One of my lecturers, Les Back, is a wonderful influence to have in my musical life. He has dedicated his time as an academic to convincingly marrying together the disciplines of Sociology and Music, arguing for the deep significance of sound and music to people’s perceptions of the world, community-building and social change. Initially I took a bit of convincing – I’d always felt my love of music and my politics to be two different realms – but after some recommended reading and a lecture or two, he managed to persuade me of the sincere importance of music to the wider world (not least because I wanted to be persuaded).
One of Les’ books is called The Art of Listening, and in it he considers how being a good listener should affect your approach to the world, and to studying and interpreting it. Listening, he argues, is a skill we must learn, especially in a world so obsessed with speaking.
I realised when I read that, slightly ashamedly, that even as a music listener, my urge is to speak – to mould the meanings of songs to articulate my experiences, and to sing, to take possession of the song through my own voice and expression. I’d always seen that as a positive thing until reading The Art of Listening. Now, I feel like I’ve had my eyes (and ears) opened: listening properly is the introvert’s art, and as a hopeless extrovert, I’m not very good at it.
James Blake’s ‘Retrograde’ has been haunting me for a while now. I’m not a huge fan of James Blake – I find his drones almost as unsettling as Obama’s – but ‘Retrograde’ has captured me and holds my emotions to ransom every time I hear it. It’s not the most cheerful track; it oscillates with a sense of threatening, wounded masculinity. But I love it, especially when he soars in with “Suddenly I’m hit”. It’s epic somehow, and swells with resentment and bitterness, two of my favourite musical emotions.
One thing though: no matter how hard I try, I just can’t appropriate it to describe my own life. Who could be the ‘you’? Who’s the ‘I’? I clamour for connections with my friendships, my loves and lusts. But there’s nothing. He’s describing a unique, personal relationship, a particularly piercing feeling, and I can steal moments of of kinship, but nothing which sticks. Some songs seem to strike at the very heart of you, but others remain aloof and refuse to be applicable to anything you’ve ever known.
It’s at moments like that when I realise I should learn to listen. I need to learn to pause, to ask, “What are they trying to communicate?”, to allow songs to provide their own answers without me then dragging the implications into my own world, forcing the inferences into my frame.
My discomfort in allowing a song to be its own beast leaves me with a pertinent but uncomfortable question: do I love music for entirely selfish reasons? Am I only interested in music which articulates me? Is listening to music solely a self-building exercise? What is it in me that jostles to the front to sing along when I could be listening?
I think the problem extends much further than music, but music helps to highlight these issues of self-awareness and projection in people’s listening skills more generally. One of Les Back’s recommendations is a book called Why Music Matters by David Hesmondhalgh, in which the author argues that music is integral to the construction and retention of empathy and understanding. But empathy foregrounds the ‘self’, and it’s often more about nodding, agreeing and revoicing than listening. Listening is a less valued but perhaps more valuable tool. A true listener could never have invented the atom bomb.
So perhaps it is time to cultivate a new skill – the art of listening. The diva in me which is possessed to sing along should maybe be retired, at least for a bit, while I foster a more refined approach to listening than my current boisterous antiphony. If it meant I could come over anything like Les Back – encouraging, welcoming, modest, unimposing – it would definitely be an improvement.