Saturday, March 3, 2007

Ways of Listening

Eric Clarke's book on musical perception, Ways of Listening, was on my Amazon wish list for some time before I finally checked it out of our university library. Although I can't remember where I originally learned about this book, I was probably drawn to the book because of its topic, the perception of musical meaning. I'm still curious how to articulate musical meaning, so hoped that new ways of perception would lead to a new understanding of its meaning.

Certainly the book proposes ways of listening that are quite different from the way I listen to music now. But I have always had difficulty complying with the reverent, structural listening that seems to be prescribed for classical music. I use music as background for many activities and have difficulty articulating clearly the different structural mileposts (development, recapitulation, etc) when I hear a tonal work of western art music, even though I can see the mileposts when I follow along with the score. So, what are some other ways people understand music besides the structural one? Clarke uses what he calls an ecological approach, which defines a relationship between the music and the listener that causes the listener to engage actively with the musical environment. He contrasts the ecological approach with one that starts from acoustical phenomena and works its way up to complex structures (what he calls an information-processing approach), or which believes the meaning in music is entirely placed there by the composer and that listeners bring nothing to the activity.

The examples from the book's early chapters are from pop music, which uses lyrics to convey meaning and the music to enhance or embellish the primary meaning. But the last two chapters discuss structural, or autonomous, listening, using a movement of a Beethoven string quartet as an example. First, he identifies four factors that play a part: the listening environment, individual predisposition, the characteristics of the music, and the relation between perception and action (essentially, that forced inactivity in a concert setting requires more attentive listening). One of the most interesting insights here was to consider how different it is to play music, even as an amateur, because in playing music, there is an immediate and intimate relation between hearing and action. My previous piano teacher emphasized this point with me (although he was only taking his cue from the material I brought in), that my goal in playing was to expose myself to the literature. He strongly believed that western art music was the best possible music, and that there was a hierarchy of steps in how a listener could gain understanding at the temple. Following with the score is good, but any time spent trying to play it is better.

Another interesting suggestion concerns music's "power to temporally structure the sense of self" (148). Although Clarke discusses physical interaction with the environment, such as dancing or air guitar playing, I believe the choices for our musical environment feed into our self image. Highly rhythmic music provides a backbone to my daily activities. I like more aggressive music for cardio exercise, and more tribal-ambient for contemplative action, such as writing this blog entry. When I drive in heavy freeway traffic, I use music to slow down time so I can pay closer attention to all of the other drivers. I use slow moving drones to stretch out my time before going to sleep. But playing the piano (which Clarke discusses as well) is the ideal way to express physicality as music, and ideally, the sense of self and time disappears when I play. The absence of conscious thought is a primary motivating factor for why I play the piano.

Clarke's approach to instrumental Western art music aligns his ecological approach with musical topics, a theory outlined in the late 20th century by L. G. Ratner and Kofi Agawu that defines topics as cultural entities that would be familiar to listeners of classical musical works. Examples include a recognition of various dance forms (e.g., march, gavotte) and musical styles (e.g., cadenza, learned counterpoint). Although the topic theorists seek topics that would have been familiar to listeners at the time of the original work, Clarke goes further and situates topics that would be familiar to contemporary listeners as well. These topics would include not only how a classical work resonates into the modern period (e.g., how Bartok and Shostakovich mis-heard Beethoven) but also the whole musical-work-as-emotion baggage that we have inherited from the romantics. Clarke also opens up the technical side of music to elements to considerations that have become more prominent in late 20th century music, such as texture, dynamics, and register.

Ultimately, my quest to find new ways of musical perception was different from the goals Ways of Listening sets out, which is a descriptive analysis of how people listen to music. As such, it articulates fairly clearly a number of the different ways that I listen to music, some of which I hadn't specifically considered. I especially enjoyed seeing that my amateur music making had found a place in Clarke's pantheon, but, as always, my personal search for the essence of music continues.

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