How listening hard alters the music

The guy who writes the music-themed blog On An Overgrown Path is a bit of an obsessive, but I like that. The entry for 14 August happily happens to chime with a number of my own obsessions. Listening to music, and I mean listening hard, alters the music, and preparing to listen makes it twice as strange. And wonderful.
That post by Brian Connor on his blog From a far place appealed to me, because not only does it sum up nicely what I have been saying On An Overgrown Path over the last ten years, but it also hints at the huge untapped potential of the lost art of listening. My own recent listening - and I mean listening hard - has included Bridgettine Chant from Vox Silentii. Birgitta Birgersdotter (1303-1373) of Sweden was a visionary and founder of the Bridgettine monastic order of contemplative nuns: she was canonized in 1391 and declared Patron Saint of Europe in 1999. Sung by the by the Finnish all-female medieval music specialists Vox Silentii, these recordings are not new; but the glories of Bridgettine Chant have been a recent and extremely rewarding feminine-centric discovery for me that I want to share with readers. My recent reading has included Deep Listeners by Judith Becker, published by the Indiana University Press. In her book Ms Becker develops with more academic authority and rigour than I can offer, themes that preoccupy (obsess?) me On An Overgrown Path. Her thesis is that people who experience deep emotions when listening to music have entered the same realm as those who trance during religious rituals (the book comes with a CD of music illustrations), and listening hard to Bridgettine Chant provides confirmation of this thesis.

By an auspicious coincidence, Deep Listening contains a photograph of the Chisti Sufi order ritual at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi that featured here recently. In the late 11th century the troubador movement originated in Occitania and spread through Europe influencing the development of Western art music, and it is now acknowledged that the benign Islamic culture of Al-Andalus played a significant role in the evolution of the troubadors. In his Oxford Addresses on Poetry Robert Graves explains how:

The troubadours' real debt was to Sufism...By the twelfth century, Morisco lutanists clad in motley and with bells on their ankles, had gone through all Provence singing love-ditties based on the Persian; from these the troubadours it seems, learned their code of behaviour.
Exploring trans-cultural links is not an explicit theme in the newly released Trobar & Jonglar (jongleurs were instrumentalists) from French early music ensemble Alla francesca; however listening, and I mean listening hard, to their CD reveals the syncretic nature of the influential music of the troubadors and jongleurs, with its trance-like echoes of the Sufi rituals of mystical Islam. (Developing this trans-cultural theme, in her essay The Commanding Self Doris Lessing repeats the assertion that Ravel's Bolero - one of the most popular classical works of all-time - is based on a Sufi chant).

Both the Bridgettine Chant and Trobar & Jonglar CDs were recorded in sacred spaces with the producers giving the sound of the performers a lot of space to breathe. When auditioned through the speakers of my high-end system both recordings reproduced in startlingly lifelike sound. This provided a welcome contrast to the up front and close but ultimately fatiguing sound of headphones that was my only option during recent extensive travels. It is a fact that very few producers mix for speakers these days, but old fashioned speakers do make for less tiring and more authentic listening. But speakers or headphones, as Brian Connor tells us, listening hard, alters the music, and makes it twice as wonderful. It's fashionably free and accessible; so could educating audiences to listen hard solve classical music's current problems?

No review samples were used in this post. My thanks, as ever, go to independent specialist retailer Prelude Records for setting me on this path. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Unknown said…
Completely agree. I've been reading Kyle Gann's book about Nancarrow, after I few chapters I decided to listen to the composer's music since about 5 years.

Voices were heard naturally and not only bunches of lonly notes. The Arch Records recording available on spotify was also recorded in Nancarrow's studio here in Mexico City, wich was a kind of sacred space, or monastique workshop, where the composer in exile (silence and meditative experience perhaps) did all his creative work.

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