Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

The sophomoric nod to Raymond Carver aside, I do want to revisit this question with some degree of seriousness. It is a matter of not just academic interest for me (although that too), and it is one of the main questions behind my current fieldwork. I’ve recently read two pieces that raise the issue of listening to music and talking about that listening in complementary ways (Steven Feld’s near-classic essay “Communication, Music, and Speech About Music” and a long essay/short book by Peter Szendy titled Listen: A History of Our Ears).

Feld’s approach is very much that of an ethnomusicologist/linguistic anthropologist: he’s thinking about the social factors at play when a person listens to music, and then what's at play when this same person talks about that listening. Rather than seeing a primary meaning as being located within the sound/text of a musical work, he argues, we should understand meaning-making as a process that takes place in the mind of the listener. He discusses what’s happening when, for instance, US citizens listen to a remake of the “Star Spangled Banner” in minor, as opposed to the usual major: “A range of social and personal backgrounds, some shared, some complementary, of stratified knowledge and experience, and of attitudes (about anthems, songs in general, parodies in particular, politics in all cases) enters into the social construction of meaningful listening through interpretive moves, establishing a sense of what the sound object or event is and what one feels, grasps, or knows about it” (Feld, 89). So when people talk to each other about music, Feld claims, even when they stumble for words in these exchanges, they are making their listening experiences social.

Szendy, a philosopher and professor of aesthetics at Universite de Paris X, meditates on the idea of “sharing one’s listening.” For him, a major example of how listeners have made their listenings shareable, or even legible in the first place, is to document them in arrangements of pre-existing musical works. Now, though Szendy’s meditation focuses on the canon of Western art music (unapologetically so, I would say), I find his insights more broadly applicable. He writes about wanting to share his listening with others, because he feels that in the act of sharing his listenings really become his own: “…it is more simply as a listener that I want to sign my listening: I would like to point out, to identify, and to share such-and-such sonorous event that no one besides me, I am certain of it, has ever heard as I have” (Szendy, 3 [italics in orig.]). Please indulge me as I submit one more extended quote, since Szendy’s own prose is more poetic and efficient than any gloss I could attempt:
The listener I am is nothing, does not exist so long as you are not there. There or elsewhere, it doesn’t matter, so long as my listening is addressed to you. The listener I am [que je suis] can happen only when I follow you [je te suis], when I pursue you. I could not listen without you, without this desire to listen to you listening to me, not being able, since I am unable to listen to me listening… (Szendy,142)

Again, the sociality of listening, the desire to externalize interior thoughts and feelings – or is interior/exterior too simple-minded and dichotomous way to think about these things?

These passages from Feld and Szendy (among others in these two pieces) may well become rallying cries for me as I look and listen for evidence of why people listen to jazz and of what they listen for when they do listen. And as I then think about why they might (and often do) want to tell others what they heard, what they thought and felt about what they heard. And as I try to teach myself to hear the interplay of content (what they say) and form (how they say it) in their talk about listening, and how this talk communicates something of the stuff of their listening experiences. These passages have been swirling around in my mind, often bumping up against a concept that two of my informants have invoked, and about which they have had something to say: “the privacy of listening” or “listening as a private experience.” They both believe that deep, intense listening – the kind where you feel excited, moved, transported, stunned, the kind you remember for years afterward because you made sure to construct a narrative form of the experience that enables you to tell it to yourself (and maybe others) – is something that happens between oneself and musical sound, often sound issuing from a recording. They both mention how they’ve had these really amazing, overpowering moments of listening when they have been able to sit alone with themselves and give their attention to a recording by Cecil Taylor/Albert Ayler/Sun Ra/whoever and receive something in return, when they were able to commune if not with the minds/souls/bodies/beings who created the sounds (such a conviction implies a simplistic mysticism that would misrepresent their more complex spiritualistic and humanistic thinking) then at least with the materiality of the parts of these sounds that have been captured and preserved.

And so they’ve both told me that they think there is something deeply private, deeply interior about listening – but they’ve told me about that experience. I guess I want to place my informants’ thoughts and comments next to those of Feld and Szendy. I can’t figure out yet if my informants agree with, argue against, move in parallel or oblique motion to, or do something else to/with the ideas of Feld and Szendy. In telling me that they have had these private listening experiences, are they undermining their own statements? Are they making a claim about the sociality of privacy (e.g., “I want to see if you’ve had these same kind of feelings when listening intensely; I want to see if this ‘private’ feeling is something we all share”)? Are they merely spouting rhetorical manifestations of what amounts to a form of aesthetic false consciousness? [I’m thinking here of Jonathan Sterne’s convincing discussion of how ideas of hearing as a sense allowing for “pure interiority” have their roots in Christian theology (Sterne 2002, 14-19).] Yet how can my informants’ experiences be false? What right have I to discount, denigrate, or moreover deny these experiences? Perhaps they mean to parse the difference between the incommunicability of the experience itself and the communicable statement that “We have all had similar incommunicable listenings.” While they seem to say, “You cannot know my listening, you can never touch it and feel it the way I have,” they also seem to say, “You can touch and feel the knowing that you and I have both had these private experiences of our own.”

So, to reformulate the question implied by the title of this post, “What do we talk about when we talk about the privacy, and possibly the profound unspeakability, of deep listening?”

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