Friday, November 7, 2008

Historical listening

Recently I stumbled across Peter Szendy's Listen: A History of our Ears through a recent interview with the translator, Charlotte Mandell (worth reading in its own right). His sensuous book inquires into the rights of listeners, who has the right to music, and what a listener can do with music. The discussion leads from the evolving history of copyright to arrangements and finally to different types of listening.

The historical context for copyright, when the publishers were faced with performances on mechanical instruments such as barrel organs or music boxes and, eventually, player pianos, makes for some interesting openings to contemporary practice, with its widely varying degrees of artistic control of listening behavior. For an extreme but current example, the rock band AC/DC won't sell their recent album on iTunes because they don't want users to purchase (or probably even listen to) single songs outside of the album's context. Contrast this attitude with David Byrne and Brian Eno, who made all of the multitracks available for two songs from their landmark album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. It has become commonplace for recordings to contain instructions for listening, most typically that several copies should be played simultaneously (e.g., Boris's Dronevil or Zaireeka by the Flaming Lips — respectively two and four synchronized CDs to be played simultaneously; or Charles Curtis's Ultra White Violet Light and Bernhard Günter's two Monochrome albums — both with four tracks that may be freely combined).

But computer music management and freely available audio software have democratized listening behaviors. Listeners create and publish playlists and mixes, with varying degrees of Big Music approval. Respected reviewers like Vital Weekly's Frans de Waard admit to normalizing ultra-quiet albums like Francisco López's Untitled #150 in order to make them audible. Szendy writes about John Oswald's "manipulative listenings" that resulted in his banned Plunderphonics CD (although failing to note that lossless music files are available on Oswald's site, on a strictly not-for-sale basis of course). Every serious listener can compile examples from his or her own experience.

From the use of recordings as source material for new compositions, the next logical step is an arrangement of a piece of music for different instrumental forces. Szendy calls arrangers "listeners who have written down their listening" and uses Walter Benjamin's rather esoteric essay on translation as a prism to view Liszt's and Wagner's arrangements of Beethoven's symphonies, and Schumann's and Busoni's writings on arrangements. I won't try to summarize Benjamin's thesis — I'm not sure I can. Szendy's discussions of the nature of a musical work tie in with Lydia Goehr (whom he cites), but he puts a terminus on the value of arrangements with Schoenberg (who vehemently rejected Busoni's concert arrangement of one of his opus 11 piano pieces), without taking into consideration the plethora of arrangement types that we have today. He mentions Monk listening to Ellington, but surely jazz explores arrangement types and attitudes in detail (Coltrane and Richard Rodgers? Miles and Cyndi Lauper?). What is the relation between songs and their covers? And still within the western art music tradition, how about open works? How does a realization differ from an arrangement? Clearly composers like Feldman had an image in their mind when they composed open works, so the idea of the Work existing outside a given performance is as strong today as it was for Liszt and Beethoven.

But we might say, along with Adorno (with whom Szendy's book closes) that pop and jazz are entertainments, representatives of a fallen listening and a degraded notion of a musical work. An expert listener grasps all of the past, present and future moments into a "fully adequate mode of conduct [that] might be called 'structural hearing.'" Szendy traces the development of this attitude, from Mozart through Schoenberg (again), showing its history with the implicit contingencies, leaving listeners with the ability to select from different modes of listening based on the time and the work.

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