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.
New York is known for its vibrant musical community—as is Berlin, Chicago, San Francisco, London, and a host of other metropolitan areas. This does not mean that a city like Cincinnati or Tilburg is devoid of listeners. Each and every town has a dedicated and devoted few (or many) who devour, digest, understand, and disseminate music. These are the constellation listeners. They are the points in space that connect the vast web of music lovers around the globe.
Some would make a case for defining these listeners as missionaries. However, that’s a misleading term. It implies that these people are alone in a vast wilderness of non-believers—spreading the good word of left-of-center music to the unwashed masses. In reality, this model of listening is a more realistic fit for someone like Steve Peters, who is simply an artist and longtime champion of beautiful music. He happens to live in Seattle.
He isn’t an anomaly. The city in which he resides is filled with brilliant musical minds, of which Steve is one. His compositions have been featured alongside those of John Luther Adams on the Cold Blue label. He is also the curator of the essential Wayward Music Series, which brings a wide range of experimental music to the Pacific Northwest. What makes Steve an interesting example of the constellation model is the fact that he has become synonymous with deep listening in the Seattle music scene.
His depth is exemplified not only by his choice for this experiment, but in the way he structures his thinking and listening. He finds peace before he begins and chooses music that has a history for him. It feels like he is revisiting an old friend: checking in to see if they still get along and finding that they can easily pick up right where they left off. His writing about this experiment is organic and warm—analytical, but open and accepting.
It’s 5:45 in the morning. My wife is still asleep, the cat is fed, and the house is quiet. Even the birds outside are still silent, and noise from passing traffic is minimal. I’m sitting at my desk with a glass of water (I don’t drink coffee or tea), wearing a pair of decent Sennheiser headphones, listening on my laptop. This is a good opportunity for me to engage in some focused listening, without distraction.
Your Piece: Song of Rejoicing After the Hunt by Ba-Benzé lé Pygmies
I first heard this music around 1982 or 83. I was visiting a friend in Boston, and he was playing me some records that another friend had recently given him. That listening session was probably my first real immersion in “world music.” Before that, I had heard some of the usual records one encountered in the bargain bins back in the 70s—Nonesuch Explorer Series recordings of Javanese and Balinese gamelan, shakuhachi, etc. I liked those, but they weren’t quite so life-changing. During that visit I heard many things that opened my ears, but this particular track made a huge impression on me and has stuck with me ever since as a kind of touchstone. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of recorded music I know, as good as anything that exists. If I were one of the people on the committee putting together the Voyager records, I would have fought to the death to include this. (I believe they used one of the Colin Turnbull pygmy recordings, which didn’t impress me nearly as much.)
This was an out-of-print LP in UNESCO’s “Anthology of African Music” series, recorded in the field by Simha Arom and Genevieve Taurelle. Of course I made a cassette dub that I listened to for years, all the while searching for a copy. It was not easy to find in those pre-internet days. Who would give up such a treasure? I finally came across one in a used book shop in Paris in 1988. (Did I really lug it around on my travels through Spain for the next month? Or did I do the sensible thing and mail it to myself back home? Can’t remember now.) In the mid-90s it was re-issued on CD by Rounder, along with much of the UNESCO catalog. Since that first revelation in Boston, I would guess I have listened to this at least a hundred times.
I’ve not heard this for a while now. Listening again this morning, I hear all of the things I’ve always loved. For the sake of “convenience,” I’m listening to a rip someone posted on SoundCloud. Whoever ripped this had an LP that was not particularly clean. Aside from whatever it loses to compression, there is a fair amount of surface noise. It’s not the charming, dusty crackle of the ages one hears from old 78s or 45s; it’s just kind of crusty and annoying. But the music still shines through, still does what it has always done for me, whatever that is. I don’t know that I learned anything new from listening just now. It was more like visiting an old friend. I would rate my level of attention at a 10.
Sound American's Piece: Teyange Jopion by Baeshi Bang
I have never heard this piece before, nor do I have much familiarity with the genre of K-Pop which has apparently inspired it. I’ve never heard of the group, either, so this is totally new to me and I had no expectations whatsoever. I had a certain amount of curiosity while I was listening, which, paradoxically, was a little distracting. Rather than simply immersing myself in listening, I found myself listening analytically, wondering what would happen next, making comparisons to other things: “That fuzz bass sounds like Hugh Hopper in Soft Machine. But wait, there’s no bass player! Must be the electronic organ. But who is playing the toy piano? It’s not listed in the credits!” Etc. Consequently, I’d rate my concentration level at about an 8. I enjoyed this piece because it went somewhere I didn’t expect upon hearing the rather insipid intro. At that point I thought it would be some kind of jokey take-off on a rather cheesy kitsch genre, but it surprised me by doing something quite different while still never abandoning the source material. So while I might not go out of my way to hear more of this, I definitely appreciate it and found it to be a fairly enjoyable experience.
This has been a pleasant exercise that reminds me how rarely I now make time to just sit and listen to something that I am not actually working on myself. So much of my music listening these days is done as background to answering emails or reading or driving or other things, and it’s good to be reminded to simply attend to the music, to be fully present with it, to make myself truly available.
Based on the track you sent to me, I would probably send back something by the Japanese band Saboten—not the post-punk boy band by that name, but the earlier, very interesting all-female band known for their charming covers of Erik Satie.
If you’ve participated in concerts of experimental and improvised music in New York with any kind of regularity, you have felt the presence of Kevin Reilly. From the audience perspective, he is known as the tall, lanky gentleman with long hair, dressed all in black, and in the front row. It is immediately obvious that he is there for the music, and he takes his role as a listener very seriously.
The musician’s perception of Kevin is different. He’s a part of their small community and a complex aesthete without the pretensions that often come coupled with that title. He is vocal about his opinions regarding music and the way in which it’s presented, but not in an overbearing way. He neither shies away from argument nor does he go out of his way to be an instigator. His support of musicians through the Relative Pitch Records label, which he runs with Mike Panico, is a tangible reflection of the diversity of his listening. He has helped the musicians he admires through the support of the label, giving them rides or just offering a little non-musical advice. He does this without an assumption of controlling the working method or the end result of what they do. For this reason, he’s a unique and fascinating figure.
All of this is enough reason to feature him in Sound American 13, but the real purpose for his inclusion is how he represents a model of listening: the critical audience member. After sending back the following answers to our experiment, we received multiple texts from Kevin asking questions about the Walter Marchetti piece: Acoustic piano? One player? Tape? How? Why? While Kevin has no musical training, he approaches every concert and, as you will see, every recording with the rigor of an academic and the intensity of a man possessed. He questions what he’s hearing and wants to know how it was made and why.
I am listening in my bedroom with headphones, on my laptop. I am alone in the early evening. I have a large iced coffee, the last of several today. I am focused and wide awake. I ended my workday several hours ago and ate a light dinner. The room is well lit; the door is closed; my phone is off. I am in a reclined position, hands folded on my chest, and I stare at a spot on the white ceiling and let my eyes go out of focus. I do not close my eyes. I have played the Marchetti piece for several hours the past two days as I worked my day job, but not today. It has played over and over from beginning to end four or five times for two consecutive days followed by a day with no music at all. This is an ideal way for me to seriously listen.
Your Piece: Bouge by Duthoit, Bauer, Ex
Bouge is one of my favorite pieces of music with Isabelle Duthoit. It has been in heavy rotation for the better part of the past year or so, though not so much this summer. I burned a copy for the car, listened with my family, listened with headphones, blasted it on my stereo, etc. I listened to the CD many times before learning from Isabelle this past March that it was divided up into the 21 pieces on the CD after the fact, and that it was actually one continuous piece recorded live. The shorter pieces, from 28 seconds to seven and a half minutes, were very appealing to me. They left me wanting more, wondering what a particular piece would have sounded like had it been longer. I thought of the CD as 21 miniatures, each expressing something distinct. So this time, I consciously tried to listen to it as one continuous piece. There were many pleasant surprises revisiting this CD. I never really noticed the way Isabelle’s vocalizations slowly fade out on track 15, “rosa.” There are many subtleties to the recording that reward repeated listening; the transitions and juxtapositions are brilliant. The recording has a personal aspect to it, and it reminds me of my friendship with Isabelle Duthoit and her partner, Franz Hautzinger, both with whom I have developed a fondness, which enhances the music for me. My familiarity with this recording helped me fall right into a deep listening mode but maybe not quite as immersed as the Marchetti piece. Perhaps familiarity can also be a drawback or an obstacle requiring even greater focus than the unfamiliar.
I am very satisfied with this listening project. I would like to be disciplined enough to devote two to three hours per day to listening in this way, but often I listen while doing other things like driving, working, checking email, etc. I do try to do a serious headphone listen to every release by the artists I really respect.
You asked me to recommend something based on the Marchetti. For reasons not fully known to me, I thought of a very different piece entitled “Parthenon Lookout” by the New Zealand pianist Hermione Johnson. I really like her playing.
Sound American’s Piece: De Musicorum Infelicitate by Walter Marchetti
I have no history with this piece and only a vague familiarity with Marchetti’s name. I read nothing on him prior to listening. I found the piece very interesting and provocative, even compelling. Having already heard the piece eight to ten times over two days, I knew basically to what I would be listening. I knew there were ten variations all of the same length that sounded very similar, each divided by about ten seconds of silence. The recording of each variation starts and ends abruptly, cutting off as if the recording started after the piece had begun and ran out before the piece completed. So there is no proper sense of an ending or even a beginning. The variations had no discernible arc or development. As such, it felt as if the “variations” were somewhat arbitrary, musically speaking, and perhaps just segments of a larger continuous piece. The effect of the “sameness” and repetition of the discordant piano was conducive to a meditative state which was, however, broken every six minutes by the intrusive “silences”. The ten seconds of silence between the pieces became almost jarring. I was totally immersed in the piece and listened straight through a second time. The second time I zoned out staring at the “bars and waves” visualizations on my Windows Media Player, and I could see the end of the pieces nearing but it did not make the silences feel any less intrusive or the entirety of the piece feel any less broken or interrupted.
I would listen to more of this. It definitely took hold of me. There are some very compelling elements to the piece. I would like to see it performed live; the jarring aspects would be tricky to convey in a live performance unless the curtain rose on a muted pianist already playing and s/he played straight through for an hour with ten seconds muted, every six minutes. Raises interesting questions about which elements are “compositional.” Does the score read “play agitated piano for 61 and a half minutes”? Is the piano piece perhaps 15 minutes and each variation is a six minute segment? Lots of questions, mostly ancillary, but they could provide a more informed context for listening. I will be looking into buying this piece and am interested in seeing if it has been performed by any other instrumentation, like cello.
Angela Sawyer represents a model of a specific kind of listener: one who has opinions and is not afraid to tell you every single one of them, usually in the most hilarious way possible. These listeners are engaged with a capital E. They read the liner notes, learn the history, understand the recording techniques, and just swim in the sound as if their lives depend on it. It’s unfathomable to this kind of listener that someone else could not be equally fascinated by all things music.
Angela chose Mauricio Kagel’s “Exotica”, and Sound American countered by asking her to also listen to Airto Moreira’s “Tombo 7/4.” She was to listen to both pieces and write about her experiences based on our series of questions.* Full disclosure: we may have been baiting her a little with Airto. Moreira’s late 70s uber-slick “world” fusion certainly isn’t aesthetically related to Kagel’s radical Darmstadt ideas, and “Tombo 7/4” is antithetical to “Exotica’s” concept of musicians coming to unfamiliar instruments with a certain naiveté and wonder.
No formal question and answer structure is going to be able to contain a listener or writer like Angela. We tinkered with trying to cram her responses into our preconceived format, but her thoughts lost some of their energy and primacy, as along with some of her story. Her relationship to music and listening is seemingly precarious after trying—to use her words —“to be more musician and less exhausted martyr.” She recently sold off a massive record collection and record store and yet, somehow, there remains a special, almost manic, energy in the passion she has for listening to music. To keep that feeling as pure as possible, we’ve decided to just let you read it as Angela intended.
Sound American's Piece: Tombo in 7/4 by Airto Moreira
"Tombo 7/4" is the last song on, and the big swishy zenith at the end of, Airto Moreira's album Fingers, released in 1973 on CTI. It's a little bit pretentious to tell people in the title of your song that it has an unusual time signature, especially as 7/4 is not all that unusual. (Pink Floyd's "Money" from the same year is also in it). However, Moreira has been an English speaker for less than five years, having learned it by watching Sesame Street after he moved from Sao Paulo to New York at age 27 with his new bride, Flora Purim. By this year, Moreira had risen from being unable to eat and crashing on couches, to playing in huge world-touring bands. This album is his back-to-roots, icing-on-the-cake solo project, with hometown heroes being flown into the Rudy Van Gelder studios in California.
I'll confess, [CTI Records producer and A&R manager] Creed Taylor is not one of my favorite people. Besides running CTI and foisting shitty fusion upon the earth, he is also famed for having founded the Impulse label and signing [John] Coltrane (only to leave them both after a year), plus figuring out how to sell both Chris Connor (late 50s, Bethlehem) and Kai Winding records (mid 60s, Verve). If Creed had a creed, ahem, it was to dump enough money on something that was already pretty white, so that white people could like it even better. One of the funnier quotes in jazz is about why Taylor wanted to start being a record producer: "Any solo that went on forever, I thought, was the wrong way to try to make people like the music I loved." How does that transform into hiring Billy Cobham's astral projections, exactly? Apparently, the man likes money way more than he hates solos.
I didn't recall a whole lot about Moreira before listening, although it was easy enough to guess that this would be Brazilian jizzfunk. From the track given though, I assumed for the first minute and a half that he was the keyboard player. Something felt off, so I quickly Googled and learned that Moreira played percussion on Bitches Brew, in Weather Report and in Return to Forever. No wonder I tried to forget who he is!
For beats dudes who like berimbau, it's funky enough. There's plenty of ARP [synthesizer] here, and the main line is synthesized vocals/electric guitar/electric piano all blended together. You could pick a ten second chunk of this song (try one at the end, I'd say), and pass it off as Japanese prog [rock] if you had to.
The tempo is rushed and show-offy, however, as though the musicians want you to know that they can play this fast without messing up.
Way, way too many notes.
Way too many.
Yeah, way too many notes.
And I did I mention there's too many notes?
It's annoying, when there's so many, too many.
Way too many.
The organ part is especially slick, totally ready for professional radio, and that'll be the kicker whether you like this song or hate it. I will say, all of these nitpicks sit a little easier if they've been preceded by the rest of the album, which is more contemplative. And hey, it's hard to lead a record when you're a drummer. Even Andrew Cyrille had trouble with that from time to time.
Ultimately, the thing that sticks out about Fingers is lots of then-ten-year-old nods to Sergio Mendes and Quarteto Em Cy in the backup vocals. In general it's a 1970s version of a very 1960s approach to bossa. La Familia Sagrada could have sounded just like this. And looking at the credits, I can see where those pop sensibilities and sweet sun-dappled harmonies come from. The mighty Fattoruso brothers, who just a few scant years before dropped albums that could make statues weep. They're nowhere near their best here, but the Shakers are simply great. Just thinking the names Hugo and Osvaldo brings a waterfall of gorgeous vocals crashing into my head—from "Never Never" to the cough at the beginning of "I Hope You'll Like It," and on and on and on. They're one of those bands where every single song makes you think no song could possibly top the one you're hearing. And then the next one does! Before you know it you're walking around for three days singing "Bring me everyting on thees cart! Superespensive I don't keh-air!"
If there's a single common denominator to underground music, it's eschewing the sound of anything over-memorized. In a lot of contexts, that means the Beatles. So although judgy record nerds can always hear what's going well, which tricks are getting used and so on, there are a bunch of them (me included) who could never really figure out what people like so much about the Beatles. The Shakers let me get some of the joy everybody else was already getting. In fact they're so great that they've helped lots of record collectors come around to liking the Beatles themselves! But let's hop off before we get all the way to crazytown, huh?
Flora Purim [Moreira's wife and vocalist] would be arrested for coke the next year. She served time for a year and a half, and put together a fair number of high profile concerts from inside the can. Moreira and Purim would then go on to be on some Mickey Hart albums together, which seems like an ugly thing for anybody to have to endure after jail.
Before I go and disparage any more musicians, let's back up. I'm supposed to be telling you how I listen. I'll start with the tech.
I have a desktop PC and a laptop PC attached to a Shure SM57 [microphone] by way of a digital preamp, a midi controller, and so on. All of it goes into an 80s Sony stereo preamp, and then out to Cambridge Soundworks speakers. The speakers are the best part of the setup. Nothing an audiophile would be proud of, but clean, close, and not too mid-rangey. I've been listening to almost everything through them for roughly 15 years. They are behind me as I face my computer, and if I need to focus especially, I turn my chair around. If I need to hear the stereo separation better, I roll the chair closer.
Less than six months ago I sold off the last of a 25,000 piece record collection I'd been putting together my entire adult life. This time last year, I had eight turntables, which means I could have had two turntables in every room and still put four more in the bathroom. I owned a record shop, and I closed it, selling off an additional 20k titles that belonged to the shop proper. So when I talk about music these days, I sound like the farmer who just burned his fields, or a recently divorced dad. I'm putting my understanding of the whole kaboodle back together again, trying to figure out how to be more musician and less exhausted martyr. There might well be more records and turntables and so on in the future, and that's fine, but right now I have no turntable at all. People I bump into around town are asking me what I'm doing instead of how I'm doing. The number of people asking me to DJ has suddenly doubled. I love watching their eyes go big when I tell them all I don't have any records, and I also don't have any plans.
Between April of 2006 and April of 2015, I wrote over 10,000 record reviews. Some of them were short, some long, and lots of them were about records I like, but only rarely did I get to choose which record was under review. One of the reasons I decided to close the record shop was because my functional listening muscles (the kind you need to write record reviews) were starting to overpower the rest of my listening muscles. It's in this context that I was asked to pick a piece to write about (Exotica, below), and to receive a piece to write about (Fingers, above). Nobody wants to be the bodybuilder who forgot about leg day.
Your Piece: Exotica by Mauricio Kagel
And now to [Mauricio] Kagel's “Exotica”. This is the one. The one with the bonzo balls. Petulant. How many different kinds of sounds are on this record—a thousand? I've tried imitating its echo, its nonchalance, its bellybutton-lint gaze; even the cover photo is insane: strikingly awful, then great, then awful again, then even greater. I go back and forth on whether this one or Acoustica is better, but this one is so defiantly stupid!
“Exotica” is packed tightly, but played loosely. It's full of grunts, bedraggled percussion, weird imperfect singing that wants to sound like something, but nobody's sure what. There are yells, heavy breathing, plonks, fake Noh opera, fake Italian opera. Sometimes Vinko Globokar just shows up and makes Big Bird farts by way of his trombone.
Mauricio Kagel's music in general is all about finding the freak within you, but this piece is a specific, self-conscious study in painting on otherface. Yeah, that's a little scary. But there's a reason why the original cover is a picture of Kagel in a mask. The piece was commissioned in 1972 for the Munich Olympics, an event which began as a celebration of global melting-potitude and is subsequently best known for a Palestinian terrorist attack. A program note in the score even asks the performers to "go back to the primeval origins of music making," you know, like savages. Kagel hasn't written a piece that provokes questions about ethnicity so much as he's written a snake fight between five Quentin Tarantino movies.
The score asks performers to play up to 200 instruments unknown to Western classical orchestras. No performer would have the resources to gain that kind of expertise and is therefore forced to face each instrument head-on as a sound-making device. Go ahead, Exotica says, dive headlong into folk traditions thousands of years old in languages you don't speak. Take on three or four at once. Can you allow yourself to celebrate something you don't know that much about? Performers are told exactly when to play, but they're not allowed to know how. Their approaches to these instruments will surely be bolstered by vague memories of field recordings from various countries lying around in their heads. Those memories are probably going to get mixed together. Does this mean Kagel is appropriating someone else's culture, or not? Does Kagel think that this is how expert indigenous musicians approach Western music, or does he think that's what we think? Is borrowing and rewriting over memories any way to make new music in the first place? Can anything even be said if all everyone's doing is quoting each other?
But instead of being rendered futile, “Exotica’s” players sound liberated. They're having such a fucking blast. The piece doesn't even make sense unless you think that every player, everywhere and at every time, approaches music from a level field. It is a music where there's no such thing as outside (philosophy dudes take note, Edmund Husserl would love that JC Penney slogan, “'It's all inside!”). Kagel makes both hypocrisy and authenticity impossible, because he's forcing performers to use nothing but imagination, and it highlights how we're all already faking. And yep, Kagel actually wrote the piece to deal with these issues on purpose. I give you his opinion of the banjo as an example:
Of course, I love it. The banjo is a perfect example of hybridization: a plucked snare drum with steel strings tuned like a violin! I could imagine it being included in Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools or his Garden of Earthly Delights.
Instead of a Tower of Babel, having a meaningful conversation. Instead of fearing what's different, seeking the bizarre that is already in the ordinary.
In fact the piece goes even further. It assumes that music overall is not a progression that constantly gets better and better. Folk music in different languages is much more a part of everyone's general background than it was in the early 70s. There were no world music sections in record stores until the late 1980s. These days you could take a couple hours and look up examples of people playing all of “Exotica’s” instruments on YouTube. Yet if the piece were merely a polemic, merely an argument over racism, it would have to be worse now than it was when it was first performed and should, someday, become too dated to be enjoyed at all. Because who here is being exotic exactly? Is it the composer, the performers, the instruments themselves, the listeners? Who is being made fun of? Imagine sitting down and playing Kagel for your grandmother or your mailman. They would be instantly annoyed, maybe even angry. Now imagine a listener who would be totally pleased with something so avant-garde, yet specifically offended by Kagel's irreverence toward some locale's folk tradition. Your grandmother might not have an ear for the stuff, but at least her reaction is a direct assessment of sounds. The politically correct listener is someone who has set up rules for listening in advance, someone who has already decided what's right and left, what's right and wrong, and literally cannot hear the piece without prejudging it. In contemporary English, that's what's known as a douchebag.
The listener enacts their description. It becomes their purpose, but the expression of that action becomes a way of defining. Audra Wolowiec is a deconstructive listener. Her experience of the music is concretized through fragments of poetic language that sometimes relate and, at other points, run in parallel lines. A linear narrative or descriptive statement is not the essence of how the deconstructive listener releases a subjective reading of sound. Instead, bits of text, cultural cues, religious tradition, and sexuality “spider out,” as poet Ben Lerner says, seeking new personal connections within the audience’s own very subjective reading.
Audra is an artist working with words and an artist working with sound—not always in tandem. She chose a legendary work of sound and words, Private Parts by Robert Ashley. Inasmuch as Ashley radically changed the form and content of American opera, Audra fills our experiment’s questions with other questions, filaments of experience, whispered confessions, and poesy. Sound American provided a work that counterbalances Ashley’s postmodern electric calm with Kenneth Gaburo’s techno-pornographic deconstruction of the word screw.
Barthes, linguistics, the sea, breathing meditation, blushing mishearings, and procrastination. Her answers invite time and space to denude their connection to our own histories and connections to the music. In the end, the music becomes an anchor—albeit an ineffective one—which centers our own deconstruction of the text.
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.
In a state that settles in whenever a deadline is near, like some perverse sport of banality masked in endurance, on a short vacation at my parent's’ home near Detroit, I poured myself a drink and attempted to hit play. To procrastinate, an inaction, a verb in drag, from procrastinare, “to put off until tomorrow; defer, delay.” One week passes. It’s late evening. I’m sitting at a large table in my studio, near a window overlooking Manhattan. The air surrounds in pale blue gray. Edges become soft. Twilight—between two phases—when time becomes palpable. Headphones on. I listen.
Is the way that you are going to listen now what you would consider ideal? If so, why? If not, why not?
When sound takes hold of you. When you are held by sound. Whether from the window of a car, on a subway platform, or resting comfortably in your chair, the ideal condition is without place. It defies geometry. It’s just that way.
Your Piece: Private Parts by Robert Ashley
What is your history with this piece? Do you have a good, difficult, or indifferent relationship with the music?
Why me? he asks. Because I love you, I respond. When attempting to grasp for some state that just is, all language becomes lost. Against and in spite of everything, the subject affirms love as value, states Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse.
Was there something specific you were expecting to gain from listening to this piece? (New information, nostalgia, etc.) Were you satisfied?
I love this piece. I’ve listened to it on repeat. The particular cadence of Robert Ashley’s voice against the raga drum and organ overlay. Every object touched by the loved being’s body becomes part of that body, and the subject eagerly attaches himself to it, continues Barthes. Could this also explain what happens with sound? The way sound washes through our marrow, inhabits our lungs, affects our corporeal rhythm. Sound is touch at a distance, writes Anne Fernald. It’s how we reach each other.
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?
My mind turns to my breath, one. My mind watches my breath, two. My mind turns and watches my breath, three. My mind turns and faces my breath, four. My mind faces my breath, five. My mind studies my breath, six. My mind sees every aspect of the beauty of my breath, seven. My mind watches my breath soothing itself, eight. My mind sees every part of my breath, nine. My breath is not indifferent to itself, ten.
Did you gain something unexpected during this listening? If so, what?
The margin is always wide enough.
Sound American’s Piece: Maledetto by Kenneth Gaburo
Do you have any history with this piece? After listening to your piece, did you find this piece pleasurable, interesting, abhorrent, unlistenable?
A new work, to fall on fresh ears. Aqueous. The sea. A circling. Steam venting. Hissing. A shushing. An instruction manual. A learning? An irritant. From left to right, a seesaw listening. A distracted understanding. Where “s” and “t” and “p” create a chorus of plosives. The cadence of anxiety. A theater of distraction. The soundtrack of a straining. Displaced particles. A screw. Driver. Splitter. A longing? A wanting? Plosives thread to sibilant. A looping. You come. Meaning what? To what end?
Did you have any expectations based on prior knowledge of the artist or piece? If so, what were they? Were they satisfied?
Fragments that refuse a whole. Gold channels. A language of cracks. Ruptures. Correction fluid was invented by a woman. Fragments as fragments. Breathe in. Expire. Breathe in. Expire. On repeat.
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?
1 and 10. Listening to this work reminded me of riding in the car as a child. My sister and I would attempt to ignore each other through extreme acts of passive irritation. Seeing her finger peripherally hovering near my face, at the precipice of touch, attempting to actively unsee each other’s efforts, we were carried to our destination, relishing in acts of highly attentive disregard.
Did you gain something from this listening? Would you listen to more work like this if you don’t already?
To mount a metal rod of desire. Mishearing becomes meaning. Must rewind to assign quotation. Slip, tick, giggle.
After you’re done:
Musical choices aside, how do you feel having set aside a chunk of time to just sit and listen?
Listening should be given the same amount of time and attention as reading a good book.
Based on Sound American’s choice for you, what would you send us to listen to in return?
En Plein Champ by Jocelyn Robert from the CD insert from the book Writing Aloud: The Sonics of Language. It begins with her breath. A series of hesitations. She speaks in French. I understand in fragments but hold on to each utterance. Her breath pervades her speech. It envelops. I find myself both in and out of the work, connected by the grain of her voice, held in the thick absence of language.