How we consume and listen to music has been transformed by digital technology. Where once recorded music was available only on the radio and vinyl LPs, reel-to-reel tape (and later tape cassettes) and CDs, it is now possible to access music 24/7 with the same ease with which one turns on a tap.

Today our listening takes many forms – at home on the radio, to a CD or vinyl LP, via a streaming service or YouTube; “on the go” through individually-curated or recommended playlists on an iPod or a smartphone; or to music that is played seemingly ubiquitously in social environments such as shopping centres, bars and restaurants, stations and even banks.

In our instant gratification-driven culture, streaming services like Spotify or IDAGIO (a specialist classical music streaming platform) in particular offer endless listening possibilities, and their portability (an app on your smartphone) means that music can be enjoyed wherever and whenever you are. Platforms such as these also allow users to create and share playlists (much in the way we used to make and share “mixtapes” when I was a teenager, only far less laborious in their creation today with just a click of the mouse!), and it’s wonderful to be able to access a vast range of performers and performances, including vintage recordings of Ravel and Rachmaninov, for example, playing their own music.

Some argue that the instant availability of music via platforms such as Spotify devalues the experience of listening to music, encouraging “passive listening” over “long” or “deep” listening and flitting between different tracks without listening to an entire album or even an entire song/track. These platforms have undoubtedly changed the way we listen, allowing us to engage with a far greater range of music than ever before, making our listening experience incredibly diverse. This has the potential, if we allow it, to revolutionise our everyday listening by mixing genres (classical, jazz, pop, world etc – and their sub-genres) and offering us “algorithm-curated” listening options based on our regular listening habits: the digital version of a friend saying “if you like that, you might like this”, or the recommendations of the record review section of the Sunday newspaper. Set your music service to “shuffle” and you add surprise and spontaneity to your listening experience (not recommended for those who enjoy hearing a piano sonata or symphony in its entirety, the movements in the right order!). Now one’s listening may not be wholly defined by genre, but by the music itself. Spotify creates a Daily Mix playlist “based on the different styles of music you regularly listen to, each mix is loaded with artists you love, plus a sprinkling of new discoveries that fit the vibe too” (Spotify website) and also a Discover Weekly playlist “made just for you [me]” which changes every Monday. I have enjoyed both playlists and have even made some new discoveries as a result.

In his book Every Song Ever author Ben Ratliff overturns the habit of listening by genre and instead suggests listening based on other, more general parameters such as speed, virtuosity, repetition or volume, thus offering cross-genre listening which may encourage one to make unexpected musical connections.

Meanwhile, over in the classical concert hall, some argue that the instant availability of music today and the erosion of the habit of deep or mindful listening is impacting on the way audiences engage with live music, making them less prepared to sit through a long programme or even works longer than c30 mins at a time, and more interested in programmes comprising a variety of shorter works. My experience and observations as a regular concert-goer don’t really concur with this view, and in general I think audiences are very much still prepared to put in the effort to listen in an engaged and respectful way. This is partly because current classical music audiences tend to be of an age and demographic that is less conversant or interested in the current technology to consume music, and I’m certain that it is also because the experience of hearing music live is so very different from the experience of listening on the radio, disc or via a streaming service. Those of us who go to concerts enjoy the spontaneity, the sense of risk and of music being created in the moment. The excitement of live music is a “total experience” – not only of the music itself but all the special rituals of concert-going which can never be recreated on a disc or MP3 track.

 

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There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire you are working on, on disc and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music, for example. You are unlikely to pick up any nuggets of technique in the concert hall – you’re often too far away from the stage to see details – but listening attentively is helpful. Keep ears and mind alert to details such as articulation, phrasing and breathing space, dynamic shading and nuance, wit and humour, giving rests their full value (or slightly more) to create drama, tempo, and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the piece. We should never seek to imitate what we hear, but there is much to be learned from this kind of focused listening and I regularly come away from concerts of music I am working on with new ideas and insights.

Conversely, hearing a performance which I may dislike is never a waste of time. When I heard Andras Schiff perform Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (in A, D959), a work with which I have spent a long time in recent years, and continue to work on, I found myself balking at certain things he did to the music – not that anything was “wrong”, it was simply not to my taste. But one thing I took away from that performance was his pedantic treatment of rests (Schubert uses rests to create drama, rhythmic drive and moments of suspension or repose) and this has really informed my practising.

In broader terms, hearing a group of pieces in performance is instructive in demonstrating how a good (or bad!) programme is put together. At one time, performers were concerned with things like key relationships between pieces, but now a programme that “works” tends to be one which contains a variety of contrasting moods, tempi and characters which help to create flow from the start of the concert to the end, or which focuses on a particular theme. Audiences – and performers – enjoy different levels of energy within a programme, while a programme with too many longeurs of tempo and mood can seem overly long or dull.

Most of us are limited by our own imagination, experience and knowledge and great performances and interpretations can broaden our horizons, inspire us and inform our own approach to music. But listening at concerts, and particularly to recordings and YouTube clips does have its pitfalls too. Recorded performances capture a moment in time and while they can certainly offer ideas and inspiration, they can also become embedded in our memory and may influence our sense of a piece or obscure our own original thoughts about the music. This may lead us to imitate a magical moment that another performer has found in a note or a phrase – a moment over which that particular performer has taken ownership which in someone else’s hands may sound contrived or unconvincing. It is important that we form our own special relationship with our music, and in order to do that we must investment time and effort in our study, while remaining open-minded and receptive to new ideas or approaches.

The other problem with recordings is that some performers may take liberties with the score to make certain passages or an entire piece more personal. This tends to happen in very well known repertoire, where an artist will put their own mark on the music to make it more distinctively their own, while not always remaining completely faithful to the score. Thus, some recordings may not truly represent what the composer intended, yet these recordings have become the benchmark or “correct” version.

So when we listen we should do so with an advisory note to self: that recordings and YouTube clips can be helpful, but we should never seek to imitate what we hear. It is the work we do ourselves on our music which is most important, going through the score to understand what makes it special, and listening around the music to gain a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions so that our own interpretation is both personal and faithful.

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)