What Do You Hear?3 minute read

My wife and I were fortunate this past month to hear a program of Spanish and Latin American piano music, with commentary, offered as part of Jeffrey Siegel’s Keyboard Conversations series. The music of Isaac Albéniz has been a particular favorite of mine for decades. It’s rhythmic and lyrical, and smooths the rough psychic terrain in which I tread. As much as I love it, and as much as I treasure recordings by Alicia de Larrocha and others, I do not often have the opportunity to hear Albéniz and Granados played live in concert. The tickets represented no small expense, especially if one lives on a frayed shoestring in West Utica, New York, but we went.

Siegel is more of an ambassador of concert music than a virtuoso, and as such he is engaging and companionable. His commentary, geared to a lay audience, is more than half the presentation. Nonetheless, it was thrilling to hear music in performance that I’d listened to only through loudspeakers, and most often half-attentively, at that. The late Albéniz piece Navarra finally registered as a coherent, joyous whole in my musical comprehension. It is too easy not to pay attention to recorded music, more so when it is used as background for conversation or other activities. The concert experience forces one to focus in direct communion with the performer.

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I wonder: how many of us swim in a sea of music from rising until going to bed without ever really hearing it? Some people seem to need their “tunes” to rhythmically propel them through the day, and the repetitive familiarity of what they choose to program has worn such deep ruts in their brains that they couldn’t say what they’re listening to, except that they would sharply notice it if it stopped.

I can’t fathom that total immersion. Though I love music, have produced a radio program of vintage popular music, and now make my living publishing and editing a periodical about music, I almost never listen to music when I am trying to work. It’s too distracting. Popular songs affect me the worst: with lyrics or instrumentals with tunes that suggest lyrics, they occasion what I would describe as emotional whiplash. I just can’t hear certain selections—and there are a lot of them—without getting weepy. And my day’s work is thereby shot.

It may not be that I am particularly sensitive (though I probably am). Music has a power that we generally ignore; it influences our thoughts and moods far more than we may comfortably admit. It is most certainly free-range propaganda, if not actually behavior modification. Yet it is impossible to avoid in public. The driveling absurdity of what’s played at gas stations and supermarkets drives me to distraction. It is not music that is meant to be heard, but to be felt subconsciously and to move us along in our errands. Unfortunately, I hear it—and it registers.

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The tragedy of modern life is that music is no longer special. For most of us, it’s environmental—and we barely sense it anymore, whether it’s good or terrible.

I am reliably informed that there remains one sphere of our society where music has retained something of its sacred, exceptional essence. It is not ubiquitous there—it is an elusive commodity, and one’s music of choice is almost unobtainable.

I frequently communicate with one who is a temporary guest of the State of New York. For those who find themselves so inconvenienced, there is almost no music available worth mentioning. They are not permitted CDs or mp3s and there is no internet (and hence no YouTube), although cassette tapes (!) are theoretically permissible—at great expense, since tapes have to be brand new, with clear cases and without screws, and from approved vendors.

Prisoners are allowed cheap radios, and they have to be resourceful to find anything that is fit to listen to. My friend has been miraculously able to hear the late Jeff Healey’s radio program My Kinda Jazz, rebroadcast on Toronto station CJRT-FM. More recently, he told me that he was delighted to discover the radio station operated by the Seneca Indian Nation, which features programming that is notably more interesting than what is broadcast over commercial outlets.

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Going without music we love is worse than forced chastity or sobriety. I find it almost unimaginable. (And whether or not you feel sympathy for those who are incarcerated, consider that if Martha Stewart can go to jail it could happen to any of us.) The notion that we might ever have it taken away should inspire us to fully, deeply, consciously listen to each precious and irreplaceable measure.

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