Listening to music as a skill

What if listening to music is a skill, like playing it?  For example, listening to these pieces for ruined pianos arguably requires a skill.

In her book Intelligent Virtue (2012), philosopher Julia Annas, an authority in Greek ethics, draws on “the skill analogy” in Plato’s early Socratic dialogues to propose that virtues are analogous to practical skills, such as playing the piano, that need to be cultivated by regular exercise self-directed by “the drive to aspire,” the aspiration to do better through a greater understanding and command of the particular activity in which we are engaged.  We learn practical skills, be they piano playing or virtue applying, by practicing them.

To Annas, what makes virtue “intelligent” is that, to acquire skills, we need to comprehend what their techniques require, what their experts do with them, and how we can direct ourselves to do the same, and better, under diverse circumstances. Ultimately, acquiring and perfecting skills helps us master the art of living.  I suggest that listening to music intelligently (which I have discussed before as a practice and an ascesis of the self) is also such a skill with its own techniques and demands.  As my blog testifies from its very start, I have been fortunate to study and practice listening (and listening to being-with) with a master teacher and performer, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my musical self.

In this particular post, I am including five examples of piano pieces which put extreme demands on the listener and require musical skills analogous, though not equal, to those of the performer.  In the first example (above), trying to salvage music from the ruins of the classical tradition (to put it in Walter Benjamin’s terms), Ross Boleter improvises on smashed-up pianos found in the Australian outback.  In the next example, another improvisation drives an untuned piano on the back of a truck around a busy metropolis until the instrument is ruined.

In Ustvolskaya’s Sonata No. 6, the performer bashes out violently hyper-dissonant cluster chords.

In De Profundis, for “speaking pianist,” Rzewski incorporates an abridged setting of Oscar Wilde’s letter from Reading Gaol.

Last, in the demonic Klavierstück XIII, “Lucifer’s Dream,” Stockhausen asks the pianist to give a total performance treating the piano as a total instrument.  What would be a total listening experience of this piece?

25 May 2018

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