How to listen to modern music

A couple of nights ago I attended a concert celebrating Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th Birthday in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. This was the first time I had attended a concert of the composer’s music, and – as I must shamefully admit – the first time I had listened to his music properly. What I mean by ‘properly’ is that I listened to each piece from start to finish, with as much concentration as I could muster. I was eager to wring from the experience as much of an aesthetic response as possible.


The composer Harrison Birtwistle celebrates his 80th birthday this year.


Obviously, I am no Birtwistle expert and I will therefore not pursue an analysis of his music or a critical review of this performance here. But what surprised me about this performance was that it was not completely incomprehensible to me. Previously I had been scared of approaching Birtwistle. The word on the street is that Birtwistle’s music is incomprehensible unless you have spent considerable time listening and studying it. In other words, one can only appreciate this music if one ‘understands’ it.

And yet, I was able to find many aspects his music to appreciate. In the two pieces for larger ensemble, Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum and Cortège, I found myself gripped by the different timbral combinations. For me, listening to Birtwistle’s music was like looking at an abstract painting. Abstract art does not attempt to depict anything specific, and instead one appreciates how the artist combines colours in interesting ways. This was how I listened to Birtwistle’s music, taking pleasure in the strange and inventive ways he experiments with sound.

This kind of enjoyment did not rely on a prior understanding of this music. Instead, it relied on a rather elementary fascination with sound. This basic fascination is something everyone is capable of. It requires no learning, but simply a curiosity, a willingness to hear the unexpected and the new. And I do not think that this kind of basic listening is a requirement that is unique to ‘difficult’ music such as Birtwistle’s. I was once told that as a music student I should listen to sonatas ‘analytically’. In being able to identify the first and second theme, and the moment of recapitulation (generally the climax of the movement) I would be able to appreciate the music ‘better’. But many people love listening to Mozart Piano Sonatas without ever having studied music in their lifetime, and I am not convinced that they appreciate Mozart’s music any less because they cannot listen ‘analytically’.

Is it therefore necessary for one to ‘understand’ music in order to appreciate it? I sincerely hope not, as there is simply not enough time to fully study every piece of music that I want to listen to. But we can at least spare the time to listen to music ‘properly’. This requires not only listening to the whole work, but also an eagerness to appreciate the music. This means not going to a concert having already decided that you are not going to enjoy it (which I suspect some of my fellow audience members were guilty of) but going in with a desire to appreciate, a hope that this concert might be the one that blows your mind. Why bother attending a concert at all if you have already decided that you are not going to like the music? It is far better to go hoping that this concert will be the one you never forget. Rarely will this be the case, but you certainly increase your chances if you expect it.


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