… and we’re back! After 353 days of an unofficial hiatus, I’ve decided to start posting here on The Listening Blog again. I’ve had several ideas of things I wanted to post about recently, and I had an experience today that I wanted to write about, so I’m back. I still have little free time to myself, and what free time I do have is generally focused on making music rather than writing about it, so I won’t promise that I’ll write with any regularity; but I’m back for this post, at least, and I hope to post at least intervallically from now on, as I continue to try to encourage myself to listen to, think and write about music.

The impetus for this post is the book I’ve been reading over the past week, Kyle Gann‘s No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″, published by Yale University Press last year. I’d read William Duckworth’s book Conversations With John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, And 5 Generations Of American Experimental Composers a while back, and been surprised to discover just how influential Cage had been in the latter half of the twentieth century. I don’t think there was a single composer interviewed in the book who didn’t mention Cage at least a few times. So when I saw Gann’s book at the library, I thought I’d pick it up. And it’s proved to be, as the same William Duckworth claims in his laudatory quote on the back cover, “an outstanding book.”

4’33″, for any of my readers who don’t know, is probably the most famous (or perhaps infamous) piece of American music composed in the twentieth century. It consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, either of music manuscript paper without any notes or just the word “tacet,” depending on which score you look at. It’s been maligned and mocked by scores of critics both inside and outside musical circles, and branded as a joke, a hoax, a prank, the typical trash that passes for “music” in the modern world and worse. But I highly recommend Gann’s book, which is excellently written as well as being insightful. He thoroughly traces all of the influences in Cage’s thinking and music, from Erik Satie to Zen, to show that 4’33″ was not a whimsical gesture by a crackpot or a provocateur but a carefully thought-through and even inevitable outworking of Cage’s musical (and general) philosophy.

In broad strokes, as Gann puts it, the piece is an invitation to (or, if you’re not aware of what’s coming, an imposition of) zazen, the Zen practice of meditation, and is among other things a philosophical statement that there is no such thing as silence. By framing the piece in the context of a concert music performance, Cage focuses the attention of the listener, not on sounds that he’s composed, but on the environmental and ambient sounds of the space in which the performance takes place, opening the listener’s awareness to sounds he or she would otherwise ignore. It’s a particular practice similar to Pauline Oliveros‘ “deep listening,” or what I’ve called elsewhere on this blog “comprehensive listening.” But for a more in-depth explanation, you’ll have to read the book.

In any case, on my way home from work this evening, I didn’t feel like listening to the audiobook I’m currently “reading,” nor could I think of any music I particularly wanted to listen to. So, several minutes into the drive, I decided to “perform” 4’33″ for myself until I got home. And it was that experience that prompted me to write this post.

I’ve done comprehensive listening exercises before, but usually sitting down and with my eyes closed, so driving was a different experience. It certainly opened my ears to a number of sounds I normally wouldn’t hear, or hear every day but don’t listen to; but my experience of the sounds was different as well. One of the Zen ideas of the piece, as I understand it, is that the listener should be passive and receptive to the sounds one hears, without trying to impose any of one’s own thoughts or structures onto them. (Cage spoke of the purpose of music, quoting an Indian writer, being “to sober and quiet the mind and thus render it susceptible to divine influence.”) This was a struggle for me at first, as I tried to quell my thoughts, quiet the music playing in my head, and avoid thinking things like “That sounds like it could be played by a contrabassoon!” Early in the drive, in a moment where I feel like I succeeded at those things, I felt suddenly vulnerable–opening myself up to any and all of the sounds around me, putting up no defenses or filters. That was a strange and interesting feeling. But it also changed my perception of the sounds I heard. I was sitting at a stoplight as a truck turned in front of me, and the bed of the truck and the chains holding whatever was in the back squeaked loudly, a sound that normally might annoy me. But as I focused on it and really listened to it, instead of just hearing it, I realized it was actually a really cool sound that was pleasing to my ear and unique and interesting in its own right.

At another point, when I was on the freeway, listening to the whush of the air flowing past my car, the whirring of the engine, and the percussive punctuation of the bumpy road beneath me, a particular sequence of those sounds and others reminded me of the type of modern music where musical events seem to happen completely at random. That type of music is hard for me to listen to most of the time. But listening to the sounds around me, I wondered if that type of music is not so much random as just an attempt to imitate the sound environment that surrounds the composer.

I felt that by “performing” the piece myself, I did achieve a “higher consciousness” of a sort–not in a spiritual or mystical way, but simply a more heightened physical and mental awareness of what was around me. I’m not sure that I could draw any direct parallels from experiences like this one to being a better musician or composer; but certainly being a more active listener can’t do me any harm. Reading about Cage’s philosophy and the influences that led to 4’33″ has led me to appreciate much more fully the thought processes behind the piece (though I still cheerfully and wholeheartedly disagree with his philosophy, and his assertion that all sounds are music). I’ll have to perform this piece more often.

(Thanks for reading this return post! I hope you’ll come back to read more–and I promise, they won’t all be this long…)


“The Sound of Home” by Mark Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:51 pm

N.B. This essay was written for this past Thanksgiving by my brother, Mark Harbison, and I thought it was so well-written and pertinent to this blog that I wanted to repost it. “The Sound of Home” is here reprinted in its entirety by permission of the author. – AJ Harbison

I always like being home. I love Biola, I love my friends there, I love Torrey, I love my major, and I wouldn’t want to go to school anywhere else—but I always like coming home. Even when nothing exciting is happening. This week, I came home knowing that there was nothing particularly fun or exciting happening this week (my family is just having a quiet dinner at home on Thanksgiving), and that I would be spending most of the week doing homework, as I have a major paper to revise, a major paper to write, Greek exercises to do, and the first two books of “Paradise Lost” to read. And yet I still woke up this morning with a smile on my face (something which is an extreme rarity for me) simply because I was physically at home instead of at school. Waking up this morning, I felt less stressed than I have in weeks, even though I still have a ton of work to get done this week.

After waking up with a smile, my expression changed to a quizzical frown as I wondered why I was so happy. I’m always happy to be at home, regardless of what’s actually going on when I’m here. Why is this? I wondered.

Unable to come up with an answer, I picked up my computer and proceeded to surf through my usual daily internet sites, concluding as always with Facebook. While on Facebook, I came across this status and comment:

“Blaire E. Hunt was woken up this morning by her sister barging in her room and jumping on her bed! Quickly followed by her mom and aunt entering her room. HOME!!!! :)
Tatyana Catalan: YES!!!!! i woke up to the vaccuum in the next room (with kitty frantic) and gershwin’s rapsody in blue blasting on the radio!!!”

This sparked my thought process and I think I finally realized what it is that I love so much about being home.

It’s the sound. I woke up this morning to a sound that I never hear at Biola, ever: silence. In my room at school, we almost always have the AC/heater running, or the window open, or there’s people running up and down the hallway outside, or yelling, or playing ping-pong—and once you actually leave the room, you can certainly forget about silence. There’s always something HAPPENING at Biola, and the evidence of that hits the ear every second of every day.

This morning, I woke up and I heard nothing. This is always what it sounds like waking up at home. If there ever are noises (which is rare), they’re quiet, or at least muffled. Even when my dog is barking, it’s less harsh than the air conditioner in Sigma 122. And throughout the whole day, even when there are noises, there’s a perpetual undercurrent of silence that’s always in the background. Even when I’m listening to music, and the television is on in the next room, and my mom is mixing something in the blender, if you listen REALLY carefully, you can hear the silence underneath it all.

This silence is, I think, the defining feature of home. It’s inherently calming. I hear the silence and I wonder how I ever felt stressed in this room, ever felt scared or sad or angry in this house, because all I can feel now is calm. Sure, I can have emotions, but underneath them all is the unmistakable calmness that everything is all right. Even when I’m extremely happy, there’s a calmness mediating it and holding it back from sheer euphoria. When I’m home, what’s just happiness at school becomes joy. What’s unbearable sorrow at school becomes a momentary (if not light) affliction.

I’ve always pictured heaven as being bright and loud—everybody singing, worshiping, dancing, discussing, hugging and loving each other. Now I’m not so sure. Of course there will be worship, and there will probably be all of those other things, too. But I think heaven, like home, will have the undercurrent of calm silence beneath it all, as all of the redeemed bask in the glorious, calm light of God’s joyous smile.

And that, of course, is my true home. 1215 Via Antibes is only a temporary reflection of that. 1215 Via Antibes probably won’t even be my home ten years from now (hopefully won’t be, I’ll even say). But for now, this is the only place that I can really hear the silence. Every once in a while I’ll catch a strain of it somewhere else—I heard it briefly at AJ and Eleanor’s, when I went there for dinner. I heard it for a few minutes in Dr. Reynolds’ office once. I heard it briefly in the Sutherland hallway when a friend hugged me and forgave me for wronging them.

But away from home, that calm silence that forces everything else to be calm only comes in snippets. It’s only at home when I can hear it all the time. I’m not sure if it’s because my home is more familiar, or because I’m more emotionally attached to my home, or because my home is a holier place than the other places I frequent.

But whatever the cause, I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter so much why it’s silent here. It just matters that it is. This sound of silence is the sound of home, and the reason I love coming home so much is because, for however brief a time, I can let everything else be quiet and just listen to it.


Birdsong In The Business Park

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:46 pm

I was walking between my company’s two offices the other day. There have been a bunch of crows showing up lately, and I heard a couple of crows “caw”ing to each other. That suddenly attenuated my ears to birdish sounds, quite unintentionally, and I heard one bird singing somewhere overhead, and then another down the street, then yet another somewhere else. I kept walking, but turned on my “comprehensive listening” mode, and I was surprised to hear lots of birds singing around the hallowed concrete halls of the business parks. It was an ear-opening experience. I never would have thought that there were a lot of singing birds in the area, but clearly they were there all along and I just wasn’t listening; perhaps I’d gotten used to hearing them so often that I didn’t hear them anymore. Just goes to show (again) that there’s a difference between hearing and listening–and that hearing something a lot often tunes out our listening. Here’s to deeper and more intentional listening!


Midnight Hour Live

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:43 am

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I was in a band with a cool guy named Brad Lodge. He played guitar and sang lead vocals in the band, and I played keyboard and guitar.

Fast forward to the present time and the present land. Brad Lodge is still a cool guy, and now he’s the frontman for a very cool band called Midnight Hour. After being signed by Interscope Records, they’ve been in a long phase of writing for their first album; and on Monday night, they played one of their first shows in a year or two.

I went out to see them at Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa on Monday night–they booked a gig playing there every Monday night in December, along with a band from San Diego called Dynamite Walls. Each of these shows are free, with no cover charge or drink minimum, so you may want to check them out if you like live music. (If you happen to visit the Detroit Bar’s website, though, don’t be fooled–it’s not nearly as nice as the site makes it out to be…)

The music started almost 40 minutes after the scheduled time, so I sat for a while by myself drinking my Jack and Coke and people-watching. I tried comprehensive listening–trying to listen to every sound around me–for a short while. It was an interesting exercise because the only two types of sounds were the DJ’s music playing over the speakers and the many conversations; but I noticed that different conversations would stick out at different times. As I wrote about in my first post on the topic, when I’m trying to listen comprehensively my ears “jump” around to different sounds, in a similar way that your eyes might jump around to follow different movements in an otherwise static scene. I noticed that with conversations as well: a sudden burst of laughter, an emphatic point being made, would draw my ears’ attention for a moment, before they would be drawn to something else.

The first opening band was called PawnShop kings (their capitalization). They were actually quite good–their lyrics were pretty repetitive and didn’t have a lot of substance, but they worked, and I liked the music quite a bit. I’m going to do some more listening and watching around at their Myspace site, and I’ll get back to you.

The second opening band was Dynamite Walls. They were more of a straight-up rock band, and because the bar was a pretty small space, it was way too loud. I enjoy loud music to a small extent, but since my ears are my most valuable asset I try not to enjoy it to any extent that worries me. This extent worried me, so instead of staying in that room I moved back behind the bar to lessen the decibel level. That turned out alright, because I wasn’t particularly impressed with the band anyway, and in the other room I ran into Brad and we got the chance to talk and catch up a bit, since we hadn’t seen each other in a few years. He was excited to see me there, and I was excited to see Midnight Hour perform.

They went on after Dynamite Walls. I’m sorry to say that they were also very loud; but of course I wanted to stay to hear them. Some pretty intense TTS occurred.

The main problem was that the drummer was playing at full force (or something very close), and the space was small enough that the cymbals basically covered everything else. The sound guy also didn’t mix the rest of the band very well, and Brad’s voice didn’t stand out as it should have. One of their Myspace friends named “booz” left a comment on their page saying “detroit…though an awesome place…is too small for you,” and that’s very true on two levels. First, it was just too loud for such a small performance space. And second, they played as a big band and put on a big show even in a small space. I feel like they would have been almost suited to open for Coldplay in the Honda Center by virtue of the way they played. I hear that this was one of U2‘s distinguishing features when they were a young band (i.e. before they became a big band that always played in big places).

I like Midnight Hour’s music a lot. The songwriting is a bit repetitive, but it’s well-written at the same time. It’s simple, but not simplistic, and I think that describes their music as well. The style of the band is definitely rock; Brad compared their sound to a British-type band, and mentioned Coldplay. Listening over the last few days to the free demo EP that they handed out, I am noticing a lot of similarities to Coldplay. Midnight Hour is guitar-based, and occasionally keyboard-based, rock; they’re very high energy; they often have similar beats and drum patterns; Brad sings in falsetto quite a bit and does it very well. The live show was really rocking, and (despite the volume) I enjoyed it very much.

Their most popular song is “Running Away,” which was actually featured on the CBS TV show “The Ghost Whisperer” about two years ago. (You can see the clip from the show featuring the song here; note that the lead singer of course is an actor from the show, and the bass player is secretly JC Chasez of ‘N Sync. Brad does make a sort of cameo, however: you can see him playing the green piano to the right of the lead singer. A video of Midnight Hour performing the song on the show’s set–probably the best performance of the videos linked in this paragraph–can be found here.) Subsequently it became a pretty big hit on the internet and (as far as I know) has remained their fans’ favorite song. It’s a great song–it also has simple words and simple music, but they combine to create a coherent whole and it’s pretty powerful. You can see a video of them performing the song live in the studio here, courtesy of UGO.com (which also has more Midnight Hour videos and fun stuff that you can find on their UGO page). I really like “Running Away,” and I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t on the demo CD; but upon further reflection I decided that this was okay. “Running Away” is the kind of song that I love to listen to so much that I end up listening to it too much and I get sick of it.

Listening to the demo CD, I think that Midnight Hour is a very good band, and they have the potential to become a great band. The difference, it seems to me, is details. The music was by far better than either of the other two bands at Detroit, but it still lacks detail. The guitars and the drums are fine at what they do but they don’t do quite enough. Listening to the CD is like listening to a recording that’s still waiting for a few more instrumental tracks: the foundation is there but it’s a general sound, with very few fine points. One instance of this can often be found in the gaps between vocal lines. Brad will sing a line, and then wait a measure or two before singing the next line. But instead of one of the guitars playing a little riff to fill the space, it’s left open and feels empty. Another example would be the drums: they definitely lay down a solid foundation, but some finer details (changing up the pattern slightly, throwing in some quick extra cymbal work) would do a lot to spice things up. Their mix often feels a bit bottom-heavy, as well–with two (or three) guitars and a bass providing all the musical material other than the voice, some high keyboard or guitar parts would be nice here and there. A little more nuance and subtlety in the lyrics would be appreciated t
oo; much of the time they tell explicitly rather than showing implicitly, when the latter is a key to good songwriting (in my opinion). And–although this is a personal preference rather than an objective critique–I’d like to hear one or two 80s-style shredding guitar solos, because I know the guitarists are capable of them and they would rock. But I would say that if they learn to add more fine details to their music and tweak their sound just a little, it would take their music to the next level.

But I’m still going to listen to them, go to their shows and cheer them on in the meantime–and I’ll recommend ‘em to you, my loyal readers, as well!


The Difference Between Hearing And Listening

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:03 am

At several points during work this afternoon, I was thinking about my post and subsequent comments discussion about comprehensive listening, and I tried to put it into practice–as Pauline Oliveros puts it, “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear.” It was difficult for me to do this while doing something else–getting a drink from the water cooler in the kitchen, for example–because when I’m listening intently, I have a tendency to focus my eyes intensely (on nothing in particular) to minimize visual distractions. (For some reason I focus intensely on nothing rather than close my eyes; I’m not sure why that is.) So it was difficult to listen intently when I had to keep my eyes moving normally, as I tried to listen while I went about a normal task. But hard as it was, I did succeed briefly, and I was surprised by the difference. To quote Oliveros again, “hearing happens involuntarily,” while “listening is a voluntary process.” We get so used to hearing the sounds around us that we hardly ever listen in a comprehensive-listening sort of way, and when I tried the latter I could definitely tell the difference.

It’s hard to describe, but it felt as if I was listening to the sounds around me with my eyes closed, even though I was moving and had my eyes open. Listening with one’s eyes closed is slightly unsettling, because we’re so used to relying on our eyes, and it makes us focus more on the sounds we hear, because hearing becomes our primary sense when sight is removed. As I tried to listen comprehensively this afternoon, I heard the same sounds that I normally would hear but I heard them differently; somehow I was more detached and yet more focused.

It happened again on my drive home from work at a point or two; I stopped hearing and focused on comprehensive listening, and I experienced the same phenomenon of “hearing” differently. It was a remarkable sensation. I imagine Pauline would tell me I’m making progress.


Comprehensive Listening

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:26 pm

Sorry I haven’t posted in a few days–back to your regularly scheduled TLB….

It’s an interesting exercise to try to listen to every single sound around you–actually quite difficult, harder than you might think. It’s an exercise that is espoused and encouraged by Pauline Oliveros–the composer whose quote is the header of this blog. She was a member of a panel discussion at Cal State Fullerton’s Women In New Music Festival several years ago (2004, I think), and suggested it as a profitable experiment. Oliveros’ particular technique, which she calls “Deep Listening,” pulls in elements of New Age-ish meditation, involving a “heightened state of awareness” and connections “to all that there is.” I find these mislead and unnecessary, but her idea is a good one for musicians and particularly composers. (And, it seems, bloggers.) Perhaps a better term could be “comprehensive listening.”

As I wrote this post on a Friday afternoon at work, this is what I could hear:

- The keyboard and mouse clicks from my coworkers around me
- Conversations and one person down the hall whistling
- The quiet clicks and hums of my computer tower
- A deep, strong, oscillating hum which perhaps could be an air conditioning or air filtering unit
- The muffled sound of a plane overhead (my office is close to the airport)

It wasn’t only the hearing of sounds that I typically don’t notice (e.g. the last three things in the list) that was interesting as I tried the experiment, but a certain kind of heightened awareness where my hearing was more sensitive to the sounds that were happening around me–the kind of heightened awareness that doesn’t require or create an altered “state.” Like an eye darting around to catch sudden movements in different directions, I felt like my ears were darting around to focus on “movements” or sounds all around me. It’s an intriguing feeling–you should try it out.

As a postlude, here is the quote from the front page of Oliveros’ website. The comment about the difference between hearing and listening is particularly instructive.

“As a musician, I am interested in the sensual nature of sound, its power of synchronization, coordination, release and change. Hearing represents the primary sense organ – hearing happens involuntarily. Listening is a voluntary process that through training and experience produces culture. All cultures develop through ways of listening.

Deep Listening® [sic] is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is. As a composer I make my music through Deep Listening.”