In the preface to his excellent book Microgrooves (2015), critic and musician John Corbett recounts listening to the sounds of frogs by a pond with his father when he was eight years old. Corbett’s dad told him to focus on the sound of one particular frog among the full chorus. “Now, he said, keeping that one in mind, try to hear another one at the same time.” Once Corbett could do this, another task: “Listen to the new voice in relation to the first one…OK, now see if you can switch them.” Corbett expands on the lessons he was learning:
“My dad was teaching me about polyrhythms. Setting me up for Steve Reich and jazz. That’s already pretty mind-blowing for an eight-year-old, but there was more. I couldn’t put a name on it, but I also understood that he was showing me something deeper, a principle. If I was able, by shifting my focus, to change the rhythm I was hearing, then listening must be a relative activity. A listener has to make decisions about how to listen. It’s not just a passive thing. And in order to do that, to put yourself into the right space to be able to make informed listening decisions, you have to pay attention.”
Though it may not be the most accurate way to describe what I mean, willy-nilly listening captures the random element of how I often encounter music as it accompanies other things. It’s overheard in that loud car that zooms past, it’s background for those TV shows, it’s keeping strangers on the subway at bay by filling headphones, it’s the latest pop hit soundtracking the moment that is this week. Most of the music I notice I can’t really control (which is the number one reason why I compose).
Willy-nilly Listening also describes some of my deliberate listening as I keep up with trends or re-visit agreed upon old gems. I skip around from one music to another, sometimes listening to just a few seconds as if taunting the music, come on, let’s see if you can hold my attention. (I’m somewhat ruthless about not giving musics the benefit of the doubt. It has to prove itself on its own terms.) Sometimes after skipping around for days or weeks I’ll return to one piece and obsess on it, playing it over and over again, trying to figure out how it works–or not figure it out and just bask in its workings. If a music has made it this far up my attentional ladder, I might then see how it fares when I play it in juxtaposition with say, Messiaen or Autechre–just to mess with it a bit. The point of this exercise is to ask: What is this music doing that other music’s don’t do? But now I notice how those other (older) musics are still working their respective magics. What were those musics trying to do that hadn’t been done? All of a sudden my willy-nilly listening reveals itself to having more goals that I realized.
“Music is a machine for producing anticipation” notes the critic Dave Barry in his book The Music of the Future (118). Barry’s idea strikes me as a fundamental insight about how all musics work—from the mood music in TV ads, to Bach’s fugues, to pop and jazz and EDM, to West African dance drumming, to even ambient music. In generating perpetual anticipation, music brings a method to our attentional madness, giving us a series of cues for what to attend to and how to attend for as long as the sounds last. (“Music” said one of my teachers, David Burrows, “is a hypothesis that works for a while.”) When we listen we’re always comparing what we’re hearing to what just happened and what might be around the corner, suspended in a state that, for me anyway, is halfway between dreaming and perfect lucidity. Whether our listening is willy-nilly or not, there are few better ways to spend our time.
Imagine how an alien
sensibility might hear
as a series of sound-gestures
than what practiced moves should mean
so that jazz isn’t swing
rock doesn’t rebel
classical can’t conjure
and dance won’t trance
as the sensibility hears
through and beyond
your musical moves
past even their signals’ social
and resonant rapport
to reach further along
the spectrum of sense
than a musician can know
by playing his axe
in concert with others
because the alien’s sense
is deaf to your sounds
to their language
of impossible signs.
In the second stanza of his poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier”, Wallace Stevens makes a simple observation about the nature of music with an acuity that exceeds the findings of the most sophisticated music theorists:
“Music is feeling, then, not sound.”
Stevens brings our attention to one of music’s central curiosities: how it’s built from one thing (sounding vibrations) but is about another (felt feeling).
I keep returning to this line whenever I’m assessing music I’m listening to or when I’m working on something of my own. What Stevens understands is the many ways music can do its emotional work not only through its sound, but despite its sound, or in contrast to its sound. Keeping Stevens’ line in mind, I’ll ask myself how the music is working on a feeling level. What is it doing (to me)? What is it trying to achieve? How does it push or pull me along? How the music is working as sound is usually audibly transparent, but its feeling quality is a more complicated matter. A music can trigger multiple sensations simultaneously, like a mallet striking five bells at once: there’s an initial klang, but then you hear all those individual pitches overlapping into a chord and dissipating as they go their separate harmonic ways over time. How do all of us non-scientist listeners unpack this as we go along?
Stevens’ line also emboldens me to be a critical listener: as I listen I want evidence of some kind of emotional stance and if that stance doesn’t materialize sooner rather than later, which is to say that if the music seems to be more about sound than about feeling—I’ll jump ship. Maybe it’s for this reason that I’m weary of virtuosos or those who have pursued a technique to some exaggerated end. Musicians keep your attention through the feelings they generate, not their sounds per se.
The most useful application of Stevens’ line though, is to use it as a creative compass. The next time you’re inside that song, or at the concert, or playing an instrument, ask yourself whether or not the music is about the feeling or about the sound.
A sound art piece about headphones and listening.
I kinda froze when I heard the two and a half-minute track “Heavy Sun” from Canadian producer and ambient instrumentalist Daniel Lanois’s latest recording (with Rocco Deluca), “Goodbye To Language.” I had been scrolling through the new releases on Spotify for the week when I found the Lanois piece and I froze because I found the music immediately appealing not only in terms of its sounds but also in terms of its design. Unlike a lot of music I encounter I had no idea how this gem was assembled or performed, or even what instruments or other equipment might have been used. The music had a drone quality, but the drone subtly pulsed. The sounds seemed to be electronic, but also effortlessly natural in an acoustic kind of way, as if the performers had deep confidence with getting their gear to do exactly what they want. Over the drone I heard wisps of chords and melodic motifs, but those wisps and motifs had a floating rather than a directional, I need to get somewhere feel. The music took its time conjuring its unusual, old-timey, and alien soundscape. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I remembered that Lanois plays pedal steel guitar and that this subtle recording was made using this subtle instrument. Suddenly it all started making sense, but not so much sense that it explained itself away.
Here is a video of Lanois performing another track, “Satie”, with Deluca:
“It is…the denial of forward-moving time that is the generative and fundamental substance of Messiaen’s music: the matter of his verbal commentaries is no more than an explanation of the music…and conducted in terms other than those of the music.”
– Paul Griffiths, Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (1985, p. 17)