When music is work
By Chris Van Hof ~ Posted Tue, 01/27/2009 - 4:41pm
Aaron Copland's book "What to Listen for in Music" invites music fans of all types to consider listening to music on multiple levels and multiple planes. Last weekend at a concert, I caught myself listening on just one level, and it got me thinking how others listen.
I have this bad habit at classical music concerts: I am constantly criticizing, analyzing, praising, questioning, and picking apart. The end result of this inclination is that I frequently walk away from a concert unmoved, regardless of how good or bad the performance was. It can be kind of frustrating sometimes, and last weekend was a prime example. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra played Shostakovich's 5th Symphony--one of my favorite symphonies--and as well as it went, I never felt my pulse change or my emotions waver from a bored "meh."
The power of the timpani and brass in the final movement was immense, but what was going through my mind? "Wow, fantastic intonation at such a high dynamic level." Did you hear what that really was? The tragic opening of the entire work elicited a mere "they are really nailing the dotted-quarter/sixteenth rhythm." That's how you understand Dmitri's pained, forecful rejoicing? How about the hokey little violin solo in the scherzo that thumbs its nose at Stalin and his cronies: did that at least force a wry smile of understanding on my stoic, balcony-dwelling face? "Excellent sense of time." Oh come on, man!
I do not know exactly what has turned me into this unfeeling classical music concert attender (I don't notice this at jazz shows or rock concerts). But something needs to change, because I want to experience the music separate from the ears of a teacher, musician, and radio host. In other words, I want to know what it's like to listen to Shostakovich and to not have a deep understanding of the "Inside Baseball" kind of things that I notice at concerts. Copland says we hear music on three "planes:" (1) the sensuous plane, (2) the expressive plane, (3) the sheerly musical plane. I fear that I may be stuck in the sheerly musical plane with no escape chute evident.
So how do you listen? Do you seek expression in every piece (expressive plane), or do you just sit back and listen as the music washes over you (sensuous plane)? And if you listen comfortably in either or both of these planes, can you please prescribe something to me to get me out of my sheerly-musical-plane rut? Music is work for me, and I need something to snap me out of my mental analysis!