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The Art of Listening: A Sense of Place


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By Gerry Hemingway

I am writing to offer my insights about the experience of listening from the perspective of being a musician. The art of listening is, of course, a somewhat open-ended topic that, for the sake of this article, will concentrate primarily on a few points of what I have observed and can articulate verbally about on the experience of music and sound for me as a player and creator of composed and improvised music. I am hoping that sharing my experience may enrich your next encounter with a music performance or recording.

It is important to first acknowledge that there are no universals in this realm. What resonates for me may not for someone else. In another sense the uniqueness of each player, really the essence of their identifiable sound, is in many ways shaped by how each of us hear what we hear and what elements of that experience retain the deepest memories. In this respect I have often reflected on what attracted my sonic attention from the beginning. One was music that generated what I can only describe as "a color of place." Color in this sense could mean a variety of things; for instance it could be the conduit through which music is transmitted. One example that comes to mind is how R&B sounded from the radio of the person I drove home with from grade school. There was this particular way in which the middle range of the music's frequencies (the limits of what the AM radio in a '63 Ford Falcon could produce) would engage my ear through combining the melodic inflections of the vocalist with the elemental harmonies that connected it all together. These ingredients conspired, often through repetition, to foster a sense of place, which often had an emotional component. That I would later learn was rooted by the blues, which imbued every inflection of the music with a verbal and musical history which became familiar to me as a place. Without having an intellectual framework or a directly related cultural background—I grew up in an essentially white rural suburb—that could contextualize this music, I nevertheless began a relationship with this place through the dashboard speakers of that Ford Falcon. With the windows rolled down on a hot day, the sound of wind rushing through the car, the grind of daily life audible at the stop lights and the visual tableaux of the familiar ride home, a piece of personal culture took root in my being. That culture joined with other accumulated experiences in filling the well of my creativity with reference points that helped guide my choices as listener and initiator of music and sound.

Using this fairly common experience in my generation offers an example of how I was drawn to make a relationship between these sonic details or, in another sense, give the sonic experience a kind of setting where I construct or imagine a place. Cinema gives us this experience with deliberate intentions to serve the visual material. Take the end of High Noon, where the sequence of events that leads up to the big shoot out builds its tension, without music, through the ear of Gary Cooper as he listens to the sparse sonic clues around him to deduce where his foes are laying in wait. In creating music openly, such as in pure improvised music (no prefabricated structure) we have so many options in making choices in sequencing, relating as well as initiating the events as they unfold.

For instance if I imagine the first note to be a low pitch on the piano, struck forcefully by the player followed by long slow decay, I can imagine a response from me might be motivated by the energy and singular intention of the attack, which I could manifest by playing busy furtive detail around the long sustain. This detail could dance around the decay, perhaps considering the tonal options of the actual pitch or rubbing against it dissonantly (either way a "tonality" emerges in the coexistence of both elements). Between these two musical events emerges the opportunity for any of us witnessing the experience to draw meaning between these coexisting expressions. Perhaps we intuit the intention of my response to the strong attack/long decay as related in energy and that alone engages the ear in the interplay and anticipation of what will happen next. No need to define my response, just a trust that the response will begin to write a dialogue where the sounds offer a passage to a variety of "places." Or perhaps these sounds inspire a visual analog, something like a beam floating in space with sparks of different colors and lengths spilling off each side. As the music unfolds this beam might begin to move in space or is joined by other beams, perhaps eliciting various sculptures along the way.

We seek structure as we listen in a natural way that draws upon our experiences and accumulated knowledge. We may be trained to recognize historical models of musical form and that may help us hear the presence of musical initiatives such as fugues even in the most abstract of landscapes. Or we may know nothing of these devices and simply draw our meaning from our previous associations with the sonic world. I offer by these observations an open-ended way of relating to musical experience in real time as a place. That place could be informed by feelings, stories, sculptures, math or spirit really, as much as we desire to keep our listening engaged in the unfolding of musical experience.

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