Ordinary and expert listeners

Parallel session B4 (Chair: Ingrid Pearson)
24 Oct 2015
16:30 - 17:30
Parry Room 2

Ordinary and expert listeners

‘A game of cards without faces and rules’: modern music’s listeners

Ivan Hewett, Royal College of Music

Pierre Boulez’s sarcastic description of the wilder reaches of modern music aptly catches the bewilderment many listeners feel, when faced with modern music. The problem may be summarised as: how does one respond to experiences which in many ways are unprecedented, and are therefore bound to defeat one’s powers of verbalisation? The difficulties of appreciating modern music were discussed in psychological literature in the 1950s and 1960s, in an explanatory framework of ‘cultural competence’. This ascribed listeners’ resistance to the lack of a perceived connection between ‘beastly modern music’ and the classical music they already knew and loved. Nowadays the explanatory model for listeners’ resistance to modern music comes from cognitive science. It’s said that the sheer complexity of the stimulus defeats our cognitive apparatus. To complicate the picture, the nature of the challenge posed by modern music has itself changed. What is called ‘left-field’ music nowadays is challenging in a very different way to a serial piece by Pierre Boulez or Luigi Nono, and seems to call for a different descriptive and evaluative approach altogether.

Calling on various sources of listener’s experiences, including tweets and blogs supplied by the London Sinfonietta and other specialist ensembles, as well as LED itself, I will offer a view as to which of the two explanatory paradigms is more fruitful, in explaining why modern music poses such problems, and also why it also offers its own peculiar pleasures.

Being a rasika: the sociality of listening to North Indian classical music

Dr Chloë Alaghband-Zadeh, University of Cambridge

Expert listeners, or ‘rasikas’, are central to North Indian classical music. They have long made up the most powerful segment of North Indian classical audiences: it is they who organise and review concerts, and who determine which musicians will succeed professionally. They are conspicuous at live performances, where they sit towards the front and interact frequently with the performers, commenting or gesturing whenever they hear something praiseworthy in the music. Musicians value their contributions to performances; they gauge their reactions in order to determine what and for how long they will continue to perform. However, despite their importance, listeners have received only little attention in scholarship on North Indian classical music. The nature of expert listening in this context has been left completely unexamined.

With this paper, I explore the sociality of the embodied listening behaviours that rasikas display in live performances. Based on recent ethnographic research amongst listeners in three Indian cities, I highlight the culture of connoisseurship that surrounds Indian classical music. I examine two contrasting embodied modes of listening, which listeners brought up in conversation: ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert’. I discuss the competing value systems and musical ideologies which are implicated in these two ways of listening; and I consider the kinds of relationship each implies with aspects of musical sound. In doing so, I show how ways of listening are tied up with questions of prestige and status, and contribute to wider social hierarchies.