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The Future of Listening

Back in the spring an email arrived in my in-box from Davinia Caddy, a music historian working in New Zealand. She asked if I’d contribute a short essay on the “future of listening” to a new on-line venture being launched by Naxos Records and for which she will serve as editor. Headed by the indefatigable octogenarian Klaus Heymann, who founded the company in Hong Kong more than thirty years ago, Naxos is still thriving even in this age of doom—or better doomsayers—for classical music recordings.

The new digital initiative will be called Naxos Musicology International and is aimed at reaching a global audience. NMI (if it goes with that acronym it will have to be shared with the National Museum of Ireland and the National Measurement Institute in Australia) will pursue this goal with the benefit of the label’s strong digital platform, using it to offer accessible and enlightening scholarship not just to other academics but, more importantly, to enthusiasts. Alongside historical research, aesthetic reflections, critical analysis, the site will publish opinion pieces and course syllabuses. This last category comes in place of the book reviews that make up the typical closing section of academic journals. These syllabuses strike me as a quick and valuable way for the interested to educate themselves by finding out what professors across the world are teaching, reading, listening to. (I wonder if universities might begin to assert copyright control of the syllabi of their faculty.)

It is often claimed that with knowledge comes greater enjoyment—and, it might be hoped, higher sales for Naxos. This is perhaps especially the case when it comes to obscure repertoire, a Naxos specialty. Heymann long ago rejected the relentless issuing of the classics—Beethoven symphonies and the like—practiced by the major labels, in favor of issuing previously unrecorded music. Given its avoidance of duplication, Naxos can rightfully claim itself as “the world’s leading classical label as measured by the number of new recordings it releases and the depth and breadth of its catalogue.”

Originally known for this admirable project of filling out the classical music repertoire with no-frills CDs, Heymann’s Naxos early on anticipated the potential of streaming; for a decade the company has been offering subscriptions to music schools, universities, and public libraries whose members and patrons can listen for free. Through my account at Cornell University I had, on September 4th 2019, immediate access to 2,225,190 tracks on its 145,755 discs. These numbers are visible on the upper right corner of the Naxos catalogue homepage. I checked again this morning, and the figures have gone up to 145,956 and 2,258,061: more than two hundred discs in two days. The Naxos catalogue is a huge and ever-expanding resource, one I have used frequently, often with amazement that high quality performances of long-buried musical treasure can so be easily conjured from the ether.

As laudable as this vigorous expansion is, the Naxos music-odometer puts me in mind of other running tallies I’ve seen: like the ever-increasing number of square miles of Amazon rain forest that have been cleared (now similar whizzing numbers of burning acres) or the tons of carbon being dumped minute-by-minute into the atmosphere.

This is pretty much what I told Davinia, though in less overtly pessimistic terms. These days I try, vainly, to live for and in the moment, rather than think of the future. Advance, development, research, plentitude, excess: these drive Naxos to mine its musical riches, delivered to the world for its betterment, uplift, amusement, distraction.

Much of my listening to, writing about, and performance of music has been devoted to the work of J. S. Bach. To judge from his early biographers, Bach must have been one of the most directed, focused, engaged, and critical listeners of all time. According to these admittedly hagiographic accounts, Bach’s sharp ears could catch even the smallest mistakes emanating from anywhere in any ensemble he was leading. When listening to a fugue by another musician, he would dadsplain to his son Wilhelm Friedemann about the clever operations that could (and should) be performed on the theme, nudging him smugly when those predictions were proved correct or shaking his head when these artful possibilities were not seized on.

When listening, Bach was virtuosically in the moment but always thinking ahead to the climax of the piece. But his listening was futuristic on a much longer scale, too. Right up to the end of his life, even after he lost his eyesight, Bach labored on monumental projects such as the B-Minor Mass and the Art of Fugue, a compendium of the techniques that had so often sent his elbow into Friedemann’s ribs.

The future of a musical theme was just one temporal cycle within the much larger one of a lifetime of research into God’s creation. These concentric circles were encompassed by the widest one still to come: eternity. There, the saved would be surrounded by the unending harmony of rapturous counterpoint—infinite complexity become simple sounding truth. Sonic ambrosia listening did not serve a purpose. It did not challenge the imagination. It did not improve a performance or lead to a better job. Listening to the angels, even joining in, was not a competition. This hearing was in the moment and forever.

The names we give to sonata form—the dominant structural paradigm of Western classical music—speak to a kindred reliance on time and progress: the opening movement of a symphony, to cite the most prestigious of classical genres, is the exposition; it is followed by the development, and closes with an altered return of the opening material in the recapitulation. The first two terms—and even the third—might be applied to the Amazon basin or the growth forever of attitudes we live by: discover your raw material, exploit it, let it improve your life.

Failing the religious salvation anticipated by Bach, even as he mentally parsed the fugue subject of friend or foe, the longer view says the future of listening is as bleak as that of the natural world. That is one reason, I believe, that so many students (and professors) at this university and elsewhere listen to music as they walk, ignorant of what is around them. Even as they march to their next class they are in the moment, distracted from their future, both near and not far enough away.

Yesterday I nearly collided with a young woman ensconced in her own private earbudded audiotopia when she stepped into a cross walk against the advice of the DON’T WALK signal. Later that afternoon I was nearly run down myself by the driver of a large SUV – not on her cell phone, but clearly listening to something. Maybe it was music. Whatever it was, she nearly ended my future listening.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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