Sunday feature: How to listen to music you haven’t heard

I was moved to write this post after reading this article on the wonderful Brain Pickings site, in which Nassim Nicholas Talib (author of Black Swan) talks about the writer Umberto Eco’s “anti-library” of some 30,000 books, many of which he has not yet read. This article struck a chord with me, as a few years ago I read a fascinating book by French psychoanalyst and University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, in which the author makes a very good case for freeing ourselves from the conventions and obligations of being “well read”. Professor Bayard explains that reading is a way of engaging with literature in various ways – books we’ve read, books we’ve skimmed through, books we’ve heard about, books we’ve forgotten, books we’ve never opened. As both Bayard and Taleb both state, the books we haven’t read are the most interesting for they offer new possibilities in broadening our knowledge and widening our cultural horizons. In the world today, knowledge can be accrued incredibly easily and quickly via the internet, and this accrual of knowledge becomes a compulsive need to enable us to rise in the hierarchy of  perceived “intelligence” or “knowledgeability”. In fact, all those books which haven’t been read yet represent a wondrous research tool, for they are all waiting to be explored.

The same can be said of music. Today, with a huge variety of recordings, films and live concerts and opera available to enjoy every hour of every day, we can feel under tremendous pressure to be seen to have covered all the “classics” (the big warhorses of the classical repertoire by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler et al – not to mention 20th century and contemporary classics……) and to know them. I admit to some hefty gaps in my musical and listening knowledge, gaps at which certain friends and colleagues are apt to pull their eyes and wring their hands: “What? You don’t listen to Wagner???!!!”. But for me, those gaps stand for something rather special and exciting.

Just as the large pile of books by my bed attests, so the huge library of music waiting to be explored – via CDs, streaming services, concerts, sheet music and more –  represents a wondrous journey of discovery, and one about which I am very excited. In fact, this journey began at a young age, when I first became aware of classical music through my parents’ own listening and concert-going. By the time I reached my teens, I had developed fairly trenchant ideas about the kind of music I liked, and would touch at the piano. Growing musical maturity and an irrepressible inquisitiveness have led me to discover a wealth of music, but still I have hardly scratched the surface. The great thing is that I know there is plenty more out there, just waiting to be heard and explored.

It is for this reason that I grow increasingly frustrated with concert programmes at London’s mainstream venues (where I spend a lot of time, in my role as a concert reviewer and ardent live music fan). The same diet of largely the same “classics” by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Mahler, Brahms comes round year after year. There are too many “safe” programmes, not enough brand new music, nor even 20th-century repertoire being performed. Sometimes it feels like one is picking up the same dog-eared favourite copy of Austen or Dickens. There’s nothing wrong with the programmes, nor indeed those authors, per se, but our listening horizons would benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore more unusual or lesser-known repertoire.

When selecting concerts, either as a reviewer or simply for pleasure, I tend towards those programmes which include unusual juxtapositions (for example, a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall by the Rubenstein Competition winner, which paired Scarlatti with Ligeti and Chopin with Messiaen), or music which I haven’t heard before. I may not like all I hear (and by the way, it really is ok to admit that you don’t like Schoenberg or Birtwistle: it doesn’t make you a lesser person!) but I intend to remain open-minded and open-eared at every concert I go to.

As an active musician, the voyage of discovery is even more potent: so much repertoire out there just waiting to be explored! The prospect is hugely exciting.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – article on Brain Pickings

Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary

(image credit: http://www.goodwp.com)

2 thoughts on “Sunday feature: How to listen to music you haven’t heard”

  1. Oh I don’t know about your last comment – if you say you don’t like Birtwistle (especially on the grounds that you think it simply sounds awful) you get some serious bad looks and cold shoulders in academic new music circles. But funnily enough, you say the same thing to professional performers and 99% of them agree wholeheartedly and exhibit a kind of relief at being allowed to say so – and how much they hate having to play/sing it every now and then, but the money is good – such is the inexplicable stranglehold that Birtwistle has on the establishment. Schoenberg, on the other hand, did compose some seriously beautiful music and anyone that’s wary of trying some should at least give “Verklärte Nacht” a go.

    1. Thanks for your comments Tim. I pulled the name “Birtwistle” out of the air (and Schoenberg too for that matter!). There is so much snobbery about contemporary music that I think people who like to be regarded as “serious music fans” often feel uncomfortable or embarrassed to admit they don’t know, or like, a certain composer’s works. So I think it’s important to give people “permission” to admit to not liking/knowing certain composers. My piano duo partner admitted recently that he can’t stand Bach or Mozart. In some circles this would be considered sacrilegious, but in fact, the music just doesn’t appeal to him, as a listener and performer.

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