Why is there such a lack of attention towards listening practice in compositional culture and pedagogy?

A perspective informed by psychonautics, a much needed perspective within culturally entrenched art forms.

The world we live in (I consider this world to be wherever the global economy and its infrastructure has permeated, infrastructure being both physical and mental manifestation) is a way of existing founded upon the ability to focus our awareness on particular ideas, tasks, and functions. An ability to economize the abundance of stimulus, the abundance of information, and apply a tiny fraction of them towards specific functions.

I think it’s so interesting to be a composer of notated music, because on one hand the task at hand completely takes for granted that one is adept in abstract (working with symbols and representation) and meticulous, highly discriminatory tasks. On the other hand, the actual product of what we do exists in sound, something entirely sensational, which I believe begs of the composer to override their function-oriented economy of stimulus.

Yet, I sense that my allocation of equal or greater attention towards aural sensation as opposed to formalism and representation is a minority perspective among the greater compositional culture.

It strikes me as so obvious that any teacher or institution nurturing student composers would incorporate listening practice as part of their strategy. An exploration of listening where students are introduced to the gradient of human perception, prompting awareness of the economy of stimulus, and cultivating the skills to override that economy. Yet, from my experiences within this community, this would seem like a far-fetched fantasy.

There are a number of reasons for this, the most obvious being that the vast majority of music, not composed, is largely concerned with how the sound makes the listener feel, what physiological shifts it can provoke in the listener. There is an implication that composed music should instead provide some sort of intellectual/cerebral gratification. Perhaps this is intertwined with a bias of traditional western (and masculine) culture where sensation is considered base and unsophisticated, something we share with animals, whereas intellectual gratification is unique to mankind (deliberate patriarchal tone) and a testament to his divinity. After all, classical art whether it be Ballet or Michelangelo is largely concerned with conquering nature (including our animal bodies) and asserting humanity.

Furthermore, the culture of music composition is still deeply rooted in tradition, a tradition largely defined by the common-practice style. I would assert that when composers were writing within such a style, attention towards listening could be foregone due to the inherent psychoacoustic foundations of the tonal system itself. Playing rich formal games would most likely result in powerful aural results. It seems that writing music beyond such a style, composers would need to take greater measures to achieve both intellectual and sensational success, and yet there is still a widespread perception that all one needs to compose music is cleverness.

Perhaps the lack of attention towards listening practice also reflects upon a wider traditional western presumption that normative individual consciousness is relatively universal. Variability in consciousness (and subsequently perception) is not explicitly acknowledged in the traditional western worldview because it would threaten Judeo-Christian accountability, a cornerstone of society as we know it. In such a worldview, consciousness is ascribed divine properties and conflated with a non-material soul, a soul that can be judged. If consciousness is a physical manifestation, physicality that is subject to such variability, how can anyone be judged? Judgement is a cornerstone of such a society, and it glosses over one of the key variables (variability of consciousness) to protect its sanctity.

With all that said, I don’t actually have a point to make other than to put it all on the table, a way to challenge compositional culture’s aversion towards discussion about what we do that isn’t entirely concerned with substance and the art object itself. Context, culture, identity, framing, fashioning… these things will only continue to become more and more relevant as we continue to exist among mass interconnection. Furthermore, I believe artists can empower themselves by becoming conscious of cultural artifacts and biases hidden within the fundamental and often overlooked aspects of the medium/tradition/craft within which they create. With such awareness, artists can reinvent the nature of what they do and what they create to be most relevant, not to an audience, but to themselves.