Listening Over And From Afar

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“Hearing is like being touched and moved from a distance.”
– David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body, p. 89.

I’ve been trying out new ways of listening while performing, trying to get beyond the sounds of my percussion instruments and get closer to the other sounds around and beyond me. When I do this, an image comes to mind: my ear stretches to impossible lengths, as if made of silly putty, dragged away from my body, across the orchestra pit, and up over the lip of the stage. My ear stretches over a hundred feet to connect me directly to the sound sources I’m listening to. That’s what it feels like (touched and moved from a distance as Burrows says) but in reality I’m simply shifting my attention to foreground one set of sounds over another. If you’re familiar with the terminology of multitrack recording, it’s like lowering the volume fader on one track to better hear what is sounding on another. With my ear figuratively stretched, my listening feels like seeing with binoculars—looking over treetops to track a small bird from afar.

My experiments with listening began innocently enough: on some nights the sounds in my immediate vicinity (including my own instruments) seemed too busy—there was too much going on in the rhythm section, with the drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, and percussion hammering away their intricate parts. It’s not that these parts were problematic—they sounded fine—it’s that their overall composite texture was so dense that it was hard to hear beyond it: the music produced a kind of aural fog that was hard to hear through. My temporary solution to this perceptual dilemma was to see if I could keep playing my part while listening to something completely different, and each night I focused on one of the rhythm section instruments.

Then one day I turned my attention to the singing onstage. This is where things got interesting because singers tend to hold the music’s melodies, while rhythm section musicians provide support. I focused on the singer’s singing and played my part as usual but now zoomed in on which elements in my part were supporting her and which elements were extraneous, or potentially undermining her melody. Even though the rhythm section’s collective groove provides an energy wave for the singers onstage, so much of the little details of our parts serve the ends of our own instrumental idioms more than the overall flow of the music. That sounds critical, but it’s true: we’re a well-oiled musical machine, but a machine as much caught up in the pleasures of our instruments’ own machinations as we are devoted to the success of the show. Anyway, as I paid attention to the singers’ melody I began leaving out the little drumming fills and variations that had become habit, playing instead a simpler version of my part. I doubt anyone noticed the change, but even so, it was a difference that meant something for me because now I could lock into the singer, shaping my part to the contours of her held melody. My silly putty ear was stretched across my djembe, over the marimbas, over the guitar, bass, and keyboards, over the conductor, and onto the stage, placing itself right alongside the singer. Why had it taken me so long to try listening this way?

I don’t know if this orientation to listening to something different in the mix made my playing more “sensitive” besides encouraging me to dial back the busyness of my playing. But it did serve as a lesson on how music continually invites listening on different resolutions, from different distances, where you foreground this over that, where you listen over parts of the music from afar to bring closer what was once under-noticed. It’s in the varied perspectives afforded by our ever-changeable listening stances that half of music’s creativity lives.

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