A Prelude to Listening
Robert Busiakiewicz, St. James Cathedral Director of Music
I often find myself in St. James Cathedral, at the downtown corner of King and Church streets in Toronto, when there is no-one else in the building except the spectre of John Strachan to keep me company. While locking up after hours, it is remarkable how many sounds resonate despite the illusion of stillness. The veteran radiators yap, screens thrum, pipes snore and pews grumble after supporting another day’s worth of urbanites. The freezing homeless huddle on the other side of the majestic doors, their bruised voices as clear as your neighbour’s television. The enormous bells, re-constructed from canons used at the Battle of Waterloo, tolling their quarter-hourly knells seem quite incongruous now against the chipper vocoder announcements, gloating from the streetcar outside. The Victorian transepts emit a faint but constant concert F natural (just under 700Hz) from the basement boiler through large grates in the floor. This is occasionally harmonised by helicopters hauling the helpless to St. Michael’s Hospital, mere blocks away.
We hear these sounds, but we do not listen to them any more than we would listen to elevator Muzak or the general hubbub of a food court. Hearing is a prerequisite for listening, the latter holding a superiority or a sincerity, hence the blunt shallowness of, “I hear you” followed with a disappointing “but”. That some sounds are worth listening to and others aren’t should be obvious, but a cursory consideration of the work of John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer drops us at base-camp when it comes to the question of how should we listen to, rather than just hear, music?
This hierarchical problem has a cousin in the distinction between looking and seeing, with the inevitably devastating consequences in driving: “I looked, but didn’t see him”. The act of reading, like listening to music, has also succumbed to a cheapening through being considered interruptible. Novelist Ian McEwan is said to take reading very seriously indeed and does not answer the phone or the door, neither does he allow for any conversation, eating, drinking, or extraneous noise during the sacrosanct act of fixed duration. This solipsistic level of absorption appears absurd now, but should it?
Our communal state of radical distraction is the first hurdle to listening to music. The second is the genesis of the musical composition. Is it designed to be heard or listened to? For 6 years of weekends I worked as a pianist in various restaurants and hotels in the UK. Background cocktail jazz is meant to be heard, not listened to, but as soon as one plays the same score but with a vocalist and saxophonist, the equation begins to tilt the other way: words are hard to ignore, as are amplified drums. There is a natural question of legitimacy when it comes to demands on our undivided attention. “The power of a true work of art is such that it induces a temporary suspension of activities. It leads to contemplative states, to wonderful and to my mind sacred states of the soul. These are not, however, passive,” said Saul Bellow during an interview in 1975. The definitive recipe for a “true work of art” has eluded us as a species for millennia, but these non-passive states of the soul are surely within our grasp.
We can thank Walt Whitman for expanding on the active/passive distinction in 1855: “the process of listening is not a half-sleep, but, in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the listener is to do something for themselves, must be on the alert, must construct indeed the argument, the history, the metaphysical, with the text furnishing the hints, the clue or frame-work.” A gymnast’s struggle isn’t what most of us have in mind for a Sunday. We were promised, through The Holly and the Ivy, “sweet singing in the choir” at Choral Evensong. This all sounds rather inaccessible and like a lot of hard work to me. Then one is reminded of the gospel of Matthew 10:34 when Jesus says: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” The challenge is there, and the very instability we seek to remedy becomes the roadmap for enhanced listening.
“Religion and Culture seem to be represented by a belief that something is lacking which must be found,” wrote W.H. Auden in 1942. There is no better musical elucidation of this idea than in a rambunctious piece of Victoriana by S.S. Wesley called Ascribe Unto The Lord. In his at times hysterical 15-minute setting of Psalm 115, we hear a sinister description of a nation that has lost its way: “They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They have ears, but they hear not.” The deformity of our perception is not as modern as we think: it’s biblical.
No amount of grumbling and harrumphing can possibly restore the integrity of listening. The battle is not a public one: it takes place within every individual who cares about religious art. This private, personal battle is where the solution must be found. The choirs at St. James Cathedral sing music by living composers, some of which have attended our rehearsals. We have worked with Luna Pearl Woolf, Andrew Ager, Gareth Wilson, Colin Eatock, and David Briggs in lifting their notes off the page and into the world. This musical midwifery is a crucially personal process. It also cross-pollinates into how we hear and deal with the music of the dead. When rehearsing music by William Byrd, W.A. Mozart, or Vaughan Williams (the list of deceased composers is endless) I imagine them sitting in the vicar’s stall, watching and listening attentively. I recall their sense of humour, feverish creativity, boyish irreverence, earnest sincerity, their human disappointments and the pressure of the pen nib into the original manuscript. This ghostly conjuring and the sheer implausibility of their work surviving so many years is sobering: it focusses the mind. The revelation that some works of art are undeservedly forgotten, but none are undeservedly remembered summons the words of E.E. Cummings: “lifted from the no of all nothing – now the ears of my ears awake.”
Choral Evensong, sung each Sunday at 4.30pm, calls upon us to listen. It is filled with truth and beauty, qualities which, according to Wyndham Lewis, are as much public concerns as the water supply. Cynics who are inclined to concede to the Great Noise of 21st Century living are issued a clarion call again from Bellow: “The idea that we are at the degenerate dwarf-end of history is one that we must reject as we reject our own childishness.” Let your busy world be hushed for 45 minutes this week with the Choir of St. James Cathedral in Toronto and step into W.H. Auden’s definition:
“There is one World of Nature and one Life;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife.
Forgetting nothing and believing all,
You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith and praise.”