Lessons in listeningJune 13, 2007
Possibly the most inspirational part of my trip to Aberdeen was the opportunity to sit in on a small workshop on improvisation that Keith Rowe gave for a small group of (mainly quite young) musicians. At the risk of paraphrasing his words, the main thrust of what Keith tried to get across to the group centred around his wish for them to achieve a focussed state of individual concentration, an understanding of the space they were sat in, the situation at hand.
Although somewhat abstract, I think I understood where Keith was coming from, although it is hard to put these thoughts into words. In the workshop Keith played the group a few pieces of music to try and illustrate what he meant. He played the wonderful 1967 recording of David Tudor performing Cageâ€™s Variations II from the recent Editions RZ compilation of Tudorâ€™s playing, and a Borodin Quartet rendition of Shostakovichâ€™s 15th String Quartet as examples of musicians performing whilst in this frame of mind, totally involved in the music. Both of these examples sounded amazing broadcast into the room, powerful, passionate works.
He then also selected two different renditions of the same piece of Elizabethan choral music by different performers that I donâ€™t remember the name of. One of the pieces was flat, dull, and completely lifeless when compared to the other version that seethed with energy and vitality, a far more consuming recording despite the same music being played.
As I sat listening to all of this Keith seemed to sum up for me what it is about music that I enjoy, that spark of life, the acute tension that can be felt in the room when the very best music is being played. At intervals throughout the workshop he got the group to try things for themselves, often asking them to think hard and only make one initial sound, perhaps one they had never made before to bring them alive in the room, and only to continue playing if that tension and focussed thought could be maintained.
Every time the group started quite well but somehow within a very short period of time fell into a generic uninteresting form of call and response improv lead by one or two of the dominant voices amongst them. Watching Keithâ€™s face as the group played each time I found myself predicting the points at which he would grimace as the group fell onto these well trodden paths.
Keithâ€™s talk was obviously geared entirely towards the musicians, yet when I lay in bed much later that evening the lessons still resonated with me, and I spent some time wondering how I could learn from this to listen better, to enjoy music more. Essentially, there is nothing I can do as a listener to make the music any better, to have it performed with a greater level of focusâ€¦ but I can certainly ensure that I miss nothing by ensuring my attention is directed correctly, that I try and find the level of concentration I managed sat in the workshop on Monday. Tonight I played that Tudor disc twice and Iâ€™ve realised I had barely scratched the surface of it before.
Hereâ€™s to learning to listenâ€¦