This discussion post is concerned with the question, “What role does the listener play in creating music?” How do you think the issues raised in this post are going to change based on how our lives have already been upended in 2020?
The approximate reading time of this post is 8 minutes, not counting any audio media.
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter-House Five (1972)
When are we now?
If I asked you when you are as you listen to this piece of music, you’d likely say (after looking at me quizzically) that, of course, you’re listening to it right now (approximately sometime in April 2020).
There’s the experience right now of listening to the music, but is that the only place you are?
Listening to a piece of music can remind you of past experiences: places you’ve been, people you’ve been with when you heard that piece previously, or other pieces of music you’ve heard. Part of your brain is somewhere else—perhaps it’s more accurate to say that your brain is somewhen else. As you exist in the present, you’re also mentally in another time.
These additional sensations, memories, and times that a piece of music conjures up for you define your personal listening experience—the piece of music is a nucleus around which all these other ideas come into orbit. How varied, rich, deep, or extensive that orbit is for you is a big factor in how meaningful a piece of music seems to be.
Multiple simultaneous orbits
A piece of music needs three kinds of people in order to exist: a creator, an executor, and an auditor—in more common terms, a composer, a performer, and a listener (or in even more pop-friendly terms, a songwriter/producer, a singer, and an audience). Notice that I said three kinds of people, not three different people: they could all be the same person! You as an individual could come up with a musical idea right now (create), sing or hum or tap it (execute), with no one around to hear it but you (audit).
It’s also possible for the three people in this triangle to exist in different points in time: a piece of music might be created by a composer in 1725, played by a performer in 1985, and listened to by you in 2020—time travel! And each person involved, because they’re existing at different points in time, brings different ideas, different purposes, different intentions, and different concerns to the piece—they’re experiencing a completely different orbit or constellation set in motion by the piece of music.
Here’s the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Flute Sonata in E minor, BWV 1034, III. Andante. The work was composed around the year 1725 and recorded in 1985:
The composer—Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)— might have been thinking about his contractual obligations and pleasing his employer, or an aspect of his compositional technique, or his devotion to God.
The flutist in this recording, Jean-Pierre Rampal (1922-2000), had a different set of purposes: creating superlatively beautiful sound at all times, playing in a style that people wanted to hear in 1985, and continuing his ongoing project of recording every single piece of music written for the flute in an effort to raise the profile of the instrument (which had been largely ignored since the 19th century in favor of the piano and violin).
And neither of their concerns would be same as those, say, of a parent at their child’s recital playing this piece for the first time: “I can’t believe I’m paying all this money for lessons and Junior can barely hold his flute up,” or “Wow, I’ve got a great shot here for the video,” or “Ugh, classical music is boring but they say it’s good for my kid’s brain or something.”
As your knowledge of music and music history broadens, you become able to bring a greater range of understanding, depth, and nuance to your listening experience—the orbit set in motion by a piece of music. Your listening experience will entail the sounds you hear, your personal or emotional reactions, as well as some time travel: to the time when the piece was written and to the time when the piece was performed. The more you know about the thoughts, life, concerns, or intentions of the composer (and the performer!) and his/her time period, the more layers in your understanding of the piece.
Historical performance practice
Not only do compositional styles change (e.g., Baroque to Classical), but so do performance styles. The way in which people produce musical sounds, behave on stage, or program concerts has changed significantly over time as tastes change, new ideas come to light, and the technology of music (instrument production, amplification, distribution media) evolve.
In the classical music world, it was common practice in the 20th century for a performer to use the same performance style for a Baroque piece (written ca. 1600-1750), a Romantic piece (from the 19th century), and a modern piece. But in the 1970s, classical musicians began to think more consciously about one particular aspect of this time travel and asked themselves: would it be possible to perform musical sounds in a manner closer to a composer’s intentions—to go back in time and come away with a more “authentic” performance style closer to that of the period when the music was written? Were there aspects of a musical experience that could be brought to life that an ahistorical style would gloss over?
The historical performance practice movement rests on research done by hundreds of musicians (musicologists and performer-scholars) and brought to life in performances: re-reading historical documents such as instructional treatises (such as those by Johann Joachim Quantz and Leopold Mozart), music criticism, and first-hand audience accounts; iconography (the study of images, which we’ve done in class!); and taking contemporary philosophy into account. The historical performance practice movement also tends to use period instruments or modern re-creations of period instruments. So, for a piece written in 1725, a flutist would play on a wooden, keyless instrument used that time, rather than the metal, multi-keyed flute developed in the mid-19th century.
Here’s a recording of flutist Barthold Kuijken (b. 1949) performing the same Bach flute sonata and doing so on a period-appropriate instrument:
There are period keyboards, bows, horns, and vocal techniques, too, and playing on older instruments allows the musicians to time travel and immerse themselves in the techniques of the past, and the sounds they make create a more vivid historical experience for the listener.
At first, “serious” classical musicians scoffed at the early music movement, saying that only musicians who weren’t good enough to be successful were trying to play in a historically-informed manner. And then many started noticing how much more of the music came to life when played in a historically informed style. Now there are a significant number of professional ensembles (Anonymous 4, The Hilliard Ensemble, New York Polyphony, Praetorius, The Tallis Scholars), concert series and festivals (GEMS, Amherst Early Music Festival), and degree programs in conservatories or music schools (Juilliard, Yale) devoted to historically informed music making.
To bring this full circle, let’s return to the idea of where you go when you listen to a piece of music and why the listening experience is so important to the meaning of music.
Christopher Small (1927-2011) was a musicologist (a person who studies music and its role in society) whose work grew out of his discomfort with the way we typically talk about music: we talk in a way that suggests that music is an object, a thing that is already done (i.e., made by a musician), and we listeners just sit back and have no role in making it. We do this when we say things like “The music is sad” (as if its emotional content is independent of how we listen to it), or “She performed the song” (which implies that what the performer does on stage or on a record is different from the song itself).
Didn’t we just think about the idea that each of has a rich, varied listening experience, one set in motion by a musical experience but whose trajectory and scope is defined by us, the listener, and what we bring to the table?
To this end, Small coined a new term: “musicking.” Musicking is a progressive-tense verb (like running, evolving, becoming, doing) that implies a kind of ongoing action. In his mind, music isn’t a thing at all:
Musicking: To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing. We might at times even extend its meaning to what the person is doing who takes the tickets at the door or the hefty men who shift the piano and the drums or the roadies who set up the instruments and carry out the sound checks or the cleaners who clean up after everyone else has gone. They, too, are all contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance… [To] pay attention in any way to a musical performance, including a recorded performance, even to Muzak in an elevator, is to music… [The] verb to music… covers all participation in a musical performance, whether it takes place actively or passively, whether we like the way it happens or whether we do not, whether we consider it interesting or boring, constructive or destructive, sympathetic or antipathetic… Value judgments come later, if they come at all. (Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, 1998; p. 9)
Part of the reason Small coined this term (coming up with a new word is called a neologism), is that thinking of music as a “thing” or an “object” doesn’t let us appreciate music as it’s being made, only as a thing which has been made. However, music is just a means to create an opportunity to do something and to do something with other people. In other words, musicking creates relationships between people:
The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance. (Ibid, p. 13)
Our job as listeners is to forge those relationships: to engage, whether physically, socially, or intellectually, with the sounds we hear, the people making them, and the people around us who are also listening/participating. So, Small says that music is an action, one in which we should all take part:
The fundamental nature and meaning of music lie not in objects, not in musical works at all, but in action, in what people do. It is only by understanding what people do as they take part in a musical act that we can hope to understand its nature and the function it fulfills in human life. Whatever that function may be, I am certain, first, that to take part in a music act is of central importance to our very humanness, as important as taking part in the act of speech… If that is so, then our present-day concert life, whether “classical” or “popular,” in which the “talented” few are empowered to produce music for the “untalented” majority, is based on a falsehood. It means that our powers of making music for ourselves have been hijacked and the majority of people robbed of the musicality that is theirs by right of birth, while a few stars, and their handlers, grow rich and famous through selling us what we have been led to believe we lack. (Ibid, pp. 8-9)
In light of Small’s argument, we, the listeners, have an important role to play when it comes to “making music.” He says that “musicking… is an activity in which all those present are involved and for whose nature and quality, success or failure, everyone present bears some responsibility” (Ibid, p. 10)
Time travel: the future!
There’s also a composer-performer-listener triangle that’s oriented towards the future: what will happen next in the world of music, and how do we shape that future? Here’s a 2010 New York Times article from the newspaper’s music critic Allan Kozinn dealing with this very issue: 2010.12.28 Kozinn – Searching New Music For Keepers
I think of the listening experience simultaneously as something that is social—listening to sounds made or conceived by another person, often with other people, and contemplating other people’s perspectives or ideas—but also solitary—no one can ever have the same listening experience as you, because they won’t have your exact knowledge, share your past experiences, be in your body, or pay attention to the same things. Bridging the gap between the solitary and the social rests on our ability to articulate what it is that we think, experience, and why: sharing in words the richness of our listening experience with others.