When your work requires a certain amount of, as he puts it, “perfunctory” listening, a certain contentious relationship to the act of listening can be the result. (See our Editor’s article on this same phenomenon in this issue.) To that end, the occupational listener has been the model we at the SA office most often use to self-identify.
To work in a field that utilizes knowledge of something you love can become a balancing act. The occupational listener must counteract the amount of recordings they experience for work, many of which are chosen by others, with a commensurate amount of personal audio time if they are to retain the passion that feed their specific talents.
It’s not only the content, but also the way in which they experience it, that must be balanced. In the case of Chicago-based writer and critic Peter Margasak, it’s clear that the Sound American listening experiment was a chance to approach two pieces of music, not from the journalist’s point of view, but with the feeling that he was being presented with an opportunity to let go of description, narrative, and the necessary articulation of an aesthetic. In other words, it was an occasion for him to experience music as a pure listener.
His choice of Olivia Block’s Heave To, which he professes as a long-time favorite, and his attempts to gain entry into Peter Ablinger’s singular world point to this kind of battle. His comments subtly illustrate a set of ears and a mind vacillating between elucidation and enjoyment. And, the result of the experiment, which, in this instance, adds up to a glorious absence of grand unifying and defensible opinions points toward something very positive in the life of the occupational listener: a day off.
Before You Begin:
Describe where and how you will be listening. Tell us about your surroundings and mode of listening (stereo, iPod, laptop), your preparation (mental, physical, cup of tea, etc.). Set the scene.
I’m going to listen to the music in my living room, which is still a work in progress. We moved here in late August, and my boxes of LPs still dominate the room. I’m using a mediocre Sony CD player with an old Marantz amp that belonged to my wife’s father in the 70s. I recently had it cleaned up, and it sounds pretty great. I’ve already consumed multiple cups of coffee, but I’m a little sleepy, still. There’s not much preparation—unfortunately, my work demands make it hard to clear my mind for close listening. It’s an occupational hazard, and I don’t like it. I haven’t found a way to reverse it, but I’m open to suggestions.
Is the way that you are going to listen now what you would consider ideal? If so, why? If not, why not?
See above. As I write primarily for a weekly, my listening usually involves playing work by 5-6 artists over the course of a week, usually a new recording by said artist. Despite the repetition, the process isn’t that great because it feels rather forced and perfunctory at times.
Your Piece: “Heave To (Part One)” by Olivia Block
What is your history with this piece? Do you have a good, difficult, or indifferent relationship with the music?
I was an admirer of Olivia Block’s music when I first heard “Heave To (Part One),” but this track and the entire album it comes from truly blew me away. It remains one of my favorite examples of someone blending environmental recordings with deftly arranged instrumentation. I haven’t listened to it for many years, although I have continued to keep up with Olivia’s work. Another pitfall of my job is that I don’t often have the time to go back and listen to recordings that I loved in the past, such as this one.
Was there something specific you were expecting to gain from listening to this piece? (New information, nostalgia, etc.) Were you satisfied?
I had no expectations for going back to this piece. I assumed I would enjoy the experience, and I was correct. I had no feelings of nostalgia but was surprised by the amount of kinetic activity in the soundfield. In my memory the environmental/electronic stuff was more minimal, moving at a crawl. Instead, there is a wild storm of activity, with astringent string stabs—something I didn’t remember—being the dominant conventional instrumental sound, rather than, as I remembered it, the horns. It was great to hear it after so many years. Within seconds of the piece beginning, I shut my eyes—something I usually don’t do when listening to something attentively—because I yearned to lose myself in Olivia’s sound world.
On a scale from 1 to 10—1 being background listening and 10 being total immersion (house burning down around you kind of attention) —how would you rate your attention while listening?
I would give it a 7—I felt pretty darn absorbed but was distracted at moments by one my cats putting its paws on my leg, by some sounds outside, and detritus floating around in my head about my day and other issues.
Did you gain something unexpected during this listening? If so, what?
I don’t think anything unexpected happened, aside from discovering details I had either previously missed or forgotten, which is nothing to sneeze at. If nothing else, the work proved that it still captivates and excites me.
Sound American’s Piece: Three Pieces from Voices and Piano by Peter Ablinger*
Do you have any history with this piece? After listening to your piece, did you find this piece pleasurable, interesting, abhorrent, unlistenable?
I’ve heard of Peter Ablinger, but I have no memory of ever hearing his work. I wound say I found it interesting. I have heard other artists write music built around speech patterns, like Jason Moran and others whose names escape me right now. The first and third pieces seemed rather literal, with the piano lines matching the vocal patterns in terms of pitch and rhythm. The relationship in the second piece was more peculiar—more like he was out to complement it rather than mirror it. That was the piece I liked most.
Did you have any expectations based on prior knowledge of the artist or piece? If so, what were they? Were they satisfied?
No expectations at all, especially knowing your broad tastes, I felt like it could have been anything.
On a scale from 1 to 10—1 being background listening and 10 being total immersion (house burning down around you kind of attention)—how would you rate your attention while listening?
I would say 4-5. On the first piece I tried to follow what the speaker was saying—but wasn’t able to very closely. It seemed as if she was reading some kind of text, but on my sole listen I can’t say what it was about. That’s also the case with the third piece, which sounded as if the speaker were Chinese. This made it easier to follow the strictly musical relationships. The middle piece featured a composer talking about his process and difficulties in writing music—an interesting conceit for another composer to create something new from.
Ha—after listening and writing this I noticed that Nate had included the three speakers: Gertrude Stein, Morton Feldman, and Mao. I think I might’ve listened to the pieces a bit differently if I had known that—certainly I would have been able to contextualize the content of the first two much more quickly. But on musical terms I don’t think it would have any difference to me.
Did you gain something from this listening? Would you listen to more work like this if you don’t already?
I have to say I didn’t gain a whole lot. I would be open to hear from more Ablinger, but I would prefer listening to something that didn’t incorporate speech. I’m always interested in contemporary composition, but my experience with these sorts of experiments has been mixed. I respect it as an idea, but much of the time I don’t actually want to hear the stuff.
After you’re done:
Musical choices aside, how do you feel having set aside a chunk of time to just sit and listen?
As I mentioned above, I don’t get to just sit and listen very much at all. It felt like a gift, and when there is no pressure around the act of listening to analyze or critique I almost feel like I can hear more. For the sake of efficacy, a lot of my listening brings in background info, personal baggage, whatever. It’s rarely a pure encounter. Obviously I had a relationship with the Block piece, but I didn’t revisit it or read about it before listening. It felt like I could immerse myself in it. The same goes for the Ablinger stuff—the difference being that I couldn’t get lost in the actual sounds. Sometimes for something more conceptual, the background info is important.
Based on Sound American’s choice for you, what would you send us to listen to in return?
Building on the ideas of Ablinger I would suggest Transfer, a very gripping mix of sonic and verbal abstraction by Ex guitarist Andy Moor and poet Anne-James Chaton.
* Piano and Voices by Peter Ablinger is a collection of works in which the solo piano is composed in relation to an extent recording of the voice of a famous speaker. Sound American sent Margasak three of these works based on the recorded voices of Morton Feldman, Gertrude Stein, and Mao Tse-Tung. For our example here, we include the composition based on Lech Walesa.