Saturday, September 20, 2008

Reflecting on Listening as Reflection

I just came across an interesting collusion of themes that arose in the course of my being so critical of Isaac Stern's memoir, My First 79 Years. Recall that my motivation for reading this book in the first place had to do with the extent to which my own efforts to be a better listener could be informed by what practicing musicians had to say about listening. After all, this whole "quest" for being a better listener had been triggered by the words of no less than Igor Stravinsky. However, my primary criticism of the book was that Stern, at least when writing through the "ghost" of Chaim Potok, whose own understanding of music probably never rose above the level of the well-intentioned amateur, offered little reflective insight into the nature of his "work." Thus, while the reader gets both a cursory summary of Stern's teachers and the sorts of lessons they provided and an exhausting (if not exhaustive) account of the performances he gave in the course of his life, there is little to read about what goes on prior to and during those performances. Stern wrote nothing about the effort of preparation, whether the composition to be performed is new or familiar and whether the other performers (conductor, orchestra, chamber ensemble) are likewise new or familiar. Presumably, preparation itself is a highly reflective activity, which involves not only taking actions but also detaching oneself from the results of those actions for the sake of evaluating them. Furthermore, as Donald Schön pointed out in his "reflective practitioner" books, that reflective activity continues into the performance itself, what Schön calls "reflection-in-action." This brings us to the punch line, which is that both of these reflective activities must primarily be grounded in that capacity for being a good listener, which was so important to Stravinsky. Presumably, Stravinsky saw fit to write about this less from his position as a composer (although composition students are taught the value of being able to hear anything they commit to notation) and more from his experiences as a conductor, primarily of his own compositions. (I suspect that he was also informed by his experiences with others who had conducted his music, such as Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet.)

This concept of reflection-in-action then invokes another of my favorite themes, which has to do with our own linguistic capacity for description. We usually talk about reflecting "on something," thus presuming that our activity of reflecting or the result of that activity (if it makes sense to talk about such a result) is grounded in an object (some thing). That presumption entails that object being static, meaning that we can "hold it still" while thinking about such matters as how it may be categorized (within the ontology of our life-world) and what attributes distinguish that object as a particular instance of its category. Where listening to music, or any other instance of reflection-in-action, is concerned, nothing can be "held still;" sound itself can only exist over a span of time. One may provide oneself with "static snapshots," whether in the form of music notation or, as Robert Cogan tried to do in some very innovative ways, through images of the very vibrations to which the ear responded, displayed as either time-domain or frequency-domain functions. Such snapshots, however, do not necessarily serve our capacity for "listening in the moment" and may even distract from it. I suspect this is one reason why the sight of a conductor working without a score at the podium is becoming more familiar. As a result, our descriptions must move beyond the noun-based limitations of objects into the verb-based realm of processes.

That last observation about conductors prompts an aside about Stravinsky's own conducting. I am not sure I ever saw him conduct (which would have been on television or in photographs) without his head buried in the score (which was always his own music for the few data points I had)! On the other hand this may be evidence that, for everything he had to say about listening, Stravinsky himself was not the most reflective of performers. It sometimes seemed as if his primary function as conductor was to "proofread" what he was hearing from the orchestra against what he was reading in the score; and I recall at least one account of Stravinsky visiting an orchestra to conduct "Le Sacre du Printemps," where Monteux was present and proved to be the better listener!

Of course the general nature of Schön's reflection-in-action involves far more than listening. In requires a broader capacity of self-monitoring, which entails the perceptual interpretation of what is both externally and internally sensed. Indeed, Gerald Edelman's model of consciousness involves not only our capacity for forming perceptual categories but also the interplay of those categories that arise from "sensation of the world" with categories based on "sensation of self." However, in the way that Edelman's model works, that sense of self not only guides any reflection on our actions but also is shaped by the actions we take, which is a fundamental principle behind what George Herbert Mead called "social behaviorism." Thus, any efforts we may make to unravel the mysteries of what it takes to be a good listener are likely to lead us back to how our listening is informed by our own sense of self and our capacities for interacting in the social world, yet another of my favorite themes!

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