There is no single way to listen to music.
A particular musical work, performed and heard in a given place and moment, may reveal to you something about your own emotional state. A musical performance may take your imagination on a journey into a distant time, place, or viewpoint. It may call to mind colors, shapes, textures, tastes, smells, or temperatures. It may evoke words, phrases, or entire poems (in any language). And, of course, music may inspire you to move or dance. Consider, when you listen to music in company with others (i.e. at a public concert), how many different reactions are happening at once, and what that says about the human mind, communities, and art in general.
Perhaps you are someone who hasn’t yet found an entry point into classical music; you gravitate toward other musics, or visual art, literature, sports, dance, or some other activity. Whoever you are, I invite you to enter a classical music experience by being an active listener: by connecting how you hear with how you see, how you feel, how you understand, how you move, and how you relate to others.
Music shows us that we are not alone.
In an interview for the New Yorker, violinist Christian Tetzlaff said “we are not alone…that’s what the concert situation is about for me, when I’m sitting in the hall and also when I’m playing myself. It’s about communication—I almost want to say ‘communion.’ As a player, you really don’t interpret anymore. You listen, together, with the audience.”
I’m inspired by this statement, but in my experience, classical music performers and presenters aren’t prioritizing the goals of listening together or communication or communion. The purpose of a concert is usually simpler than that: a concert is a showcase of wonderful music and wonderful musicians, who are often elevated, bathed in bright light. The audience must sit in the dark, in stillness, silence, and awe until the specified time for applause.
What if, at classical music events, we as listeners were provided space or means to share and compare (with each other and with the performers) the myriad thoughts, physical reactions, emotions, and inventions that the musical performance provoked in us? What if we were challenged to consider HOW we listen, or invited to experiment with new stimulating modes of interaction with the music? What if we were invited to participate in the performance in a way that feels like a meaningful dialogue with the performers? Indeed, more types of listeners would show up to events, not just those don’t mind sitting still for long stretches of time.
Music is about “shared rapture.”
Historical evidence shows that listening in the classical music sphere has not always been so restrictive. Alex Ross, the author of The Rest Is Noise, draws attention to the radically different atmosphere of concerts in Mozart’s time, citing famous evidence “in a letter Mozart wrote to his father in 1778, concerning the premiere of the ‘Paris’ Symphony, in the French city of the same name:
Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage that I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures—there was a big applaudißement;—and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement—and they went again, Da capo. …the final Allegro pleased especially…I began the movement with just 2 violins playing softly for 8 bars—then suddenly comes a forte—but the audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte—well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royal—bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged—and went home.
Mozart’s delight in the audible rapture of his audience brings to mind a musical atmosphere more akin to that of a jazz club than a formal concert hall; it suggests a dynamic social exchange, pleasing and motivating to all involved. Today, if what I’d like to call “shared rapture” is still a classical music goal, musicians and presenters must look to history for clues for how to achieve it. We must also look to living musical traditions such as jazz, rock, hip hop, and musics from all over the world for guidance as we try to deepen, enliven, and enrich our communications.
Music helps us find ourselves.
On the far other end of music’s social spectrum, Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin (which serve as the main material for the Cranky Bach workshop) were likely intended to be enjoyed by a violinist alone with God, not destined to be shared with a human audience at all. Bach knew that music can send someone on a journey into her own innermost workings; it can uncover memories, dreams, goals, and spiritual paths; it can tap emotions and ideas too complex to put into words. So, when a violinist like me decides to share deeply personal musical material like Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, it must be done in a way that welcomes listeners into the mode of listening to themselves.
Let’s Get Cranking!
During Cranky Bach workshops, I hope to bring the classical music listening experience back to its communicative, meditative, interdisciplinary roots, and expand from there. I will play the violin and invite participants to unpack and enjoy the creative, expressive qualities of their own listening, to listen to music in challenging, stimulating ways, to take part in enhancing and shaping the musical performance, and with the incorporation of movement, visual art materials, poetry, and conversation, to find and forge deep connections between their own personal listening experiences and those of their fellow listeners.
Image credits: all illustrations by Marji Gere