catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 7 :: 2009.03.27 — 2009.04.10


Encountering music

As I worked on this issue of catapult, the word “encounter” kept popping up.  Not only does Sam Van Eman write about the power of music in advertising by focusing specifically on a short film by Coca Cola titled “Encounter,” but several of our other authors explicitly and implicitly describe their experience with music as a type of encounter.

An encounter is-or should be-quite different from unconscious consumption or incidental contact.  In fact, I would argue that songs can be known like friends or lovers, and can be approached as we would strangers or neighbors. 

We often don’t allow music this sort of dignity.  We let it sit in the corner and twiddle its thumbs while we sweep the floor or have a dinner party. We employ it as a distraction while looking over its shoulder to see if something or someone more interesting has walked into the room, or as a buffer to avoid less comfortable, less predictable encounters. We wear songs like shoes that will impress the right people, or jewelry that exudes the right persona without ever stopping to consider the quality of craft.  We let music fade into the background of our awareness like the paint on our walls or the upholstery in our car-no way to treat a guest we have invited into our lives.

As the representative work of an artist or a group of artists, approaching music as an encounter implies meeting something or someone outside of ourselves.  An encounter, therefore, calls for a response of loving hospitality.  In his book Everyday Apocalypse, David Dark cites William Stringfellow on listening, a quote which applies equally well to people and songs:

Listening is a rare happening among human beings.  You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable.  Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered.  Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives self to another’s word, making self accessible and vulnerable to that word.

When we listen to music-when we listen well-we honor the artistry of the other, both the music and the artist, and we make ourselves vulnerable to change.  Songs are portable installation pieces.  They are short stories with sound.  And yet, many of us don’t often seek to be changed by music in the same way we seek to be changed by a book or a film to which we devote our full attention.  So perhaps with music, it really is the case that all we need is love-or at least more love than we’re accustomed to giving.

Toward that end, here’s a modified version of music listening that we use in our work with college students as a partnership between student activities and the music department.

  1. Sit down in a place with few(er) distractions and a good set of speakers with at least one other person.
  2. Listen to a song together.  Don’t plot your analysis or plan what to say while you listen.  Just “[make] self accessible and vulnerable” to the music.
  3. Share your impressions of the song-not just your cognitive interpretation, but how the song made you feel, where it landed in your body.  If you have trouble being too analytical grasping for a “right” answer, focus primarily on the music or choose a song without words.
  4. If one of you knows something about the particular song, album or artist, share that information.
  5. Listen again, noticing what you didn’t the first time and how your partner’s observations enrich your own hearing.
  6. Repeat steps one through five with as many songs as you’d like.

It can be scary-this letting songs and people in who might change you.  But my money’s on the Holy Spirit to be breath for those who dive head first into the deep waters of discernment.  Even more scary to me is the possibility of that moment when I look up from my sweeping to realize: I am alone.  I am unchanged.  I am unchangeable.

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