Jan/Feb 2000

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Listening Forward and Looking Back


Ever since beginning this column, I have been reluctant to use the term "classical" to categorize the works I have chosen to write about. Classical is fraught with definitional problems and carries pejorative baggage. But no other term readily offers itself. This may be a blessing, because it forces us to frame and ground our thinking and speaking about music, and that pressure is itself cognition.

Certainly one of the big stories about music this century, produced and performed in the widening "western" cultural hegemony, is the breakdown of the class-based patronage system that made a concept of "classical" meaningful. Depending on the location and time, "western" music this century can be roughly categorized in three patronage groupings: officially supported music (state, universities, municipalities), consumer supported, and in opposition to one or both of the first two (samizdat music, underground, etc.). The 19th century groupings (classical = aristocratic, solon/popular = middle class, folk = proletarian & peasant) fail to mark today's patronage dynamics. Despite frequently remarked parallels, bee-bop was fundamentally music in opposition whereas hip-hop is consumerist such that hip-hop's stance as an opposition is illusory and needs to the called such. It may mark nostalgia for an urban-based opposition but itself thrives on insatiable middle-class suburban consumers.

But the second big story of music this century is the falling out of middle between exquisite performers of high virtuosity at one end and pure consumers at the other. The accomplished amateur is gone; few people play or sing recreationally except for gospel and community choirs; and fewer children of all classes are given music skills. Instead, the huge music industry is fixated on consumers who spend far more money and listening time with reproduced sound than live performances. This means that music consumers, through the various stages of the recording revolution, have acquired ways to listen to and hear music-unprecedented in any pre-20th century culture. And music producers and performers have come to focus the production of music on these skills, but listeners little understand how they actually listen, at least if their cliché-ridden self reports tell us anything.

All categories of music have produced simultaneously apposite listening trajectories-both of which are new to this century. One trajectory carries listeners away from attention by providing an aural curtain to surround other activities. Can we even call them listeners? Despite all the musak jokes, background sound is addictive and few people work, drive or live in environments without radios, TVs, CDs, or CD-ROMs. The opposing trajectory carries listeners into exclusive privacies of hypnotic attention, when volume skewered up beyond concert hall decibels, the listener drowns his/her absorption in the sound world of a recording-often repeating the experience ad naseum like a fix, until the "high" wears off and a new experience comes to replace it.

Both trajectories are unsociable if not anti-social and music despite the phenomenal attendance at some concerts has become primarily a solo-listener event.

The music I find interesting to write about has evolved during this century to meet the challenge of repeated solo listening in a particular way, and therefore seems to belong in some rough group together-but with very fuzzy boundaries indeed. This is music that seized-upon the "western" tendency in composed music to expand length through developing narrative musical structures, and systematically over the last 100 years or so has willfully dismantled, problmatized, rebuilt or turned-inside-out those very notions of narrativity. Thus this music has asked of listeners again and again to reinvent their practices of listening. This means, listeners are often in a confrontational position vis a vis the music presented. Reactions of offense, indignation, fascination, attraction, seduction, repulsion variously greet listeners, but what is certain when works are heard repeatedly which is the very way we expect to experience music, familiarity and pleasure settle in often with a cozy and emotionally gratifying intensity that music that offers up easily accessible pleasures seems to fail to provide.

Culture pundits love to identify a craving "to make it new" as the defining quality of all modernisms, but could we not just as easily, for music, describe this as a relentless interrogation of what and how to listen and how to structure sound so that it can in fact be listened to?

Is the story of 20th century music the invention of the "music listener" as opposed to the music performers, music celebrants, music patrons and music aficionados of the past?

As we look back across the century, the salient facts as we as "music lovers" move forward, regardless of tastes and preferences, primarily in our roles as listeners, are these.

· A very high percentage of our music experience comes from electronically produced venues and only a small portion if at all from live performances.

· Listening is fundamentally unsociable now and the social and public roles of music of the past look more and more like quaint museum/archival reenactments.

· We experience specific works with sufficient repetitions of exactly the same performance to achieve an identity with that performance that music lovers 100 years ago would have not been able to imagine; by contrast, we know very little about the contingencies of live performances and thus less about how to even hear them.

· We listen, if we choose, with a solo intensity that only the wealthiest patron of the past might have aspired to attempt.

· At the same time we are surrounded by ubiquitous sound that vaguely and intermittently and fagmentedly enters our consciousness as musical ideas.

· We think of music as something to buy and collect, and its object status has itself become fetishized.

· The industry resorts to ever more compartmentalized categorizing systems to market, award and discuss music, and commentators buy into a demographic theory of genres that actual buying habits and listening habits simply do not support.

· We tell ourselves all sort of mischievous lies about music and its social functions and rarely try to figure out the truth.

· Despite our pride in "loving music," we are as often bad listeners as good, and few of us can talk about listening itself with intelligence.

As I move into 2000 with "Making Music" I seek to continue to try to write through as well as around some of the silences that so noisily throb through a list such as this, seeking through my quest to be a good listener, and an articulate one as well.


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