Posted by Eugenie Puskarz Thomas
Friday 16th January, 2015

I step into the darkness. My shadow stretches out before me as I walk through the door into the void. More light streams in. Angular over-polished surfaces gleam back at me. I move toward the centre – hands outstretched – waiting.

I feel my fingers grasp a console. A trio of screens lights up, bathing the room an artificial iridescent blue. A jumble of books, CDs and papers lies on the desk. Above them, suspended by curved iron poles and tangled wires, balances a microphone and a headset. As I sit down, a red light flicks on in the corner, illuminating the words ON AIR. I lean in, headphones on, and start to speak.

When was the last time you spoke and felt someone listen? Truly communicated one on one? In this day and age, many have speculated that the art of communication has been lost. Over the past two weeks in the Words About Music program, communication has been the fundamental objective of our course. When I walk around day to day, I see people communicating in various forms: on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or reading newspapers, magazines, and billboards…

Although every day in our busy lives it seems we are ambushed with an incessant stream of information from every angle, how much do we take in? How much do we acknowledge? Do we even value what we absorb? More often than not, we take stuff in and then we dismiss it. We don’t care any more; we are overloaded, encumbered by all this information. It’s so rare that something captives us, intrigues us.

The concept of communication has never been exclusive to our day-to-day social interactions or to journalism. Many could argue that it is also highly relevant for musicians in a performance. After all, what is it to play music if not communicate, to impart some knowledge, an emotion, a feeling or idea?

If we are to accept this definition, it can be assumed communication is vital to every aspect of our existence. We must then ask how to achieve this effectively. Both musicians and radio journalists communicate through an auditory medium, from the voice or the instrument. However there are two sides to communication: the presenter and the listening audience.

Yet, from the ‘decline’ of classical music and CD sales it seems the audience no longer wants to listen. Are we no longer communicating effectively? On the street you pass crowds of strangers, some walking together. In almost all of their ears, you see the unmistakable ivory blobs and jumble of cords leading to a music playing device. They move in their own spheres, insulated and severed from the world, but most importantly, sheltered from the noises around them. Sure, they are listening to music. But do they hear or are they trying not to hear?

Perhaps instead, the art of listening is being lost as opposed to the art of communicating.

Yet. What is it to listen? What does it mean? Is it hear? To be interested? Alain de Botton in his work ‘The Art of Travel’ paraphrases the philosopher John Ruskin -’In order to truly see something, one must draw it’. Then do we have to close our eyes to truly listen?

The current performance practices used by most professional orchestras do just this: the audience files in, and sits motionless for hours in a dim room – letting the music transport us. To be sure, we also see the players in addition to hearing them (although you wouldn’t call it particularly visually stimulating). The idea is to explore, in the purest form, what it is to hear. But in our fast paced world do we really have the patience to listen? Is it a surprise this artform is in decline?

James Judd, the musical director at National Music Camp, gave a speech on the first night. He talked about how the artform of classical music is in decline but most importantly, the simple fact that we have to inspire people to listen. And listen we did. We were transfixed. Even on the tiny 2 by 2 projector the power of Judd’s mentor Claudio Abbado and his rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No.9 was felt. We listened, understood, and comprehended the truth of the music, the purity of emotions. When the piece was over, silence remained for a full minute. Or longer; one couldn’t tell. Sitting there in that hall during the performance, that shared moment together in the audience, experiencing the overwhelming feelings expressed, culminating in the thunderous applause, I knew then we had not forgotten to listen; it is still relevant to us.

So, the next time you listen to your iPod or turn on the radio, take a moment, press pause, look around and listen to your surroundings – the birds, traffic and people around you – and appreciate what is to hear.

– Eugenie Puskarz Thomas

Words About Music participants will be blogging daily.


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