Thursday, 9 October 2014

So, what do you like?

When you meet new people and you try to identify things that you might have in common at some stage the question of musical preferences crops up. Forty years ago it seemed an easier question to answer: “What music do you like?” Now, of course, in answering any such question you are much more aware of what the answer might reveal and so we perhaps seek a more nuanced answer. Some will still confidently answer, “Oh, I was really lucky I got tickets for the last [name your own legend] tour.” But this is attending an event. What has it got to do with music and conscious musical choices?

As it happens the last live music I heard was a production of Bizet’s Carmen. As it turns out it was the second production I’d heard in three years. If I tell you this you might suppose I was pretty keen on opera. The fact is I have heard maybe 20 opera in a lifetime and I have recordings of maybe half a dozen (mostly Benjamin Britten) that I seldom listen to. By and large I don’t ‘get’ opera – the only experience of opera that I really treasure was the singing of an aria in Handel’s Jephta by tenor James Gilchrist. But if I don’t ‘get’ opera how do I explain what I do ‘get’?

There is much music from the western classical tradition that I listen to repeatedly – usually chamber works rather than orchestral pieces. I prefer the intimacy of a Beethoven string quartet to the power of his symphonies for example. But when it comes to ‘chamber’ music I’m as likely to choose a Miles Davis Quintet or something from Manfred Eicher’s ECM catalogue.

There is something about music-making on such a scale that is both accessible but so often surprising on repeat listenings. Maybe, at first, we sort out rhythms, melodies, patterns and structure in a piece. Once we have a sense of purpose that guides us through the music we can then pay more attention to the distinct voices and the conversations that are going on – secure in the knowledge that this all ties up and makes sense. Like any other conversation you start to hear how someone takes the phrase of another to create a different idea – perhaps supporting the first voice, perhaps disputing it. No doubt a formal musical training or education can help us to be listeners but it might be (I don’t know this) that schooling can narrow our hearing options because we may have expectations based on what we have been taught or know.

This distinction – if that is what it is – between scholarliness and musical instinct is an interesting one to me as a listener (because I’m not a musician). I know that both routes can lead to creative breakthroughs and challenges for musicians and audiences alike. Some of the most ‘difficult’ music I ever heard was played by jazz improvisers such as JohnStevens and Trevor Watts (circa 1972) but in other settings they also played some of the most direct and accessible music I ever heard. I think their approach to music-making relied largely on instinct and that seemed important to me as a listener.

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