One Good Listener

Crash! Think of music like an encounter with two halves crashing together: on one side a set of sounds working as a composite, and on the other side, one good listener taking it all in. Like the case of a tree falling in the forest with no one around to notice it, without one good listener, the music encounter is broken and the music can’t work. But whenever there’s a listener, the music works. 

If you make music there’s no guarantee anyone else will hear much, or any, of it. In fact, sometimes the only listener is yourself—at least for long stretches of time. This means you learn to represent, as much as you’re able, a mass of possible good listeners; you become a synechdoche of many pairs of attentive and receptive ears. You listen on behalf of imaginary others, sometimes as if you are these others. You ask the hard-to-answer question, How would someone sort of like me feel if they heard this? 

When music has at least one good listener its encounter is set and you can let it run. The music proposes—consider this—and the listener considers. The music makes statements, declares, repeats and develops itself over time, while the listener follows along, silently assessing (or maybe dancing along too, depending on the music). It’s an involuntary assessing, an endless cross-referencing what the music is doing now with all of the other previous musical encounters the listener has ever experienced. Even though the music may not be consciously referencing other works, the listener can’t help but draw on other works to interpret this new piece. Sometimes the music is a sly remix artist par excellence, deftly combining familiar sounds and structures into unfamiliar contexts. The music says, well yes, technically this is a disco beat, but it’s not in a disco setting. The music proposes and declares while the listener thinks, sure, it may not be in a disco setting, but I’ve heard some of these gestures somewhere before, even if I can’t say exactly where. There’s a dialogue between the music’s doings and the listener’s assessing, a back and forth that shapes the meanings the music takes on. 

Sometimes the music produces unintended or outsized effects, where its sounds are interpreted by a listener in an unprecedented way. Even though the music can do whatever it wants, it’s the listener who ultimately determines how to use the music, and decides whether or not it’s even worth returning to. This is how a symphony becomes a meditation tool, a drone becomes a film soundtrack, or a disco beat in a new setting becomes coffee shop ambiance. One good listener can pluck a music from obscurity and share with other enthusiasts everything that makes its sound a special way of knowing the world.  

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