Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
Josh Kun talks to Leon Botstein about the iPod versus the concert hall, the ear as sensory organ, The Lord of the Rings live! and music as Trojan horse

Volumes have been written about the art of music — its composition and performance, its history and science, its performers and promoters. Far less has been written about music from the other side — as it is heard by an audience. Leon Botstein, a distinguished conductor, composer, and academic, is at work on a book called The History of Listening. Josh Kun, a prominent music critic and scholar, investigated the subject in his book, Audiotopia. In a special discussion organized by Guilt & Pleasure, they discuss the mysterious and often overlooked art of listening.

JK: My name is Josh Kun. I’m a professor at the University of Southern California and a music critic for many publications like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and other spots.

LB: I’m Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and the director of the American Symphony and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

JK: I forgot to mention I direct a few symphonies, too. I totally forgot about that.

LB: Say again, Josh?

JK: I forgot to mention all my symphony directing.

Oh, good.

JK: I’m just kidding. So, Leon, I’d heard that you were in the midst of writing this book, The History of Listening. Tell me a little about how you’re approaching this massive, nearly impossible subject.

LB: My approach is relatively simple. I’m trying to get within the framework of what we call the concert tradition, starting with the late eighteenth century, to try to figure out what people thought they were doing when they were listening to music.

[I’m operating on] the theory that music is a performed art which is never entirely repeatable, that it exists in a particular time and space, and it is really defined by the people who are listening, and as well by the very particular performers and particular performance. What actually went on there is a mystery, and the only account that we have of the events are from the subjective accounts of the people there.

It’s another way of getting at, if you will, the history of music, because most of the history of music is written from the point of view of the composition as if it were a text — a book or a poem — or from the point of view of criticism, and I’m not sure that is the only way to proceed in understanding how music functions and how the function has changed.

To give you a simple example, in the use of period instruments in Baroque music, there’s the assumption that we have an idea of the performance practices. Let’s assume we actually do. Now let’s say you could recreate that manner of performance and you now are ... first of all, everybody is a foot and a half taller. And there’s the acoustic environment in which we operate — whether it’s the airplane, the ambient noise, the iPod, the headphones, etc. — and the nature of sound in the world that we now live with, and we then ask what was the context of exchange, the experience of listening then. If I had to recreate that from the audience point of view, I might actually abandon all efforts at recreating the sounds.

One of the echoes for me here is Roland Barthes’s idea of the death of the author. Does looking at listening involve a kind of death of the composer, in the sense that the listener is the one who ultimately makes all of the meaning?

LB: It certainly changes our understanding of what composition is and how contingent it is on performance. I mean, you can read a Shakespeare play because there’s a great deal of literacy that can be assumed. In music that issue of literacy has changed enormously. There was a time in the late eighteenth century/early nineteenth century where the connoisseur public … could not only read the notation that is there, it could recreate the sounds, or translate sounds into notation. This is a very limited skill today: very few people possess it.

So suddenly the intent of the composer, the text of the composer, becomes very contingent on who’s hearing it and how it’s created. The performer and listener have a role that is very particular to music. Finally, you have to put in the equation of technology. On the one hand, people are less literate in the audience than perhaps the audience of a hundred years ago, but on the other hand they’re much more literate because everybody — most everybody — who goes to a classical concert usually has heard the music in some kind of form on the radio or on a CD, or downloaded it.

Now, I happen to think that we are in the age of the death of recording — which is not a bad thing — and the revival of live performance, but still, everybody’s heard a Mahler or a Beethoven symphony, or a Chopin piano concerto. They’ve heard it many times, they have access to a sound archive, which is very different from a printed archive. So the issue of the composer — it isn’t the death of the composer, but the stability of the object that we call the text of music is certainly weakened.

JK: Most of the work that I do is not in classical music ...

That’s good!

JK: ... but in popular music, where the idea of a work or a composer or even a text is thrown out the window almost from the very beginning. When we talk about listening as an act or as a critical practice, what do we do with pop music, then, where so much of listening is not about live performance or audience listenership but is about private listening, be it iPod listening, or what we used to talk about as Walkman listening, or hi-fi stereo listening — living room listening — etc.? Where listening, in a way, has always been about a relationship to a commodity that you take home and that you experience in a very private way? I’m wondering how these notions of listening — which are really fascinating — can also speak to other types of music beyond classical, or is it hard to apply it in the same way?

LB: I think it’s a very good question. You know, one could say about jazz that jazz has had a following as a private listening event and as a public one, because so much of it is contingent on improvisation in the moment.

But a lot of classical is inherently social, not individual. It begins with the performers themselves, so a string quartet or two people playing together a sonata. It is immediately marked as a semi-public event. There is the intimate listening, with the same equipment as pop music. But by and large we’re talking about symphonic concerts or, Lord knows, opera, or songs. The players are their own listeners sometimes, amateurs playing themselves. And then there’s the observer part, where you invite friends over to your house or you go to a concert. It’s definitely a social art in a way that probably is different from the uses of contemporary popular music.

JK: Within the literature around listening, one of the things that’s so interesting is reading different historical accounts of the way the ear functions, particularly in Western culture. There is this tension between listening on the one hand and hearing on the other, and the notion of the ear as the most “natural” of all human senses. Unlike with, say, vision — where we are controlling what we see, closing our eyes or looking this way or that and never able to have a full, all-encompassing look (we have to actually choose our targets when we see) — in hearing we can be completely encompassed by sound. Or, as more than one critic has pointed out, we don’t have ear-lids. And many have talked about the way that hearing is actually more connected to the growth of the self and of identity because it is so intimately connected to the body — through bones, for example, but also intimately connected in terms of an engulfment in sound.

I understand the argument. I’m not persuaded by it. There is a conceit about hearing and listening that we do select the targets, and more than select the targets, put a valence of value on these things, just as we do with sight. One knows it from people who lose their hearing who then — in the old days — got analog hearing aids, and the hardest thing for them to do was to use the new context to actually hear what they wanted to hear.

There was an experiment done when the first Edison phonograph came into being, a blindfold test. There was a real singer behind a curtain and then there was a phonograph behind a curtain — involving a very primitive form of recording. And there was a sort of opinion poll taken. And the large majority of the audience preferred the recording. This is incredible because if one took the yardstick of adequacy to reality — does the painting look like the object of the portrait? How much is it near the claim to representation that a photograph has? — to our ears it would be no choice. We hear what to us would be this scratchy recording, and it’s incredible that they would put value on it as authentic, or as more emotionally powerful, or as preferable to listen to. So I’m inclined to think that listening is much more historically contingent, more voluntary, more like sight ... and that’s what’s interesting about it, because it changes over time.

I’m interested, for example, in the acoustic environment. I mean, for example, perception of speed in listening. My grandfather, who was incarcerated in a labor camp during the Second World War, tells the story of the only time he cried during incarceration: it was when another male inmate began to sing. The meaning of that has to do with the acoustic environment in which this emotionally laden thing was so distant from expectation that the person simply burst into tears.

In a more elevated and less poignant way, we know that Johannes Brahms, the composer, heard, I think, the first live performance of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven — which already for him was a major icon of music — heard it acoustically, live, with an orchestra and chorus, only in his early twenties when he was already a developed musician. Now that’s unthinkable for us. The aura of listening is so remote for us now that it’s very hard even to try to understand what people in the nineteenth century were doing with music. The absolute magic of the acoustic sound of a concert hall in relation to everyday life is unimaginable to us, who can listen to anything in our car, in our homes, in some reasonably effective way.

So there’s a banality of sound, if you will, and access, which has changed the emotional significance and place of music and affected our musical memories, as well. Listening is related to memory. People never forget. If you read the diaries of listeners in the nineteenth century, the emotional impact of hearing musical sound is just fantastic by today’s comparison. Except for the case you point out, which is the individual who internalizes pop music in a way that they appropriate it for themselves with an emotional association that’s extremely powerful.

JK: One of the big challenges I always have with students when I’m teaching a course on popular music is exactly what you said: that they’re so saturated by it — they hear it all the time, it’s so readily available from the most insignificant moment to the most substantial moment in their lives. It’s always there, they take it for granted. The biggest challenge is to actually get them to listen to it versus just hearing it.

Yes, we have it a little bit easier in the classical music side because the old becomes new. I would say the majority of university and college freshmen in our country have never heard a symphony orchestra live. When they do, in a good acoustic environment — and I’m not talking on television or in movies — it is so fantastic. Which is why, for example, there are plans to do performances of the movie of The Lord of the Rings with a live orchestra. The reason is the essential quality of acoustic sound, even to the most jaded ear.

We have a series where college students for part of their humanities education have access to lecture performances where we do La Mer and other classics of the repertoire. Young people who have no particular interest in music, necessarily, are mesmerized by the sound itself.

That actually reminds me of how Barthes talks about the power of listening — that it’s an act that is about sound and about music, but is also about a connection between self and other.

LB: Absolutely.

JK: So what those students are also getting is they are experiencing a relationship to the people onstage, but also watching the people onstage — who are all different from each other in myriad ways — interacting with each other by listening, right? We all know that — especially, let’s say, in a jazz situation — if the musicians aren’t listening to what each other are playing there’s no conversation.

LB: That’s right.

And so that listening then becomes this incredible social skill as well, and a social act that is inherently polycultural.

Oh, you’re absolutely moving toward the significance of the subject in a larger way. Part of the historical story is the cultural significance of our habits of listening, the question of how well do we listen, how well are we trained, and what do we bring to the table when we think we’re listening, how much are we just listening for echoes of ourselves.

One of the things about listening as a player is that you have to listen for what the other person is doing. You have to make an impression of what you think is happening in order to imitate it. Listening is a very active thing, not a passive thing.

JK: And it becomes a kind of democratic challenge, right, to be able to pull that off.

It’s very hard because, you know, when we listen to a person speak we’re operating on many levels at the same time. We’re in front of the speaker — in other words, we’re anticipating where the speaker is headed — we’re also asking where they’re not going, what are they not saying, what are they not doing, do they mean what they say or are they saying the thing that is not. There’s a lot of tricks. We’re very attuned to rhetorical devices, we’re attuned to clichés, we’re attuned to attempts to trigger association on the listener’s part, anticipating the audience.

Similar things can be asked about the way music works.

JK: Let me switch gears a little bit here, because one of the things that really interests me about your career — as an educator, as a teacher, but also as a conductor and a symphony director — is the relationship between your work in the United States and within Israel. Is listening culturally specific? Is there such a thing as listening as a kind of national art? Have you noticed things in the U.S. versus Israel that have changed the way you think about listening, or is listening in fact a universal process?

Well, everybody hears — that goes back to your distinction between hearing and listening. And on some order of magnitude, which is very basic, everybody hears the same thing.

I’ll give you a concrete example. The Shostakovich Fifth Symphony was written in the 1930s. It’s a very controversial piece because there are some who view it as written by Shostakovich to please Stalin and the Soviet authorities because he was in disfavor because of music he had written before that. So it was emblematic of a kind of kowtowing to a formula of popular music dictated by the regime.

Then there’s a whole different theory, that it’s really a carrier of cloaked meaning. Now, this is a symphony without a program; there’s no story line, and there are no words and no picture, so it’s a purely instrumental event. And what one hears in that is anger and the suffering of people under oppression. The theory goes that in unfree societies, listening has enormous power because music doesn’t seem to have any meaning — in the sense of political meaning — and therefore you can go into a public space and express your emotions without fear.

If you go to a theater piece which has tyrannicide in it and you cheer at the death of the tyrant, you could be arrested because it would be assumed that even though the tyrant is a Roman tyrant you’re really talking about Stalin, or you’re talking about Hitler. Art is clearly representational, or figurative, and if you make fun of ... look at the Danish cartoon scandal. Music, nobody really knows what it’s about, so people could go and cry openly, and Shostakovich said something about giving vent to the hidden and submerged feelings of suffering under the dictatorship.

Now in Israel, where half of the musicians and a third of the audience are Russian émigrés, most of whom had spent a portion of their life in the Soviet regime, and you actually have people in the orchestra who were taught by teachers who are contemporaries of Shostakovich, the attitude to this piece is completely different. In the United States it’s just a piece that is thrilling for the audience to listen to. It seems to have no meaning. Some people see sardonic humor and so on, but it stops there. Their emotional attachment to the piece is very aestheticized. In Israel the emotional intensity of reaction — positive and negative — to this work is incomparable.

To answer directly your question — which I think is absolutely the right question — my hypothesis in writing this book, which is being
confirmed, is that listening is not an invariant, it’s a cultural and historical variable, and we shortchange the historical record in our understanding of history, of the strangeness of history, by assuming that it’s common. We’ve begun to differentiate in the history of reading — because a lot of work now has been done in ways in which people read, and there’s a lot been done on seeing, and I think the time has come to look at listening as historically and culturally dependent.

I couldn’t agree more. Let me ask you one as a kind of last topic here, on a more personal note. For you, what’s your favorite way to listen? Do you have a favorite place, a favorite time, or a favorite way?

It’s interesting you ask. I think those of us who are active as public performers listen most aggressively when we practice. So, for me as a conductor, it is actually working with a score and hearing it in your head. I once was coached for a summer when I was very young by the very distinguished American composer Roger Sessions. I remember we went over repertoire and one piece was the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, and he said to me the best performance that he ever heard was in his head and he never wanted any live performance to ruin it for him.

So most musicians listen most intensely, in a kind of trance-like manner, when they are practicing. And then, obviously, most of us are loyal to the live performance. I don’t particularly listen to recordings; I don’t listen to the radio. Every once in a while someone sends me a recording, something they find interesting. I might listen to it — I might listen all the way through. But the real enjoyment of listening ... my children used to make fun of me because when they were young I’d take them to concerts and I would cry, inevitably.

For me, partially because I switched languages at a very early age and stuttered as a young person, well into my adolescence and early adulthood, for me music is the most comfortable, natural language I have. And it carries enormous emotional power, so it is a short-circuit channel, if you will, to my emotional interior. So my favorite place of listening is in a concert hall or opera house, or living room, if you will, listening to live performance.

JK: What’s so interesting is that at the same time that it is the most personal thing for you — it has all of this deep emotional resonance — the place where you like to listen most is perhaps in the presence of others.

I happen to think, and this is just my own view, that traditional classical music is the most powerful resolution of the public and private. It is in the public circumstance where you do not feel alone, you’re not lonely, but you have real solitude because music allows you to share emotions with others without revealing anything intimate. Nobody has any idea why you’re crying, nobody knows why you’re moved — and so you retain the integrity of the privacy in public. There’s no trick to retaining privacy if you’re locked up in a cell. Isolation is a sign of defeat of keeping the boundary between the intimate and the public alive. To subsist you have to be able to be intimate in public.

I’m not suggesting doing things that belong in the bedroom in public. I think that actually is a sign that we’ve lost the sense of the boundary. Someone once said that we have it all upside down, that we should actually sleep in public and eat in private, because eating is absolutely repulsive-looking, whereas sleeping is very benign. So our society makes its own kinds of rules, but the thing about classical music, instrumental music, and just being still and quiet with a lot of other people — so you have a sense of some community but you retain the absolute inviolable intimacy of your own feelings … That is, I think, one of the routes of building a sense of human solidarity. &


More on listening.