Getting Inside The Listen

Getting Inside The Listen

Listen to an interview with The Listen authors Christopher Jon Honett and Peter Gilbert.

Read a Chapter from The Listen on Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians
Order from Caminantes Press

The Big Question in new music is how to attract new audiences. While many composers have become gifted at marketing themselves to select groups—their peers, classical music aficionados, &c.—the real undiscovered wealth undoubtedly lies with the more agnostic members of the public. It might be supposed that, say, a punk rocker could totally dig Xenakis, but there’s no traveled path of communication between the two camps, no established way of providing that person with a means of real access.

The Listen, out now from Caminantes Press, offers a new way to confront this problem. Superficially, authors Christopher Jon Honett and Peter Gilbert have selected nine pieces to evaluate for prospective listeners: Worker’s Union by Louis Andriessen; Tre Notturni Brillanti by Salvatore Sciarrino; Synchronisms No. 10 by Mario Davidovsky; Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich; La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura by Luigi Nono; Musica Ricercata by György Ligeti; Black Angels by George Crumb; Anahit by Giacinto Scelsi; and Sinfonia III. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung by Luciano Berio. Although they demonstrate a disposition towards the European avant-garde (including, curiously, four Italians), the range if not the weight is fairly inclusive, accounting for electronics, minimalism, indeterminacy, and George Crumb.

But past the straightforward (and Italianate) veneer, what Honett and Gilbert are really engaging in here is a new type of criticism. And it’s actually kind of subversive. They’ve removed from the discussion the analytic conceits that usually surround these works, while completely avoiding turning the book into some sort of New Music for Dummies. The book outright doesn’t accept the rarely spoken but widely held assumption that a high-ish level of musical training is needed to appreciate these works. But why it’s subversive is that this completely undercuts the just-as-widely held and far-more-frequently spoken accusations that new music is abstrusely elitist, forever trapped in some sort of academic iron lung. Not that (one assumes) Honett and Gilbert see no value in the academic institutions that are, after all, the authors’ own progenitors—but they understand the importance of de-institutionalizing and democratizing the listening process.

Such philosophical conceits don’t mean much if originators can’t make it efficacious, however, and the ways that Honett and Gilbert do this can actually be pretty refreshing. One of the reasons for the success of the text is the way it frames the discussion within the context of the various works’ own cultural environment. There isn’t the typical presupposition of knowledge concerning music history, but instead merely a requirement of a rudimentary engagement with Western culture as a whole. The authors make myriad references of cultural landmarks literary, filmic, political, &c., but none of these serve as barriers to interaction with the reader, i.e. knowing Samuel Beckett’s work isn’t required for understanding the spare prose used to describe Berio’s Sinfonia, but it can augment. But what’s cool is that this approach is congruous with the expectations of the music: Berio’s piece, which lifts its libretto from Beckett’s The Unnameable, doesn’t require you to be familiar with the original context of the text to like the music either. This opus supra creator tailoring is actually one of the fundamental principles of the book; Honett and Gilbert ultimately don’t care much about a composer’s biography, but care greatly about what the work itself communicates. Which, while not a revolutionary idea, is likely the appropriate approach for engaging a new listener who probably won’t care much about the life story of an artist whose work they are totally unfamiliar with.

But while these literary affinities make a few appearances in the book (another notable example being the pairing of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘s second person narrative with Sciarrino), the bulk of musical similitudes are with the text itself. Take the first lines of the versed discussion of Worker’s Union, where the verbal rhythm aligns with the musical ta-ta ta! ta-ta ta! opening motif:

        We can hit.
        We can push.
        We can pound.
        We can drum.

But rather than sticking with this exacting writing technique—which would quickly become both impractical and tiresome—the piece veers slightly from its sonic source to be a more apt reflection of the visceral and emotional content:

        We can feel volume.
        We can feel good and alive.
        We can sing and dance and pound.
        We can insist, and we can want and shout.

The solidarity and desires of the nominal workers who inspired Andriessen sing out from the text as well as the music. It’s functioning as a program note of sorts, but what it gains over a program note is immediacy. It’s not an ancillary waiting to furnish informationally relevant but experientially inconsequential facts, but a concrete accompaniment to the goals of the piece, supplementing its aims rather than describing them. (Admittedly, this is difficult to capture in excerpts. Read the entire piece.) The effectiveness of these literary tricks is shown in several other pieces as well: the fractured and direct narrative for Synchronisms No. 10, the unbroken and breathless paragraph accompanying the monolithic Anahit, the compartmentalized entries standing for the carefully distributed moments in Black Angels, et al. And these tricks are totally forgivable because what’s ultimately being explored here isn’t actually the piece of music in its totality, but the actual act of listening, which is also why the writings themselves are as linear and chronological as the music itself prescribes.

But what these tricks are also doing is making explicit the performative aspect of listening, the activity and involvement of it, not only on an intellectual level but also a more visceral one. The book does not excuse or explain even the most vertiginous aspects of these works, but rather relishes them. It guides the listener towards the realization that the purpose of the bewildering techniques this music employs isn’t aloof obfuscation of material and intent but rather an expression of something that couldn’t be done any other way, something that can be as to the point as you make it to be. And this idea of listening-as-performance is yet another central aspect to why Honett and Gilbert are ultimately being subversive here, because while they deemphasize the importance of pre-existing and specific knowledge to understanding this music they are at the same time stressing the importance of the listener’s total involvement—not because that involvement is “good for you”, but because it will lead to greater enjoyment and love of the experience.

And this point, this constant positive affirmation of just how great the music is that underlies everything in this book is the biggest reason why they’re successful. Honett and Gilbert, whose own appreciation of music seems so enhanced by their friendship, understand that a strong community is fostered not only by common purpose but by a total love of that purpose, and they’re advocating for that love even more so than comprehension. They understand the fallacy of assuming that comprehension leads inevitably to appreciation; just because you get something doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. They understand that the reason people truly do love something is because they feel like they’re a part of it, intertwined together beyond anything that makes rational sense, and it’s that intertwining that they think they understand. The Listen is about teaching you how to embrace the experience, so that you can become so tangled up and complicit in the experience that you can’t get out of it, and then you realize you don’t want to get out of it, and then it’s over.

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