Why I don't listen to music anymore…

Well, ok, that’s not entirely true–but I listen to far less than many people would think I suppose.  The thing is, it’s an issue of time–about the only time I really listen to music is when I’m actively learning a piece or transcribing music.  Occasionally I will skim youtube for something new and maybe waste an hour or two listening to oddball things unless I get sidetracked into following some link trail through oddball videos that have next to nothing to do with music.

On the whole though, I just don’t have so much time to listen to music.  But more importantly, I value my silent time because that gives me a chance to listen to the music in my head without the distraction of a competing external sound.

I recall a talk given by George Crumb that I attended some years ago.  One of the students asked the composer something along the lines of:

“If you, say, wanted to listen to one of Mozart’s Symphonies, which recording or which orchestra’s version would you prefer?”

to which he responded:

“None.  If I want to listen to a Mozart Symphony I will go grab the score and read it to hear it in my head.”

There’s something nice about having the ideal ensemble performing a work in your head that goes a long way towards not needing to have, say, onhand some kind of playback device (and possibly earphones) at all times (though having to lug around a score to listen to something in your head might be more cumbersome).

On the other hand, there’s the issue of idealizing the sound to the point that you cannot hear or appreciate an actual performance of the work.  This is to contrast with having listened to a CD so often that you only have an idealized version of a piece in your head.  Something that John Cage related in some of his text/lectures.

I’m not saying one is better than the other, but there is the issue of just listening to (whether in your head or via CD) a limited range of music.  If you spend your whole life just listening to one kind of genre or style (e.g. Rock, Baroque, Gagaku) or pan-genre/style (e.g. Western Pop, Western Classical, East Asian Opera) you can have the problem of having an idealized version of what constitutes music in your head and then most things you have occasion to listen to will be filtered through that musical lens with all the corresponding idiosyncrasies and value systems associated with the idealized music.

I remember when I started exploring the limits of Western Art music that I would only purchase or listen to composers that I had never heard of–whether that be new composers or just generally neglected ones.  It’s what led me into listening and then performing a number of experimental and avant-garde compositions.  Ok, good and all that I was broadening my palette–problem was, these were all still compositions within that Art music tradition.  In the same way that, say, Hip-Hop and Rock music fit into that pan-genre of Popular music, Aleatoric music, Serialist music, Baroque and Classical music fit into that pan-genre of Western Classical music.  I may have been lengthening the breadth of my musical experiences, but not it’s depth.

So off I go into that other side of experimental music that has nothing (or little) to do with academic music or the Western Art tradition and I land smack dab into a community of musicians with little or no classical music training but who were doing interesting things with sound sculptures or sound installations, or circuit-bent toys, or looped effects boxes.  I spent some time banging on amplified sheet metal and odd sound sources with contact microphones/drum triggers and a chain of effects.  On the other side of that I got into the more theatrical side of making music via the fluxus works and started doing Performance Art as well.  Spent some time doing shows, making recordings, touring around a bit until I finally had the chance to bring the cello back into some of this with a duo I had with a turntablist (T.E.C. – Turntables, Electronics, and Cello).

Listening to all that noise (heh) for years helped to clear my ‘ears’ out some and allowed me to come back with a fresher perspective–and one that led into world musics, something I had flirted with a bit when I first went off the deep end of music.  To be fair–I technically started out in “world music.”  Being born in Thailand and growing up in the states with a Thai mother I listened to recordings she brought with her here as often as I listened to the Pop music at the time and then Western classical music.  The first songs I really learned how to sing were songs in Thai.  So I’ve almost come full circle as far as my musical experience is concerned.

But the lesson I took from listening to all the noise (as well as from John Cage) was that I liked to have that silence when it was there.  And I generally prefer it, since my head is so full of so many sounds.  I just don’t feel the need to be entertained or stimulated by external sounds anymore.  Not that I can’t appreciate being entertained or stimulated by them so much as I don’t need those externalities and the experience of them to help me bond with whatever musical communities are out there.  Or maybe that I don’t feel the need to bond so closely with one tribe (as Rebecca Hartka describes it).

It’s probably something I’m taking from my Performance Art days–Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s work often focused on a borderless politics.  Not necessarily actual borders (though that is a part of it) but also conceptual borders.  I like crossing conceptual borders.  i like having the freedom to do so.  My early experiences are defined by border crossing; that an navigating the pitfalls of being a border crosser.

In the end this may make me seem like I’m just a musical visitor–occasionally visiting this musical land, and then the next one here, and then the one over there but in another way it’s like I’m a citizen of all these musical lands since I’m not entirely tied to any particular one by birth as I’m not to the US (with all the concomitant rights I don’t have as a legal resident and will never have having not been born in the US).

Maybe when I and everyone are free to navigate the real world as I do my musical worlds then we can all be global citizens as well.  Until then I’ll keep on not listening to music so I don’t hang myself with a musical tether.

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