Listeners vs. Composers

PARMA is currently working on composer Robert J. Martin’s string quartet cycle, “Embrace the Wind!” The album will be his second release on Ravello Records.

We had a short interview with Robert about the influence behind the album’s composition and influence, which was posted on July 21st. You can find the interview about “Embrace the Wind!” here: Robert J. Martin: Embrace the Wind!

We were recently able to talk to Robert about music again – this time the topic of conversation was “listeners.”

MP: So how can we get more people to listen to new music?
RM: A great question, since it relates so closely to both creators and listeners—though of course listening is itself a creative endeavor. I want to let people know that the listener is absolutely essential to music. The music happens inside the listener—it’s not an external thing that has to be understood. The music is created by the listener as she (or he) hears the sounds. I hear about people not listening because they don’t understand music that is unfamiliar—but I don’t buy it. I think that no one has said to them something like, “Well, listening to new music is like going to a new place—a lot of things are mixed in together—excitement, anxiety, discomfort, pleasure, uncertainty, joy—and that’s OK because that’s part of the adventure of doing something new. Sometimes people can feel uncomfortable if they feel they don’t understand what they’re listening to—and this is where I want to reach out to people and them know that you don’t need any special skills or education or terminology—just willingness to pay attention and listen to what happens—and it’s OK to be feel lost, just as when you travel to any new place.
MP: Sometimes we want to listen to something that is familiar and comfortable? 
RM: We can all appreciate every kind of music—we have only to understand that sometimes we like to do things that feel comforting and familiar; other times we like to do things that can be adventures, things that are new and unfamiliar. Both are legitimate choices, though at least some of the time we might choose to take the road of adventure. One of my favorite quotes is from G.K. Chesterton:  “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”  He is suggesting that doing new things always involves allowing ourselves to be challenged. 
To listen to new music is to travel to an unfamiliar place—and part of the pleasure of travel is coming back to the familiar. I always feel I need a vacation after traveling—even if the travel was my vacation. And part of the pleasure of travel is that we find familiar things in new places—and the new places themselves become familiar and comfortable after visiting them a number of times. 
MP: That sounds easy to say, hard to do.
RM: Action is always more risky than talk. But, with music, the only risk is feeling on unfamiliar ground. This is true of any creative process—if we want to be creative, we have to take a risk. 
MP: But we’re talking about listeners here, not composers.
RM: Exactly—and listening is always a creative process. Even when we have a conversation, it’s the listener who determines the meaning of what is being said, not the speaker. This sounds backwards, but it isn’t—the students decide for themselves, as best they can, what the teacher said—not the teacher. The employee follows the orders she think she heard. We’re all creating meaning all the time; we just don’t realize it. So it is with music; as listeners we are the ones making sense of what we hear.  All a composer can do is ask us to engage with the music and listen carefully. 
MP: So listeners are in a position of power, as it were.
RM: Yes. Always. And I think that once we feel that power, we will be much more comfortable engaging with new experiences, including listening experiences. 
MP: What do people need to know to appreciate new music?
RM: I only know my own experience. I remember my father playing his little phonograph in our darkened living room.  I was maybe in fourth grade. We would listen to Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov or Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello or the Paganini Caprices for solo violin. Not the usual listening fare for a fourth or fifth grader, but I was enchanted. We didn’t have music in our school, so I had no background—listening with my father was my background. When I was in high school—maybe a junior—I bought an AM-FM radio. This was back in the day when FM radios were rare. I had my own room, so I did homework and listened to WFMT, a Chicago radio station that played every kind of classical and new music, from Mozart to Schoenberg to jazz, among other genres. I remember hearing what must have been Schoenberg’s little piano pieces, probably Opus 9, and feeling they expressed my own sense of beauty and, maybe, alienation. It was my secret.
MP: Maybe as listeners we need to hear that we’re the ones creating the music within ourselves? 
RM:When I started teaching I had an office mate who was considerably older than I was but who was teaching sections of the same course I was teaching. One of the assignments he would give his students was to go out and do three things they had never done before. They didn’t have to like what they did, they just had to try it—and, I might add, he stipulated that whatever they did had to be legal, ethical, and moral. It was a great stretcher—and one I’ve tried to remind myself to do as often as possible. Part of having a rich, interesting, and creative life is trying new things. The other part—and this is something I tried to stress when I taught college students a class in creativity—not musical creativity, but creativity in general—is that it’s much easier to deal with new and unfamiliar things in your life if you can get comfortable with not having to understand everything, not having to be comfortable with everything right off the bat. That goes for travel, for starting a new job, meeting new people, and, of course, listening to new music. We act more intelligently (and have more fun) when we’re relaxed in the presence of things we find unfamiliar and maybe even a little confusing. A good way to go is to relax and take it all in. As you become more familiar with what’s unfamiliar, you start figuring out what’s going on. 
MP: What if you listen and you don’t like what you hear?
RM: Of course then you don’t have to listen again. On the other hand, who’s to say you won’t like something the second time you hear it? My composition teacher used to advise: “Compose music you do not yet like.”  What’s the point of that, I thought. But of course he meant that if you only compose music you like, you’re not doing anything new, you’re sticking with your comfort zone. He wasn’t saying to write music that you and everyone else would hate; he was saying to explore music you have not yet grown to like. What a wonderful piece of advice for listeners as well as composers.
MP: What if you listen and listen and still don’t like what you hear?
RM: We all have preferences and it our right to exercise them, so that’s always an option. My college roommate liked to quote conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Asked what kind of music he liked, he replied: Every kind of music except the boring kind.  
MP: We all want to hear new music, we just don’t want it to be too new.
RM: We are all fond of certain genres, certain artists. We want to hear their albums—sometimes. After the Second World War, swing clarinetist and dance band leader Artie Shaw was making more money than any other band leader. He quit at the height of his fame, later explaining that he was tired of doing the same old same old but that was all people wanted to hear. Which is fine. People have a right to listen to what they want. Right now I’m listening live to a group called Sway—all friends of mine—doing pop standards from the last six decades. The point is that we are free to choose. I like hearing new pieces, unfamiliar pieces, thorny pieces, and so on. I invite others to do the same. The choice is theirs.
MP: How do you teach people how to appreciate music they find unfamiliar?

RM: I would rather ask, how do people learn to appreciate music? That’s related to another question that interests me: How do you learn to appreciate wine?  It’s not about liking everything, it’s about developing a sensitivity to different tastes, learning language to describe what you’re tasting, and having conversations about what you’re experiencing. It’s about the whole experience. You can say “I don’t know anything about wine, I just know what I like,” but that takes away the fun of trying new things and talking about them. You still like some things better than others, but the whole experience is what it’s all about. Just as in sports, the point is not just to like or dislike this or that team, player, play, etc., but to get into the finer points of the game by observing and talking—and arguing, if you choose.. 

Robert J. Martin composes image-based music; music where the titles and descriptions open a direction to understanding the music. His latest release, PLAYFUL EDGE OF THE WAVE, presents 100 different views of Mt. Fuji in 100 minutes and pays homage to Katsushika Hokusai’s art.

Stay tuned for updates on Embrace the Wind!, and check out Robert’s latest release, PLAYFUL EDGE OF THE WAVE available on Ravello Records.

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