Let us change the way we listen
Nikos Kazantzakis suggested that "Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality". Much energy is being expended by the classical music industry on trying to change the unchangeable reality of shifting demographics, harsh economic conditions, new technologies and new lifestyles. So, since we cannot change these realities let us change the ears that hear reality.
My recent listening to both live and recorded music has been enriched by exploring and applying the practice of non-duality. At this point let's deal with the dead moose in the middle of the room. Some, or probably many, will dismiss this thread as more Overgrown Path hippie babble. Which is, of course, their prerogative. But I would respond by suggesting that as classical music has been led so far astray in recent years by marketing babble, a little babble of a different kind can do no harm. Less facetiously, I would also point out that the practices briefly and inadequately summarised here have produced tangible results for me, and that the contemporary developments in non-duality are rooted in respected and long-established wisdom traditions.
There is clear evidence of how dualist thinking and the pitfalls that come with it can confuse and distort classical music. Universal Music boss Max Hole attends a Festival Hall concert. His dualist mindset and the preconceptions that come with it prompt him to construct a narrative that slams "lighting... like the accident and emergency unit of a hospital" and laments how "the conductor had his back to you". Read his account on the Classic FM website for yourself and note that there is not a single mention of the music played or how he responded to it. And there is no recognition of the possibility that if the hospital lighting was swapped for disco effects a different group of listeners would feel alienated. Max Hole's heavy burden of preconceptions forces him to write the music - the raison d'être for the concert - out of his narrative. However, a non-dual practice would teach him to accept - without judgement - that the lighting at the Festival Hall 'is', the conductor's back 'is', and, above all the music, 'is'. Which would lead him to beneficially share his positive musical experience instead of dissing the difficult to change and largely irrelevant conventions attached to it.
Max Hole and the other self-appointed saviours of classical music are easy targets. But, in fact, all of us, including musicians, media companies and journalists - yes On An Overgrown Path pleads guilty - have become hardwired to force everything into a reassuring narrative that confirms our personal prejudices and preconceptions. New technologies have encouraged this; with the replacement of inclusive broadcast terrestrial media by highly selective narrow-cast online media encouraging dualist decisions of like/dislike, follow/unfollow, rather than delivering the digital promise of infinite choice.
My guide when exploring non-dualist thinking has been a technique called, by auspicious coincidence, the 'Open Path' developed by Elias Amidon. This technique aims to deconstruct prejudices and preconceptions allowing a totally neutral awareness to remain. It is rooted in Buddhism, and the process of arriving at neutral awareness is described very eloquently by the nineteenth-century Tibetan teacher Shabkar Lama:
Looking for it, the vision cannot be seen: cease your search. It cannot be discovered through meditiation., so abandon your trance states and mental images. It cannot be accomplished by anything you do, so give up the attempt to treat the world as magical illusion. It cannot be found by seeking, so abandon all hope of results.The take-home line is 'abandon all hope of results'. At the root of almost every problem currently facing classical music is an obsession with results. Empirically measured outcomes - audience numbers, sponsorship income, number of social media 'followers', 'friends' and 'likes', and the results of competitions - dominate every agenda. Would the recent Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow have generated any media attention at all if the same finalists had simply performed without a jury deciding a winner and losers? Of course there would have been virtually no media coverage, and the reason why tells us a lot about our current obsession with duality. The reality of the merit of each performances would have been exactly the same, but the removal of the winner/loser dualism would dramatically change the importance - the perceived reality - placed on them. Which is just one example of how the dualism imposed by results distorts reality.
As mentioned earlier, contemporary non-sectarian approaches to non-dual awareness are informed by enduring wisdom traditions; in particular the waḥdat al-wujūd - oneness of being - of the twelfth-century Andalusian Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi, and by the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā - emptiness. In his book The Open Path Elias Amidon advocates constantly challenging our preconceptions by asking 'Is this the view of mine part of a larger story that I keep telling myself?' In music this approach applies not only to the peripheral conventions that surround performances, but also to the music itself. My recent listening has ranged from Vagn Holmboe to Kelly Thoma, and using the non-dual approach I have just let this music be like a river that I swim in, and return to once in a while when I feel like taking a dip; all with no expectation of results.
Being aware of the importance of avoiding the dualisms of like/dislike, masterpiece/minorpiece, classical/non-classical, dumbed down/dumbed up has changed the way I listen to music, and, most importantly, has opened my ears to new discoveries. Which is exactly what classical music with all its marketing babble has been trying to do with such a singular lack of success. So if we cannot change the realities, let's change the ears that hear reality. Or as a poster in the 1970s for the Ibn 'Arabi inspired Beshara movement put it: "You may not be able to change the world, but can you change yourself?" .
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In fact, is the business of music not an illustration of a very general human behaviour?
Thank you for this inspiring post