The Art of Listening

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
—Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

One day recently I fled the waiting room of the Hicksville railroad station, driven out by the clashing gabble of television monitors and equally incomprehensible train arrival and departure announcements.
As I trudged to the platform, hoping for a respite, a new set of sounds wormed its way into my ears. Up there, another recorded voice was making another garbled statement that grew louder the higher I went.
The horror—there was no escape from all this noise.

Seeking peace in my mind, I thought back to a moment of silent bliss decades before, the deepest silence I had ever heard. It was the dead of winter, the dark of night in the Berkshire Hills, in the village of Florida, Massachusetts.

As I stood by the side of the road, all I could hear was the sound of the snow falling and the beating of my heart. It was a precious moment.

That memory brought back another, less fulfilling, when a sound stopped the listening. This was at Tilles Center, at a performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. It was the adagio movement of Gustav Mahler’s unfinished “Symphony No. 10,” which ends in the gentlest quiet.

Rattle’s deft hands drew the music to its subtle close. The audience held its breath waiting for release. And…COUGH! It was awful. Sacrilegious. Someone may have been hearing, but clearly was not listening.

In Hicksville, all the sound made it impossible to listen. In Florida, all the silence made the listening profound. In Brookville, one destroyed the other.

For much of my life I have been a professional listener, and I have had to spend time considering what that means. Is it different for a 20-year-old at the Bowery Ballroom with Horse Feathers, for 40-somethings at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury with John Tesh and for greybeards at Tilles with the Bamberg Symphony?

More no than yes.

To listen really means to pay attention. It is like meditating or taking part in an intimate conversation. It has physical as well as emotional components. The best performances of any type of music are interactive. The musician and the listener travel together. The musician is the leader, but if the audience does not follow, the musician has failed.

Writing about sound is very difficult, because there are no words that express exactly what happens to the brain and the heart when vibrations in the air strike the eardrum.

There are common vocabularies for the visual—up, down, red, white, curved, straight. Writing, of course, is its own vocabulary. But how does one describe what a sound does, other than to use specialized terms such as “pitch,” “volume,” “attack” and “decay”?

So what a listener needs to do, to understand whether a work is working, is to look inward. And that can be different with different types of music. And all the more different with different types of conversation.
The music which is most familiar to me is classical music or music of the western concert tradition, from symphonies and operas to string quartets and solo piano.

Beyond the formalities (Are the notes what the composer specified? Is the tempo correct? Are the players together?), there is what happens to me. Do I lean forward, focused intently on the performers? Does my vision narrow until all I can see is the movement on stage? Is my breathing controlled by something outside my own will? Am I surprised or gratified or disappointed by the notes as they pass through? Do I lose myself?

That’s good stuff.

When I come back to consciousness it’s time to figure out what just happened and find the words to describe it.

Or do my eyes wander? Do I think about the pain in my left big toe? Do I yearn to take out my phone and check the email? Do my eyes want to close?

If so, something is not right and it’s time to examine where the fault lies. Is it with the composer, the performer, the hall or another factor…me?

Does that work with speed metal or new jack swing, hip-hop or garage punk? Not entirely, because that music often has a different purpose. The genres are highly interactive. The listeners may be dancing or hopping, raving, shouting along, yelling at the band, waving their lighters or thrashing in the mosh pit. There is often an intensely visceral effect. The sound makes your guts rumble or hurts your ears or drives you out of yourself and into a mob. Sometimes it is meant to put the listener into a sort of trance. Rarely is the intent to make one examine one’s soul or to plumb the depth and variety of emotion.

But the listener still has to go somewhere with the performer. Nobody should be untouched by what’s going on.

Different music appeals to different people at different ages. When I was approaching the borders of pubescence, “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel” pulled at my quivering soul. A decade later it was “Eleanor Rigby” and “Good Day Sunshine.”

Once I thought that Tchaikovsky was the peak of musical endeavor. But then it became puerile and adolescent—Bach or late Beethoven was the height of profundity (if you don’t mind the oxymoron). You can fill in your own blanks.

Probably the purest example of the necessary bond between musician and listener takes place during improvisation, when neither one knows exactly what is going to happen next.

The most common improvisation today occurs in jazz, which at its best is made up on the spot. The musicians may start with certain parameters: A melody, a musical key, a set of chords, a group of instruments. But after the melody or the chords are established the first time around, the players begin to play. The trumpet takes the melody and stretches it like taffy, while the reeds and rhythm section bop along. Then a saxophone may grab what the trumpet began and take it higher and tighter. They may throw the theme back and forth in patterns of increasing complexity. Neither knows precisely where the other is heading, but they are listening to one another with extraordinary concentration. It becomes a conversation.

When they are really cooking, they react visibly. Someone may laugh at a particularly surprising run or plunge eagerly into the discussion or give a triumphant flourish in conclusion.

There are times when that intense listening is actually a sign of distress, and all the more fascinating to observe. I recall an appearance at Tilles by Bob Dylan during one of the more dismal periods in his career. He seemed to be completely uninterested in the performance, the words even more slurred than usual. And the band playing with him were watching closely, because they were trying desperately to figure out where he was going next so they could back him up or catch him when he fell out of the groove. He didn’t feel like going anywhere and they had to make that seem like a journey. It was a lousy performance, but a great experience.

Another moment occurs to me: In the Peruvian Andes, in a little house occupied by a couple of Peace Corps volunteers, they had a Philips battery-powered record player and a scratchy recording of Mozart. After weeks of hearing nothing but the jangle of the charangito and trying to dance the huayno, what bliss to hear the music of (believe it or not) home. It was not live and there was not much fidelity involved. Still, that was an occasion when hearing was almost as good as really listening.