The Whispers Between the Shouts

Here’s a conversation with Patrick about learning how to really listen to music. It was recorded in his living room on 19 November 2011, near 11 PM.

PM: ….. was a great moment for me ……… a few years back, I went to, to hear Rostropovich conducting. I think it’s called the Leningrad Symphony of Shostakovich. Yeah, the Leningrad. He wrote three symphonies about Russia and the Second World War.

JP: Hmm, I didn’t realize he was that contemporary.

PM: Oh yeah, he died in ’53.

JP: Wow. Wow.

PM: And …. he couldn’t write really what he wanted to write.

JP: Yeah, [because of] Stalin.

PM: The other composers were more jealous of him. For a while he wouldn’t be…. they would not allow… his stuff could not be performed in public.

PM: After doing some of the war symphonies, after the first one, I don’t think he could hear the next two. But, anyway, I heard, I think it was number seven or number eight in Hamburg with Rostropovich … and in person, of course. It’s another, another game. CD, it’s nothing.

JP: So, so that leads to … I asked this question I think back in ’85, ’86. I think it was right after I came out here for the first time. For a neophyte in classical music, what music should they listen to first if they want to become … I don’t want to say appreciative because, you know, maybe that’s not the right word, but … For someone who doesn’t know what they’re listening to—and it’s so easy to pick up drek and crap—in terms of selections and in terms of performers.

JP: It’s like buying a guitar. If your first guitar is a really crappy guitar, you can never make it sound good, you can never play it, you don’t go on.

PM: Yeah. Well, I would advise not buying anything recorded. Don’t start listening by listening to recordings.

PM: Start listening to live music, so that means you’re going to have to go… If you’re living in a town where there is a university, where they have free concerts, and you can hear pianists, and you can hear violinists, and you can hear cellists, and you can hear symphony orchestras, and string quartets, and all of these things. You don’t listen to anything where you can’t see the people playing. Don’t watch it on TV and don’t listen to any records.

PM: It takes an expert listener, a virtuoso listener to hear a recording. Most people hear a melody—if they’re lucky—They don’t hear any of the other stuff.

JP: So then, let’s operate on the assumption that they live in a backwater and they have no access to live music, what should they listen for then? I realize you’ve got to listen, you can’t just put it on, you know, and do laundry while having this in the background.

PM: If you’re going to… if you’re determined to learn about it and you want to sit down and listen to it and try to figure out why people think it’s great and why people insist you should know about it, and why it’s something that’ll last longer than Bob Dylan, and longer than anybody else in that world—although they’ll last but they last sort of like peanuts last, and peanut butter—but, it’s a different thing.

PM: Well, in that case I would say Hayden string quartets, Mozart string quartets. You have a chance at least because they’re four people playing and four lines. Try to follow. First you can hear the melody, that’s easy. You can hear the cello because it sometimes has a melody, and it has its own melody underneath whatever they’re doing on top. The hardest thing is to hear the inner voice and that’s what you should listen for… the viola or the second violin. If you can hear those, the others are already evident. So, you have to know what a viola sounds like.

JP: So, you’re listening for the whispers between the shouts.

PM: Yeah, it’s one way of putting it, yeah.

JP: I’m going to change the question then because, you know, it, for me the question is not so much about listening to understand the music, or listening to …

PM: Nothing to understand anyway.

JP: But listening … what should they listen for so that they, so that they enjoy the music? Too often, I think, people listen… they hear it but do not listen. Because life intervenes, but, they hear it and they don’t get it.

JP: And it’s not because they want to become scholarly about music or appreciate the variation of rhythms or whatever they…

PM: No

JP: But…

PM: What should they listen for?

JP: What should they listen for? It’s just to so they can at least understand.

PM: Well, if it’s not attractive, just by itself, it’s not worth listening to anyway, right? It, it, it, …. when I was in the seventh grade in West Virginia which is a backwater, there was a woman teaching music appreciation. She had a wind-up Victrola and she had 78’s. And she made us sit there and shut up and I think practically everybody was bored stiff for an hour. But for me it was amazing … Brahms symphonies. I didn’t know why it was so amazing. I didn’t understand anything but it moved me.

PM: That’s all. And then I began to notice in the movies, even cowboy movies… Jesus, they were using this music.

JP: And cartoons. Cartoons are a wonderful… I mean they, they were frequent user of classical music because of royalties and everything else.

PM: Yep.

JP: And it’s expressive…

PM: Yep.

JP: And animated.

PM: Right! So, what a lot of people try to do is say “Okay, let’s make it interesting so people will come to the concerts. So, let’s talk about it, let’s get the story, and maybe do some pictures, and you know.” And then you try to do something that’s popular so that somebody will come to the concert hall. Like you do an arrangement of Beatles tunes for a string quartet. Well, if people want to hear a Beatles’ tune on a string quartet, that’s okay, but, they won’t want to listen to a Beethoven string quartet because it isn’t the Beatles.

PM: As soon as Beethoven starts they’ll leave. And the Beethoven is the whole point of western Civilization!

PM: The Beethoven String quartets. Without that there wouldn’t be any…. you know. And without the Shostakovich symphony. But only for a handful of people at any given time. It’s not a mass…. The masses get what they want and deserve. Anybody who wants to be different, has to find his own way into it.

PM: That’s what I think, but, okay. So what are you listening for? You’re trying to figure out what are the events taking place.

PM: [distracted by smoke in the living room.] Somehow the smoke is coming in …

JP: Yes, the smoke is coming in now.

PM: But I don’t know why …. that means I need to… we need more…

Listen to the recording.