TAoN No. 85: "Gifted listeners," the useful pleasure of a sound diary, and hearing as a creative act. Plus: A new Missing Word, and more
“Waveform Necklace,” by matthew venn on Flickr; some rights reserved
Over on Brainpickings the other day, Maria Popova shared some thinking from composer Aaron Copland on the subject of “gifted” listeners. She wrote:
“The poetry of music, Copland intimates, is composed both by the musician, in the creation of music and its interpretation in performance, and by the listener, in the act of listening that is itself the work of reflective interpretation. This makes listening as much a creative act as composition and performance — not a passive receptivity to the object that is music, but an active practice that confers upon the object its meaning: an art to be mastered, a talent to be honed.”
There are of course many modes of listening. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, TAoN shared some thinking from Ximena Vengoechea, author of the terrific book Listen Like You Mean It, on honing one’s talent for listening to others.
And as a couple of recent posts on Disquiet reminded me more recently, listening to the world itself is an art to be mastered, too. Disquiet, the site of longtime friend of TAoN Marc Weidenbaum, certainly addresses music, and sound art, and all manner of sonic expression, intentional or otherwise. But recently Marc published some “sound journal” entries that I really loved — a series of short and simple but astute observations about all things heard.
One batch, from a visit to his parents, included this:
“When a call comes, at least four lines ring out on two different floors, and the place is full, almost brazenly, with the once ubiquitous noise of the house phone. The last refuges of the landline are abundant with it.”
A second batch included this:
“Main Street so barren at night, so quiet, that multiple crosswalk sounds can be heard from several directions at the same time.”
And so on. Each entry is both a vivid sonic description, and a kind of mini essay on living with sound.
What unites these various forms of listening is, of course, attention. Popova quotes Copland on the subject of the “gifted listener.”
“Listening is a talent, and like any other talent or gift, we possess it in varying degrees… There are two principal requirements for talented listening: first, the ability to open oneself up to musical experience; and secondly, the ability to evaluate critically that experience.”
Well, okay, but even if we’re just talking about listening to music, that strikes me as somewhat circular thinking, as well as needlessly exclusive. Better to think of it as a starting point: Surely we can all open ourselves up to sonic experience. And maybe evaluating sound “critically” can simply be thought of as attending to it thoughtfully.
That’s why I like the idea of a sound journal. And naturally that could include music, too. Last week Melissa Kirsch, writing in the At Home And Away newsletter for The New York Times, suggested taking “an audio trip” by revisiting, and listening intently too, some piece of music that takes you away:
“You know those albums or songs that you so profoundly associate with a moment in your life that just the opening bars, maybe even just a couple of notes, function as a sort of time machine? You hear a song and you’re transported to that room in that house — maybe it’s your childhood bedroom, or your college dorm room. Maybe you’re 11 years old again, or you’re dating that person again, or you’re walking that very specific route to school again, the one on which you listened to this same album, over and over, on your Walkman (or Discman or iPod Nano). …
“If you’re feeling a bit restless, like you might want to go away but, for a variety of reasons, it’s not practical or possible right now, maybe some music could take you elsewhere.”
Those of you who are paid TAoN subscribers know that I’ve started a new feature in Thursdays’s subscriber-only posts: “The Heard,” consisting of a brief playlist of music that’s caught my ear in the past week. That’s almost the opposite of the kind of listening Kirsch is describing. And yet I’d argue the search for the new, and the concetrated revisitng of the old, each contribute to the critical listening skill Copland describes.
In fact, I think Copland’s idea of the “gifted listener” isn’t as rarified as he makes it sound. If we make the effort to pay attention to what’s heard, and evaluate it in our own way, that’s a pretty good start.
The prompt: Keep a sound diary for a set period of time (a week, a month, whatever works for you). Note everyday sounds, mechanical sounds, natural sounds — and musical sounds, old and new. At the end of that period, review your findings. Consider repeating the exercise.
As Copland noted, there are no “creative listening” contests or prizes, but it’s a skill worth striving to master anyway: “Listening is its own reward.” Agreed.
Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.
This week’s missing word is from reader Lacy, from the comments:
A word for the pleasure in knowing something (trivia or esoteric knowledge) that won't help you or be useful in any way.
This is a profoundly TAoN sentiment, no? Thank you Lacy!
What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.
Next Monday: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series now alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and, more sporadically, the Something to Notice series.)
This Thursday’s post for paid subscribers: Some thoughts on a recent project that made me laugh — and made me think — from an artist and Hero of Noticing who I’ve admired for some time.
Plus a fresh installment of The Heard, the new series sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.
Also in the works for subscribers: a quickfire roundup of prompts inspired by Adam J. Kurtz, John Bielenberg, and more. Hoping to offer super-concise roundups like this for subscribers from time to time. Soon I promise!
As always, if being a paid subscriber is not in your budget but you’d really like access to those posts, drop me a line, I’m reasonable. firstname.lastname@example.org. If it is in your budget, then subscribe — that’s what makes TAoN possible :)
In Other News
Very much enjoyed talking to Ed Cotton for his Inspiring Futures podcast, above. Thanks for having me, Ed!
And here is my recent conversation with Austin Kleon if you missed it live the other day — very fun! The Instagram Live connection turned out to be flaky on my video, so I’m just an abstract blur through most :/ But the audio works & it really was an enjoyable exchange. Now I wish I could opt to be an abstract blur in all my video appearances.
I still think about this weird map all the time. It should be in a museum.
“I love the idea of ‘rewilding your attention,’” writes Clive Thompson. “It puts a name on something I’ve been trying to do for a while now: To stop clicking on the stuff big-tech algorithms push at me.” Good piece, and I may return to this later. See also: more searching, less scrolling. (Meanwhile, somebody tell Clive about TAoN! )
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments!
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And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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