Thursday, 20 January 2011

All You Have to Do is Listen

I see on the BBC News website that a growing number of music-lovers, unhappy about the way album tracks are enjoyed in a pick-and-mix fashion, have decided to take action. Groups of music fans sit in front of a vinyl turntable, with seriously good speakers, dim the lights, and listen to a classic album, all the way through. They're called Classic Album Sundays, and the rules are simple but strict: no talking, no texting, you must listen to every song on the album.

We're not talking about so-called 'classical' music, but classic albums. This month's album was David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Kate Bush's The Hounds of Love featured in a previous month.

Call them geeky but they make a good point. I think my iPod is brilliant and I use the shuffle feature frequently and with delight, but it has limitations and does less than justice to the 'songs' which normally were conceived as part of a whole. Add to that, present day culture in which music is heard, or rather played, as a constant background to the rest of life, and their point is all the stronger.

Music operates at a number of levels, but there are times for listening to music, attentive listening to music. I make no case for aural wallpaper, but there is a helpful distinction made between listening to music on what Aaron Coopland calls 'the sensuous plane' 'for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself ... The plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it any way'; and what Rob Kapilow in his book, All You Have to Do is Listen - Music from the Inside Out, calls, '"listening for the plot", that is listening for the way musical ideas are connected and strung together to create a purely musical "story"'.

Both are legitimate, but 'listening for the plot' can be deeply enriching, though hard work, especially in music which isn't immediately whistle-able, and which takes time to develop without providing immediate gratification. The fact is that some, and maybe much, appreciation of beauty isn't simply presented on a plate without any effort.

It seems to me that this reaches into other aspects of life, such as how we listen to people. I guess that most of us have given the appearance of listening whilst thinking about what we're going to say next. Or simply giving the impression of listening while being somewhere else in our head. But to listen to a person, to really listen, requires hard work. And it's something that's of vital importance. A conviction that I've held for many years is that one of the greatest needs of a person is to be heard.

Anne Long, in her wonderful book, Listening, shares three images of listening: as gift, hospitality and healing. She issues a challenge as she speaks of the ears of the Body of Christ, needing to be alert and functioning if they are to be of any use.

And then there's the issue of how we listen to God. From my tradition as a Baptist, we stress the importance of discerning the mind of Christ, and listening to what the Spirit is saying, but I think we could learn a lot more from those traditions who really listen, attentively and at depth, and not just for the first stirrings of feel-good, or the first 'word from God'.

Music, people, God. No talking, no texting, just listen.

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