Sometimes insights turn up in the most unlikely places; I’ve stumbled across intriguing ideas that apply to new music in the writings of poets, novelists, philosophers, and – in the present case – the autobiography of a 19th century nun. Consider the following odd story about the act of listening told by St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
“For a long time I had to kneel during meditation near a Sister who could not stop fidgeting; if it was not with her rosary, it was with goodness knows what else…I wanted to turn around and glare at the culprit to make her be quiet, but deep in my heart I felt that the best thing to do was to put up with it patiently, for the love of God first of all, and also not to hurt her feelings…In the end, I tried to find some way of bearing it peacefully and joyfully…I even tried to like this wretched little noise…so I turned my whole attention to listening really closely to it, as if it were a magnificent concert…”
This story contains three ideas that I find inspiring:
- Listening is a creative act
Listening is a creative act, as intentional and generative as composing itself. In this story, the way St. Thérèse listened to the sounds was more important than the sounds themselves. Ordinary noise was transformed into “a magnificent concert” through her imaginative listening. It’s easy to find examples of composers whose works have been influenced by listening creatively to their environments; Messiaen’s extensive use of bird song and Xenakis’ bullet-inspired ideas in Metastasis come to mind. Lately I’ve been trying to listen to my daily environment more creatively, taking note of dishwasher noises, paper rustling, the wind moaning through an open window…and so on. I have also found it valuable to spend extra time listening imaginatively to the work of other composers, especially if I don’t respond to a particular piece with immediate admiration. The most noticeable result of these efforts so far is that I’ve been dreaming about sounds with greater vividness and variety than I have ever experienced before. I’m beginning to think there is no such thing as “ordinary noise;” every sonic event is a miraculous event with infinite value…if I choose to hear it that way.
- Intentionality is key
An attentive, open-minded audience member once told me that she occasionally feels some young composers do not really “mean what they say” in music. In other words, this audience member feels that committed, authentic creative intent is sometimes missing from a given composer’s choices. In St. Thérèse’s story, the sounds became musical through the efforts of the listener, but there was no discernible creative intent behind the actual production of the sounds; the Sister with the rattling rosary was presumably unaware of her own noise-making. As a composer, I want to be sure that I’m meeting listeners halfway in terms of my own sincerity and commitment to the kind of music I write. How can I be certain that the music I write is ‘intentional,’ that my compositional choices are choices I really believe in, and that my decisions are not merely guided by default responses to the difficulties I encounter? If I succeed in writing ‘intentional’ music, will this necessarily translate into ‘good’ music? I’m still looking for answers to these questions…I would be interested in hearing what others think about this.
3. Music is the result of collaborative listening
Finally, this story made me realize that only when someone decides to approach sound with sincere creative intent do we cease to call it “noise” and begin to call it “music.” I think this transformation of “noise” into “music” is only complete when at least two or three people – a composer, a performer, and an audience member – make a commitment to perceive sound in a creative, intentional way. This makes the creation of music a collaborative effort in which each participant’s contribution is indispensable. It seems to me that the participants achieve this collaboration by listening with an awareness of one another as well as an awareness of the music itself. The production and reception of the sounds are, after all, products of human choice, and I think we always approach music with a consciousness of and appreciation for the human minds, hands, ears, and vocal chords that cause it to exist. For this reason, no concert is commonplace; a concert is an active exchange of ideas with very little reliance on words, a mysterious communion of intellects that is found in few other settings.
 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, trans. Michael Day (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2010), 147.
I found this story inspiring enough to make it the subject of an electronic piece a few years ago. If you’re curious, you can hear it on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1MkSSVLBfQ