Guest Post! Some Thoughts on Ways of Listening

Hi everyone! My name is Jesse Diener-Bennett. I am not Anne Dearth. But, like Anne, I am a musician working in the New York new music scene. Anne invited me to write a guest blog post, and who am I to say no to such an amazing, talented, beautiful performer?

(Full disclosure: I am also Anne’s boyfriend.)

Recently I’ve been thinking about the way in which we listen to music. Anne and I work at a bakery part-time, and there is always music on in the background (Sam Cooke, Sufjan Stevens, Debussy, Echo and the Bunnymen, Elton John, depending on who’s working). Partially because of the speaker setup, and partially because I’m busy serving customers, I never fully listen to any of it. I catch certain lines, recognize certain hooks, and – being the composer that I am – take note of interesting chord changes.

I think that this is how a lot of us, myself included, interact the most with the music we hear; this state of semi-listening that catches only the loudest, most familiar aspects of music.

Don’t get me wrong: I like that there’s music out there to do work to, cook to, or surf the internet to. Just as I like that there’s music to dance to, and music that fits into the background of movies, TV shows, and commercials. The harm comes when this constant state of half-listening becomes the only way of listening that we know how to do.

When this happens, music that is made for no other purpose than to be listened to, music that cannot be processed quickly in the first playing, that takes your ears a moment to adapt to, this type of music becomes inaudible. And it is just this type of music that, in my experience, can utterly change you as a human being, can be as emotionally wrecking as Othello, as intellectually stimulating as Gravity’s Rainbow, and as exultant as Leaves of Grass. 

Our music won’t ask more of us until we ask more of it. We have to learn other ways of listening. We have to learn to just listen.

Next time you listen to a piece of music you’ve never heard before, try just sitting and listening to it. Maybe close your eyes or turn off the lights, if that helps you concentrate on it. Then, when it’s done, listen to it again! Try listening to different aspects of it, or to the same aspects more closely the second time. If there are words, spend one listen just figuring out what the lyrics mean. If it’s an orchestra piece, spend one listen just listening to the winds, strings, or brass.

Here’s a short (partial!) list of music that I’ve gotten the most out of listening to this way. You’d be surprised at the diversity of music you can experience more deeply this way. It’s not just classical stuff.

My Bloody Valentine, Come in Alone 

Luigi Nono, Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima 

Salvatore Sciarrino, Violin Caprices (This video is Caprice No.2)

Glass Ghost, Like a Diamond

Pauline Oliveros, Crone Music

Iron & Wine, Passing Afternoon

Morton Feldman, Coptic Light

Peter Evans