modes of listening 3: the sensual mode

horn courtyard 1988

photo:  John Z. Sadler, New Orleans courtyard, 1988

Often we can recognize a mode of listening by considering the words the listener uses in describing the music or her experience. In writing about music, authors will use ripe adjectives like torrential, sparkling, limpid, hypnotic, crackling, or turgid to mention a few of the countless examples.  Using these adjectives and descriptions root particular musical experiences into the realm of the perceptual and the physical worlds.  For instance, you may have heard listeners refer to an orchestration as ‘lush’. For me, a paradigm example is Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations for Frank Sinatra during his Capital Records era. Less well known, but perhaps even more lush, are the orchestrations by Claus Ogerman, the German arranger, conductor, and composer who recorded broadly with many jazz and pop titans, including Betty Carter, Diana Krall, to Sinatra as well. “Lush” describes a feeling of comfort in the extreme, luxuriant, opulent comfort, and is a fine illustration of the sensual mode of listening. In the sensual mode, we cogitate less and let the music ‘wash’ over us like waves on beach, or the fragrances of a garden, or the warmth of the sun on our faces. My audio example here is this arrangement by Palle Mikkelborg of Dexter Gordon playing the chestnut “More Than You Know”.  When I attend a Dallas Symphony concert in our fabulous Meyerson Symphony Center, my initial mode of response to many pieces is just to soak in the cascade of sounds, immersed in a sublime acoustic.

Not all music in the sensual mode needs to exhibit “lushness’ like in the prior examples. Attending to the sensual elements in a composition or performance may embrace a wide scope of perceptions, as music writers’ adjectives reveal to us. In this piece from the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration on ‘Porgy and Bess’ the orchestration is spare, but the sensuality emerges from the combination of musical elements and the distinctive stylistic voices of the key players on this performance: Davis, drummer Elvin Jones, and Evans as the arranger.  The descending syncopated line in the horns provides the theme, and Jones responds with his own variations all over the kit throughout the performance. His drum fills provide a broad variety of timbres, rhythms, and textures expanding the range of sounds for the listener. His ride cymbal provides a high-frequency shimmer throughout Davis trumpet solo, contrasting dramatically with Davis’ signature Harmon-muted brooding tone. Davis’ dancing short phrases with broad intervals are punctuated by Jones’ rim-snare snaps. For me, the sensuality of the performance is akin to a complex, toothsome dish in a restaurant. Tasty.



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