Discomfort and the Art of Deep Listening

Discomfort often arises from new ideas, new sensations, different cultures. In music, we’ve heard this story over and over again — the now infamous Rite of Spring riot, distaste for the sonic expansion of free jazz, or even when Kid A upset the paradigm of “rock and roll.” Experimentalism is always going to polarize an audience, because it challenges what we believe to be right and natural. When Monteverdi began writing madrigals by focusing on painting the meaning of the lyrics through music, a concept that seems incredibly benign in our world today, criticism came out of the woodwork for his rejection of strict counterpoint rules. It is difficult to decide in a moment whether an innovation is great, or will be great. The phrase “she was ahead of her time” is all too common when we look back at the history of ideas. But rather than lash out at the wildly creative, the completely new, and expressions that may not be from our own upbringing, can we experience with grace? Can we try to learn, to feel, something new?

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the International Contemporary Orchestra’s performance at Merkin Concert Hall as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. The evening boasted a remarkable program of works by three accomplished woman composers: Pauline Oliveros, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Liza Lim. The concept for the night was “deep listening,” a term coined by Oliveros after recording in an underground cistern. Deep listening is the art of responding to the environment, each other, and focusing on the moment. In following this idea, the program featured three works inspired by nature.

The first piece was Oliveros’ Earth Ears: A Sonic Ritual. It started slow, with a sound here and there, an ominous trill in the bassoon and an eery harmonic in the cello. But the sound built in waves, crashing at the climax and receding into nothing. This piece is an example of chance music: music with instructions that can be performed by many different instruments, focusing on patterns and relative time lengths rather than strict harmonic code. It will sound different every time it is performed, and that’s part of the beauty. But, there was palpable discomfort amongst the audience when these unique sounds washed over them. Music like this can be broken down into what each instrument is playing, each specific sound, and that’s when it starts to sound like nothing. You need to focus on the big picture, how it sounds together, how it makes you feel. That’s deep listening.

Thorvaldsdottir’s piece, aequilibria, was more palatable on a harmonic level. There was a conductor and sheet music, which immediately feels more normal. But what was striking was the immensity of sound this piece created. The rumbling piano drove the music forward, again creating sonic waves. The landscape this work lyrically articulated was vast and unknown, full of darkness, light, and mystery. That’s nature.

Neither of these pieces caused a reaction other than polite applause from the audience, but that changed after intermission. Liza Lim’s How Forests Think, the piece for which the program was entitled, featured a 400-year old traditional Chinese instrument called the Sheng, played by Wu Wei, an instrumentalist and composer skilled in utilizing and playing these age-old instruments. It is a mouth organ, and its sound is reminiscent of the harmonica. It fit perfectly with the mysterious swishing sounds coming from the orchestra. The drummer spilled what looked to be beads onto the timpani, creating what could be rainfall, or at least that’s what the women sitting in the row across from me thought it was apt to say (not whisper) during a pause.

They were not the only people who could not seem to find respect for this new creation. As the drummer rubbed a cheap violin across the surface of the timpanis, and took out a bow to knock on its wood, there were laughs across the audience. Laughs from the discomfort of seeing an instrument being used for something other than what it was conceptualized to be. Every instrument in the orchestra was challenged to use their instrument in new and innovative ways: bows had horsehair wrapped around the wood instead of pulled taught, the flutist used voice in her instrument, and air was blown into wind instruments without pitch.

Wu Wei passionately played the sheng, swaying and jumping with the contours of the music. But when the score called for him to beautifully sing in a drone style, it again caused discomfort amongst the audience. There were laughs, laughs because rather than try to understand the traditional Chinese culture being illuminated in front of them, some decided to laugh away their discomfort at a different musical tradition.

In an increasingly globalized world, our concert halls will be filled with the music of many musical traditions. We are influencing each other. And, a large part of modernism is to look back: our Western early music revival not only gave us a popular recorder band called “Sour Cream,” or Sting performing John Dowland’s lute songs, it opened up new doors for discovery. Tradition, culture, and heritage are all things we explore in our lives, and music is one way to take what was and to bring it back to life, in a way that speaks to our world now. This is happening not only in the confines of our Western world, but all over, as we all seek to learn more about how our past influences our present. Western music has been influenced by Indian classical traditions, by jazz, by so many musical traditions outside that of the Holy Roman Empire. We need to treat these traditions with outward respect — not just copying them, or looking at them as “other.” When faced with a new culture, a new idea, and a new tradition I ask you this: listen deeply.

The lights dimmed as the music disappeared into what was truly an abyss. The audience giggled when the lights abruptly came back up, but the conductor smiled with true joy as Liza Lim gleefully walked onto the stage, taking her bow with Wu Wei. Two musicians from the ensemble sitting behind me audibly uttered “wow,” and stood up in applause. That’s the future.

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