March 21, 2019

A case for slow listening

A case for slow listening

Delia Albu-Comănescu

Delia Albu-Comănescu


These days, we seem to look at statistics as the very peak of truthfulness. Numbers are everywhere. They are serious, they remove any doubt and, for some, they are life-defining. They seem to carry a weight that — in this day and age — emotional experiences simply cannot achieve. Like almost every other aspect of our lives, our music listening habits are turned into data and later statistics. For a number of years, at the end of the year, streaming services provide us with glimpses into our most listened genres, most played artists or our top 100 songs.

Your year, warped
"In 2018, you have spent 71.752 minutes listening to music"
, the Spotify Wrapped website tells me. It's divided almost designerly, into nearly equal parts throughout my listening history. While the statistics might be accurate and interesting for a minute, it's difficult to let go of the thought that rather than our relationship with music, the interactive infographics showcase our interactions with a piece of software.

The temptation to summarise music in this manner makes sense, though. Our connection to music is not an easily understood or explained one. In the last centuries, Western societies have largely been concerned with the musical work as a product, with the focal point seemingly residing in the song itself and with consistently performing it at a societally agreed-upon "best".

Music is a verb
Highly critical of this discourse around music, Kiwi ethnomusicologist Christopher Small, proposed the concept of musicking. Small underlined that no other cultures outside of the Western one, seem to have lost track of the fact that the essence of music is found in its activity. Music, he suggested, is something we do, an activity we dive into. When engaging with it, it helps us solidify social, emotional, cultural or personal connections. When partaking in musicking, performers and audiences move on the spectrum between the planned, written down musical work and improvisation, on both a musical and a social level. For Small, our manner of engaging with a performance, as an audience, is just as essential to the musicking process as the song itself.

Musicking is, in other words, the experience that emerges in the moment, between musician and audience. Seen from this perspective, the dimensions of music are countless. We can speak of its role in supporting connectedness in communities, or the ways in which it contributes mentally, by helping us focus, or emotionally, by helping us unpack our feelings.

Literature as a way of reconnecting with musicking

While the world at large might have temporarily forgotten, fiction has provided us with countless reminders of the more metaphysical understanding of music.

In The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy described the relationship between performer and listener as a symbiosis, a merging of sorts that allows the listener to transcend their own experience and settle themselves seamlessly into another person's existence. For Tolstoy's hero, Pozdnyshev, "Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have … And music transports me immediately into the condition of soul in which he who wrote the music found himself at that time. I become confounded with his soul, and with him I pass from one condition to another.”

In Carmen Laforet's Nada, experiencing music seems to trigger profound memories of things past, experienced directly or through absorbing others' experiences — an almost tangible connection between performer and listener.

“At the moment when, standing next to the fireplace, he began to move the bow, I changed completely … My soul, extended like my own hands, received the sounds as if it were rain on dry ground (...) And it came to me in waves: first, innocent memories, dreams, struggles, my own vacillating present, and then, sharp joys, sorrows, despair, a significant contraction of life, a negation into nothing.”

Music, it seems involves a level of understanding that goes beyond the intellect and connects directly into the body. We understand it through our presence, absorb it through our pores and — in a bout of flaming egos — seem to need to believe that its depth is confined to the human body — even in works of fiction. In Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke introduces us to an Earth under alien reign. Under the watchful eye of the Overlords, humanity is experiencing a touch of utopia. While our new leaders seem to have solved the mysteries of the human, there is one form of expression they haven't been able to understand: humanity's need for music. Understanding music, Clarke seems to imply, requires the precondition of being human. Conversely, music might just need us as much as we need it.

Musicking the land: of songs as maps

In 1987, Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines, a travel novel that — for all its flawed depiction of Aboriginal cosmology — gives us a glimpse into a belief system where music takes on the role of germinal force. While walking through the Australian desert, Ancestral Beings used music and shared songs to map out large parts of the land. Everything that they encountered along the way becomes a part of the narrative of the place — the songline — and is passed down from generation to generation. Here, the world was sung into existence and it needs to be continuously sung to, in order to exist. The meaning of the songline seems to reside in the music itself, rather than the words. The lay of the land is encoded in the musical pattern, making it possible for tribes living along the same songline to share an understanding of the world, regardless of being unable to speak each other's language.

We can easily understand intuitively that the same holds true even today. Musicking seems to carry with it a shared understanding of emotion, of context — it is the musical work, the product, the composer, the performer, the audience, the place. Isolating any of these components and attempting to use them individually has the potential to lead to an insufficient, artificial understanding of music. That being said, allow me to entreat you to listen slowly, partake earnestly and enjoy wildly. After all, it is perfectly plausible that the nearest we will all come to body snatching and of time travel, might be through song.

Cast of characters (in order of appearance)
Christopher Small — Musicking: The meaning of performing and listening. ISBN-13: 978-0819522573
Leo Tolstoy — The Kreutzer Sonata. ISBN-13: 9780486278056
Carmen Laforet — Nada. ISBN-13: 978-0812975833
Arthur C. Clarke — Childhood's end. ISBN-13: 978-0345347954
Bruce Chatwin — The Songlines. ISBN-13: 978-0142422571

Here is our world of slow listening suggestions: 


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