Monday, May 07, 2007

‘responsible’ listening

I was introduced to (for lack of better word) ‘responsible’ listening by some of my teachers, and, as I begin to teach, I’m returning to these ideas, trying to get my students to listen this way.
By ‘responsible’ I don’t mean to evoke an ethical dimension to listening (although that can certainly be a part of it), but I mean parsing, and engaging with, the social function of what you are listening to. It is a form of analysis, but, unlike Music Theory™, we’re listening out for the social.

It’s simple:

Put yourself in the position of the players.

I don’t necessarily mean this in the sense of putting yourself in, say, Marilyn Crispell’s shoes in a ‘what’s my motivation?’ kind of way, nor anything like an interpreter ‘channelling’ (dead) composers. I’m not asking you so much to understand the psychology or ‘intentions’ of the musicians, but I’m asking you to imagine what your choices might be under similar circumstances, stimuli and context: what would you have done surrounded by A and B? Or between B and C? What’s the effect of A doing bloop-bleep in this context of B doing bleep-bloop (while allowing for contrasts and juxtapositions)? What are the implications and consequences of their actions (keeping in mind the performative in all of this)? How does that shape what is to come? How does that (re)contextualize—(re)invent, (re)construct—what has already happened?
As you learn more, you can hear more. As you learn to recognize, for example, the pitfalls and hazards of collective music making you’ll begin to hear how these pitfalls and hazards that are (perhaps deftly, perhaps dramatically) circumnavigated or subverted. Musicians might have their standard responses—you’ll learn to recognize these—but among these you’ll find many surprises. I have little concern for whether these choices are good or bad, but getting to grips with each choice/tactic can open up new possibilities, and that’s the important thing.
Hopefully you’ll learn to recognize these surprises in your own playing—those moments when you escape from habit and formula. Maybe you’ve already been making out-of-the-box choices without recognizing them. These surprises don’t come as often as maybe you might wish, but I think you’ll find they come more often then you think. Whatever the case, once you can spot these moments, you’ll be able to capitalize on them—feed it back into your playing. (I’ll return to this topic in a future post.)

Incidentally, when I’ve caught Fred Frith in performance, I’ve felt (and I hope he won’t mind me saying this) I could almost (but not quite) anticipate his choices. I had similar experiences listening to George E. Lewis: I knew (some of) his moves even though his were made quicker, and with greater fluidity (if that makes any sense) and ease, than I could ever manage. And knowing Lewis’ playing (I still have a lot to learn, but I think I know his sound reasonably well by now), I was still bowled over—struck by the fantastic (and fantastical) choices and tactics that were being made and executed.

(This post is a bounce-off from ‘the face of the bass’ at Bottom Lining.)


peter breslin said...

Hey S- I'm not sure I can hang with the word "responsible" in "responsible listening." Maybe responsive, empathic, imaginative, present, constructive(ist), synthetic, self-inclusive, connected..."responsible" has too much baggage for me. Not that you asked.

If you're headed to the southwest in October/November, check out the High Mayhem Festival in Santa Fe, more info at


the improvising guitarist said...

PB, I know, ‘responsible’ isn’t exactly the right word for it (what unfortunate connotations does that word have for you?). It’s not clear in this post, but the ‘responsibility’ comes from the playing side—a kind of ‘responsible playing’—and the listening that I prefixed with ‘responsible’ acts as a training ground for that…. I think I wrote this slightly backwards—I should’ve started with the playing article.
Anyway, not heading out southwest anytime soon, unfortunately (although possibly in 2008/9), but if I do head down that way, I’ll be sure to give you a heads up.

Thanks for reading!

S, tig

peter breslin said...

Hey S- "Responsible" just has this vague cloak of duty. Duty, honor, country. God, apple pie. Maybe not Chevrolet.

Although I'm 45, I'm obviously still an emotional midget. haha.