The Gifted Listener: Composer Aaron Copland on Honing Your Talent for Listening to Music

“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote to a friend, including the requisite flamboyance of a 1920s radical: “Without music I should want to pass away.”
Months after Millays death, Harvard provided its prestigious Charles Edward Norton Professorship of Poetry for the 1951– 1952 academic year to the composer Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900– December 2, 1990)– the very first non-poet to hold the post considering that its creation a quarter century earlier. More than a decade prior to he got the Presidential Medal of Freedom for capturing the human experience in music, Copland gave his six lectures, later on released as Music and Imagination (public library), not only the mind of an amazing artist however the central issue of his life– the artists function in the human household and the important mutual nourishment in between those who make art and those whose lives art touches, with a specific focus on the most commonly underappreciated agent in the musical universe: the gifted listener.
Aaron Copland on his way to a concert in Paris, early 1920s. (Photographer unknown. Library of Congress Archives.).
Copland begins by considering the surface contrasts and much deeper resonances in between poetry and music:.
I utilized to harbor a secret sensation of commiseration for poets … trying to make music with nothing however words at their command. I expect there exist at all times some few guys * who have that much magic in them, but words at best will always seem to an author a poor alternative to tones … Later … I came slowly to see that beyond the music of both arts there is an essence that joins them– an area where the meanings behind the notes and the meaning beyond the words spring from some common source … The poetry of music … represents the biggest part of our emotive life– the part that sings.
The poetry of music, Copland intimates, is made up both by the musician, in the production of music and its interpretation in performance, and by the listener, in the act of listening that is itself the work of reflective interpretation. This makes listening as much an innovative act as composition and efficiency– not a passive receptivity to the things that is music, but an active practice that confers upon the object its significance: an art to be mastered, a skill to be refined. (In the exact same era, the excellent humanistic theorist and psychologist Erich Fromm was making the same countercultural point about the art of caring, as distinct from the harmful cultural concept of love as a challenge be discovered and passively received.).
Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 by Georgia OKeeffe, 1918. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.).
Copland observes that because the procedure by which music offers voice to our inner lives is complicated and so fragile, it ends up being “an extremely hazardous undertaking,” for there are many points at which it can break down:.
At no point can you take the musical experience and hold it. Unlike that moment in a film when a still shot all of a sudden paralyzes a complete scene, a single musical moment paralyzed makes audible only one chord, which in itself is relatively worthless. This nonstop flow of music forces us to utilize our imaginations, for music is in a continuous state of ending up being.
This sentiment he borrows from Auden, who thought deeply and widely about the life of art and who believed that “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to believe. Music is instant; it goes on to end up being.” This becoming, Copland argues, is an imaginative act both for the musician and for the listener:.
The more I live the life of music the more I am convinced that it is the freely creative mind that is at the core of all crucial music making and music listening … An imaginative mind is necessary to the creation of art in any medium, but it is much more essential in music specifically due to the fact that music provides the broadest possible vista for the imagination since it is the freest, the most abstract, the least fettered of all the arts: no story content, no pictorial representation, no regularity of meter, no rigorous limitation of frame need obstruct the intuitive functioning of the creative mind.
While elsewhere on the Harvard campus the psychologist Jerome Bruner was nurturing his pioneering insight into the secret to fantastic storytelling and positing that creative writers both need and make creative readers, Copland composes:.
All artists, entertainers and creators alike, think about the gifted listener as an essential figure in the musical universe.
Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, influenced by the artists experience of listening to a Wagner symphony. (Available as a print.).
A century after the underappreciated genius Margaret Fuller firmly insisted that “all truth is made up in music and mathematics,” Copland subtleties the mathematical splendor of music with the shadings of its subjective reception in the listeners mind. In a sentiment evocative of Nabokovs well-known aphorism “There is no science without expensive, and no art without realities,” Copland firmly insists that the fancy– the innovative creativity of the gifted listener– is what renders “the realities of music, so called” significant. He writes:.
Listening is a talent, and like any other talent or present, we have it in differing degrees … There are two primary requirements for talented listening: first, the ability to open oneself as much as musical experience; and second of all, the ability to evaluate critically that experience. Neither of these is possible without a specific native gift. Listening indicates an inborn skill of some degree, which, once again, like any other skill, can be trained and developed. This skill has a specific “pureness” about it. We exercise it, so to speak, for ourselves alone; there is absolutely nothing to be gotten type it in a material sense. Listening is its own benefit; there are no prizes to be won, no contests of creative listening. However I hold that person lucky who has the present, for there are couple of satisfaction in art greater than the safe sense that one can recognize appeal when one encounters it … Recognizing the lovely in an abstract art like music takes part somewhat of a small wonder.
Echoing Goethes exuberant case for the perceptive powers of beginners mind, he writes:.
The sensitive amateur, even if he does not have the prejudices and preconceptions of the professional artist, is often a surer guide to the true quality of a piece of music. The ideal listener … would combine the preparation of the qualified expert with the innocence of the user-friendly amateur … The perfect listener, above all else, has the ability to lend himself to the power of music.
[…] Without theories and without presumptions of what music should be, [the gifted listener] lends himself as a sentient human being to the power of music … We all listen on a primary aircraft of musical awareness … On that level, whatever the music might be, we experience fundamental reactions such as tension and density, openness and release, a smooth or mad surface, the musics swellings and subsidings, its pressing forward or hanging back, its length, its speed, its thunders and whisperings– and a thousand other psychologically based reflections of our physical life of movement and gesture, and our inner, subconscious mental life.
One of William Blakes paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. (Available as a print.).
In essence, music carries out a captivated act of subconscious storytelling. (Which might be why Maurice Sendak thought about musicality the key to fantastic storytelling.) In a belief at very first blush inflammatory, particularly for music-lovers and specifically originating from an artist, Copland composes:.
The power of music to move us is something quite special as a creative phenomenon [] I do not hold that music has the power to move us beyond any of the other arts.
The particular power of music, as Copland conceives of it, makes me think of what it seems like to stand underneath the star-salted sky seeing deep space, with all of its immensity and intimacy– that grand cosmic silence singing with everything there is. He composes:.
There is something about music that keeps its range even at the minute that it engulfs us. It is at the exact same time outdoors and far from us and inside and part of us. In one sense it dwarfs us, and in another we master it. We are led on and on, and yet in some weird way we never ever lose control. It is the extremely nature of music to give us the distillation of sentiments, the essence of experience transfused and heightened and expressed in such fashion that we might contemplate it at the same instant that we are swayed by it.
Aaron Copland conducting in rehearsal at the Shed, Tanglewood. (Date and professional photographer unknown. Library of Congress Archives.).
Leaning on philosopher Susanne Langers prominent query into what gives music its power and her conclusion that “music is our misconception of the inner life,” Copland returns to the talented listener as an important instrument for the power of music and a vital agent in its collaborative mythmaking:.
A healthy musical interest and a broad musical experience sharpens the important faculty of even the most skilled amateur.
[…] The imagine every musician who likes his art is to involve gifted listeners all over as an active force in the musical community. The attitude of each specific listener, especially the gifted listener, is the primary resource we have in bringing to fruition the tremendous musical potentialities of our own time.
Enhance this piece of the completely informative Music and Imagination– which went on to motivate the young John Coltrane and a whole generation of other artists– with composer Elliott Schwartz, writing a generation later, on the 7 important skills of listening, then revisit Bob Dylan on music as an instrument of truth, Aldous Huxley on music as an instrument of transcendence, and a tender meditation on music and the secret of aliveness.

The poetry of music, Copland intimates, is composed both by the artist, in the development of music and its analysis in performance, and by the listener, in the act of listening that is itself the work of reflective interpretation. A century after the underappreciated genius Margaret Fuller firmly insisted that “all truth is consisted of in music and mathematics,” Copland subtleties the mathematical splendor of music with the shadings of its subjective reception in the listeners mind. In a sentiment evocative of Nabokovs popular aphorism “There is no science without elegant, and no art without realities,” Copland firmly insists that the fancy– the imaginative imagination of the gifted listener– is what renders “the truths of music, so called” significant. I hold that individual fortunate who has the present, for there are couple of enjoyments in art higher than the safe sense that one can acknowledge charm when one comes upon it … Recognizing the stunning in an abstract art like music takes part somewhat of a small wonder.
I do not hold that music has the power to move us beyond any of the other arts.

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