Return again

While in graduate school studying composition, attending concerts of new pieces by my colleagues, I began to learn an important lesson, or at least I experienced an initial step in the process of learning an important lesson. What I found was that as I listened to a friend’s new piece, I would inevitably encounter something I didn’t like, wouldn’t do, or something of the sort, and I would stop listening actively, basically shut out the rest of the piece. Then, on encountering the person after the concert, I had no idea what to say. I couldn’t bring myself to be honest, tell them I didn’t like the piece, hated it, whatever my felt reaction was, because of my compassion for the sensitivity one has after exposing one’s musical creations for the first time.

So I resolved that I would turn back toward the music, keep listening in order to find
something I could honestly say I liked or enjoyed that would enable me to have a positive comment to greet my friend with. What blessing this move has been! I found that many times a thing I would never do, thought was awful or ugly, turned out to be the foundation of a successful piece, something I really enjoyed hearing! This turning back, ignoring my reactions, or at least continuing to listen despite my reactions, has become a cornerstone of my listening, and connects to a couple of very important facets of my life.

In realizing that my likes and dislikes, my concepts of music, in fact aspects of my musical training stood in the way of fully hearing music in the first place, I have a direct experience of how knowledge can prevent us from encountering music honestly. That realization, along with a few others, is at the heart of the analytical method, the
Sound-Energy Aggregate, and of my new workshop, Just Listening. People with much musical expertise are often so intent on finding what we’ve been trained to listen (or look) for that we don’t hear elements that are the life of a piece, style, or musical culture. And for anyone, getting involved in a thought about how much we like something is just as detrimental to listening as turning away out of dislike.

This listening paradigm reminds me of the old adage to “follow the straight and narrow path”. I heard that a lot growing up, but in my experience, I don’t really go straight, I veer off constantly! And it’s not about not veering off, it’s about being honest with myself that I have veered off, and turning back toward the path I wish to follow. How much spiritual guidance focuses on this very human tendency? Certainly Zen meditation deals with it at the foundational level: when one finds the mind involved in a thought, one returns to counting the breath, or to just sitting. In meditation I find the spiritual reality of a lesson learned from listening to music. And one of the songs from the closing services on Yom Kippur resounds in my mind, a repetitive and uplifting song exhorting us to “return again...”

Returning again to listening is the source of meaningful engagement with music. It needs to be the foundation of honest musical analysis. We have to set our knowledge aside to truly engage, without fear that our knowledge will be of no value. On the contrary, our knowledge does not leave us, it facilitates our hearing in ways that we hardly understand and do not consciously control. When needed, it supports us effortlessly. But I begin once again to enter discussion of not knowing. More on that another day!