AARON COPLAND ON MINDFUL LISTENING

 

My guest blogger today is Aaron Copland (1900-1990), one of the most respected American classical composers of the twentieth century. By incorporating popular forms of American music such as jazz and folk into his compositions, he created pieces both exceptional and innovative. As a spokesman for the advancement of indigenous American music, Copland made great strides in liberating it from European influence.  Not only did he write symphonies, ballets and film scores, he was a scholar, critic, writer and teacher.  The passage below is from one of his books called “What to Listen for in Music”. (Thanks to Jake Roshi for sending this my way.)    Interspersed between quotes from Copland’s book, I have included some comments (in italics) that reflect some personal thoughts on his ideas. 

                                                                 

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The first prerequisite for listening to music is so obvious that it almost seems ludicrous to mention, yet it is often the single element that is absent: to pay attention and to give the music your concentrated effort as an active listener.

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 (As a musician, I might add that learning to pay attention to the sounds you are making is an essential skill in learning to play any instrument.  In future posts, I will review a couple of books that make the case that mindfulness is key to masterful performance on any instrument)
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It is revealing to compare the actions of theater audiences to those of symphonic audiences. In the theater the audience listens with full attention to every line of the play, knowing that if important lines are missed understanding can be diminished-this instinctive attention is too often lacking in the concert hall.

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(This statement fascinates me as it makes me wonder whether composers/performers can do more to help make the audience listen more mindfully.  This will be a theme I will return to in later posts.  Since, of late I have been experimenting with pairing video with music, I found it interesting that John Cage wrote the following, in an essay describing his approach to sound and music:

       Where do we go from here? Towards theatre. 

       That art more than music resembles nature.                             We have eyes as well as ears, and it is

      our business while we are alive to use them.”

      Pg. 12 in Silence by John Cage.

This suggests that the pairing of visual imagery and sound may be one way to foster mindfulness in the audience.  Particularly, in the creation of music videos, this seems to raise the question of how to combine visual stimuli and sound in ways that one does not take precedence over the other.  If the video portion has a strong narrative element to it , the music may become merely a backdrop much like a film score.  On the other hand if the music is so compelling as to draw in most listeners, there may be no need for visuals at all.  I am wondering whether music/videos can be created where the visual and sound aspects are equally important and mutually supportive in fostering mindful attentiveness on the part of the audience.  This wondering will most likely be in my mind as I work on future projects.)

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One has but to observe listeners at a concert to witness the distractions of talking or reading or simply staring into space.


Only a small percentage are vitally concerned with the essential role of active listening. 

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.(Remember the above was written years before the appearance of cell phones and other devices of distraction that prevail today.)
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This lack is serious because the listener is essential to the process of music; music after all consists of the composer, the performer and the listener. Each of these three elements should be present in the most ideal way. We expect a fine composition brilliantly performed, but how often do we think it should also be brilliantly heard?

The destiny of a piece of music, while basically in the hands of the composer and performer, also depends on the attitude and ability of the listener. It is the listener in the larger sense who dictates the ultimate acceptance or rejection of the composition and performer…Unfortunately for music, many listeners are content to sit in an emotional bath and limit their reaction to music to the sensual element of being surrounded by sounds. But the sounds are organized; the sounds have intellectual as well as emotional appeal.
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(I think Copland’s use of the term “intellectual” here is unfortunate.  I don’t believe that he is suggesting that mindful listening entails protracted left-brain/discursive thinking.  I believe it is more accurate to say that mindfulness entails “whole brain thinking” (Olson, The Whole-brain Path to Peace) or “open focused attention” (see earlier post called “HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY OPENED- FOCUS EXPERIENCE WHILE READING THIS POST!”    ) where so called left and right brain processes are working interdependently.  Langer seems to capture the so called “intellectual” aspect of mindfulness by describing it as “”drawing novel distinctions..”noticing new things” and “seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in thing taken to be similar”.  (pgs. 5 and16, On Becoming an Artist,  For more on Langer, use the blog search box, using her name or “mindfulness”   )

Various mindfulness practices that accompany spiritual disciplines seem to encourage practioners not to be so immersed in left-brain thinking that they are out of touch with their right brains.  Mindfulness practices thus helps to increase one’s awareness and sensitivity to feeling and emotions that were previously beyond awareness.  However, my understanding is that the aim is to expand consciousness to include sensations often unnoticed but not necessarily to do away with the capacity for left brain functioning. 

When we mindfully expose ourselves to visual art or music, having a grasp of the choices available to and made by the artist, is a part of our appreciating the art piece or performance.  Appreciating an art piece  does not necessarily entail “liking” it, but may involve having an understanding of the historical, social, and personal reasons why the work unfolds as it does, along with an awareness of how one personally is responding and why.  


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The adventure of learning how to listen to music is one of the great joys of exposure to this art…Your efforts to understand more of what is taking place will be rewarded a thousand-fold in the intense pleasure and increased interest you will find.

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I believe that what Copland says above can be extrapolated to the benefits of mindfulness in all aspects of life, not just music.

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