Are you getting the most out of music?

Look! - no speakers anywhere

Look! – no speakers anywhere

Whenever I mention to someone that ‘I play a little music’, they usually respond with affirmations that they, too, either ‘like’ music, or they ‘love’ music. Some say: ‘Music is my life’. And while I don’t doubt anyone’s sincerity in this regard, I wonder if that’s true. I wonder if they put much or any effort into listening to music, that is to say, that they are an active rather than a passive listener.

Unfortunately, for many musicians, it turns out that most listen passively. By that I mean that while they might spend a great deal of time listening to music on the radio or online, they rarely make the effort to listen to live music, and if they do, it is to music that they have heard many, many times before, from musicians who have been playing more or less the same thing for thirty, forty or fifty years.

I went to see Leonard Cohen, for example, a few years ago at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It was an outdoor venue and I couldn’t help but notice the amount of alcohol being consumed and the constant chatter of the people around me. I saw one middle-aged man order four mojitos, place them on a tray and return to his seat. Fair enough, except he collapsed on the way and fell on his face. He was so drunk, he stayed there. A real connoisseur of Leonard’s oeuvre!

I don’t set myself up in this regard as any better or worse than anyone else – I too have listened to music on devices that fail to deliver any warmth or atmosphere; I listen to most of my music in a digital format, which is nothing like vinyl; I have attended concerts and wasted money on acts that were old hat in 1990, and I have sat 400 feet away from musicians performing their work, because that was all I could afford. I shouldn’t have wasted my time or money.

But I also have tried, as well as I can, to listen to music up close. It’s partly why I play music – it allows you to be close to other musicians and to hear precisely what they are playing. In Ireland, because of the many sessions that take place, this is achieved quite easily. And because you are part of a group, there is no pressure to move away to allow other members of the audience a chance to get up close. You can hear the music as it really is. You are the music as it really is.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go see a group of musicians play an acoustic gig. When I say ‘acoustic’, I don’t mean that they were playing violins, guitars, cellos and mandolins into a PA, the event was completely without amplification.

Now, you might think that such a scenario would put a lot of pressure on the musicians, and you’d be right, but it also puts some pressure on the audience. In that context, the audience has to contain itself in terms of the noise it makes. It has to sit down and actually listen. You can see details of the event here.

The purpose of the gig was to celebrate Leonard Cohen’s 80th birthday and the music was provided by The Ragmen, The Annulments and Hugo Newman.

It was a real celebration. For the first time in a long time I witnessed a gig where the audience was not merely a passive part of the event – the necessary ‘other people’ that musicians need to turn a rehearsal into a gig – they were integral to the celebration of music. They reminded me, in a way, of people in an art gallery. They were, by sitting quietly and giving the music their full concentration, buying into the concept that they were witnessing ‘art’, not a amusement or distraction like a TV or a band in a pub.

I’m not saying it’s not possible to deliver music ‘as art’ in a pub, it’s just a more hit and miss affair.

Anyway, the difference here was that people were there to listen to the music and the musicians. I was there to listen to the musicians. And it impacted on me an awful lot more than so many other gigs because of that.

It’s always a struggle to get to a decent performance. Often, we are so driven for a bit of relaxation that we forget to give the music space and time to reach us. We are reluctant to try the new thing, or we find that the room, or the view, or the distance is making it difficult to really appreciate the timbre of the instruments, the frailty of the human performers and that deep thing inside that makes our bodies vibrate instinctively to sound. We are living with the same tension as the musicians that ‘something could go wrong at any second’.

Music, in a way, has become porn-like in its ubiquity, stealing from us the beauty of the original thing that made us whole. We don’t strive to be close to it so that the bass vibrations can be felt in the heart, and the violin can wrench the complacency out of our ears.

But, as Leonard once said; “There is a crack, a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.”

If you get a chance in the next few days, give your ears and your body a chance to really hear music. Give music the time and space it deserves. And I promise, though I am not a doctor, you will feel better for it.

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