Collaborative listening

The major Modernist auditory regime was Adorno’s “structural hearing” where the expert listener “understands what he perceives as necessary” (Introduction to the Sociology of Music [1976], 4-5) while the great work is listening to its fallen singularity. Composers, performers, and scholars have been opposing to this aristocratic regime various democratic practices of listening, such as Pauline Oliveros’ “deep listening” (2005), Peter Szendy’s “plastic listening” (Listen [2008], 139), Michel Chion’s “acousmatic listening” (Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise [1998]), Janne Vanhanen’s “expanded listening” (Musical Encounters with Deleuze and Guattari, 2017, 171), and Eric Ball’s “stranded listening” (2017).*  All of them treat compositions as processes that happen in “musicking” situations, not works that exist independently. To these practices, which promote a rhizomatic proliferation of meaning, I would add what I call “collaborative listening,” which consists in two friends listening to each other’s listening, as I will illustrate with the gorgeous second movement of Brahms’s string sextet No. 1 (1860), op. 18:

When I am listening to music together with another person, I may be doing one of three things. I may be listening by myself, sharing my listening with them, or listening to their listening. Let’s take as an example the theme and five variations of Brahms’s andante ma moderato. When listening on my own, I tend to follow the variations, making sure that I distinguish one from the other, and relate them to the theme. In this mode, the piece sounds like the solo piano transcription (1860) of the second movement that Brahms dedicated to Clara Schumann:

When I am sharing my listening with another person, more than following the variations, I also follow mentally the way that person follows the variations, hoping that the two of us are, as it were, on the same page of the score. In this mode, the piece sounds like its piano trio version arranged by Brahms’s friend, Theodor Kirchner:

But when I am sharing the experience with collaborative pianist Pantelis Polychronidis by listening to his listening, I am not listening to the five variations but I figure out the variations internal to each variation, that is, the contrapuntal immanence of each variation. For example, I listen to the 4th variation and I am transposed by its two repeats, which are both varied: Part 1 of the variation (here 5:06) is followed by a varied repeat (5:26), and then Part 2 (5:46) is also followed by a varied repeat (6:08-6:29). In the first repeat, the expressive melody of the variation is taken by the first violin an octave higher while the first viola stays at the same level; in the second repeat, a more urgent phrase is intensified when both violins, joined by the first viola, play the melody an octave higher. The entire 4th variation lasts a mere 1:23 in this recording yet its internal variations (that is, varied repeats) gradually intensify its expressiveness.

This capacity, through collaborative listening, to assemble, rather than follow, a work represents the musical immanence of our friendship, and it materializes regardless of whether we are physically or mentally together. Listening to my other self listening is a contrapuntal part of my listening self (or an internal condition of my very listening) and constitutes our “sonic intimacy” (Dominic Pettman 2017, 79). It also runs parallel to another exercise of our friendship, collaborative teaching.

From the start, this has been a blog about friendship as a rigorous exercise in listening — not to works or even to each other but about listening to the other (self) listening. As I wrote in the very first post, “Listening to music with a friend“: “In the friend’s resonating presence I am not an interpreter of the internal necessity of an artistic structure.” I listen to the music that we make together by listening to each other listening to music. This collaborative listening, this attunement/Stimmung to one another and to the music enveloping us, composes our friendship.


* Eric Ball, an exceptional theoretician and practitioner of music making, developed the notion of “stranded listening” in his consistently fascinating blog, Night-rhyming. Focusing on “listening with place,” the notion theorizes the occasion of being stranded conceptually and physically with small-town folk in a makeshift seat to help bring back to life an old and abandoned theater, the Strand, as a “re-habilitated,” re-territorialized space that can again assemble people together.

September 29, 2017

This entry was posted in Collaboration, Friends, Listening and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.