Friday, April 4, 2014

Listening, Part 2

In part 1, I discussed the importance of focusing your listening time on just one album or musical work. Thoroughly absorbing one work through repeated active listening can be a rich experience. We also discussed the dilemma of today's world of accessible music. By having so much music available to us, we have a tendency just to skim the surface of our music collection.

The challenge? Pick one album or work and thoroughly absorb it. Schedule active listening sessions where you are devoted to exploring the record. Listen to it whenever you have a moment. Isolate individual tracks and spend time analyzing them. Make the recording a part of your musical identity.

I agreed to participate in the experiment. The album I chose: "Seven Days of Falling" (2003) by The Esbj√∂rn Svensson Trio (or e.s.t.)

Unfortunately, I discovered this Swedish piano trio only in the last few years. The leader, Svensson died in a tragic diving accident in 2008 thus ending their musical output. This was a great loss to the music world as they were finding their own voice in the "jazz" tradition. They leave us with about 10 albums. I had no chance of seeing them live. However, the albums remain. There they explore the boundaries of the piano trio tradition by incorporating the lyricism of classic trios (Bill Evans) with adventurous explorations influenced by diverse sources (Bartok to Radiohead).  

Before this project, I listened to the above album in a scattered fashion. Maybe I heard it twice? The listening was sporadic. A track here. Part of the album there. Maybe once, I actually sat down and focused on a larger chunk of it. And this is an album I was really excited about! 

Now, I have scheduled about 5 active listening sessions where I went straight through the album as outlined in the previous post. When I say scheduled, I actually mean that. With everything going on in life that is scheduled (family, teaching, rehearsals, personal practice), I knew that this listening time wouldn't just fall out of the sky. I picked one hour each week to sit and just listen. Sometimes it was by waking up early. Sometimes it was in the evening or weekends. But for me it had to be a dedicated time. 

This is a rich experience. Each repeated listening was more exciting, revealing new elements. I highly recommend this "limitation" activity. If you haven't done it, stop and look through your collection and pick something you have been meaning to explore and schedule some time to dive into it. 

But in this post I want to discuss the benefits of what I lamented about in part 1: the availability of LOTS of music. Can this be a good thing? Can we expand our listening to a variety of artists/genres in a conscientious/intelligent fashion?  Can we explore outside of our listening "comfort" zone?

We all have a comfort zone. In general, we enjoy experiencing things that we are familiar with. When we consuming a piece of art, we want it to fit neatly in some sort of box. We love to label and classify things in genres. Or identify them as "good" or "bad". Or "my music" and "not my music". There was a Genesis song from the 70s with the paradoxical chorus "I Know What I Like (And I Like What I Know)" which describes this phenomenon to a T.

To some extent, this will always exist. We all have our preferences due to our upbringing and exposure to various styles. However, if you are listening to and identifying with only the same music that was "your music" 20 years ago, you aren't developing the appreciation that is required in the 21st century. The world is too interconnected and diverse to ignore:

  • the influence and variety of popular music
  • the tradition of classical Western "art" music
  • world music traditions
  • the wide variety of solo and ensemble types
  • improvisational musics from jazz to flamenco
  • technology's influence on musical genres
  • experimental music 
  • and even more
Each one of the above can be shattered into a million pieces. There are countless artists, masterworks, live footage, scores, or each of the above that we can explore. And once again, it is all mostly available in a few clicks. 

Still overwhelming, right? Nonetheless, it is out there and the most creative music that is being produced is drawing from diverse influences. The jazz tradition is a great example of this. For awhile in the 70s, the word "fusion" meant only combining elements of "rock" with "jazz". Now, artists are fusing the jazz tradition with many diverse styles in interesting ways. Jazz with country music (Bill Frisell). Jazz with hip hop/R&B (Robert Glasper). Jazz with progressive rock (The Bad Plus).  

It can be subtle or overt, but contemporary musicians need to come to grips with ways to develop the language. And for any art form that has already largely been defined, the next step is to draw upon diverse influences. 

My challenge: pick one genre/style/artist/region of the world whose music you are not familiar with. You can step outside your comfort zone a little bit! Spend some time exploring what makes this music tick. Explore the history, development and current state of the art form. Don't immediately discount something because it is unfamiliar. Although, if you are having trouble getting into it, go to a different area. You can't force yourself to "like" something. However, maybe you will come back to it later and find something valuable in it.

Once you find something appealing, spend some time with it. Avoid the temptation to explore ALL that is out there. That won't happen. So once you have discovered something new, try to schedule an active listening session that we discuss in Part 1. 

The more you know, the more you will "like what you know". 

Melodic Contour Exercise

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