Blessay 5: You never listen, but I do

“”You never listen” is not just the complaint of a problematic relationship, it has also become an epidemic in a world that in exchanging convenience for content, speed for meaning. The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbre and the variations that you discern if you simply pay attention.”

Seth S. Horowitz

“To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”

Igor Stravinsky

Our ears can be seen as absurd looking fleshy appendages to our head, sensibly hearing the world around us. Brains register many meaningful and also inconsequential sounds. We rarely properly listen to all this data, stimuli and input. For that demands time and patience to feel and understand what we are listening too. Music was once a joyful act of concentration. That was probably when there was less around. Now that we have too much it has become a distraction. Something in the background wanting to be heard so much, and so immeadiately, that slow and careful listening is considered a blockage to escapism. We never confront music anymore. We hide from its real pleasure. And that is active, deeply enjoyable listening – a state beyond just the music.

In classical music Anton Bruckner is a composer who wrote very long symphonies. A lengthy tonal musical line, with some dissonance en route, that asks you to be patient and wait as they realise their architectural structure. By slow degrees we get to the transcendent markers in Bruckner. Most powerfully in the 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies. Bruckner was notoriously lacking in self confidence, very impressionable to others often unhelpful opinions and deeply religious. We have many different editions of the Bruckner symphonies that have revisions and cuts. He listened to his critics and took them on board. Yet weren’t those critics actually only hearing Bruckner’s compositions in order to control him? How could they better what Bruckner had done? I don’t think they could possibly hear, what only Bruckner had uniquely first heard, a music that admits, with darker passages, love as a neccessary force engendering his love sounds for God.

Putting the God equation to one side I feel we only fully enjoy music when we are capable of loving it. If that sounds a bit trite and obvious then let’s go back to Stravinsky. “The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught too much respect for music. They should be taught to love it.” For me the experience of such a love is not just simply being able to follow a music score, read everything about the composer or listen to many different recordings of a piece. It is the listening for the sub text, or pulse of the music. Now that text might be very different for each listener. It can consist of all you know about the music and knowledge of the circumstances that brought it about, on which you project your own thoughts and feelings, that strike an empathic chord with the composers intensions.

Last Thursday at the Proms I watched Vasily Petrenko conduct The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in a performance of Elgar’s second symphony. Within minutes of listening to the first movement, you sensed an intelligent interpretation, and by the end of that movement what Elgar urgently wanted to say. The musicianship of Petrenko, and the propulsion of the committed playing of the orchestra, made the notes reveal themselves to me as what Elgar felt. Struggle, pain, comfort, joy, pride, despair, melancholy, nostalgia, believe, doubt, reflection, action, joy and anguish. We often speak of Elgar as our great conflicted Edwardian English composer. Last week at the Proms all those contradictions were on show.

I listened to the timbres and variations of a music being authentically displayed. It was aural musical communication of a high order that grabbed me by the throat, pricked up my ears and had me truly listening. The Royal Albert Hall was full of people both communally listening and in their own private space. If there were one or two Stravinskian hearing ducks, then they were probably a minority fowl, impatient for the music to end: anxious to the ring tone of their cell phone, respond to a caller, listen to a message or read a text. Whilst everyone else, leaving the hall, was hopefully still listening to Elgar pulsating on and on so much so that they missed their bus, decided to walk to the tube or even wandered through a darkened Hyde Park so as not to forget.

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