SA13: The Listeners Issue

Over the course of the last couple issues of Sound American, the central topics have been explored in a more distanced, slightly academic way. There is a reason for this. As editor, I have done my best to excise as much of my own aesthetic self as possible out of how the journal is presented. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an interest in each issue, or that my aim is to produce a dry technical journal. On the contrary, I have always wanted to make Sound American the sort of publication that I would want to read: slightly populist and equally engaging to academic researchers and musical neophytes alike. I can promise you that I will follow that vision, sideline my own narcissism, and do my utmost to err on the side of diversity of opinions in the future. This issue, however, is slightly special.

 

I have a problem.

 

Let me put this in context. I listen to music. A lot. I have been obsessively involved in recordings for so long that I remember the music I listened to during major life events better than the actual life experience. I would self-identify as a listener to music before almost anything else—more than a musician, a writer or editor, a New Yorker, an Oregonian. Ultimately, I don’t perceive this as a bad thing. Loving music kept me out of trouble as a kid. It continues to keep me out of trouble, in fact, and my passion for and memory of recordings is what allows me to make my living doing what I do.

 

In many ways I consider myself very lucky to have listening in my life. However, I fear that I’m losing my ability to listen with the same intensity and interest that I’ve had for the past thirty-plus years. I find that I am more comforted by the act of putting on an LP or CD than I’m excited by the music that is coming out of the speakers. It makes me feel as if I’m losing some of the power of my youth, like the high school football star realizing he can’t thread the needle between two defenders any more. [I apologize if this metaphor is off the mark. I spent my youth listening to records.]

 

So this issue, if nothing else, is an attempt to find out what I’m losing, why, and if I can ever hear a recording with the same sense of life-or-death intensity that was present just a few years ago. It is a very public attempt to understand the act of listening—not only as a general principle, but as a force inside the self-identifying “listener” that has driven, is driving, or will be driving the way we live our lives.

 

In my quest to regain the sound, I thought it would be helpful to see how others listen to music. Nine people with different relationships to music-making (critics, audiences, promoters, multi-media artists) were offered a unique opportunity*: they were asked to pick a special recording—something they would be happy to just sit and experience. In return, SA sent them a recording we thought they might appreciate. These guinea pigs were then asked to listen to both pieces of music and answer some simple questions about their experience and how they choose to listen. The answers illuminate the many different models of how one can absorb music.

 

 

As always, thanks for reading. Thanks for listening.

 

 Nate Wooley, Editor

 

 

 

* Proper attribution for this idea must go to Bay Area music lover and lawyer, Marg Tobias. It is based on her business model of a brick and mortar listening club. In her well-considered plan, those that are too busy to find the time to really sit and listen to a record would purchase a membership and receive one hour-long slot a week during which they could sit in the club’s acoustically lovely room and listen to any recording. If they wanted, they could receive a two-hour slot for the same price, but only if they allowed the staff to choose their second. It’s a brilliant idea, and Sound American is using this platform to petition Bill Gates for funding.

Argeo Ascani

Argeo Ascani has to be clear and concise. His position demands it. As Music Curator for Troy, New York’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (EMPAC), the way in which he experiences music must lean toward the efficient and the critical. He represents the model of the working listener: a person who must absorb music with a number of prescribed, often non-musical, considerations in mind.

 

None of these extra-musical parameters affect the working listener’s love of music, however. It is because they have a talent and a passion for the presentation of work, either their own or that of others, that they are able to maintain a focus on the pragmatic aspects of their job while allowing themselves to remain moved by what they’re hearing.

 

In Argeo’s case, his thinking must be geared toward the construction of a cogent and sustainable musical program for one of the largest and most technically advanced performing arts centers in America. He needs to consider the work of each artist and how it fits, or doesn’t fit, into a grand scheme of sound and lighting considerations, residency benefits, and the simple ratio of butts to seats.

 

But, Argeo shows a love and care with the music that makes him the perfect example of the working listener. Take, for example, the considered approach that Argeo applies to Kara-Lis Coverdale and Mick Barr’s Orthrelm. His comments are concise, but illustrate his deep immersion in the recording at hand, as well as the broader concepts and aesthetic movements surrounding the artist. He lists his levels of engagement at 10 and 9.5 respectively, and there is nothing in his short but potent insights that would make those numbers feel inflated. It is a very special and focused kind of energy that he brings to this experiment and the working listener brings to his daily music time.

 

 

 

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.

 

It’s morning in Troy, NY. I’m listening in a quiet room at home using a nice pair of headphones plugged into an external DAC/amplifier, which is receiving signal from a computer.

 

Cup of coffee? Check.

 

I sometimes (like today) prepare myself for listening by playing a particular short track that I feel helps my brain clear and focus.

 

 

 

Is the way that you are going to listen now what you would consider ideal? If so, why? If not, why not?

 

Since a good portion of my occupation requires me to evaluate content, I’ve devised a structured approach to listening. I set aside a period of time each day devoted to listening to material—all of which has to be new. I have an enormous backlog of music people have sent me, so there is never a shortage. Early morning, coffee, uninterrupted time to listen—I can’t think of a better situation.

Your Piece: A478 by Kara-Lis Coverdale

 

What is your history with this piece? Do you have a good, difficult, or indifferent relationship with the music?

 

At the moment? Indifferent. I’m incredibly slow at serious thought, so I try to keep a distance from the music as much as I can for as long as I can. I’ve been following Coverdale’s sounds for a bit now, [but I’m] still trying to contextualize it.

 

Was there something specific you were expecting to gain from listening to this piece(new information, nostalgia, etc.)? Were you satisfied?

 

I was hoping to gain a better grasp of her work. I think what Kara-Lis does is better served by longer tracks, so I wanted to explore how she manipulates shorter material.

 

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?

 

10—very focused, time went by quickly.

 

Did you gain something unexpected during this listening? If so, what?

 

When the second gesture takes over, there is this little pop right in the middle of the sample. The clicks at the start are hard panned left and right, but this one is placed dead center, almost as if I’m being poked with a pin in the center of my head—incredibly subtle and really effective.

Sound American’s Piece: Pithot 1+2 by Orthrelm

 

Do you have any history with this piece? After listening to your piece, did you find this piece pleasurable, interesting, abhorrent, unlistenable?

 

I’m pretty familiar with the music of guitarist Mick Barr and have heard Pithot 1+2 a few times before. After listening, my mind feels a bit sharper. I feel ready to get things done.

 

Did you have any expectations based on prior knowledge of the artist or piece? If so, what were they? Were they satisfied?

 

I expected guitar shredding, tight rhythmic unisons, and high energy. Orthrelm delivered.

 

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?

 

9.5— I happened to glance towards my phone right as I got a text. Technology. Bleh.

 

Did you gain something from this listening? Would you listen to more work like this if you don’t already?

 

Actually yes. I worked with Mick Barr several months ago. Leading up to that, there was a lot of listening to his projects. But I’m discovering that I don’t do very much follow-up listening after an event is over. Having met a musician, and working closely with them, you gain a different perspective on what they do. It makes returning to their music totally different. I think there is and will always be a time and place in my life for metal.

After you’re done:

 

 

 

Musical choices aside, how do you feel having set aside a chunk of time to just sit and listen?

 

It’s really great. I listen already quite a bit, but wish I could do this more often. Listening with the purpose of articulating impressions with words focuses the mind in a particular way.

 

 

Based on Sound American’s choice for you, what would you send us to listen to in return?

 

It’s a very specific improvised live set from violist/vocalist Charlotte Hug:

Cisco Bradley

There is a model, which we can call—for lack of a better term—the transitive listener. Their defining trait is the ability to transform their experience of the music by decoding the mass of sound into a series of descriptive symbols. These symbols, which can be likened to the brushstrokes of a painting or a carefully chosen group of descriptive words, can transport the experience of the music and the transitive listener’s experience in such a way as to provoke others to want to listen as well. In this way, the transitive listener can also be a missionary for the music they love, although this isn’t a necessary trait.

 

In this experiment, conducted for Sound American by writer, critic, and educator Cisco Bradley, it becomes very clear that he uses words as a fluid conductor between personal experience and a concreted expression of it. As the editor of Jazz Right Now and a historian of the New York avant-garde scene of the early 21st century, Cisco has used his talents as a means to not only bring wider attention to the music currently being made in Brooklyn, but with each concert review, interview, and short essay he publishes, he is also making objects of experience by carefully translating complex emotional responses to sometimes highly abstract sound into a linear and insightful narrative.

 

For this version of the experiment, Cisco suggested a multi-movement piece by the St. Louis-based collective The Black Artists Group (BAG). The medium of his recording—vinyl—preformed a concept of how his listening would be presented. With no easily streamed music readily at hand, the onus of responsibility to describe the music fell on Cisco’s capable ability. His choice also presented a unique problem in the SA office. With no possibility to hear “Echoes” or “Something to Play On” ourselves, we were left with our limited knowledge of The Black Artists Group to find a piece that may play nicely with his selection. We went with an old favorite from Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley, and Jason Lescalleet and, to our happy surprise, Cisco was able to elegantly decode the experience of the familiar and the new.

 

 

Sound American—Listening

Cisco Bradley

September 21, 2015

 

 

 

Because I find listening to music such a deeply satisfying activity, I try never to cheapen the experience. I listen to physical media whenever possible on my home stereo system where the sounds can grow to fit the room. Especially when listening to a piece of music for the first time, I do everything I can to limit the potential interruptions or distractions so that I can engage as seriously as possible with the vision that the artist is conveying. So, for this musical experience, I turned off my cell phone, waited until I was home alone, and found a comfortable place on the couch. I also set the volume such that I would not have to adjust it throughout the listening experience. I listened to nothing else this morning so that my ears would be fresh.

 

For the pieces that I selected, “Echoes” and “Something to Play On” from Live in Paris, Aries 1973 by the Black Artists Group, I am listening to a vinyl copy that I have in my collection. The two songs, which were recorded live, lead from one to the other, together constituting one side of the record. Thus I have elected to talk about them both as two pieces of a whole. I first encountered “Echoes” and “Something to Play On” in May, following the recommendation of a friend and colleague. Since then I have revisited the record many times as it contains some utterly fascinating sonic twists and turns that build toward an ecstatic apex. It is experiential music that reaches out and grabs you, carries you along for a no-time-to-look-back sort of journey, and leaves you dumbstruck with wonder by the conclusion of the side. The often searing lead instrumental voices—shifting from flute to trombone to trumpets to percussion—are made all the more visceral by the accompanying edgy, sometimes metallic, pulsating rhythms and sounds that swirl around the center. Even now, in what is my thirtieth or fortieth time listening to it, the music has lost none of its potency.

 

I selected “Echoes” and “Something to Play On” because of the impact this music has had on me as a listener. I count these songs as among the most influential pieces that I have heard recently that have awakened a new sensitivity to my ears. I also wanted to revisit the music as a way of testing its continued efficacy. I was not disappointed. In terms of my immersion as a listener at the moment of listening, I would say as the music began I was somewhere near a 7 and by the conclusion, the immersive experience was a 10 out of 10. Every time I have listened to the pieces in question, I have heard something entirely new and different. Sometimes my ears follow one of the less obvious components or I begin to hear how different parts of it relate to one another in a different way. There is so much happening, sometimes all at once, in this music, that it allows for a multitude of approaches as a listener. So, in terms of unexpected results—this time I began to hear how the successive lead instruments in the pieces create space between them and the outer sounds of the accompanying mass of drums, muted trumpets, gongs, other percussion, and miscellaneous instruments in a way that creates a rather cavernous feel within the piece. I cannot recall recently hearing a piece of music that takes on such a shape with the crisp, yet flaking edges and the turbulent center plunging forward in a maelstrom of emotion and feeling, like a circle of dancers in which one is invited into the center for a time to work with a fury, inevitably to return to the outer circle as they are replaced by another of the participants in succession. The sound of a train horn towards the end suggests that no degree of constraint will bring the action to an end until the wheels themselves wish to stop turning.

 

“Fred” by Nmperign/Jason Lescalleet was entirely new to me. I quite enjoyed the piece. Since I listened to it after only a short break following the pieces I selected, I found that they shared a bit of qualities aesthetically as well as a strong sense of urgency. The music itself grows and transforms, from electronic drones for the first half, to distorted vocals and brief instrumental sounds in the second. Due to the way that “Fred” was recorded, it builds immediate intimacy with the listener, drawing them in gradually. Later, when it sounds like the music is underwater, one has the sense of actually being underwater with the performers, floating about, listening to the muffled, deep sounds that only surface and become clear right at the end. I had no expectations of the artist or the piece in question. My level of immersion, at least in part due to the nature of the music itself, was very high, around 9 out of 10. Though I have not listened to Nmperign/Jason Lescalleet much before, this piece definitely piqued my interest to check out more of their music.

 

This was a wonderful experience, and I am quite glad that I set aside time to listen. Though I do not get to do so every week, I try to find time as often as I can to do what I call deep listening—going beyond mere listening for pleasure by combining a high level of concentration as a part of listening practice. I suppose on some level, it is a type of meditation for me.

 

Based on Sound American’s choice of music, in response I would send “Seven Storey Mountain IV” from Seven Storey Mountain III and IV by Nate Wooley, “Prologue” from Gordian Twine by Chris Pitsiokos, and “Cause and Effect” from Black Unstoppable by Nicole Mitchell, which are three pieces that have lately been really speaking to me.

Nick Lloyd

This experiment is, admittedly, specific and geared toward a certain kind of rarified listener. There is no representation from the vast sea of people who experience music only on the radio in the car, look to the top 40 to find new recordings, or rarely give music a second thought. Realistically, this is a majority of the Earth’s population.

 

Within our carefully crafted sample, however, there are those that have found a way of approaching day-to-day listening in a slightly less obsessive manner than the rest of our uber-ears. These down-to-earth experiencers are the pragmatic listeners.

 

The pragmatic listener understands the constraints on their time, energy, and space. They fit music into these parameters with incredible flexibility and resourcefulness, constructing atmospheres in which they can make the sound fit into a busy life. Their lives are busy with family and work, and they have come up with ways to enjoy recordings while they do the dishes or eat lunch at their desk. This isn’t a judgment of their dedication to music, but actually speaks to the importance of making space to listen.

 

Nick Lloyd, the central figure behind New Haven’s Firehouse 12 performance space and record label, is a to-the-letter pragmatic listener. He values his time with his family while running two major operations, both of which are dedicated to the performance and dissemination of some of America’s most interesting young musicians. The passion is there, and he has created pockets of listening by providing for himself multiple ways and times of listening. He, like many pragmatic listeners, values the new and “difficult” experience without apologizing for the music that makes him genuinely happy.

 

Knowing of Nick’s predilection toward all things 70s rock and funk, we had already cued up one of our favorite Sly Stone hits, “Underdog,” for his listening. Luckily he chose a Jimi Hendrix track that was complementary without being too similar. As he dealt with life spinning around him, he sat down and had a listening experience filled with thoughts of funk

 

 

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 am sitting in my office in New Haven. I have a decent USB audio interface connected to my office work iMac, and I have “Underdog” cued up on Apple Music. Sly and/or his rights holders will be getting some pennies from this event. The only albums I own by Sly are Fresh and Greatest Hits. My lights are on, my colleague, Taylor Ho Bynum, is having a TriCentric Foundation meeting in the adjacent office space, and I can hear the banging of construction equipment outside my window.

 

 

 

Is the way that you are going to listen now what you would consider ideal? If so, why? If not, why not?

 

The way I'm listening is not ideal, although it is probably the best casual listening environment I have. In my work, I listen in an absurdly focused and detailed acoustic environment at Firehouse 12 on very large, accurate speakers. Here in my office, I have a Yamaha integrated desktop personal amplifier, feeding two small speakers with a decent, balanced subwoofer.

 

My playback system here is off center and behind me—I cannot work if I have even moderately loud music playing and I'm in the “sweet spot” between speakers. I immediately get distracted. So this is sort of a “passive listening” environment that sounds good enough to ramp up to active listening when necessary, as I am doing with this experiment.

 

I share some of your concerns about the environments and contexts in which I consume and digest the music I care about. I have two small kids, and so my opportunities for recreational deep listening at home are very, very limited. I have made it a priority in our house to have an enjoyable playback system, based around an all-tube integrated amp, fed by a CD player, turntable, and streaming device (typically an iPod Touch). My kids know what vinyl looks like, and my six –year-old knows how to properly flip a record, and start and stop our Thorens turntable. So that is a small victory....

 

A lot of my “at home” listening happens while I'm cooking or cleaning up the kitchen, on a small JBL bluetooth speaker, which I feed from an iPod touch or my phone. It is decent—not the elaborate system I schlepped around in college and my immediate post-graduate days, but reliable and fairly honest sounding.

 

 

 

Your Piece: “Who Knows” by Jimi Hendrix

What is your history with this piece? Do you have a good, difficult, or indifferent relationship with the music?

 

This tune, and the Band of Gypsys album more generally, is only something I've come to recently. I had a roommate in college who was really into Hendrix, but I never got it then. A few years ago, I decided to become a Hendrix completist (which is fairly easy to do if you limit yourself to the records issued in his lifetime), and I purchased all the albums, on CD from Amazon. I discovered in the last year or so that Amazon automatically populates your Amazon Music account with MP3s of every CD you have ever purchased with them. So in some of my recent home nighttime listening on the little speaker I mentioned, I have been coming back again and again to this album. I would say I have a very positive relationship with the album in general and this piece in particular.

 

 

 

Was there something specific you were expecting to gain from listening to this piece? (New information, nostalgia, etc.) Were you satisfied?

 

My interest in Hendrix and in this piece really encapsulates a few of my current interests, while also tapping into a bit of my deeper relationships with a genre of music (the album rock of the late 60s and early 70s) that I loved while I was in high-school and continue to love. I have sort of given up trying NOT to love this music—for a while in college and the years right after, as I was very consciously expanding my musical world, I pushed away from this music; but as I've gotten a little older (I'm 40), I have come back to embracing it and accepting that my love for it can peacefully coexist with my deep professional commitments to avant-garde music of all different stripes. I don't really care if anyone thinks it is uncool to dig Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, The Band, Little Feat, or The Allman Brothers.

 

I could write A LOT about how complex I think the relationships we establish with music in our formative years are—you cannot underestimate the emotional power of music that you grow to love in the broader context of a social group. For me, Hendrix's music itself wasn't a strong part of that, outside of a few of the better known tunes, but this record sits comfortably in the music I mentioned above, and probably acted as a gateway for my current affection for it. However, in listening to it recently, I have been very interested and inspired by Hendrix's virtuosity—and not really as a guitar player. A few things turn me on about his playing on this album: the fact that it is a live record, the super spare trio format, and his command over the whole SYSTEM of his sound. People talk about Hendrix as a virtuoso guitar player, and he is in some ways—but to me the thing that is most impressive 45 years later is the way he is in charge of the full “instrument,” i.e. the system of guitar, effects pedals, and a cranked Marshall full stack amplifier. THAT is what he is a virtuoso on. And I think when you consider the full “systems instrument” you have to include the venue too. He is playing the room—and in his case that is the Fillmore East in 1970, which is heavy.

 

I have been playing keyboards more and more recently—when I opened Firehouse 12 in 2005 I had backed away almost entirely from performing—and as I have gotten back to that I have begun to think quite a bit about establishing parameters around the “creative systems” I bring on gigs. As a keyboard player (i.e. not just a piano player) you are in the position of NEEDING to consider the full system of sound generation, from the tone generator out through the amplifier. Some guys don't—and that is a bummer. I saw some recent live footage of Bill Payne on a Little Feat gig playing a Yamaha Motif plugged straight into the PA, and I was sad. But Hendrix here is completely in charge of his sound and tone, and the whole system is his means of expression.

 

 

 

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?

 

8

 

 

 

Did you gain something unexpected during this listening? If so, what?

 

Not this time—I am familiar enough with the tune not to be surprised by it. But I am always happy to hear this groove and Hendrix's solo playing for the reasons I stated above.

 

 

 

Sound American’s Piece: “Underdog” by Sly and the Family Stone

Do you have any history with this piece? After listening to your piece, did you find this piece pleasurable, interesting, abhorrent, unlistenable?

 

No—I have never heard this piece before. I found it pleasurable, although it did make me want to reach for Fresh, which I prefer.

 

 

 

Did you have any expectations based on prior knowledge of the artist or piece? If so, what were they? Were they satisfied?

 

I don't have a deep or complete knowledge of Sly's oeuvre. My experience is confined mostly to the tunes on Greatest Hits and Fresh. I actually bought Fresh as a result of a conversation with [organist] Larry Goldings; I asked him for his top five Hammond organ albums, and Fresh was one of them. I knew a few tunes on it but have been happy to learn more.

 

"Underdog" certainly features some of the things I associate with Sly's music —riff-based groove in the verse, soulful group vocals, a re-contextualization of an existing piece of music (the re-harmonization of Frère Jacques at the top and end of the tune), horn section hits, etc.

 

But the groove in the tune sounds a little sloppy to me, mostly between the bass and drums...this may be why I'm drawn to some of the obsessive later music, which I find tighter, smaller, darker, funkier.

 

 

 

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?

 

8. But I did listen three times. I am a heavy repeat listener.

 

 

 

Did you gain something from this listening? Would you listen to more work like this if you don’t already?

 

I will check out the rest of the record—in fact, I already am digging “If This Room Could Talk.” It has a better pocket for me, and Sly’s organ playing is killing.

 

 

 

After you’re done:

 

 

 

Musical choices aside, how do you feel having set aside a chunk of time to just sit and listen?

 

Great. I'm happy to have been exposed to a tune I hadn't heard before and also happy to be forced to articulate why I like/dislike certain aspects of each piece. I love listening to music.

 

 

 

Based on Sound American’s choice for you, what would you send us to listen to in return?

 

Billy Preston - “I'm Coming Through” - The Complete VeeJay Recordings

Peter Margasak

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.

Rob Miller

When we asked photographer Rob Miller to undertake the listening experiment for this issue, it was because of something special and specific: some unarticulated something that made him a more obvious choice than others from the handful of people worldwide who have a special talent for capturing musicians at their seemingly immortal or most fragile states.

 

In following the theme of these experiments, we sought to attach a listening model to Rob. There are obvious avenues of discussion around the photographer’s way of seeing and hearing, and those, in themselves, constitute a strong model of a different way to experience music. However, Rob unknowingly provided his own self-definition: the inveterate listener.

 

This kind of listener recognizes the organic absorption of the act in their life. They are critical and knowledgeable of course, but the act of listening is beyond their daily routine. It is an essential part of how they exist.

 

It would be possible to give an example of this kind of listener, but there is no need. Rob supplies it himself through his answers. The music involved in this experiment takes a certain amount of dedication, patience, and questioning to unlock. In many ways, it is perfect for the inveterate listener. They absorb it. They make it part of their DNA, and, as evidenced below, what they get out of it is beyond the critical and intellectual. It is as if it finds a place in their body in which to reside.

 

 

 

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.

 

Not more than five years ago I became deeply immersed in performance photography, specifically photography of the musicians and performances to which I had been listening and attending for over fifty years, that is, avant/ free jazz/classical/free-improvisation. After an intense period of learning and experimenting with various photographic techniques, I found that I slowly started to “see” as a photographer. For example, in my everyday life I was caught off-guard by brief glimpses of scenes, their composition or the way the light struck at a certain angle to create a contrast that I would not have otherwise seen. Those aesthetic, spiritual, if you will, moments stopped me cold. Now I realize that this is analogous to how I have “listened” to and experienced music for my entire adult life: Like a junkie, I’m always “listening,” seeking an aesthetic fix, with my sonar, if you will, vigilant for those deep, mind-changing sounds that are always there but not always heard (not to be too Cageian about it).

 

I listen at home, whether on my desktop computer with high-end external speakers or on my stereo system. I rarely listen on headphones though because I find that even the best headphones, for me, create an artificial environment and distort the natural ambience of my listening. I guess that my long early experience of listening to jazz in clubs with the clink of drink glasses and muffled bar sounds is part of my listening DNA. I listen to CDs in my car, even if it’s a short trip to the store. I listen whenever and however I can because the music is that important to me. I live for it. I am an inveterate listener.

 

 

 

Is the way that you are going to listen now what you would consider ideal? If so, why? If not, why not?

 

For the music that I listen to, the ideal is a live performance, acoustic or electronic or electro-acoustic. Nothing surpasses live performance if done right. Otherwise, the ideal for me, I guess, is an experiential combination of the many ways that I listen to recordings. I will listen to this music in different ways and at different times to convince myself that I am “hearing” the music. If I hear the music first as a recording and it arrests me I will seek out a live performance if at all possible, and vice versa. Many great live performances will put me in search of multiple recordings of the same or similar music. Many times I will “hear” something significant that I didn’t hear before, whether in a live performance or on a recording.

 

I accept that some music is “composed” for or “performed” in certain specific environments. Musicians, and listeners, always want the best sound checks and should complain when the environments fail. Understandably musicians and composers want their music to sound a certain way to fit the specific circumstances of their performance, but as a listener I can neither always control that listening environment nor do I necessarily want to, again, with Cage as my guide. True is the koan that you can’t hear the same music twice, even if it’s a recording.

 

 

 

 

 

Your Piece: “Subterranea: Postlude- Element 3, Prana” by Steven M. Miller

What is your history with this piece? Do you have a good, difficult, or indifferent relationship with the music?

 

One of the most pleasing and fulfilling experiences that I can have as a long-time listener is to be introduced to the music of a composer or performer of whom I have no knowledge and little or no context for the music and to have that music or performer completely change the constructs of my musical experience. I live for those moments.

 

Recently a good friend who knows my preferences in music and with whom I have shared many concerts, as well as in-depth conversations about the music and musicians, suggested that I listen to the music of Steven M. Miller. I had no idea who Steven M. Miller was, but my friend said that he thought that I would “like” his music. Because I trust my friend’s insights and his tastes, I immediately purchased the 8-disc set, Between Noise and Silence.

 

 

Was there something specific you were expecting to gain from listening to this piece? (New information, nostalgia, etc.) Were you satisfied?

 

Expectations? I didn’t know what exactly to expect, but I did know that this music was important for some reason to my friend and therefore I wanted to listen, and listen intently, purposefully, to find the “new,” at least for me.

 

 

Did you gain something unexpected during this listening? If so, what?

 

 

This “new” experience was incredible. As I anticipated from the title of the disc set, Between Noise and Silence, the implication is that music somehow exists “between noise and silence” and not just between but also incorporates some of the elements of noise and silence. The first disc of the set is devoted to Miller’s suite entitled Subterranea. Even on the initial sounds on the very first listen, I was immediately, physically absorbed in and captured by the music. Was it entirely unlike anything that I had heard before? No, but what is? The sounds were Eastern/Middle Eastern or at least inspired by world music, but the music was far from being programmatic or, even worse, “cinematic,” in the pejorative sense of those words. For me, the music created an aural environment, a world all its own, into which I was immersed by the mystery of the sound. The sounds, the music, stopped me like something elemental, as its title implies, but nonetheless this was music conceived and produced by a human consciousness and not purely unmodified “field” recordings.

 

“Postlude: Element 3, Prana,” which concludes the Subterranea suite, is that return to life, or at least as we most often experience it, as exemplified by the bright, lyrical, all-too-human-life-force line of a wooden flute floating above the continuing elemental sounds of the previous sections of the suite. As its name, Prana, implies, this section of music is not the return of life after some dystopian event but “sounds like” the eternal continuation of that primal life force.

 

 

 

 

Sound American’s Piece: Autonomous Systems: Red Rocks by David Dunn

Do you have any history with this piece? After listening to your piece, did you find this piece pleasurable, interesting, abhorrent, unlistenable?

 

I had no previous experience with David Dunn or this particular piece, "Autonomous Systems: Red Rocks", prior to this exercise. As it turned out, not by coincidence, I’m sure, music by David Dunn, “Sunya 1,” was included in the disc set by Steven Miller who had specifically asked his friend, David Dunn, to include a piece which might be used in a memorial service for him since Steven had been recently diagnosed with ALS. I had not listened to “Sunya 1” prior to listening to “Red Rocks”.

 

Both pieces share a certain “compositional” similarity as I learned afterward, but my initial listening experience with "Red Rocks" is significant, at least for me. In the first few seconds of the piece of what appears to be electronic static coming out of the silence, I heard the evolving “natural” sounds, as if a myriad of birds, all chirping at once, but not together, were interacting with that inaudible, but now audible, electronic “noise” which we know is always there but which is invisible and inaudible, at least to our normal range of hearing. At certain points in this short (10 minutes) piece, the so-called “natural” sounds (field recordings) that had occurred in perceived time became almost indistinguishable from the “electromagnetic” noise, and the manipulated, recombinant, compressed, looped sounds became the “music” between noise and silence which David Dunn has “composed.”

 

 

Did you gain something from this listening? Would you listen to more work like this if you don’t already?

 

"Autonomous Systems: Red Rocks", as music, demands close listening, and for me it demands repeated listening, as does all “new” music. In each listening experience the whole of the piece becomes more evident, more meaningful to me. Much like a solo electroacoustic performance piece, which includes both purely acoustic and purely electronic elements, will blend the sonic elements together, creating a work greater than the sum of its parts, so does "Red Rocks". Electroacoustic music, although decades old at this point, continues to offer a multitude of exciting opportunities to teach and to create in new ways.