Saturday, November 11, 2006

How to Listen

Kenneth Woods has a good post about learning to listen to music, including a great anecdote about listening to multiple recordings of the Enigma Variations.

However, when we got to Nimrod and the first major arrival of that movement, we both felt something big, something cosmic happen, like the grim reaper himself walking right over our graves, and the same thing happened in the finale- a big, cathartic “wow” moment that no other recording had been able to deliver or even really hint at. We both came away with the impression that this was the only conductor who both knew and could put accross what the “Enigma” in the variations was.

Once we’d hear the whole thing, we could both look back and as musicians and see what the conductor was up to- the approach seemed so logical seen from the reverse. By downplaying the episodic quality of the piece, he was able to intensify the overall, cumulative effect of the work where it counted most. What might have seemed at first a matter-of-fact approach to phrasing was in fact an intentionally un-sentimental one, and this is a piece that benefits from a certain stoicism.

Frankly, all the other performers we’d sampled sounded like students by comparison (and there were some very distinguished recordings in this category). I’m usually quick to defend interpreters who like to take note of the trees and to smell the flowers and gild the lilies, but the evidence here was clear that there was a big price to that approach- none of the others were able to make the whole piece arrive with anything like the same degree of power.

In previous years I've toyed with the idea of writing a book on listening to music, or to form a listening club at school. Either case would focus on the various ways to listen: performer-oriented, composer-oriented, local features, global features, timbre vs. melody vs. harmony vs. rhythm, intramusical referents, intermusical referents, and extramusical referents. The difficulty comes in portraying a rigor while acknowledging all of the different ways to experience music and avoiding grocery lists of events or features. Eric Clarke's Ways of Listening is a step forward in this topic, though very much from a cognitive view whereas Kenneth is approaching the topic from a performance/analysis perspective.

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