Our Music Fellow on the experience of listening

I was 30,000 feet in the air when I had the idea for this blog post. Usually I’m an easy sleeper on long-haul flights, but this time not. I was flying back from a transatlantic tour and though the plane was full of sleep, there I was, eyeballs burning after many long, slow hours of wakefulness. One of my earphones wasn’t working, and on the broken side, all I could hear was the claustrophobic hum of the air-con. The ear on that side was also hurting with all the pushing and pulling I’d done to try to mend the poor connection in my ear set. Through the earphone that worked, an in-flight compilation of music was playing, but my struggle to hear it properly, coupled with a strange middle-of-the-night feeling of inspiration, got me wondering about the experience of listening. As a musician, listening is central to my work. All the time I’m using my ears to make musical judgements, to connect with other players, to find pleasure and adventure in sound. But even though our ears are always open, listening can feel like a complex and sometimes difficult thing to do well.

QuintaWhether musical sound is amplified or acoustic, there are numerous factors that affect listening – not only technical considerations like the quality of the equipment you’re using to listen with and the acoustic character of the space you’re listening in, but also any number of intangible and subjective things. Listening is influenced by the mood you’re in, whether you’re alone or in company, whether you’re inside or outside, how close you’re standing to the source of a sound, whether you’re moving or still, what time of day it is, whether you have expectations and what they are, whether you’re listening for work and what that work is, whether the sounds you’re listening to connect with things you think or know or remember. Sometimes listening can be a very physical experience – certain frequencies can hurt your ears, while some you feel in your throat or in your guts. Sometimes listening can be counter-intuitive; turning up the volume can sometimes impair it rather than enable it. Listening can make space for ideas or it can crowd them out. It can conflict with other senses or it can facilitate them. It can demand an almost meditative state of focus and concentration to do well, or it can, in turn, catalyse such a state. It meets complex patterns of acoustic information- pressure, vibration, interference, overtone, pitch, volume, definition – with individual perception. And getting to grips with its nuances can feel like herding cats.

The experience of listening has been a little more on my mind recently as I’m in the process of developing a series of alternative scores to experiment with in the New Year. These scores will incorporate verbal directions and other recorded media and will require the performers to use earphones in order to receive information. Traditionally, musicians playing western art music have used a system of written notation where the features of a given musical composition – pitch, rhythm, tempo and so on – are represented by symbols on a page. Less conventional graphic scores, though they’ve been developed more recently, have tended also to use a visual vocabulary. Whilst I value and have used these approaches, I wanted to try something new, something which might overturn what performers were used to, and something which might encourage them to listen and play in different, maybe more inventive ways. Part of this process will explore how to make a meaningful usable frame for improvisation in a musical composition – something which expresses a composer’s intention and vision, but which also allows performers to express some creative agency. The best improvisers are said to be above all else virtuoso listeners, so audio scores felt like a pertinent starting point. I hope to incorporate some of these ideas into a new collaboration with some of the Rambert dancers over the coming weeks and, as the idea builds, to understand better the priorities and experience of listening from their point of view too.

Quinta Rambert Music Fellow

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