Listening ahead

Listening to Beethoven’s overture (1807) to Collin’s forgotten drama Coriolan (1802), I am always filled with trepidation, struck by the great number of times the music stops.

It is not just the agitation of the first theme.  From the very beginning of the unison C by the intense strings being answered three times by the orchestra to the ending of the three plucked C’s, the piece is repeatedly punctuated by instances of silence.  But exactly what do these rests do?  Do they produce absence of sound or gap of communication?  In either case, they sound even more unsettling in the general context of several accelerations that intensify the pace of the piece.  The music seems to start and stop over and over again.

But as I listen and worry about the next break (is it coming right now or after a couple of phrases?), I begin to realize that during each interval of silence, more than fretting about its length and consequences, I help the piece move forward by participating in its motion.  That is, more than thinking about what has come before and why it led to yet another break, I am energetically anticipating the next episode.  My participatory listening propels the music forward.  At each stop, as the resonance of the music fades, I activate “the underlying promise of hearing something more, of hearing something to listen for” (Lawrence Kramer:  The Hum of the World, 2018, p. 80).  I am listening ahead.  Rather than threatening its survival, to me the eclipse of sound heralds its return.

I treat each musical rest, in part, as a caesura, a silent pause that will soon lead to another episode of the heroic adventure.  My intense excitement is due not to a fear about the fate of music but to my “heroic” involvement with it, a listening practice that Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self who is always listening with me, might call “Beethovenian listening.”

23 October 2019

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