On Listening To Everything

On Listening To Everything

February 23, 2018

Written by:

Andrei Rusu

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When one declares that they listen to everything, while referring to music, one must be prepared to answer questions such as: who is your favourite country singer? who is your favourite Renaissance polyphony composer? Or so Matthew "Moppa" Elliott, bandleader of the Mostly Other People Do the Killing jazz quartet is asking his students. The interview that Moppa did with The Attic is some three years old, but the conversation still seems very relevant today. He does claims to listen to everything, or as much different kind of music as possible.

But if you aim to listen to everything, how do you go about accomplishing that? And where do you start? Maybe the first question to be asking yourself is, is that something to even consider? Is it worth-while? Indeed, Moppa Elliott seems to believe that listening to a lot of different genres, and being able to distinguish a good record over another from different music styles, is very rewarding.

Music Is Everywhere

Regarding where to start, this could be slightly more difficult a question to answer, because it all depends on an individual’s interests and openness to various external factors. It is defined by what and by how much is one allowing oneself to be exposed to. Do you want to listen to music created in contemporary times or are you also interested in the music of the past? If you ask Moppa Elliott, he certainly thinks you should listen to music created in the past as well. He will even set a timeline for you, suggesting you should go as far back as the Renaissance polyphonic era. Maybe even past that. How about the spatial boundaries to which a certain musical work or genre might belong? Admittedly, one can be biased to hold to a higher regard music coming from certain geographic areas over others, due to one’s cultural, and maybe even political, beliefs. Perhaps music coming from certain places arouses a certain curiosity, because it is so unknown that it fascinates us, and having access to it gives us a sense of privilege.

A more concrete place to start could be the Late Junction radio show on BBC Radio 3. I remember Max Reinhardt, one of the presenters, saying to one of his guests once, who was in doubt about the show being able to play something in particular: “But we can play anything. Actually we do”. Late Junction is without a doubt one of the best music programs available which is not bound to a specific type of music, nor to a specific time or place that music might belong to. Not to long ago, they even managed to unearth and play a song from North Korea.

But what happens when a particular work of music that you find appealing is linked to someone or something that you might not agree with, or even be completely opposed to. Such as the music of Wagner for instance, a German composer who is widely considered to have strong anti semitic tendencies. Do you discard it, or do you embrace it? Renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz believed that music is above all else, when, in 1953, during his third tour in Israel, he ignored an unofficial ban on music by German composers, and he defiantly performed Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata, a work which beared some controversy at the time. No matter where you stand on Wagner, it is beyond dispute that his music has influenced many and has produced a colossal impact. For instance, I’m not a musicologist by any account, but it’s a well documented fact that the Tristan chord was quite revolutionary for its time, or so Stephen Fry will led you to believe. In fact, if you watched Lars von Triar’s excellent Melancholia film, you should be already acquainted with the Tristan chord, as the whole Prelude from Tristan und Isolde serves as the soundtrack for the opening scene.

But if one is willing to listen to anything and everything, how far should one go with regards to the listening? Or, what is music, anyway? How do we define it? Undoubtedly, someone who was preoccupied to a large degree with this concept was American composer and theorist John Cage. Cage took the notion of music to radical new heights when he premiered his infamous piece, called 4'33" (as in four minutes and thirty-three seconds). In it, the performer is instructed to set a stopwatch for the said time and to not play a single note. The performance ends when the time is up, and so the actual “music” was supposed to be made of the sounds of the environment perceived by the listeners. Music is everywhere, or so John Cage believed, and this seems to be the idea which prompted Cage to come up with his “silent piece”, as he referred to the composition. Weather or not you agree with John Cage on his revelatory definition of music, the influence of his works is widespread, and at the very least he succeeded in making us reconsider the boundaries of music, where does music start and where it ends.
Worlds End, Australia. Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash.
Worlds End, Australia. Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash.

Barriers and Limitations

One way you can attempt to listen to everything could be to discard barriers and limitations to a degree that would make you receptive of a wide variety of musical styles and forms. Some of these limitations could be: time - when the music was created or published, geographic location, social or economic norms which music could be associated with, and, perhaps the most obvious one, genre. And a lot of music is unreachable behind many layers of limitations, and barriers, nowadays mostly self-imposed, be it by what we define as personal preference, social conformance, collective narcissism, political, religious or other types of belief.

Personal preference is probably the most often encountered barrier. We tend to listen mostly to music that we like, and the likeness is often defined by the degree of enjoyment that we get from the music which we listen to. Tastes often change over time though, so this criteria of choosing music is fundamentally flawed. It can be difficult to make the transition from one genre to another, as we can be quite comfortable within our chosen limits. Although sometimes artists come along with attempts at promoting other genres to their audiences, by hybridizing their main genre with strongly opposed ones, and sometimes doing so during a live performance. Such did Frank Zappa on a number of occasions, for instance when he famously played the Mozart piano sonata in B flat during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, 1969. On other occasions he also played or conducted music composed by Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky or Maurice Ravel, adapted for his own ensemble. His affinity with classical music also led him to write and record a, quite highly regarded, album with the London Symphony Orchestra, in a 20th century dissonant fashion.

Musical Education

Listening to classical music is most often than not left to the most adventurous, or maybe the ones who were brought up with it or educated. Nowadays, classical music is often regarded as high brow, or too serious, even boring, and is often dismissed as something too remote to the modern idea of entertainment. A lot of people also associate classical music with relaxation or calmness. That might be true for Debussy’s Clair de Lune, but I don’t find particularly relaxing, for instance, Varese’s Ionisation, a piece which also stroke a chord with Frank Zappa. Thankfully, classical music is varied enough and it is now at its most wide spectrum of styles and forms.

Someone who is focusing a great deal on promoting classical music to wider audiences is Gabriel Prokofiev, a British composer, DJ and owner of the Nonclassical record label. He came up with the idea to present classical music to younger audiences in a more informal setting, such as a bar or a pub, an event which he called Nonclassical Club Night. For instance he would start the night by DJing, and then after a while a chamber ensemble, like a string quartet, would be performing chamber music live, there at the same venue. He is also know for one particular composition which got a lot of attention after being performed at the BBC Proms, the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra. In the performance, the soloist is a DJ who manipulates two turntables, against a full orchestra.

Growing up in communist Romania, all I can remember about my musical education is being force-fed with Enescu’s two rhapsodies, as George Enescu was positioned as the almighty Romanian folk music composer by the regime. Enescu himself had became fed up later in his life with the attention that the rhapsodies gained, feeling that the two pieces were overshadowing his later, more mature works, like the 3rd Symphony. Even though he wasn’t the only composer who wrote Romanian inspired folk music, his music was the only one which was approved by the communist regime. There were also the likes of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who wrote the Romanian Dances, and also Hungarian-Austrian György Ligeti, who wrote the lesser known Romanian Concerto. Both of these two substantial works, which are quite indicative of Romanian folk music from the Transylvania region, were completely foreign to me until a few years ago. Granted, I was not one to listen to much classical music in my youth, but looking back now, I certainly think that these works should have been part of the same curriculum with Enescu’s rhapsodies.

The Outernational Realm

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash
Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash
Even if you succeed in removing some of these barriers, you might find that you still didn’t manage to discover something truly hidden, something really obscure. Even if you go to world music festivals such as Womad, or go to concert halls, obscure jazz venues, or maybe you’re listening to BBC Radio 3, you might realize that you are still not having access to all the music out there. That is largely because you are still within the International music realm, which can be regarded as a sphere, bound by various geographic, economic, and cultural conceptions and constraints. This state of affairs has become known as the “Outernational condition”, which is detailed at great length in this provocative piece, published on The Attic four years ago. The article explains how we live in a self-sufficient sphere, and how, for decades, another platform has developed at the periphery, outside and independent of the International sphere, a so-called Outernational domain. It goes on to say that “one will never get to hear, in world music festivals, contemporary hybridized and electrified Kurdish halay, Romanian manele, Bulgarian orkestras of chalga, Peruvian chicha, Palestinian dabke, Mexican narcocorrido, or many other genres and styles”.

There are many reasons why music from the Outernational realm is still at the periphery, as the article explains, and sometimes music curators have to fight tremendous cultural and social biases and preconceptions, in order to bring some of this music at the same ground level and give it the same opportunity. The Attic has had, for two years in a row, its own attempt at levelling the music field with the Outernational Days festival.

As there isn’t a defined process or path to discover music from the Outernational world, one is left with only one's own abilities and devices, to discard the barriers developed by the various cultural, economic, geographic, and other kinds of preconceptions and assumptions. One particular passage from Patrick White’s “Voss” novel comes into mind, in which Voss, the lead character based on the life of a nineteenth-century German explorer, declares when referring to the Australian continent: “Every man has a genius, though it is not always discoverable. But in this disturbing country, so far as I have become acquainted with it already, it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite“. Certainly, although not a bad plan, we probably don’t need to venture ourselves into the Australian outback to be able to listen to everything, however I’ve always found that boundless, vast open landscapes always help with putting things into perspective.


*Main photo credits: Tracy Thomas on Unsplash

About the Author

Andrei Rusu

Co-founder of The Attic, Andrei is mostly overseeing technical operations of the platform, and occasionally acting as Senior Editor.

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