14 May 2011

A Listening Heresy

A non-musician music-lover I know blurted out the other day that his experiences with live music have been uniformly awful and his experiences listening at home to recorded music much more consistently enjoyable. I suppose that as the resident "professional" musician in his social circle it was my duty at that point to go to the mat for live music, but I couldn't, and I can't. In fact, I might even in a moment of weakness utter something very similar to what he did given the opportunity.

My curmudgeonly hang-ups about acoustics and milieu will be all too familiar to regular readers, so I won't rehash them at length. To the contrary, the purpose this time around is to emphasize that the more general reason I could not in good faith take the opposing viewpoint in the discussion with my friend is because I myself am able to enjoy only a very small percentage of the music I hear in person, and that even in light of the less-than-ideal acoustical and social settings which frequently detract from said performances, this is more often than not simply because I do not enjoy the music itself, and would not enjoy it even when heard in more ideal environments. All of this is in spite of my attendance at only a small fraction of the already small number of concerts I expect, for one reason or another, to enjoy (few enough, in fact, to engender some measure of disdain on the part of a few colleagues). Were I too cave to professional obligation more often, I'd likely be even more unhappy.

There are a few different reasons why I'm tough to please, and some of them vary with the type of music or concert in question. The paradigm in classical programming tending toward a certain perfunctory breadth in style, medium and time period, it is essentially impossible for me to look forward to each piece on virtually any given program (I suspect I am hardly alone, though mine likely is the inverse of the prevailing taste among orchestra and chamber crowds). This is less of a concern in the jazz area, where sets tend to be a bit more stylistically specialized, if not in the choice of material, then certainly in the band's interpretation of it. Here, rather, it is the indispensable spontaneity of the music which is both an asset and a liability, as of course it must be; it is both a blessing and a curse that one knows less what to expect from a jazz performance than most classical ones.

Different as these considerations are, the results (i.e. my "success rate" in enjoying the music enough to feel that the expenditure of time and, usually, money was justified) are about the same, and this, I imagine you're thinking, should be a bit more troubling than I obviously find it. I'm certainly not all that troubled by it as an indication of something that might be wrong with me because it was not always this way. As a teen, when I'd barely scratched the surface of the live or recorded music available to me, I enjoyed most anything I went to; as my background grew richer, my experience more plentiful, and my perception more acute, negative reactions became more common. That they would eventually come to be the majority is, I suppose, cause for concern, whether more for me or for the scene I inhabit. Given the causes, though, it's difficult to see the situation reversing, or even standing pat. For a practitioner, refinement (especially of perception) is a necessity for artistic growth, and I continue to work at it in many areas of musical endeavor. No one should really be surprised at the consequences for one's listening habits. (If you are, you must be an arts administrator, and so I'll restate for possibly the five-thousandth time in this space that I think this dynamic greatly problematizes much music outreach which treats greater technical and perceptual sophistication as the Rosetta Stone of audience development.)

Nor would I necessarily say that I enjoy "as music" a greater percentage of the recorded music I listen to, but because I can readily repeat the experience with the good stuff, I am indeed happy more of the time. And of course, obtaining this music is cheaper and easier than traveling to a venue, the disc does not look at me sideways if I decline to order a drink (or order just one), and the experience can be aborted without offense taken or social awkwardness ensuing should its artistic futility be so immediately and conclusively apparent. Surprised to read this coming from a musician? I don't know why you would be. We're not that different from everyone else, including in that our public statements are often made purely out of fear of contradicting the company line. Most musicians would tell you that their very most powerful and lasting listening experiences were live ones, a sentiment which I would echo wholeheartedly. I think very few of us might continue on to express how exceedingly rare these experiences have been for us because we fear that doing so might expose our life's work (for most in my circles, it's live performing, not recording) as an exercise in futility. In the case of this conversation, I was not in a position to simply stop talking, but rather was confronted baldly with the assertion, and hence could not honestly disagree. To the extent I'm of a mind to change such opinions (including my own) at all, I'm far more inspired to invest in the consummation of my own live musical products (in which I am the primary variable) than I am to take time away from those endeavors to attend more of other people's gigs (the quality of which I have no control over whatsoever, and the quantity of which makes it impossible for me to make everyone happy).

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