What To Hear Before You Listen

posted by Tom Moon on June 12, 2009 at 4:31 pm
in , , , , , , , ,

Thoughts on Preparation

Is listening a cumulative experience? Do we wring more out of Mahler, say, if we’ve had exposure to some of the pieces that are considered “antecedents”?

And if this is even a little bit true, how much of the backstory is vital? Is there a “core cirriculum”? To “get” Mahler, is it necessary to have paid our dues with Bach and particular key moments on the timeline leading up to Mahler?

I’m curious about this, particularly in the context of classical music and jazz. These forms have, for a while now, been described as in trouble – atrophying because the audience is shrinking, under seige because, among other things, their appreciation seems to require significant investments of time and attention. I’m wondering: Does it really?

Of course it’s possible to be completely engrossed in something you’ve never encountered before, music that’s far away from your comfort zone. Then, on a different day, you might encounter that same music and find yourself totally perplexed, and not interested in sticking around for any length of time. Would that reaction have been different if you’d been armed with a few choice excerpts?

I’d like to hear from people who are passionate about classical music and jazz: Is preparation of this kind necessary? How, exactly, can it be helpful? What are specific recommendations? (Please feel free to contribute a step-by-step “flight plan” like the one below.)

What to Hear Before Listening To Wayne Shorter

The jazz tenor saxophonist, a member of Miles Davis’ 60s quintet and the jazz-fusion juggernaut Weather Report, is among the most gifted composers in jazz history. His small group works from the 1960s, including Juju and Speak No Evil, offer some of the most poignant – and structurally intricate – writing in all of jazz. If you’ve tried Shorter and don’t “get” him, perhaps spending a few minutes with the selections below will help establish a frame of reference….

Art Blakey: Moanin’

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage

Debussy: La Mer

Some other preparatory flight plans I’d like to know about:

What To Hear Before Immersing in Stravinsky’s ballets

What To Hear Before Wagner

What To Hear Before John Adams/Steve Reich

What To Hear Before Frank Zappa

  • Moanin' - Blakey, Art and the Jazz Messengers | Buy

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#1 from Jay Fienberg, Seattle, WA - 06/16/2009 1:18

I love Steve Reich’s music across the board, and love a bunch of John Adams’ work, too. But, knowing most of Reich’s work really well, I think I have a better-than-none shot at articulating some approaches to it:

Reich’s works span a number of “categories”: ensemble music, percussion music, vocal music, chamber music, orchestral music, electronic music. And, his strong influences are also diverse: Indonesian gamelan, West African drumming, Jazz, the American classical tradition, 20th century musics, Early and Baroque classical music, and the broader European classical tradition, etc.

So, one could come up with a lot of equations like: if you like ensemble jazz, try Reich’s “Sextet.” If you like Early Music, listen to “Proverb.”

But, more than anything, Reich’s signatures may be the rhythmic pulsing of his music and his uses of polyrhythm, “phase” playing and altogether realizing the world of rhythm / drumming in classical frameworks.

So, I would suggest Indonesian gamelan and West African drumming as musics to really hear before hearing Steve Reich.

At this point, Reich’s work is so much broader, but especially as you look back into his earlier pieces, you can find many easy transitions between these traditions and Reich’s work.

Recognizing in Reich that, say, a vocal part is working something like a melodic agogo, or that a vibraphone is playing a role not unlike a gamelan instrument, can be a helpful perspective—in terms of teaching your ears what to listen to, to hear his music.

Personally, I found Reich’s work a great way to better appreciate the musics of West African and Indonesia, as well.

In general, I love how Reich’s work doesn’t have the slightest hint of “fusion” or exoticism, but is rather a contemporary American portal into the diverse musical traditions that we’ve all inherited through recorded music. Reich is like the Charlie Parker gamelan Jewish drumming Baroque chamber music of New York City, circa now.

#2 from Lance, Seattle - 06/16/2009 5:25


I really love the concepts behind this post, and, more generally, your “preparation for listening” category.  I find the connections between music and artists as interesting, if not more interesting, as the music itself, as well as in literature and film.

Unfortunately, my music knowledge is a bit limited to contribute any significant suggestions to this post.  I can, however, share a personal journey regarding Frank Zappa.

I discovered Frank through Steve Vai.  I discovered Steve Vai because I was a major guitar geek in the 80’s.  I picked up Vai’s Flex-Able album, which is stylistically influenced by Zappa, and was able to make the move into Zappa from there.  So there it is: a “Guitar Geek Flight Plan” for Zappa.

Incidentally, once I made the jump into Zappa, Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica” became more accessible.  Would be interesting to hear about Captain Beefheart flight plans as well.

#3 from Adam, New Jersey - 06/20/2009 4:44

I think this post is a brother of the “starting point” column.  Classical music and jazz work well here because they reference earlier works much more than rock, both in content and form.  (Zappa is a the exception that proves the rule as he was probably the most symphonic rock musician). 

In jazz, quotes are part of the game.  Recently, the Sonny Rollins web site ran a contest for people who could name more than 100 quotes in one of Rollins’ cadenzas (totally worth checking out).  These included classical works, american popular song, and jazz standards.  In general, I think it is helpful for someone listening to any jazz to have worked his/her way through the Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks as they are pretty much a straight reading.

#4 from Shane, Nashville, Tn - 06/20/2009 9:34

I think to understand classical music, it is crucial to have that “entry point”, that piece of music that hooks you.  For me it was Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (a concerto usually features one main instrument).  That one piece of music opened the flood gates.  It is different in that the soloist starts the piece.  Usually the orchestra states the theme and then the soloist comes in.  Mendelssohn adds enough strange notes in the first movement that it struck a chord with the jazz lover in me.

To begin, my background was always rock and roll(Zeppelin, Clapton, The Clash) / old sixties soul (Stax and Motown), and classic Jazz (Miles, Mingus, Coltrane, Charlie Parker) and classical music did not make sense at all, it was boring.

I met my wife (a classically trained cellist and vocalist) her background was strictly classically based.  She started talking about things she liked and after a few years I gave in and wanted to know more about it.  She took me to classical concerts (piano concerto’s, violin concerto’s and symphonies) and I was amazed at the musicianship I was witnessing.  It is something to behold 30-60 musicians playing as if they are one person, it can be an awesome experience.  For people that are on the fence as to whether they like classical music, take an evening and go see a live performance.  I always appreciate a group more after seeing them live and the same holds true for classical music.

Everyone has an opinion, so I don’t think mine is anymore valid than the next person, but here is a list of things that got me hooked on classical music.

Bela Fleck - Perpetual Motion (I can see the confused look on your face now, but trust me.  Even before the Mendelssohn piece, this album sparked my interest.  It is not traditional in it’s approach, but it is very good.  If you are a fan of Bela, definitely check this out. It’s a very good “Gateway” drug.)

Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto in E minor (I have a recording by Isaac Stern that is really great. It also features Mendelssohns two piano concerto’s performed by Rudolf Serkin.  Really terrific stuff.)

Mendelssohn Symphony #4 The Italian symphony (I own the complete collection conducted by Claudio Abbado on the Deutsche Grammophon Label.  My favorite portion is the 4th movement, it is very powerful.)

Carl Orff - “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana (Atlanta symphony conducted by Robert Shaw.  Everyone has heard “O Fortuna”  really powerful stuff and once I learned about the story of Carmina Burana, It interested me more (it’s dirty!!)  FYI Ozzy Osbourne used to open up his concerts with a recording of “O Fortuna”. Most people should recognize it.)

Beethoven symphony cycle conducted by David Zinman.  (This is all nine symphonies.  My personal favorites are the first movement of the 5th symphony, the entire 7th symphony, and the 9th symphony.  What makes these recordings different is the tempo at which they are performed, it’s fast!  Tom suggests this cycle in the book.  It is put out by the Arte Nova Classic label)

Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto -  I am just starting to listen to this, but I like it a lot.

Vivaldi’s - Four Seasons (This music is used constantly in everything from commercials to ringtones.  Don’t let that cheapen it’s effect.  The climax of “Summer” is some of the most powerful music ever recorded.  I highly recommend the recording by Janine Jansen, it is well worth the money.)

Beethoven’s Piano concerto #5 (The Emperor)  really great piece of music

Mozart - Symphony #41 (Jupiter)  Mozart at his best

Bach - Cello Suite - This is a collection of 6 solo cello pieces that I am sure most people have heard at some point.  The opening of the first suite is instantly recognizable.  The most famous recording is by Pablo Casals, but Yo Yo Ma also does a great version.

Bach - Goldberg Variations - This is a collection of solo piano pieces.  The most well known version is by Glenn Gould from the mid 50’s, but I also like the newer recording by Murray Perahia.

One thing I will recommend is that not all the recordings of a particular piece sound the same.  I would take some time and learn who the “respected” conductors, performers, and symphonies are before purchasing something for your collection.

Hope this helps. Happy listening!

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