Eros of Listening

Šarūnas Nakas

While listening to my speech, you have to have in mind that I am a composer, not a philosopher or psychologist or even anthropologist. That’s why talking about a reality, I can speak only about the things which I know best. It means that I will speak about sounds, hearing and listening. Naturally, sounds are physical substance. So it is evident that I will speak about a reality.

Everything begins with the sound. These very words, I just pronounced, are actually sounds, too. We can involve ourselves in a lengthy discussion on whether we should listen to them in the same way as we listen to music, or to comprehend them as a certain text conveying some sort of information. In both cases, however, we would not perhaps bother to argue that what we actually hear are sounds.

Even if sounds are treated musically, they often retain this kind of ambiguity characteristic of verbal medium. To support this claim, one may refer to a most common example that people perceive a musical work or even a short pattern both as an unfolding of the so-called musical ‘thought’ or ‘idea’, and as a certain state created by musical means. One may even go as far as to claim that these two ways of perception often become interlaced, intermixed or inseparably entangled. Moreover, these processes do not necessarily depend on our perceptive abilities: consciousness and subconsciousness often play games on their own, in which our ears and intentions are hardly the most important and decisive factors.

The sounds are encompassing much more than it is generally thought. As I said in the beginning, there’s a variety of sounds that we use in speech. And still there exists a great multitude of other acoustic phenomena, immersing us in an infinite ocean of sounds. We know as little about its depths as people have scant knowledge about the thousands of organic species living on the ocean floor, beneath the earth’s surface and on the volcanic slopes. In this sense, we may conclude that there’s no big difference between the laymen and trained composers who, in spite of all their skill and specialization, are only capable of travelling the surface of this ocean.

Both lay public and musicians can discern but a very limited scope of sonic universe, to which they attribute different aesthetic and social categories. Beyond that scope lie vast uncharted territories, which altogether do not seem to raise much interest even though modern-day technologies have enabled us to penetrate into the areas that were out of reach and notice in earlier times. This alone would let us think that composers play a rather insignificant role in handling with sounds, which is nearly the same as other people use them. In other words, there’re indeed very few individuals who cherish ambitions to become the Columbuses of new sound worlds. And if one was to look for the reasons of such unambitiousness, one would probably find them lying much deeper than in the presumed inactivity of composers.

Of course, it remains open for consideration whether it is necessary for composers to invent new languages that no one can understand and to take pains in applying them to musical creation. But it seems still more challenging to raise a question whether composers really do with a handful of conventions at their disposal which were developed during past couple of millennia. Right at the start we would perhaps come to an observation that there is a great deal of inertia in their relationship with tradition, even in those cases when it is exposed to relentless destruction and transformation. That is because composers are generally unwilling to dispense with even the most elementary but nonetheless well-rooted forms of communication.

The fantasies about a possibility to transgress tradition and create something totally different from what was done before thus seem to be an unattainable utopia. Maybe it’s sad news to some artists of futurist inclinations, who are always intent on searching for originality, for it immediately brings them down to earth. On the other hand, only being aware of this fact, they can direct themselves to and focus on the things that would lead them to the understanding of the essence of their work. It would be idle to explain these things to a person who is not able to discover and motivate this search individually.

So what is sound in this search – means or ends in itself? I would be inclined to think that it is both. Or, more precisely, it represents a hardly definable and not always properly understood juncture of both things. One should not, however, forget one important thing that to the same extent as composers develop their writing skills, their listening abilities undergo a considerable improvement as well. And it is not utterly certain what is more important in this process – to act as a composer or to excel as a listener. One might guess that the advancement of listening skills goes in step with the deepening of sound perception, invoking the whole new world lurking within and adjusting the composer’s attitudes and approaches to its micro- as much as macro-dimensions.

I deliberately avoid of speaking about different aesthetics and styles, because to my mind, in one way or another this process equally involves composers of whatever orientation. Another thing is that different aesthetics entail highly varying solutions. And still it would not be misleading to say that it is composer’s listening abilities or, more specifically, the quality and uniqueness of these abilities, which determine his or her general orientation and fundamental preferences as an author of musical texts.

Is it necessary to have a special talent for listening, or even for hearing? I think it is the same as with growing roses – it is not all about watering and trimming properly. It sometimes happens that musicians never hear a thing during all their lives – without even being aware of that. Like sleuthhounds, long trained to recognize several hundreds of musical themes and motives, which someone proclaimed more important than the rest of the music of all time, they are not able to hurdle the level of those who indulge in pornographic playing cards.

To say that I can hear everything is as nonsensical as to say that I know and understand everything. But for musicians it is very difficult to overcome such obstinacy. If someone claims the opposite, they normally take it as a personal insult and the depreciation of their abilities; and it is not so often that a musician would admit that he or she simply failed to hear something, or that he or she could not concentrate enough attention, or that he or she expected to hear something else.

Music sometimes runs past like a train: even if you look carefully, you cannot read what is written on its sides. What is left is only a general, often hardly describable impression. But this impression, utterly ephemeral and undigested, is easily marred when it is attempted to articulate in casual stereotypes of language by tarnishing the auditive information with verbal flamboyance. Then the visual imagery, gestures, colours and odours become more important than the sound, which is almost reduced to nothing.

But at the end of the day, the eros of listening is irresistible – it is endlessly enticing. The object of desire flickers somewhere very close, becomes more and more apparent and recognisable, and finally approaches, making one believe in the prospect of possible victory and tremble of anticipation. But at the most unexpected moment, it slips away. The fulfilment of the listener’s expectations and fantasies as well as the experience of pleasure depend on both the sound and the listener. Then it is not so important where they meet each other – in a grand concert hall or on the back seat of the bus, in the presence of a boisterous company or in the dead of cold night. If partners open up to each other, they’re on the way to a wonderful and unique experience.

© Šarūnas Nakas, 2003
© Transleted by Veronika Janatjeva

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