Zen in the Art of Listening

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is part five in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. In these lessons I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. For this lesson I would like you to think about your listening habits.

Listening is an essential part of making music. We listen to others and we listen to ourselves. We can listen to learn, to be surprised, to judge, to enjoy or to be moved. If we listen with any of these goals in our minds we have a preconception of what we are about to hear. This preconception will influence what we will actually hear. Alternatively we can listen with an empty mind and hear something completely different. I would like to explore the second option a little deeper, and speculate on what we might hear if we do listen with an empty mind.

May I ask you a personal question about your listening habits: how do you listen to music? Do you close your eyes and let the music guide your dreams, or do you sit on the tip of your chair, front row if possible, to miss nothing? Do you go to a concert without knowing what will be played and do you even ignore the programme booklet you are given, or do you check the composers and the pieces at home, perhaps even listen to the music beforehand on cd or YouTube, to prepare yourself? And do you think one of these ways of listening is better than the other? Do you have preferences in styles, composers, instruments and performers? And are these preferences so strong that you do not enjoy other styles, composers, instruments and performers, or even think they are inferior? Whatever the answers to all these questions are, they are personal answers, because I asked you about your personal habits, preferences and value judgements. I would like to introduce you to an alternative way of listening, one that will require practice and might even make you feel a little lost in the beginning. But with this way of listening you can hear other things than what your preconceptions condition you to hear. And it is a way that will bring you in closer contact with the performer as well as the composer.

Please join me in a thought experiment. Imagine you are coming to a concert where I will play music by Bach for you. You are the audience, Bach is the composer and I am the performer. Bach, of course, is an icon and you might have personal, preconceived ideas about his music. I know I have. And what about you and me, what do we think about each other? Are you coming to the concert with the expectation of hearing some nice lute playing or are you about to compare me unfavourable to your favourite lutenist? Am I nervous because of you, or do I think you are a nice audience and am I going to make a special effort to please you? The answers to all of these questions will influence what you will hear in the concert. Now, let’s take one step back: I just said you are the audience, Bach is the composer and I am the performer. All three of us are people and in that we are the same. That doesn’t mean you are Bach or I am you, but all three of us are human and do not differ in the fact that we are human. Simply put: Bach was, you are and so am I. Let us try to listen and play with only this shared humanity in our minds, instead of our preconceived ideas and personal value judgements. If I can play without putting the stamp of my preconceived ideas and personal value judgements on my playing, my playing will come from the shared humanity that also is the source of your unprejudiced listening. Together we then listen to how Bach speaks to us, uncoloured by our respective preconceived ideas and personal value judgements. In this way we will hear something else than ourselves. If we listen without interference of our own personalities, we will be able to hear what Bach heard when he composed his music. That means we will be as close to Bach as he was to himself when he wrote the music he heard coming from that same source of shared humanity.

For the listener this lesson seems easy enough: don’t follow your personal likes and dislikes but empty your mind and listen as one human being to another human being and discover what he is telling you, instead of listening to what your own thoughts are making you hear. For a performer it is a little more complicated. Because of course a lutenist must study his instrument, learn about the music he is to play, think about his interpretation and generally be in control during the performance. But it is possible to do all those things and at the same time be empty of thoughts and listen as a human being to the composer as a human being and discover what he is telling you instead of listening to your own ideas about the music you are playing. Go back to the first five lessons to see how our lutedō can help you achieve this.

David van Ooijen