did so last month. The Barbarians is a timely, playful, and compelling essay about what could be described as a global shift in consciousness regarding high and low culture, the flow of information, knowledge, and how we think. Through a series of brief case studies on wine, soccer, books, Google, and even music, Baricco suggests that we are becoming “mutants: with a changed orientation to the world–one whose sensibility is more attuned to surfaces than depths, simplicity rather than complexity, and simultaneity rather than singularity. In a way, the book is like a field manual that describes not just technological trends, but also the emergent cultural spaces defined by them in which more and more of us find ourselves. Here and there Baricco uses the metaphor of a half-human, half-amphibian mutant that has grown gills in order to breath underwater. That’s us.
Baricco’s first case study is wine. He describes the global impact of American winemaking and the numerical wine rating system. Once upon a time, not that long ago, wine was the domain of the Europeans–particularly the French and the Italians. Then in California there developed “Hollywood” wine–Baricco’s term for what was essentially “an effective gutting of a refined, complex cultural tradition.” Hollywood wine is an example of a gesture that is preserved but whose meaning and depth have been diluted. Part of this was due to a technological revolution (air-conditioned wine ageing facilities) that erased “the privileges of the caste that resigned supreme in the art.” This was a new world co-opting of an old world tradition, re-making winemaking in a simpler, modern language of taste. “This wine” says Baricco, “negates one of the principles of the aesthetics we embrace: the idea that to attain the high nobility of true valor, one must travel a tortuous path of patience and learning.” The Barbarians’ Hollywood wine tastes good (enough), opening up what was formerly an elite tradition to the regular person, and ultimately, helped affordable wine drinking go global.
From wine, Baricco moves to contemporary soccer, whose style of play derives from the Dutch “total soccer” begun in the 1970s which he describes as “a single event in which everyone is constantly participating.” Where soccer once had individual “genius” artists who could command the pitch and direct the attention of other players, the game is now characterized by a “middlingness” or “a smooth, unjointed structure able to hold together a greater number of actions.” Baricco contends that middlingness is in fact an envoy that “allows ideas and actions to circulate faster through the system; genius, deep within the noblest of individuals, breaks up this rhythm.”
Like Hollywood wine and the modern style of soccer play, Google is also a creature of the Barbarians and here Baricco is at his most probing as he circles around the question of meaning as it is constructed and found online. On the Internet, he says,”an idea is not a circumscribed object, but a trajectory, a sequence of passages, a composition of diverse materials.” Meaning is not something we work for, but rather something easily accessible, fluid. It’s “as though Meaning, which for centuries was linked to an ideal of permanence, solid and complete, had gone out in search of a new habitat, dissolving into a form that is mostly movement, extended structure, journey. Asking oneself what a thing is means asking oneself what road it has traveled outside of itself.” In the searchable world of Google, the ideas and knowledge formations that matter are the ones “able to enter into sequence with all the other areas of knowledge.”
Baricco’s discussion of meaning leads him to consider what constitutes experience today. He contrasts old and new (or Barbarian) conceptions of experience. The old idea of experience is as “a high point in everyday life–where the perception of reality crystallizes into milestones, memories, stories.” Experience in this sense is a vertical “journey into the depths” that “stemmed from the ability to get close to things, one at a time, and to develop an intimacy with them that might open up their most hidden recesses.” The new idea of experience is a journey along the surfaces of things to “generate rather than gather momentum” in order to get somewhere else. (Think about the Googled link.) Experiencing things “becomes passing through them for the time necessary to draw enough impetus from them to end up somewhere else.” The goal, says Baricco, “is now movement itself.”
The Barbarians also considers the history of European classical music as one of its case studies. Baricco suggests that classical music’s development lead, on the one hand, to an ongoing simplification of its language. Baricco:
“You could say that, between Bach and Beethoven, composers worked tirelessly at cleverly simplifying the world of music they’d inherited from their forebears. They diminished the sounds, harmonies, and forms. And at the same time they accelerated down the road of a spectacularity no one before them had ever dreamed of. If you listen to a madrigal by Monteverdi and then, immediately afterward, the chorale finale of Beethoven’s Fifth, it will become immediately clear on which side stands the shopkeeper, the uncivilized, the barbarian. And yet…in that voluntary reduction of possibilities…those men found the narrow strait through which they would discover a new world…”
On the other hand, it could be argued that classical music also sonically constructed the notion of spirituality. Going back to the sixteenth century, Baricco observes that musics of the 1500s and 1600s are sometimes attributed “the same qualities we have learned to recognize in the likes of Beethoven and Verdi…But in reality, it’s an optical illusion…The map of sentiment, such as we have inherited it, had yet to be invented at the time.” It was only later that the musical language from Bach and Haydn to Beethoven and Mozart (among many others) set the parameters for apprehending the spiritual, for apprehending the soul through sound–not just for the nineteenth century bourgeoisie, but into our time too. It was classical music that linked spirituality and soul to the music’s steep learning curve. Understanding classical music, Baricco reminds us, demands “hard work–time, erudition, patience, diligence, willpower.” Over time, this process of study has “been refined into a veritable discipline, highly complex and of difficult access.” Only when you consider how many hours it takes to become what Theodore Adorno once called a “discerning listener” says Baricco, “do you realize how consistently every other way of approaching the supreme masterpiece has been demonized.” In short, classical music teaches us that “without profundity, there is no soul.”
By the time we have moved through the case studies on wine, soccer, Google, and music, Baricco pans out to provide some general descriptions of the barbarians through a few defining characteristics. First, barbarians “invented the horizontal man” who travels the surface of things rather than “plumbing the depths.” Second, the horizontal person is a “kind of sensor pursuing meaning wherever it lives on the surface, following it everywhere.” Meaning is “distributed across the surface of things, or surfing the waves of experience, of a network of systems of passage.” These systems of passage in turn “generate acceleration.” A third characteristic of barbarians is their view of the past as “a junkyard of ruins” that “rises back to the surface over time and enters into a network with the shards of the present.”
There’s a lot to like in this imaginative and thoughtful book. The Barbarians is packed with unusual and probing insights about the presence of contemporary culture. And though he doesn’t say it outright, Baricco’s broader point is that the barbarians are us–each of us, wittingly or not, involved with the “systematic dismantling of the entire intellectual armory we inherited from nineteenth-century Romantic, bourgeois culture.” But Baricco’s essay isn’t nostalgic for our pre-Barbaric era. Instead it urges us onwards by mapping our time of global simultaneity, interconnectedness, and digital energy flows to which we are fast adapting. “We are mutants, all of us, some more evolved than others.”
In his treatise on phenomenology, Phenomenology of Perception, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes compellingly on the role of our bodies in our experience of the world. Merleau-Ponty touches on musical experience here and there, so of course I blazed through the book in search of those heres and theres to see what he had to say. One striking passage concerns the example of an organist who is faced with a new organ but little time to prepare for a performance on it. Merleau-Ponty brings us through what a musician might do in this situation.
First, he gets to know the new organ, “he sizes up the instrument with his body, he incorporates its directions and dimensions, and he settles into the organ as one settles into a house” (146). Next is the problem of what exactly is rehearsed on the unfamiliar instrument. The answer is a series of gestures or physical moves that serve as explorations. The organist’s “rehearsal gestures…put forth affective vectors, they discover emotional sources, and they create an expressive space” (147). The organist’s gestures in turn reveal his habits of performance which may or may not fit the new instrument. The problem, says Merleau-Ponty, “is to determine how the musical signification of the gesture can be condensed into a certain locality to the extent that…the organist reaches for precisely the stops and the pedals that will actualize it” (147). In other words, will this new instrument actualize what the musician hopes to achieve through his gestures? Finally, the musician’s goal is to gain a connection with the new instrument and start playing. But where does music reside in all of this? In several places at once—in the score, in the organ sound, and in the relationship or what Merleau-Ponty calls the “passage” between the organist and the organ: “Between the musical essence of the piece such as it is indicated in the score and the music that actually resonates around the organ, such a direct relationship is established that the body of the organist and the instrument are nothing other than the place of passage of this relation” (147).
Later in the book, Merleau-Ponty clarifies what it means to make and listen to a musical sound. He distinguishes between three modalities of sound listening which he calls objective sound, atmospheric sound, and an unnamed “last stage” sound. Considering that Merleau-Ponty was not a musician himself, it’s quite a feat of imagining the different ways in which musicians hear music from inside the musical experience. These three sound modalities move us from listening to sound emanating from the instrument, to listening to how the sound vibrates within us so that we feel as we have become the instrument, and finally, to listening in such a way that it feels as if our sound-making has altered our entire selves. Merleau-Ponty: “there is an objective sound that resonates outside of me in the musical instrument, an atmospheric sound that is between the object and my body, a sound that vibrates in me ‘as if I had become the flute or the clock,’ and finally a last stage where the sonorous element disappears and becomes a highly precise experience of a modification of my entire body” (236).
Here is a recording of Merleau-Ponty discussing our perception of “sensible objects.” Though he doesn’t discuss music here, he does touch on painting, and more intriguingly, honey. “The unity of a thing is not behind each of its qualities” he says, “it is reaffirmed by each of them, each of them is the whole thing.”
And finally, here is an outstanding piece of organ music by Olivier Messiaen:
The other evening I felt like listening to some “zone out” music on my way home from work, so I put on Harold Budd’s Perhaps, a collection of piano music.
As I walked the last few blocks from the subway I took measure of the great space in Budd’s improvisations–in the spaces he leaves between his chord clusters and melodies that hang like tree branches. In addition to his attractive note choices, what stands out in Budd’s playing are those spaces just after the melo-harmonic resonances are fading away. Taking measure of these spaces in the music, I tried counting the number of steps I was taking between each chord and was surprised to find that the average was between eight and twelve steps. That’s a lot of space!
While I have enjoyed Budd’s music since I first encountered it a few years ago, I never realized that maybe part of how it works is through what could be called its generosity of space-providing. As you listen, the music offers you ample room to think about what you just heard, count your steps if you’re so inclined, or make other non-musical associations. Most music we listen to isn’t like this. Most music is about fullness and density–richly layered, textured, orchestrated, and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. But such music doesn’t invite us into the listening encounter the way Budd’s space-providing piano playing does.