What does it mean to listen more deeply?
A lot of uncertainty and anxiety has reached the communities that I am part of regarding the coronavirus. Many universities are cancelling classes, or moving everything online, and the possibility of similar measures at CMU has worried a lot of my colleagues in the School of Music.
For me, this would mean that most, if not all, of my performances scheduled for the end of March and April would be cancelled.
While I am far from offering a highly-informed opinion on these measures, at the very least, I consider this an invitation to reflect on the role and impact of musicians.
When it comes to sharing our work, the growth of digital media has lightened our dependence on physical space. But they do little to replace the impact of live performance.
When I listen to music performed live, the physical experience — the vibrations of sound waves moving through your body, the safety of knowing you can close your eyes to exist only in this space, with these sounds — is a crucial dimension in which I engage with the music.
This sense of safety, of existing in a place outside of space and time woven by the artistry of the musician, inspired me to think of a musical performance as a "place built of sound,” which was the theme for my junior recital.
While this experience isn't unique to live performance, it's particularly powerful when the place of sound is being constructed for you, in real time, by another human being.
When I'm creating music, whether in a practice room or for other people, the fleeting nature of what I'm creating makes it so intimately compelling that I feel safe, as if I'm escaping into another reality.
Something about the ephemerality of music has always captivated humans, long before we were able to record a performance. That it escapes us in the same moment it comes to us — we hear it and then it’s gone — challenged us to create duets with time. How do we sustain a compelling artistic vision across such a fleeting medium?
If music hadn’t been ephemeral, we wouldn’t have had access to the creativity that has inspired so many exquisite works of sound across the centuries (whether these works were improvised, recorded, celebrated, or forgotten).
As technology opens doors for how we can create music in relation to time, my hope is that we don't lose sight of the centuries of human civilization in which all we had was the present moment in physical space.
The uncertainty of what will happen, as well as the novelty of being part of the only audience to experience it live, inspires a form of human connection that is vulnerable and compassionate.
As a musician, I love the vulnerability of live performance. Few things epitomize peace and human connection like the moment when someone is brave enough to create something live with their bodies, imagination, and skills — even though they can't fully control how their audience will receive it — and when other people are compassionate enough to take the time, space, and energy to receive that gift.
This is why I seek so many opportunities to perform live.
When writing my mission statement, I considered the line, “work that celebrates communities and the unique voices within them," because as a woman of color, I heartily subscribe to the view that Western classical music has many issues of inequity. However, I felt hesitant to claim that all my work, or the only work in line with my mission statement, had to propagate diversity.
While I am passionate about interdisciplinary, community-driven projects like Khūrākī, the reality is that it is far more frequent for me to perform as a musician in traditional settings.
I wanted a mission statement that I could apply to the most conventional performances as well as the most exciting projects and collaborations, so I chose the words, “inspire audiences to listen more deeply.”
As a classical musician, inspiring audiences to listen more deeply means to play in a way that is thoughtful (meaning, I've considered the meaning of all the details I'm performing) and expressive in moving, even unexpected ways.
As a performer, it means being fully present to the music, while embracing the vulnerability of creating in front of my audience. If the audience senses I am being generous with them, they feel more invited to be generous with the energy they put into receiving my performance.
As an artist who works with language and sound, inspiring audiences to listen more deeply means to draw their attention to perspectives that most people never have to consider.
As an audience member, what are the possibilities for listening more deeply?
To me, it is fundamentally about human connection. Rather than enduring the length of a performance because they feel obligated to, the audience feels inspired to let go of any biases about the music they’re hearing, which clears their vision to see the performer as a unique human being who is pouring out their life’s work.
Seeing the performer in this way takes compassion, and compassion inspires the audience to invest their energy in appreciating this work as best as they know how to, simply because it comes from another person.
People differ on how to “appreciate” music — for many Western classical musicians, it's that the audience sits still, makes no sound, and receives every detail of expression; for the Argentine folk musicians I met in Córdoba, it's that the audience is dancing; and for musicians in worship settings, it's that the music supplements the listeners' prayer — but in every case, the performance of live music creates an avenue for human connection that enriches both performer and audience.
All of this depends on occupying the same physical space. When it comes to space, a pandemic exposes an element to human interaction that I tend to ignore — the innumerable channels for viruses to pass from one person to the next.
So I pray that the pandemic, and all the fear and anxiety surrounding it, will end soon. I pray we can return to creating art in that vulnerable, compelling way that live performance opens to us — one to which many of us have dedicated our lives.