On Listening : A lecture
Glenn Gould Symposium, Toronto
September 23, 1992
I am here, talking to you about listening, and you are there, listening to me talk. Sometimes something I might say may cause you to be distracted into thinking about something else. I know that this happens to me; listening requires a great deal of attention. But then perhaps you come back and follow again the words that I am saying. This can also happen while listening to a piece of music – one’s focus of attention can momentarily shift. This is not due to a lack of continuity in the music itself – we don’t have to worry about continuity – as Thoreau says “Music is continuous – listening is intermittent”. It has to do with how we focus our attention. There are so many ways to listen: to follow what is happening, or to anticipate what might happen, or to ornament or alter it while it is going by, or to simply let a sound create a mood or atmosphere to accompany your thoughts. I find that a focused listening is both a holding on – tracking the music moment to moment – and a letting go – not imposing my expectations, but letting myself be taken into whatever world is being created.
I love the intimacy of sound – the almost tangible textures of sound in my ear. The intimacy of how certain notes or sounds together can alter my state of being. The sheer presence of the invisible.
I’d like to read you something that John Cage wrote, about Morton Feldman’s music:
“It is nothing that goes on without beginning middle or meaning or ending. Something is always starting and stopping, rising and falling. The nothing that goes on is what Feldman speaks of when he speaks of being submerged in silence. The acceptance of death is the source of all life. So that listening to this music one takes as a spring-board the first sound that comes along; the first something springs us into nothing and out of that nothing arises the next something; etc., like an alternating current. Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it. And no silence exists that is not pregnant with sound.”
– from John Cage’s Lecture on Something, pg 135, in his book, Silence. (I have taken the liberty of presenting this passage without the notated spaces between the words.)
As a composer, I would like to speak to you about how listening enters my work.
There are many methods of composing music. If I have a method, I would have to say it is primarily a method of listening. I spend time finding or creating a fragment of music – a beginning maybe? – that interests me. It isn’t necessarily anything but what I would call an image, a sound image. I find a way of articulating this image in sound – what instrument it is, which notes. I listen to it, and wait to hear what it seems to require. This is difficult to describe because it seems so simple. But it is a complex activity. One of the most demanding kinds of listening is in the intimate knowing or imagining of the sound of the instruments: the bow on the string, the lip on the mouthpiece, the finger on the keyboard. This compositional approach is a kind of extreme awareness, an approach through listening deeply to the detail and potential of the instruments and the material. This requires a kind of active reflection. And a sense of what the material is capable of. What does it need, I ask myself. What should come next? It is a kind of speculative process. It is similar to how I imagine Ikebana – the Japanese art of flower arranging. You put one flower in the vase and look at it, put another next to it, look again, then add a third, which perhaps requires an adjustment to the first two. A sense of balance or rightness; an attention to the detail of these flowers or musical fragments; a sense of space, or phrasing – this is what I bring to the process. I compose this way because I want to stay aware of the experience of listening to the piece, because the experience of listening to it is the piece.
How a sound starts and how it finishes – what Morton Feldman calls “this departing landscape” – holds infinite fascination for me. It is part of the intimacy of listening. The space or place that the music creates is another world. When I listen to music, I suspend my life in all of its detail for that time, and immerse myself in the atmosphere of another place. What new territory is this?, I ask myself.
I sometimes feel that as the world gets older, and we become surrounded by more and more sound – planes, cars; portable sound systems (walkmans, Ipods), Muzak; construction; computer hums, beeps and buzzes – that perhaps our sensitivity to sound is becoming numbed, and our sensibilities along with it. Our soundscape, in cities anyway, is rich and full of these man-made, or I should say human-made, sounds. I am sometimes overwhelmed. And this prevalence of recordings and televisions and Muzak – music everywhere – I think causes me to come to writing music, more and more, of a personal nature. I write to see where it will go. I construct places that I want to be. Worlds. I write music that you can hear as it goes by. It is like speaking quietly to someone who is listening. I like to think that a work of art and the perceiver are in a kind of communion, a dialogue. As I perceive a work, I create it for myself. I look at the painting, or listen to the music, and it comes into being. And I am altered by that experience.
I like to listen to inaudible things: the sound of words as I read silently to myself; the sound of a gesture or movement; the scrap of melody that repeats and transforms in my head; the sound of a painting or a colour as it permeates my consciousness. But for me, the sound of a musician playing on his or her instrument, there before me, live, in this space, in this time, and caring about the music they are playing, and listening to it as they play – that is very beautiful indeed.
I am aware of the constant juxtapositions of sound in my surroundings: the fabric of bird-sound outside my windows; the swelling waves of traffic in the distance; the arc of planes humming overhead; the murmur of people talking as they pass by. I am aware that I feel oppressed by the steady beat of some pop music, by jackhammers in the streets, by the vulgarity of TV sound. As we have eyelids, I sometimes long for ear lids. But there is a beauty to the fluidity of it all, the composition of it. There is room within the experience for the sounds of the world. Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” is not injured by the fire sirens passing by. The soundscape is endlessly layered, and gives me a sense of presence in the world, of living, like a heart beat, and calls up associations, and makes me have reminiscences, and constantly informs the state of being alive.
Listening to music is an experience in ambiguity, an experience of pluralities of meanings: is this the end of a phrase or the beginning of the next; is that a piano or a harp, or both, or neither; is this a repetition or is it different, or is it a repetition yet different. A rich universe where up can be down and down can be up.
Music is not just information – Mozart is not Koechel numbers and sonata form – music is an experience. I think music is best “understood” in an experiential way. I will never forget what one of my students said one day after I played a recording for the class. She said, ” It’s not so much that I am listening to it, but that I am hearing it.” So we have listening and we have hearing. Listening is the act of focusing on what is present (you are listening to me). Hearing is comprehension (you are understanding me – we say “I hear you” when we want to let someone know we understand).
Music refuses to be contained by words or definitions or notation or numbers. It is an unknowable substance that disappears and we cannot hold it. It is something by which I understand the world, but which I cannot articulate. I listen as part of a desire to understand my life.
Listening is an act of generosity. As a composer, one can wonder whether an audience liked a work or not. But I can think of nothing better than to know that they were really listening. This is, in the end, all we can really ask.
I am never finished with a work of art. As a listener – as a person who receives or perceives a work of art – my work is never done. I am amazed at how I can return to a work I have heard many times, and again find something which I had never noticed before. The layers of the onion each reveal another layer, Zeno’s arrow continues on its journey and never arrives, but every step of the way, more of the unknown is uncovered. It is this that keeps works so alive, so interesting and urgent, and keeps them at the same time forever wrapped in mystery.
Linda Catlin Smith
September 23, 1992, Glenn Gould Symposium, Toronto, revised May 1998 for the Open Ears Festival, Kitchener