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!

modes of listening 5: reverie

We do this every day, though perhaps less so with the explosion of smart phone use, where spare moments are spent flipping through dubiously interesting posts on social media. But going into a reverie is what I’m talking about here. Call it daydreaming, call it trance, it can be an altered state of consciousness psychologists call (normal) dissociation, and it enables us to go on auto-pilot in doing repetitive daily activities. For example, you’re driving to work with the radio off, and you’re thinking about what you have to do that day. Before you know it you’re driving up to your parking lot. Perhaps a more disturbing example is ‘highway hypnosis’, which is the experience of not remembering the last 200 miles you drove on a long highway trip. Nevertheless, highway hypnosis is a common example of normal dissociation, and you probably didn’t hit a pedestrian anywhere . . . as long as drugs or alcohol were not involved.

The brain works as a colossal interconnected network of overlapping connections, connections of connections more properly, and the hierarchical organization of the brain enables us to do simple, vegetative things (digest food, breathe) without paying any attention at all, and once habituated into more complex activities like driving a car, many of those activities can be automatic as well, at least as long as the routines are not disrupted. In the latter case, a car running a stop sign in front of you snaps you out of automatic pilot, reverie mode.

Calling this state of consciousness the reverie mode of listening may seem to stretch the concept of ‘listening’, because in this mode of consciousness the music becomes a background, a soundtrack, for the flow of our primary thinking; what is ‘on our mind’ in the moments of primary awareness. Indeed, the reverie mode of listening is characteristic of the experience of music in a compelling movie experience. The viewer becomes taken up in the visual images and narrative action of the film, and the soundtrack, if it’s doing its primary work, recedes into a background which underscores, amplifies, intensifies, and suggests meanings and emotions . You are still ‘listening’ to the soundtrack music, but it calls only secondary attention from your primary attention to images and action. Of course, there are times when the soundtrack music becomes part of the primary narrative action – as in this scene from the film La La Land. Here the music is the primary experience. Amazingly, the music can turn into the background of our consciousness on a dime. That’s the art of the soundtrack composer to move from the reverie background to the foreground dance as the story demands.

For me, the reverie mode of listening is an important creative tool. When you are thinking about a problem or a creative project, reverie breaks your thinking out of the rigid, stereotypic paths, and leads you to new associations, with new connections and perhaps new solutions and novel ideas.

Some genres of music intend to provoke the listener into reverie. Brian Eno was a pioneer of ‘ambient’ music in the 1970’s, and he still explores the genre he help define today not just in his own recordings but in software and apps . Musics around the world invoke reverie with the intent of deepening spiritual experience, from the Master Musicians of Jajouka  to medieval Gregorian chant. The master of contemporary ‘minimalism’ in classical music, Steve Reich, evokes reverie in many of his pieces, with his Music for 18 Musicians , an amazing work where overlapping textures, rhythms, pitches, and meters ebb and flow, rapidly inducing a state of reverie in the receptive listener.