Literary critic F.R. Leavis, who is significantly responsible for the posthumous acclaim Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has enjoyed, once said of his poetry, “Hopkins is really difficult, and the difficulty is essential. If we could deceive ourselves into believing that we were reading easily his purpose would be defeated; for every word in one of his important poems is doing a great deal more work than almost any word in a poem of Robert Bridges.” (Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry, 164-65) Switch “reading” to “listening,” “word” to “note”, and “poem(s)” to “composition(s)” and the passage above would fittingly describe any number of composers within the last 100 years. Each note of a Webern or Boulez piece does a great deal more work than each note of a Phillip Glass piece. (This idea, of course, easily applies to other historical periods as well. Each note of a Bach fugue does a great deal less work than each note of a Telemann concerto.)
In a letter to Robert Bridges, Hopkins acknowledged the difficulty of his own poetry by suggesting that it “must be read molto adagio.” This idea of reading poetry molto adagio is intriguing and perhaps offers a new way of characterizing the difficulty of listening to complex music. Can it be said that frustration that many people experience when listening to modern works stems from the fact that their complexity requires a molto adagio hearing when such is an impossibility (or when such does unjust damage to the character of the work)? Poetry can be read molto adagio. Paintings and sculptures can be viewed molto adagio. But only music whose tempo is molto adagio can be properly heard molto adagio.
Performers of such complex works have the obvious advantage of practicing and rehearsing at slower tempi. They develop a deeper understanding of such works that only comes through repeated slow practice. Listeners, however, are not usually provided such a luxury, but are often faced with a daunting task when listening to a complex work for the first time. If they are unfamiliar with the language of a given style or composer, the listening experience becomes all the more challenging. Listening—that is, listening well—is indeed a skill that must be honed through intentional practice.
Despite the risk of losing a reader or two, let me try a sports analogy. (Sport and art have striking parallels, though I would guess that the percentage of artists that engage in sport (and vice versa) is not high.) When describing a player who has reached a level of skill beyond the players around him—a point guard running a basketball offense; a football quarterback looking over the opposing defense—some will say that “the game slows down” for them. They are able to see things happening before they happen, to see all contingencies in a developing play. For the listener who is armed with a listening skill that has been honed through years of careful study and practice, a work of great complexity can in a similar way “slow down.” Such a listener is able to hear and take in more aspects of the music than others, is able to imagine contingencies as the music unfolds.
Let’s try an experiment with one of my favorite short passages of music from Pierre Boulez’s formidable Derive 2 for 11 instruments—an experiment that approximates the reading of poetry molto adagio. (This passage occurs at Rehearsal 225, toward the end of the piece.) The goal of this short exercise is to develop a deeper understanding of the passage through repeated hearings and, more to the point of the blog post at hand, through slowing the passage down.
Two audio clips are linked below: the first contains five repetitions of the passage at tempo. The second contains three repetitions of the passage at half speed. The (transposed) score is also below.
If I were doing this experiment with my students, I would ask them to report first on what they heard after one hearing and then on what they heard after multiple hearings both at tempo and at half speed. I would suggest several strategies such as listening first to just the winds, then to just strings, then to percussion, or listening first for the “bass line” of the passage, then the upper register. Etc. What changes through the process of familiarization? After listening several times at half speed, were you able to hear a lot more clearly and with a higher level of comprehension once returning to full speed? Did your perception of the character of the passage change between the first hearing and the last?
AUDIO #1 (at tempo)
AUDIO #2 (half speed)
Boulez’s passage is so rich in its layered complexity that experiencing this music the first time certainly gives even the most experienced listener a sense of information overload. But the comprehensibility level elevates with each hearing. By the end of this experiment, I personally hear a lyricism in this music that I had not initially heard. The lyricism is corporate as the entire ensemble partakes as a unified whole, as a web in which instruments pull on and move with each other as if following some melodic compulsion that transcends themselves. (Heterophony pervades this work from beginning to end.) In Boulez’s texture of constantly revolving timbral colors, every note belongs, doing its assigned work. This efficiency of expression in this music, certainly unappreciated on my first hearing, connects Boulez with his forebears, particularly of the 18th century. In my mind, Derive 2 is in essence a Baroque piece of music, and I’m convinced that J.S. Bach would be proud.
And now let’s end with a poem by Hopkins appropriately on the subject of patience. Read it molto adagio.
‘Patience, hard thing’
Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
No-where. Natural heart’s-ivy Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us wé do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distills
Delicious kindness?–He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those way we know.