Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hearing, Really Hearing

The ephemeral nature of hearing is what makes it irresistible, tantalizing, overwhelming.

Think about it.  It might explain that mysterious musical marking, the repeat sign.  "Did I really hear what I thought I heard?"  If properly played, the answer would be, "You'll never know!  Because this time I will play it differently!"  At least, that's how it would have been done until visual analysis took over and enslaved us all into thinking that repetition (i.e., reliability) is the point of Classical music.

Someone asked me the other day whether printed music was really necessary since so many people play by ear.  Good question.  My reply was that, had it not been for printed music I would never have stumbled upon those sounds in Mozart sonatas that convinced me, a 12-year-old kid in Chicago, that I would never again in my life need to feel isolated: a person who had lived 200 years previously understood me!

I would go so far as to say that the need to rely on the visual symbol is a way of denying the volatility of hearing.

This was beautifully expressed by Hannah Arendt in her extended essay On Thinking (The New Yorker sometime in the 1970s) in which, after covering the Eichmann trials, she observed that nothing in her schooling had prepared her to take in knowledge gleaned from listening, pure listening. She was referring to what she knew to be the truth not so much from what Eichmann said as from his tone of voice.  She went on to observe that the ancient Greeks knew  truth because they saw it, while the Hebrews knew God because they heard His voice.

Nothing small here.