modes of listening 7 – the evocative mode

As a young doctor in training, I would staff the emergency psychiatry department at my associated hospital on ‘deep nights’ – the shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. As one might imagine, I encountered human misery of countless varieties, from suicidal youth with activated charcoal-besmirched faces, having had to swallow the stuff to neutralize the poisons they had ingested, to phencyclidine-intoxicated paranoid fighters having been somehow spared from suicide-by-police, to battered women fresh from their latest beating, having not yet reached the ‘honeymoon’ phase when they would go back to their husbands. In spite of all this wretchedness, there was real satisfaction to be had through encountering such pathos and being able to do something, however small, to attenuate their misery. At the same time, I held my own deep sadness at my helplessness in face of such depths of the human condition. I would go home, exhausted, and collapse into bed with all these feelings and the sense that last night I had done something that mattered – sad, glad, satisfied, spiritually awakened.

I left emergency psychiatry duty shortly after my training and into my academic practice of psychiatry. My new wife and I started attending Dallas Symphony concerts, then conducted by the late Eduardo Mata. One of the first we attended presented a piece I had never heard: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, a gorgeous piece of music by any measure. However, my reaction, even within the first minutes, was astounding. This collection of sounds evoked – exactly – that complex of satisfaction, sadness, and spirit that my ER work left me with – having not felt such precise, complex feelings in months and months. This mode of listening – the evocative mode – exemplifies the ineffable qualities of music, to capture nonlinguistic experience – the most complex of emotions and sensations – and recreate them through some miraculous rerouting of neural connections and personal experience. I wanted to revisit those feelings again and again, and purchased the performance of this piece by Sir Neville Marriner which to this day throws me into the selfsame state of thirty years ago.

In describing our music listening, we employ metaphors that imply much about the music as well as how we listen to it, and such metaphors often point to the evocative mode of listening . One can be ‘swept away’ by an opera, be ‘compelled’ by a Bach fugue, ‘transported’ by a symphony, or ‘inspired’ by a march. All musics have such evocative powers, and I would speculate that the range of evocations are both culture-bound as well as personal history-bound as we make those complex connections. Sometimes the musicians intend to evoke non-musical sounds and images, a good example being Claude Debussy’s La Mer symphonic poem on the sea, and what I’ve linked here, the great trio of McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams’ performance of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave. McCoy’s magnificent block chords in the left hand rolls you with massive water, and Tony Williams’ drums provide rhythmic interplay as he supplies images of the cresting and falling of waves and explosions of oceanspray. The evocative mode of listening often emerges when we hear a assemblage of cultural musical tropes which summate to take us to a particular cultural territory. A fine example is Secret Chiefs 3’s piece Personae Halloween  . The namesake tropes here are many: the minor key, the Tubular Bells/Exorcist piano obbligatos, the cello-like low block chords, the fluttery Chiroptera shredding, the dynamics of quiet and explosive returns make for spooky genius. Producers should hire Trey Spruance for film soundtracks!

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