On lateness in listening: From late style to late mood

The scholarly symposium “Late Style and the Idea of the Summative Work in Bach and Beethoven,” taking place this month at the Department of Music & Dance in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, inspired me to return to a particular aspect of lateness:  The late style, “the idea that the work of the last few years of truly ‘great’ creative artists is marked by a profound change of style, tone, and content which tends both to look back to the artist’s earlier years and forward, beyond his death, to future developments in the field” (McMullan & Smiles, eds.: Late Style and its Discontents, 2016, p. 1). 

The notion of late style has been invariably applied to creators (painters, writers, and especially composers). However, my interest lies in something far more common which has attracted very limited critical attention: The lateness not of creation but of reception. In this post I will concentrate on lateness in listening: Instead of the late style of the composer, I will focus on the late mood of the listener, differentiating among four kinds of late listening.

First, we may talk about listening that comes late in our lives, not necessarily in terms of age as much as in terms of experience.  After significant exposure to a great number of works, media, and occasions, we feel that we have become inveterate listeners with an overwhelming knowledge, secure in our command of the kinds of music we like yet increasingly uninterested in it.  We have crossed the threshold of having heard and experienced it all.  Bred from excessive familiarity, weary exhaustion settles in.  Because we have been experiencing it in inordinate amounts, music has lost its capacity to captivate us, and it now feels too late for us to enjoy another composition or performance.

A second kind of late listening is due not to over-saturation but to belatedness.  We listen to works we love while we are fully aware that the time of this type of music is over.  Whether it is a genre, a style, a performance technique, or a subject matter, it is something that is rarely if ever done any more.  We may continue to find it personally irresistible, yet we know that we have come to it too late since its moment in history has passed for good.  In fact, our belatedness may be a crucial aspect of our position and appreciation, it may express a desire to recover a lost place or salvage a damaged treasure, but it remains a modality of our listening.  We feel that we are longing for and at the same time becoming part of an entire legacy.

A third kind is not anachronistic but anticipatory listening in search of generative lateness:  We listen for works which came so late that they became early ones.  We listen forward in that we believe we can discover works that have prefigured, announced, enabled later ones.  These works grant us a sense of origin (where we trace the launch of our beginnings) and continuity (where we become the organic growth of that beginning).  After we construct a particular history of artistic impact, commonly known as tradition, we conclude that a very late work was in fact an avant-gardist one for its time and feel that our own lateness is of a rather experimental, rather than regressive, nature.

The last kind is listening that actively lates [active verb!] works by rendering them internally conflicted beyond any reconciliation and placing them in irreversible afterness (coming after).  It deciphers an extraordinary era by historically interpreting works that appear manifestly aware of their lateness and have become the era’s intrinsic critique.  By attributing finality and futurity to such works, it elevates them to a supra-aesthetic status.  More importantly, lating a work forcefully and appreciating in it the nature and operation of creativity in a particular era is an interpretive achievement that makes the listener equal to late thinkers, usually men of a Germanic philosophical disposition (like Simmel, Benjamin, George Steiner, Derrida, Said, and Agamben), and the work’s true heir (Karen Leeder: “Figuring Lateness in Modern German Culture,” New German Critique 125, 2015).  It also gives the late listener the cultural authority to determine how late it is now and for what (form, tone, theme, approach etc.).

To recapitulate, I have proposed four modalities of late listening.  Let us take as an example Brahms’ 1st symphony, which took twenty years to complete, was once called “Beethoven’s 10th,” and has returned in works such as Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan:  We may talk about weary, belated, anticipatory, and actively lating listening to this symphony.  If lateness is a matter of late style for the composer, it is a matter of late mood for the listener, who may turn out to be an uncompromising champion of negativity, resisting harmony and closure in composition. 

I call late listening a mood in that it represents a kind of critical attunement that collaborates in composition as precarious world making.  Inquiry into late listening questions lateness as the metaphysical primacy of creating that makes thinking belated and secondary (Hutcheon and Hutcheon: “Historicizing Late Style as a Discourse of Reception,” in McMullan & Smiles, p. 52).  There are, of course, many other practices of listening that have nothing to do with lateness and relate to music on a variety of other temporal planes. 

To my friend Marios Emmanouilidis, scholar, early thinker and late listener

7 April 2021

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