Thursday, January 30, 2014

Some Thoughts on Listening

A little while ago Hazel and I went out to an event called Long Winter. It was largely a musical showcase, featuring a number of musicians in different places all over the Great Hall. The headlining act, if there was one, was The Hidden Cameras, a band I'd never seen, though I did see Joel Gibb play at one of Jason Collett's basement revue parties at the Dakota. 

Hazel and I were there because Chris Eaton, one of our authors and a musician himself, had been asked to read, which was cool -- how often does an author get to read from his work in front of upwards of a thousand people? I thought he did a great job despite the fact that no one was really listening, and The Hidden Cameras were setting up their equipment and doing a sound check on the same stage while he was reading. 

There is a curious relationship between music and writing that permits some similarities, yet my experience of the two things together usually reveals them as radically different entities. I've been to a few of Collett's review shows, which feature both musicians and writers, but let's face it, everyone is there to hear the musicians. Jason is very cool about it, thought. He will take a moment to prep the audience before an author comes on stage to read, letting them know what's about to happen and they all need to be quiet and listen. Which always makes me wonder what people are doing when they are listening to music. I wish that the organizers of Long Winter had thought to do that when they introduced Chris, because the audience there showed me what people do do when listening to live music -- they listen with a lot more than their ears -- they use their eyes, their whole body, their voices, even their clothing and the beer they are drinking. You might call it visceral listening. 

Listening to someone read a poem or a story is a much different affair, and it requires the listener to quiet down most of themselves and others to do it. There are a lot of awkward silences, which I myself have come to love both as a reader and as a listener. In the realm of poetry, I think the closest to listening to music would be performative sub-genres like sound poetry or spoken word; sound poetry for obvious reasons and spoken word (which has nothing to do with sound poetry at all as far as I'm concerned) because what is required of a listener is actually similar to listening to a live performance by The Hidden Cameras. This activity requires what I am calling visceral listening. But listening to a voice reading -- that kind of listening is very subtle and difficult. Yes it is visceral -- I find it to be an embodied experience -- but nothing like listening to live music. I think I might call listening to a reading sur-visceral listening. 

As someone who spends a lot of time listening to both music and to readings, I can appreciate the difficulties of doing both. But what I find interesting is what happens when you put the two together.  Recently Jason Collett has been mixing it up at the basement review gigs -- he has musicians collaborate with writers during their performances. Which seems pretty cool until you realize that he is bringing the writing into music to make it more "understandable" to the crowd that has paid the price of admission to listen to live music. Examples of such events of this category include last year's Michael Ondaatje reading with Feist and Ariel Engel, and more recently, not even a month ago, when Margaret Atwood read with The Sadies and Anne Waldman read with AroarA. (Yes, you readers who live in Toronto, did you even know that Anne Waldman was here last December?) I am not finding fault at all in Jason's attempt to put on a good show and to please what he understands as his audience, and I am all for collaborations between artistic disciplines. But I do find it interesting that the "big ticket" literature that turns up at his shows gets reframed so that one can listen to it as though it were music. As someone who knows how and enjoys listening to readings, I found afterward that I didn't really hear the literature at all. But that's because I was listening  to it viscerally rather than sur-viscerally. Why? Because visceral listening is perhaps the default mode of listening, more easily accessed as members of a 21st Century culture. 

I've started up my Long Poem Workshop again and part of each session is spent reading a long poem from the New Long Poem Anthology out loud as a group. I don't know why, but it has to be one of my favourite sonic experiences -- each contributor to a group consciousness adding their voice through the sharing of a text. The result is something academic that isn't about grades but is about thought. I think all that those who participate each week are brought into something unique through their voices, their listening, their attention. It feels like a shelter from the storm of chatter going on everywhere these days -- the same sort of chatter that drove Mallarm√© crazy whenever he was out in public -- banal vocalizations about nothing -- 

Now I've gotten to the point where I can't quite remember why I set out to make these distinctions about listening. It can't be simply because I wished more people would listen to poets -- that would be silly. Poetry isn't for everyone, the same way that not everyone likes head cheese or boiled tongue. Maybe it matters and maybe it doesn't. Really, these are just some thoughts I had as I think about the world, and I have a bit of a cold today, I'm a little je ne sais pas. But wouldn't it be nice if more people listened to things with extra intensity -- to music, to poetry, and to each other?

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