Three-Dimensional listening and other ponderings…

I had an interesting conversation recently with a young Russian-German journalist working in Berlin about the concept of active vs. passive listening. This was an intelligent, thoughtful, mid-twenties person with considerable interest in the arts, and I was surprised that when we began to discuss what it meant to actively listen and how to do it, that one of her first questions was whether or not she would be able to return to her old way of listening and enjoying music on a surface level, fearing that it would somehow ruin her fun and destroy her “ability” to enjoy music passively.  Naturally, this was quite intriguing for me, and it is something I’ve now been pondering for some time. From where could this kind of a fear possibly stem? I’m certainly not talking about doing an academic analysis, but simply hearing the individual parts that make up a piece of music, which I believe is absolutely essential to not only understanding, but truly enjoying and appreciating a piece of music.

But how does a person without musical training learn how to listen actively? I asked her to begin thinking of music as a three dimensional object, rather than a two dimensional one (though really there are far more than three parameters to be aware of). The first step is to familiarize oneself with the tone and characteristics of an instrument, and what sort of a role they might play in a particular piece of music, starting with ensembles that have distinct colors such as a wind quintet, jazz trio, or rock quartet. The trick then is to track one at a time, and focus your ears only on this one horizontal line. This is perhaps the most difficult thing for non-musicians to do, truly isolating the individual parts from one another. But only at this time are you able to re-assemble these individual parts and listen vertically, taking into account the interaction of the independent parts.

I’ve always had an interest in building things, even when I was a child. Particularly things with complex, interwoven textures and layers. So naturally, when I became interested in music at the age of 9 or 10, this type of thinking was transferred to the music I was listening to (mostly 1960’s rock). For the longest time, I wasn’t even able to listen to the lyrics because I was so immersed in the individual parts. Ever since then I have had a great appreciation for the multi-track recording process. Most Rock music is certainly not breaking any boundaries in terms of harmonic language, rhythm, exploration of sound or instrumental technique (though there are some exceptions), however I still feel that there is much we can learn from the other ways in which composition is explored through the multi-track recording process. I particularly enjoy rock albums with complex layering, lush guitar tones, clear and rich mixes, powerful rhythm sections, and tasteful orchestration with superimposition of contrasting compositional ideas. For years and years I was playing around with recording equipment, guitars, percussion, voices, and learning to understand this intuitive process which rock musicians, producers, and engineers utilize to produce these sorts of recordings.

I feel that now as a composer, this has given me a slightly different approach to orchestration, and I find that nearly without fail, even my chamber music is incredibly dense and textured. I have realized more recently that this stems from the urge to reproduce the sorts of complex, interwoven orchestrational ideas applied in multi-tracked rock music that I listened to when I was younger (and continue to). However, an orchestra or a chamber ensemble are both a radically different animals than the recording studio, and for me the big question remains, how to harness this energy with an acoustic ensemble… (or if it is possible?)
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Please visit my personal blog for the full article, a musical example, and additional info:
http://jasontbuchanan.wordpress.com/ 
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On a somewhat distantly related note, but still highly relevant to this discussion, there is a great quote from Aaron Copland, who also authored What to listen for in Music: “Most people use music as a couch; they want to be pillowed on it, relaxed and consoled for the stress of daily living. But serious music was never meant to be soporific.” And I think this gets at the heart of it. See the thing is, most composers (and artists) are not interested in patting the listener on the head and saying that everything is ok, but rather punching them in the face, spinning them around, and telling them to look at the big picture, to question their surroundings, and to view everything from a perspective which they could not possibly be aware of without outside intervention. In my humble opinion, this is the purpose of ALL art. To encourage or inspire independent thinking, acting, and living, ideas which are invisible to us as individuals but become apparent through the lens of someone else’s mind. This being said, that doesn’t mean (in my opinion) that there is not a place for beauty, but I believe that all great art and music manages to balance both, and often beauty can be found in the most unexpected places… If you know how and where to look for it.

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About Jason Thorpe Buchanan

Jason Thorpe Buchanan (b. 1986) is an American composer of contemporary concert music. He began his studies at age fourteen at the College of San Mateo, CA with Charles Gustavson and holds degrees in composition and in music technology, from San José State University, where he was awarded the Outstanding Graduating Senior award (2008). As an undergraduate he was commissioned by the SJSU Concert Choir, founded melosmusic.com, and held positions as music supervisor, composer, and sound engineer for the winner of Best Feature at the Miami Beach International Animated Film Festival (2009). During graduate study at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he worked as an instructor of composition and music theory, and was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Student award (2009-10) by both the Music Department and the College of Fine Arts before receiving his master's degree. He has studied composition with Virko Baley, Jorge Grossmann, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, Pablo Furman, Kevin Puts and Robert Aldridge, as well as conducting with maestro Takayoshi Suzuki. Mr. Thorpe Buchanan has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship (2010-11) at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg as a visiting scholar where he will study with Peter Michael Hamel and Manfred Stahnke while conducting research and interviews throughout Germany in regards to compositional process and aesthetics. He has received the Mu Phi Epsilon International Sterling Achievement Award (2008), fellowships from the NEON Music festival (2009) and the Brevard Institute of Music Festival (2009, 2010), and has won both the UNLV Cristina Valdés solo piano composition competition (2009) and the Mu Phi Epsilon international composition competition (2009). His first work for large ensemble - A Zarzuela & Other Lost Works (2007) was premiered and recorded in 2009 by the Tad Wind Symphony in Tokyo, with a CD released on the Windstream label in Japan. Jason has participated in masterclasses, seminars and private lessons with composers such as Brian Belet, Koray Sazli, Lei Liang, David Crumb, Joel Hoffmann, FredJason Thorpe Buchanan (b. 1986) is an American composer of contemporary concert music. His work draws from a broad variety of aesthetic genres and influences, and has been described by leading composers in the United States and Europe as “symphonic…” and “ambitious.” He began studies at age fourteen at the College of San Mateo, CA, later attending San José State University to receive Bachelor’s degrees in composition and in music technology, where he was awarded the Outstanding Senior award (2008). He received his Master’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught courses in composition and music theory (2008-2010), later presented the Outstanding Graduate Student award (2009-10) by both the Music Department and the College of Fine Arts. Since 2007, he has served as director of the composer’s consortium Melos Music (http://www.melosmusic.com/), as well as their annual New Music Concert series. He has studied composition with Virko Baley, Peter Michael Hamel, Jorge Grossmann, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, Pablo Furman, Kevin Puts, Robert Aldridge, and Manfred Stahnke, as well as conducting with maestro Takayoshi Suzuki. Jason spent 2010-2011 living in Germany, where he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg as a visiting scholar for studies with Peter Michael Hamel, Manfred Stahnke, Georg Hajdu, and Sascha Lino Lemke while conducting research and interviews in regard to compositional process and aesthetics. In 2011 his 'Berlin Songs', for two singers and mixed chamber ensemble, were performed for an audience of 400 grantees and staff at the Pan-European Fulbright conference in Berlin, Germany under the baton of Thomas Heuser, who commissioned the work. An expanded orchestration was later recorded and premiered in the United States at the 2nd Annual Melos New Music Concert in San Francisco, conducted by the composer. In 2010 his orchestral work - 'The Gods of Pegãna', was read by the Brevard Music Center Orchestra under the baton of Ken Lam, and was later a finalist in both the ASCAP Morton Gould and ACF Minnesota Composer’s Institute competitions (2011). In 2009, 'A Zarzuela & Other Lost Works' was premiered by the Tad Wind Symphony in Tokyo for an audience of over 800, and recorded with a CD released on the Windstream label in Japan. As a conductor and advocate for contemporary music, Jason is committed to providing opportunities for young composers by producing high-profile concerts, where he has premiered and recorded works by composers such as Daniel Temkin, Tonia Ko, Chin Ting Chan, and Tom Brennan, in addition to his own. He has received awards from ASCAP, ACF, ΜΦΕ, the NEON and Brevard Music Festivals, UNLV, SJSU, the Eastman School of Music, and the Miami Beach International Animated Film Festival as composer and music supervisor for the winner of Best Feature (2009). His current projects include a cycle of works for soloists, a sound collage/score for a documentary on Busking/street artists in Hamburg, and a Horn Concerto commissioned by Michael Walker. Jason currently studies composition with Allan Schindler and holds a Teaching Assistantship at the Computer Music Center as a Ph.D. student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.rick Kaufman, and Augusta Read Thomas. Upon returning from Germany in 2011, Jason will begin his studies as a Ph.D. candidate in composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.
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