Listen harder

Endurance sessions of comparative listening are not for everyone’s taste, but, aided by sufficient quantities of libations and good company, it can be great fun, and certainly illuminating.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of taste-testing, listening to a few cool bits of each version to see how they might stack up, but, with very few exceptions, a musical performance is not something that benefits from a quick taste before spitting out.

I’m reminded of one session with my sister (also a musician) many years ago when we were both working on the Enigma Variations. Over the course of several hours we listened to every recording I had, every recording she had and a couple from the library that neither of us knew.

To our credit, we listened to each complete performance, but in the comparative atmosphere, it is easy to hear only facets of each performance rather than the whole thing. It becomes instantly apparent that the woodwind intonation on recording y is not so hot, or that conductor c likes to take time for deceptive cadences or that the brass on disc z are particularly hot. You can see who does the softest opening of Nimrod, who does and doesn’t use organ in the finale and so on.

Interestingly, one disc did stand out completely from the pack. Although we had, to say the least, had spirited differences of opinion on every other recording, we quickly agreed on one thing- it was almost without “facets.” The theme was done much more simply and “straight” than any of the others, there wasn’t a huge variety of interesting colors, nothing seemed particularly interestingly shaped or moulded. It was definitely not my favourite orchestra playing. I’d say it was no nonsense in the extreme.

However, when we got to Nimrod and the first major arrival of that movement, we both felt something big, something cosmic happen, like the grim reaper himself walking right over our graves, and the same thing happened in the finale- a big, cathartic “wow” moment that no other recording had been able to deliver or even really hint at. We both came away with the impression that this was the only conductor who both knew and could put accross what the “Enigma” in the variations was.

Once we’d heardthe whole thing, we could both look back and, as musicians, see what the conductor was up to- the approach seemed so logical seen from the reverse. By downplaying the episodic quality of the piece, he was able to intensify the overall, cumulative effect of the work where it counted most. What might have seemed at first a matter-of-fact approach to phrasing was in fact an intentionally un-sentimental one, and this is a piece that benefits from a certain stoicism.

Frankly, all the other performers we’d sampled sounded like students by comparison (and there were some very distinguished recordings in this category). I’m usually quick to defend interpreters who like to take note of the trees and to smell the flowers and gild the lilies, but the evidence here was clear that there was a big price to that approach- none of the others were able to make the whole piece arrive with anything like the same degree of power.

It would have been easy to miss the point with this recording- we could have been put off early on by the not-so-super-refined orchestra playing or the slightly brusque treatment of some of the early movements. If we’d been slightly distracted at the key moments, we might have missed the point entirely. The recorded sound is not fantastic.

What’s scary about this is that two professional musicians who know the piece well might have missed out on the lesson had we not been lucky enough to follow it all the way through under the right listening conditions. If we had just sampled the performance, it would never have made either of our shortlists. We both learned something from the experience about our own listening.

It is fashionable these days to say that anyone can enjoy music, and that is true to an extent, but there is more to music than enjoyment. Listening can be an art form, and we can get better at it with help and practice. Copland even wrote a whole book on how to listen to music.

It’s a difficult subject to broach with the casual listener- nobody wants to be told they’re listening wrong, but the point is not that they’re listening “wrong,” the point is that they could be getting more out of listening to music- that they could be enjoying it more. I get the feeling that a lot of listeners who eventually give up on concerts do so because they’re frustrated at not being in on some big secret- if we can help them to develop the tools to understand why they respond to music the way they do, I think they’d be listeners for life. In fact, I’d say that once anyone learns some basic listening skills (including learning how to develop your listening skills), they’ll always have music as part of their life.

Most of all, it’s worth pointing out that unease is an important part of any artistic experience- if a performance or a piece is aggravating you or making you unsure of what’s going on, it may be a good sign, but the only way to know for sure is to keep listening and to hold off judgement until the end (maybe to the end of the fifth or sixth listen). The point is not that the performer or the composer benefits from your hard work and patience, but that you benefit from theirs.

I’ll be accepting guesses for which recording of the Enigma Variations I am talking about via the comment function for a few days before I reveal the winner.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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4 comments on “Listen harder”

  1. Erik K

    I’ll take two guesses:

    Sir Henry Wood
    William Steinberg

    I’m sure I couldn’t be more wrong…;-)

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » LInL- James Smock

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