Notes from the underground

Hello again! I say “again” for the benefit of those readers who have happened upon this column before. To new readers, let me warn you that this is not a column for those with a weak constitution, a closed mind or a thing for Dolph Lundgren movies. It’s a space for me to give my hardly humble opinions of a variety of music found in Sawyer basement, as well as for me to vent my emotions and embarrass myself.

This week, I’ve decided not to start off with a review, as is the norm in these parts, but rather to engage in a bit of thought about the concept of listening. Attentive readers with long memories will recall a two-part series with the same topic that I wrote last Winter Study and which was treated with the same level of weekly anticipation that an educated audience might give to programming on the WB network. This week’s column will have some of the same themes as those carried in those installments of yesteryear, but I also have some new insights that I’d like to share with you all.

In the English language, we have very few words that refer to an absence – most words signify the presence of something, whether it be an object, a sensation, an emotion or a state of being. I asked a friend of mine the other day whether he thought that, if it were more frequently windy than not, there would be a word for the absence of wind. I think he mentioned something about ‘poststructuralism’ and then, as you can imagine, things got pretty ugly.

The reason I mention this is that the word ‘silence’ is one of the few words in our vocabulary that does refer to an absence, in this case the absence of sound. I don’t think we know, or can know, what that word really means. It’s a theoretical concept, like infinity or a true circle or non-stick cookware.

There’s always some noise in our minds, even if it’s just the mild sound of air and blood flowing through our cavernous bodies.

The implication here is that we’re always hearing something, usually in a very passive manner. It’s helpful to be able to hear things; it’s how we are warned of danger and learn about certain changes in our environment, as well as being the main method of communication for most of us.

Of course, we also hear music – controlled, organized sound – and that is, not surprisingly, where I’m going with all of this. The real question, though, is how often you go beyond merely hearing the music that surrounds us so frequently and actually begin the process of listening. Think back to adolescence for an extended analogy: your mother might have nagged you for having forgotten to pick up the groceries on the way home. “How do you expect to go to a selective liberal arts college in the Northeast if you can’t even remember to buy your only family a loaf of bread and a stick of butter? But don’t worry about me – I’m only your mother.” There’s no way you were listening to her at that point. You heard her, but you certainly didn’t listen. And why should you? There was nothing new in her message, nothing interesting or mildly useful. You had already paid off Peter Murphy and so your passage to Williams was secure. There was no need to listen to what she had to say.

Now consider this statement by your very same mother: “Your father and I have decided to move to Guam.” While you may not have been listening to her before she delivered that blow, you certainly are paying attention now. (I should note that while there may be some students out there for whom parental relocation to Guam is no big deal, for the purposes of this article I’d appreciate it if you’d pretend that it is. Thanks.) Whatever she says after that statement will be absorbed, considered, analyzed, and questioned in such a way that her nagging never was or could be. When you’re listening to her, you assume that she has something to say that’s worth hearing, and you will give her your complete attention until you’re convinced one way or the other. In the course of her explanation, she may say things that cause you to become less convinced that she’s serious, or she may explain her decision in a long and tiresome manner. Either of these might result in you tuning out and reverting back to merely hearing what she’s saying, as opposed to listening.

So what’s the answer? Simple: music is your mother. There’s so much of it around that you can’t afford to pay close attention to every bit you hear, just like you learn that it’s not worth your time to always listen to your mom. But sometimes you hear something that seems so interesting and which engages you so completely that you feel you must give it your complete, undivided attention. That’s what we call good listening. You assume that a piece of music has the power to tell you something or to take you somewhere or to illuminate some aspect of your life in some way, and working with that assumption you give yourself over to that music. Sometimes the music fails you – like your mother, it rambles, bores or fails to deliver a message with any real force. But at least you gave it a try and there’s value in listening attentively to bad music some of the time.

My hope is that some readers will consider what I’ve said and listen carefully to whatever it is they choose, whether it be Beethoven or Bela Fleck or Bossa Nova or Biggie Smalls. Sometimes you’ll find that something you love to have on in the background is completely uninteresting when you devote all of your energy to it.

Sometimes you’ll discover that your least favorite song on an album or movement in a Symphony is actually the most powerful once you’ve given them all a good, hard listen. Let me know what you find, and if I’m wrong, feel free to give me noogies. Next week I think I’ll go back to the CDs. See you on the other side.