Lessons in listening

June 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 Cage’s Variations II from the recent Editions RZ compilation of Tudor’s playing, and a Borodin Quartet rendition of Shostakovich’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 don’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 Keith’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.

Keith’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 focus… 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 I’ve realised I had barely scratched the surface of it before.

Here’s to learning to listen…

Comments (8)

  • oger

    June 14, 2007 at 12:32 am

    Hi Richard,

    Your reports are very great. I like to read them.

    I remember (maybe it was in 1976) I attended a workshop by Steve Lacy.
    It was a different music of course, And all the musicians in the group played thousands notes! Steve tried to explain them to concentrate only on one single note (maybe he didn’t say ‘sound’, I can’t remember). And very few musicians could do that !


  • Richard Pinnell

    June 14, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Hey thanks Jacques, I’m continually amazed at the people that read the drivel I write here, much appreciated.

    One of the most interesting things that I took fropm Keith’s workshop was that it really didn’t matter what type or style of music was involved, the practice of staying focussed was just as applicable, the audio examples he played illustrated that nicely. So I’m not at all surprised to hear others have spoken in a similar manner in workshops before…

    I was five in 1976! 😉

  • oger

    June 15, 2007 at 12:27 am

    “Hey thanks Jacques, I’m continually amazed at the people that read the drivel I write here”

    Oh! it’s not me. It’s this tab in Firefox, opening automatically your blog…

    “drivel” : I learn a new word today.
    Maybe it’s an insightful statement :-)


  • _duif

    June 15, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    enjoyed this a lot too, Richard, as well as the more recent post about Shostakovich. have had vague plans to get those string qts for years, but was put off by conflicting reviews of various performances. but now maybe I can just rely on Mr Rowe’s authority and look up this version as well :)
    you often hear about the 3 great string quartet cycles of the 20th century, Bartók – Shostakovich – Carter. are you familiar with those other 2? I’m not, myself. do like what I heard by Schnittke, maybe check those out as well if you haven’t yet.

  • Joseph

    June 18, 2007 at 7:46 am

    Good post, Richard, really.

  • Richard Pinnell

    June 18, 2007 at 9:06 am

    Hey thanks Joe, your opinion matters a lot actually.

  • the improvising guitarist

    June 19, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    …There is nothing I can do as a listener to make the music any better, to have it performed with a greater level of focus….

    Thinking about my recent recording experience, I wonder if you’re downplaying the audience’s agency in all of this. From a performer’s standpoint, an audience can do quite a bit (and, in an odd kinda way, maybe listeners of recordings can too).

    S, tig

  • Richard Pinnell

    June 19, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks for linking to that S, tig. Clearly though there is a fundemental difference between listening to a concert in a live situation and listening to a CD, and it was the CD situation I meant when I made that comment.

    I would imagine that most musicians would play differentlt, or perhaps in a more focussed manner if they knew they were being recorded for a CD release, but that process is done with by the time the disc reaches me. I was just talking about my response to a finished CD release, I can’t affect that any more, but I can make sure that I extract everything possible from it by giving it due care and attention.

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