What is listening?!
Listen harder, better, faster, and stronger
Deep Listening and idea work
What is listening?
The word listen is derived from the Old English hlysnan which means to hear, attend to, or obey.
This cluster of definitions offers insight because, in some oblique sense, there is an implication of submission in the act of listening.
In the modern day, discourses about power dynamics cast submission in a negative light. Nevertheless, there is no greater skill to cultivate in music than listening. Listening is the skill of submitting one's will as the performer or interpreter to the truth of the music.
I've written before about how to listen analytically, but this week I want to unpack some lessons I learned about listening. In particular, there are three lessons that I want to unpack:
Initiate your listening sessions.
Listen with friends.
Log your listening.
Rick Rubin and Deep Listening
This week I listened to a 60 minutes interview with Rick Rubin. For those who may not know, Rick Rubin is a co-founder of Def Jam Records and has produced a diverse range of artists, from Public Enemy to Johnny Cash.
The interviewer questioned Rubin's lack of technical input in the recording process. He doesn't sit behind the board and turn knobs, and he doesn't play any instruments. The guy is mainly hired for his excellent taste and ability to listen deeply.
One detail stood out to me in this interview. Before beginning the interview, Rubin asked everyone in the crew to participate in a two-minute meditation. He explained that the meditation would ensure that everyone was present in that moment.
This single moment sparked an epiphany about bringing intention to my listening. I often listen on the bus or while walking. And while I can be attentive, frustrations or worries about work or home could hinder my ability to fully engage the music.
Rubin's meditation made me consider adopting a similar practice before deep listening sessions. Initiating a deep listening session with meditation, mindfulness, or prayer could be an incredible way to sharpen one's senses and fully submit to the music.
I'm excited to experiment with this and hope you will try this, too.
What have I been listening to this week?
This week I've been way into a band called Luminous Orange. I discovered them in the summer of 2018, and now they are one of my go-to bands for summer jams.
Luminous Orange is from Yokohama, Japan, and has been making music since 1992. At the heart of the group is Rie Takeuchi, who is the group's principal composer and performer. Their 2007 release Sakura Swirl is the first album I listened to and the one I've spent the most time with.
Sakura Swirl is an incredibly dynamic album, but two songs, in particular, stand out to me. The second and third tracks, Every Single Child and Icicles, are some of the best guitar rock I've ever heard. The guitar parts aren't flashy or even all that technical, but the way that guitars are used to create a sense of urgency is incredible to me. The guitars are often doing more than just strumming chords, which is something I can't even say of my own music.
This week I wanted to take a closer look at the track, Every Single Child. The song is an exhilarating romp at 170 BPM, and its wall of noise demands attention from the first beat. Juxtaposing noisy guitars and angelic vocals, Every Single Child fuses the quintessential elements of shoegaze and punk rock.
And while Luminous Orange uses the idiom of rock to communicate feelings of youthful optimism and longing, the band brings a rare harmonic complexity to bear on the genre. Three guitars play throughout the song, yet not a single one is ever acting as mere chordal accompaniment.
The guitars and bass are structured primarily as single-note melodic lines that give the impression of part writing. The bass ultimately drives the harmonic progression through sequences and key shifts that seem almost imperceptible until you take a closer look. The tonality of the music is like an ambiguous image that can be observed in two different ways.
The result is seamless but also confounding. I had to make some inferences to figure out the song's chords. I was having problems pinning down the key of the song because of the way that the melodies would play with flatting and raising the seventh tone of the scale. I decided to have my friend Tim take a listen with me to see if I might be missing something.
My friend Tim has a Ph.D. in music and is an incredible drummer, pianist, and vibraphone player. When I approached him about the song, he showed me a neat tool that uses an AI algorithm to analyze a song's chords and isolate tracks. We could analyze this song while we were catching up for coffee!
We found that the song is in Ab but intentionally plays with the relationship between Ab, Db, and Bb minor. As we looked at the chords, we were able to spot several situations where the group used chord substitutions or chromaticism to play with the listener's expectations.
During my time with Tim, I realized I should ask more of my music friends to analyze music with me. The insights that we arrived at through our conversation were beyond what I could have done in a week. Technology aside, I literally got a master class in 30 minutes by spending time analyzing music with a doctorate-level musician. Listen with and to your friends, and you might learn something. What a concept!
My analysis of the song left me eager to experiment with writing guitar parts that are not chordal. I look forward to using the bass to drive harmonic development and treat guitar arrangements like choir arrangements. Using this technique will open more opportunities to move away from a single tonal center and broaden my options for changing keys within a song.
How is the musical commonplace book coming along?
This week, the songwriting commonplace book acted more like a listening log. I open the book and write what stands out whenever I start a deep listening session. I created an index card with all of Victor Wooten's elements of music so that I can remind myself what I need to listen for. I also write all the lyrics of the song I'm listening to to perform analyses.
Logging my listening has been beneficial because I can return to things that grabbed my attention. Strangely, I can hear more separation between parts as I write things down. I used to keep all of this stuff in my head, but putting it on paper allows me to correct myself or build on ideas I might have had while listening.
I've been writing other things in the book this week. I have some excerpts from literature and poems that are striking. I try to observe the grammar of the constructions that stand out to me. The hope is that I can internalize different types of structures to come up with more visual lines.
And, of course, there are snippets of lyrics, song names, band names, etc. Right now, the hardest thing to do is trust that keeping this running collection of things will pay off. I keep wanting to force something out of everything I'm writing down, but I'm still figuring out how to use this songwriting commonplace book to think.
Here are a few photos.