The Art of Listening

Nymphs Listening to the Songs of Orpheus
Charles François Jalabert
Okay... for the interval of your next five breaths,  just focus on your hearing and make a catalog of the number of discreet sounds you’re perceiving.  Go ahead.  How many different sounds or sources do you identify?  Some are near at hand, others are out of sight and some, I expect, are off in the distance.  At present, I’m hearing a fan next to me, the call of a bird out the window, a mower off in the distance and, oh, yes...much closer ...a high-pitched whine ringing in my ears (tinnitus?).   Some sounds you may be quite conscious of, while others may have surprised you that they were even there to be heard.

Our sense of hearing is designed primarily as an early warning system to inform us of opportunities (“It’s a prospective lunch!”) or threats  (“I’m a prospective lunch!”) that are not visible.  It’s a function of the auditory processing parts of our brain to filter out some sounds and make them wallpaper - they no longer signal a threat or opportunity and the brain files them away so we can be more aware of any new sound that comes along.  Other sounds are given precedence - sirens,  squealing tires, or,  inexplicably, the voices of kids playing “Marco Polo” in the pool next door.

At some point in human history, our sense of hearing became a very important component of the communication system - the receptor of that system of audio symbols we call spoken language.  At another point in our history - perhaps even before the advent of language - we began to create music: art that was to be perceived through the ears.  Music functions like verbal communication, sometimes, but at others it does not and it is unique in our experience.

So unique is that experience that, in western culture, we built concert halls and created events that were specifically designed as music delivery systems.  This tradition still continues, but it is being transformed (some would say “threatened”)  by technological and social changes that adversely affect our aural attention span.  I firmly believe that for music, and especially symphonic music, to remain viable, we have to re-capture and do whatever we can to enhance the magic of the listening experience for those in attendance. 

As music director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic, I am passionate about its present and future.  The music director’s traditional concern can be summed up as: “What is the orchestra playing and how well is it playing it?”.  But I must be as concerned with another question of equal importance: “What are people in the audience hearing and how well are they hearing it?”   

Orchestra education programs are certainly nothing new, but I believe that the emphasis on the act of listening to art for the ear may be lost under a plethora of well-intended details about flutes and Bach and sonata form.   In our concerts, the orchestra is on stage in bright lights, and the soloist and conductor make their entrances, but it is actually the listener in the seat who is the featured artist.

Don Quixote Composing A Sonata for Viola

Don Quixote und Sancho Pansa
by Honoré Daumier, 1868
It’s “stealth” composition.

One of the few times I’ve written a piece with no particular occasion in mind, and my only assay in writing a chamber piece thus far.

It’s called a sonata and I like the term, with its prescribed formal characteristics and heritage, but I’m also aware that the established features are quite arbitrary.  I think of the piece and the form itself as an essay - or perhaps more like a musical diary- an intimate, personal musical vehicle with some emphasis on abstract content (form, harmony, melody, development, recapitulation) supplied by tradition.

But I’m recalling that I have not always looked with delight on the prospect of hearing a sonata on a recital program.  There can be a prosaic,  perfunctory quality to the writing in some (at least, it so seemed to me in years past - I have heard few sonatas recently) and there is no sense of adventure or engagement of the listener in the music.  The term “sonata” denotes a piece to be played (rather than sung) and I wonder if composers have tended to think of it primarily as music for the pleasure of the player, rather than that of any listener.  The music becomes about the performers.

I have decided to allow myself to be very spontaneous in the composition and structuring of the piece. Specifically, I have it in mind to shape the piece to suit a listener with a short attention span (or ADD), change the subject a lot, go off on tangents, circle back, cross-reference, multi-task, channel-surf and any other analogies one can think of for basically indulging in a musical fantasy with, I hope, enough traditional structure to lend some bone matter to the piece.

The component about cognition is an important one - I wonder to what extent any composer has ever thought of what the listeners will be experiencing and how different individuals in an audience might process things in an individual way. Most of the time, in talking about the actual composition process, composers tend to talk about a given piece in terms of what it demanded, formally or harmonically or what have you. (Lerdahl and Jackendorff, in “A Generative Theory of Tonal Music”, do look at composition and analysis from the perspective of  neurocognition. Haven’t read it yet, no.)

Well, to try to account for how individuals will process a given piece is a futile exercise, as even a small group of people will have wildly differing perceptive capabilities, so, in the end, the composer satisfies his own sense of form and style in a work. I’m doing this, too, but I find that I always have some imaginary listener in mind and occasionally, that listener might be me, with an attention problem and an eagerness to be lured and led and charmed and engaged and even arrested, in episodes that change out and recur with some frequency.

"Hope..." and Audacity

My setting of Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” is intended to be a kind of anthem to be sung at Mount Holyoke’s homecoming, known as “Family and Friends Weekend”.  The poem seemed a fitting choice for a piece d’occasion, as a secular affirmation of faith and a celebration of the heritage of the college. Emily Dickinson attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the college’s predecessor, and the poem is one of her more popular ones. I had talked about the project with my colleague Kimberly Dunn Adams, the choral director, and she agreed that it would be good for there to be a tailor-made piece for performance by the students and the Family Choir (parents and friends) that gathers that day.

So it was that on a gorgeous morning in the first week in July, I sat down before a blank sheet of music manuscript and a copy of the poem and started making up music. My computer and synthesizer were not on speaking terms, so I had to resort to the old fashioned method of pencil on paper and I found it enjoyable. It is a particularly fun exercise to look over a poem and see it as a kind of “map” of what the music can do in relation to the words. (Technological problems would continue through the summer and threatened to bring the whole project to a dead stop in September.)

I had come up with an opening motive for the first words “‘Hope’ is the thing…” - up a fifth, down a fourth, up another fifth - D-A-E-B - strong and ascendant.  And I sketched away with delight, sitting at the open sliding door in Bernice Hartman’s livingroom in her light-filled and airy house in the woods in Tuscarawas County, Ohio.

Outside, behind the house, hissed a stream that dropped through a crevice in rocks to form a waterfall with an adenoidal gurgle. The wooded ravine, on an early summer morning, was alive with bird calls, and one - that of a robin (I thought) - attracted my attention, as it used a motive that is a reduction the tune I had come up with for the first phrase. And that introduced the notion of underlining the avian metaphor by writing bird calls for a flute ensemble to play in the hall at points in the piece. So I sat there taking dictation from the birds, feeling only a little like Olivier Messaien, who listened to much more complicated birds than I.

One of my first ideas for the setting was one I shared with Kim back in the spring, and that was the sound of voices whispering the first verse in canon. I imagined the sound to be something like the rustling and flapping of wings.  I further realized that his whispering chorus was a role that the audience could play in the piece, and that what I was creating was more than a choral setting of a famous poem, but an event - an opportunity for performers and audience to “make” the piece.

The third verse begins with an evocative line: “I’ve heard it in the chillest land,”. The word “chillest” sounds like a shiver, and I could imagine the sound of the accented “ch” as it echoed around Abbey Chapel.  I decided that while the audience whispered the text, the chorus would sing it on reciting tones, as chant. Back in my days of deep involvement with Episcopalian liturgy, I once sang such a chant to the accompaniment of free ringing handbells and the experience is a little like levitating. I decided to employ the technique here and this brought the handbell choir in on the collaboration. I used them at other points in the piece as well.

The middle verse, “And surest in the gale is heard” allowed me to write some storm music, and to create a new melody for the chorus that could be repeated several times as the storm builds in the orchestra. The choral part, by the way, had to be kept conjunct and rhythmically uncomplicated to allow for performance by students and amateurs on very limited rehearsal time.

Along with bird calls, there are two other sounds of nature that, I feel, have especially potent “musical” qualities and those are the different varieties of rainfall and thunder.  I had hoped to be able to incorporate these effects in the piece by means of a synthesizer but that element will have to wait for a second installment. As it is, I employed some low rumbles in the bass instruments (especially using some dull roaring fifths below the actual harmonic bass pitch) to simulate the effect of distant thunder.

Dickinson’s poem succinctly concludes with the third quatrain and on a meek, rather self-deprecating note, which was not the tone I wanted to finish with.  So, I took the liberty of recapping the first verse and it’s anthemic tune, sung first by the choir, then the audience is invited to join in as the treble voices sing a descant.  This makes for an affirming, ringing finale that drifts off into a cloud of handbells, bird calls and the voices of all participants as they whisper the first verse again, to a conducted fade out.

Those whispered texts are, perhaps, the closest many of the participants (myself included) have come to praying in public for some time.  All the while I worked on the composition, the ‘08 presidential campaign was being waged and I was gratified that the poem linked with the  hope-filled message of Barack Obama. Only a few weeks later, those prayers were answered with an even more ringing affirmation.

"Peter Grimes" at the Octoplex

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.
As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull
The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be–
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
Neither Out Far Nor In Deep
Robert Frost (1936)

There is a fleeting, awkward moment in the first scene in act one of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”, when the inhabitants of The Borough are assembled on the waterfront at dawn. After greetings to principals and petty gossip, sniping, and customary gentilities, there sounds an abrupt discord in the orchestra. Wise old Captain Balstrode squints out to sea and describes the storm that is brewing: “…the wind is holding back the tide. If it veers ‘round, watch for your lives.”

In the Prologue that precedes this first scene there is a similar parade of main characters that introduced each to the audience. There, in a makeshift courtroom, a hearing is underway to determine the cause of death of Grimes’ apprentice. Each principal is called to give testimony and each reveals more about his own character and motivation than about the incident in question. So there is a redundancy in the opening scenes, with all of the principals identified by name, and relations between them depicted in brief exchanges. Then, in the second “introduction”, the subject of the weather is abruptly brought up, announced by the melodramatic chord in the oboes. The placement makes “The Storm” another character in the story and the portentous chord seems a little obvious.

The Storm arrives on stage in the second scene, with Balstrode and Grimes shouting defiantly into the wind as the rest of the cast heads for cover. Balstrode urges Grimes to leave The Borough, or at least, marry Ellen, the widowed schoolmarm who cares for him. Grimes rejects the first suggestion - The Borough is home and these people, as petty, narrow and dismissive as they are, are his people. As for the second, Grimes seems to want to achieve some kind of commercial success and status, to beat the townspeople at their own game and win their approval, before settling down with Ellen. As the storm music builds in the orchestra, he sings the soaring phrase: “Her heart is harbor, too, where night is turned to day.”

According to Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, women in the fishing village have an assigned role: to be the opposite of life at sea for the men. In a later scene, Ellen, Auntie (the proprietress of “The Boar”, the local pub), and Auntie’s two “nieces” sing an ensemble in reaction to being dismissed by the men from the important business of the community. Auntie asks: “And need we be ashamed because we comfort men from ugliness?” And the four join in the refrain: “Do we smile or do we weep or wait quietly ‘til they sleep?”

Well, one has to make allowances. This is opera, after all, and things have to be baldly stated in the lyrics, much as one attempts to be poetic, because it all goes by pretty fast, even when the tempo is languid. More important, Britten and Slater were two gay men trying to write about heterosexual relationships and the best model that they seem to have had is their own relationships with their mums. So, even the young prostitutes assume a maternal role in the ensemble. It is, however, the most sublime music in the opera.

Similarly, Grimes repeatedly refers to Ellen as a refuge from the vicissitudes of life. Love, companionship, community - all forms of human interrelating, but especially love, are the opposite of “The Storm” - life, with all of its contrariness, isolation, cruelty, pain and death. The storm/life metaphor was easy to read in the recent Metropolitan Opera production.

On Saturday, March 15, I sat in a movie theater in North Canton, Ohio, watching the Met HD live broadcast of the matinee performance, and, often, found myself sobbing uncontrollably. The meaning of tears as a symbol and signal in the perception of art is a subject I want to explore in detail sometime, because tears do seem to represent some deeper level of perception in the aesthetic experience. But for now, I’ll isolate some of the thoughts and feelings that flowed with the tears.

I was so grateful for the opportunity to finally see a staged production of this opera. I first encountered it thirty-five years ago, and only now was I seeing it performed, and that by virtue of the miracle of digital technology and the entrepreneurial vision of Peter Gelb at the Met who thought of the idea to broadcast live to movie houses around the globe.

I was grateful to hear it so well played and sung. The Met Orchestra is a crack group, led here by the formidable Donald Runnicles, and the engineering was worthy of the great musicianship at play in the execution of the score. The sound was deep, rich, well balanced, beautifully mixed and it was thrilling to hear Britten’s complex textures and colors performed live. Much as I admire film scores, studio orchestras and film composers working today, Britten’s score takes things to another level altogether and to hear it sound so spectacular in real time was deeply gratifying. I have always found Britten’s music to be arresting and profoundly expressive, and the artistry also inspired tears.

The voices were spectacular. Patricia Racette’s Ellen Orford was a warm and vibrant mezzo, Anthony Michaels-Moore (Balstrode) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Ned Keane) both have commanding baritones and Bob Boles’ ringing tenor (as sung by Greg Fedderly) made his ringing, judgmental inveighings entirely earnest and credible. The title role was played by Anthony Dean Griffey, a young man of towering physical presence. His voice is exquisite for its combination of intelligence, power and lyricism.

The chorus is given a unique role in this opera, being more than mere extras for crowd scenes and massed vocal textures. They are another character on stage that relates to the named principals, musically and dramatically. Indeed, the provincialism and gossip of the residents of The Borough is as much a force in the story as is the storm. The Met Chorus sounded splendid and impressively tight even in the rhythmically tricky sea chantey “Old Joe has gone fishing”. The camera gave us glimpses of characters and actual acting taking place within the ranks of the Met Chorus, lending depth and texture to the dramatic action.

This brings up some complaints I have with aspects of the Met production. I wished that the stage had not been so flat - some platforms to either side downstage would have lent some verticality to the crowd scenes and allowed the audience to see more of the characters being played in the chorus.
The weathered wooden wall served as a good backdrop and a blank, unyielding exterior against which the drama was played. Doorways and windows opened to provide narrow frames in which characters appeared - an image of the lives being lived behind the shuttered windows of the homes in The Borough. However, the same wall was made to serve as the interior of The Boar and I wished someone had thought that out more to make it seem less perfunctory and merely cost-effective.
As good, overall, as the acting was, I felt that there was much that could have been filled out in the character of Griffey’s Grime. In scene two, he comes into the pub from the storm looking none the worse for wear (when the libretto calls for him to look particularly disheveled and mad). The powerfully poetic and lyrical “Now as the Great Bear and Pleaides…” should be a glimpse of Grimes the visionary poet as he sings to himself over a pint at the bar. In the negative space of the too-improvised Boar interior and with the chorus sitting at his elbow, the aria had no particular effect because the set up and the staging seemed prosaic.

What if the chorus had frozen and Griffey was able to wander among them, musing aloud on mortality, regret and loneliness, trying to make eye contact with this one or that, before returning to his drink and concluding the soliloquy? The sporadic choral entrances (”He’s mad or drunk.”) that follow would be perfect music to reanimate the chorus and for time to move on.

Grimes is a cantankerous protagonist, and there is much about him that is ambiguous. It’s never clear whether he is culpable in the death of the apprentice and his relations with the replacement later in the story veer from caustically abusive to somewhat parental to something vaguely pedophilic. (That impression may stem from the knowledge that Britten was particularly attracted to young boys. A little research online reveals that pederasty was alluded to in initial drafts of the libretto.) One thing that is quite clear about Grimes, however, is that he is lonely. Even as he dismisses The Borough and its inhabitants, he feels a link with the place and its people and wants their acceptance. And, yes, he longs for that special, defining relationship with Ellen.

Anthony Dean Griffey’s Grimes seems too young for Ellen Orford and its hard to glimpse what they see in each other. On the other hand, she and the dapper Balstrode (Anthony Michaels-Moore - we are in the land of the Three-Named People) would seem to have a promising future as they stand together on the beach as Grimes sails off to suicide.

Seeing the opera brought back memories with vividness and I realized why this rather simple story grabbed me as a lovelorn high school senior. It is about loneliness, really, and it dramatized a too familiar reality. For all of its overwrought sentiment about male/female relationships, the yearnings of Grimes voiced my own longings then and now. That the story ends with his suicide only heightens the tragedy of loneliness and dreams denied.

The Message: Storm and Sea
In the end, it was the storm that impressed me the most. The metaphor prompted thoughts - these poor characters, stuck in their fishing village, seeing life as a dangerous, fearful experience, and thwarted in their bids for happiness through meaningful relationships. It’s the paranoid’s view of the human condition that sees one as being victimized by life. But if one keeps in mind that Britten and his circle were gay men in a society that prosecuted homosexuality, the metaphor becomes less easy to dismiss. A loving relationship appeared as a dreamy paradise and society and all of life outside of that relationship were threats to that vision of happiness in 1940’s Britain. I was vividly reminded of a storm I witnessed on a previous March 15, and its portent of threat to a harbor I had found.

And at the conclusion, there is Britten’s music, with its lingering gestures depicting the ceaseless motions of the sea and of time, and the large themes of love, isolation, loneliness, death and regret.

Tim, Johnny, Helena and Sweeney, alas…

I so wanted to like it. I saw the original cast on stage in Boston and it was an evening that changed my life, at least in terms of what I might have aspired to in creating music theater.

Tim Burton has such a unique style and that he even wanted to tackle “Sweeney” made me cheer. Another production! And Johnny Depp’s ability to create an intense and nuanced character excited my imagination, though I couldn’t imagine how he would manage the vocal aspects of this very operatic score. Well, “special effects” are usually visual effects, so maybe a creative director like Tim Burton will figure out an audio equivalant. Or maybe Johnny will concoct a singing style that will emerge from his characterization of Sweeney and make him even more sympathetic and give voice to his deep rage at the injustice that ran in the streets of 19th century London.

I was bothered immediately when the brooding, dark organ prelude played behind the Warner Bros trademark and the shimmering image of the WB studio lot. Why not show those, then begin with a dark screen and that music? I tried to let Burton do what he felt he needed to do make the transition from stage to film, but I kept seeing mistakes and harmful omissions. It kept reminding me of “Nightmare Before Christmas” and especially “The Corpse Bride”, with their coy ghoulishness, especially whenever Helena “sang”. “Sweeney” is only tongue-in-cheek in the “Try a little priest” scene. (Which was pretty effective though I wish they had not cut any of the song.)

All of the voices were recorded so closely that it sounded as though the microphone was placed between their teeth. The singing was not happening in the same “space” in which the actors were moving and speaking. The music, so central to Stephen Sondheim’s creation, here it seemed as though it was piped in and not intrinsic to the drama.

Much of the vocal performance was sort of pop style, with lots of swooping into pitches and innocent-sounding unsupported tone. Anthony was a wimp. Johnny Depp went to a raw voiced, rocker sound early and had no where to go for “I’m alive at last, and I’m full of joy!” or the lament over the dead Lucy. The tenor range seemed just wrong for Sweeney. (The woman singing Joanna redeemed “Green finch and linnet bird” for me, however. Though the staging of it missed the whole point of the song! Jeesh! “Uh, Steve, we thought we’d just leave out that part and not bother with the girl and bird in the cage parallel, okay?” “Uh, well…okay. I guess…how much am I getting paid for this? Oh…sure…whatever…”) I don’t get it.

I could make a long list, but there were two things that bothered me the most and leave me with the opinion that the movie is a failure. The first is the nonsequitur that occurs when Joanna is in danger of being murdered by Sweeney and he lets her go. Something was out of order in the stage action as adapted here, I think, and it seemed awkward and very unthrilling when Sweeney just let her go. (I recall holding my breath in terror when I saw that scene on stage, and was relieved when she escaped.)

The second was the bloodletting of Sweeney at the end (’way overdone!!!) and the omission of the ballad at the close, because in one lyric, the point of the story is made: it’s not about cannibalism, much less about copious amounts of very fake looking blood, the story is about revenge in the face of social injustice. “No where to run, no where it hide, isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” Revenge is shown to be a most compelling motive, especially in a situation as unjust as was portrayed in the story, but it is a WMD and revenge easily involves the innocent and creates more injustice and does nothing, really, to set things right.

Forget the movie, find the original cast soundtrack - it works as audio theater. Or find the video that was made of the original cast production. Or come see it when we stage it with the Tusc Phil…someday… “Oh, Mr. Burton, sir, if you please, can you spare 50 grand?”