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Clash of Perspectives

Art & CommunityPosted by Makram Aboul Hosn Wed, March 15, 2017 13:11:15

“One man’s music, is another man’s noise” – Mark Slouka

I assume we all know what a gratifying feeling it is for two or more people to share a certain emotion towards a piece of music, a film, a book, an idea, etc. It is such a warm bonding experience that, should the other person’s perspective differ from ours, we are often left with a feeling of disappointment and loneliness. We might even begin to argue why it is wrong for them not share our perspective, why they should feel so, and how they are missing something valuable, all in a desperate attempt to establish some sort of bond instead of having none at all.

One day, in the quiet corridors of Prince Claus Conservatory in Holland, I ran into vibraphonist Joe Locke and played a graphic animation of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on my phone for us both to watch. We attended in total absorption and joy. A bond was established ever since.

Years before, I discovered that Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C-sharp minor was that single piece of music that I consider the most valuable to me; the reason why no other piece of music moved me as deeply. I decide to share it with a friend by playing it for him on my laptop. As he listened with headphones on, I waited, hoping he would react as I would every time I’d hear it. He puts down the headphones and says, casually, “It’s a beautiful piece of music, surely. But it’s not my favorite”. Again—disappointment and loneliness.

Since that moment, I developed a curiosity about why and how music (and later, all other experiences) created such importance to certain individuals/groups, and held no significance whatsoever to others. While I made endless assumptions, the only one that truly resonated, (and still does) was that the intensity of a certain experience lies not strictly in the experience itself, but in the experience’s relation to an individual in a certain space and time, assuming that the consciousness of the individual is shaped by an accumulation of experiences. More precisely, the power of music lies not entirely in its performance, but also greatly in how the listener unconsciously decides to perceive it. This perception is affected by so many factors: the context in which the performance takes place, the mood the listener is in, the acoustics of the performance space, etc. The list goes on, but I will explore four.

Social acceptance/rejection:

On the day of her audition, the music student faces the jury. Totally taken over by the emotions she has invested in the moment, she does what she can to impress them, only to hear that she has not what it takes to be admitted. The jury’s response is the equivalent of social rejection—“we do not want you in our circle, you are sentenced to exclusion”. What dismay this experience creates. Nobody wants to be rejected. So much so, that the most severe form of punishment in our judicial system is execution. Right after it, comes solitary confinement. To the inmate in solitary confinement, execution is possibly the only thing that could put him out of his misery.

And so we come to understand how important it is for us to fit in. This human peculiarity is so dominant over our experience of music, that I believe we are often conditioned to like a certain movie before we’ve even watched it, simply because everybody likes it, or, because as an aspiring movie maker, you HAVE to like it. Let’s not even get into the question of trends. In short, when we don’t like what everyone else likes, we risk excluding ourselves; a factor not to be underestimated.

When & where:

The experience of falling in love is not entirely about the other person, but also about the when. Every person that I’ve loved, I’ve loved because they came to me at a certain time in which I needed to love. It is also about the where, “the right time in the right place”, as they say. And so it is such for a profound, shallow, or in-between musical experience. In one socio-musical experiment, a famous concert violinist, Joshua Bell, performed concert music in a subway during rush hour. And though Bell’s name could fill Carnegie Hall with eager audiences, the attention he received in the subway was minimal. No one was looking for a profound musical experience during rush hour in a subway.

One doesn’t need to go that far in order to understand this. It is sufficient to think about how a song meant the world to you a few years back, and has now it has lost all its meaning, or vice-versa.

Purist mentality:

It is so common in the music world to hear about ‘authentic’ performances of this and that. A conservative mindset will tell you that bebop is not real Jazz, whereas a bebop militant will tell you that Ornette Coleman is a faker. A Baroque enthusiast will tell you that Rostropovich’s romantic interpretation of Bach is inauthentic, i.e. inconsistent with the assumptions of how Bach’s music sounded at the time it was conceived, and so you are discouraged from giving certain music an honest listen and forming your own opinions. Again, through our need to belong, we may find ourselves drawn to groups of purists, so that we don’t feel so alone, and we condemn other groups for having different beliefs. The much larger manifestation of this comes in the form of religious/nationalistic zeal. Purist mentors can seem very attractive to the younger generation. They come across as people who have strong values and traditions and who claim to be doing the only noble and right thing, while everything else is harmful nonsense. In other words, they know what they like and what they dislike, though they often cannot form a strong and persistent argument as to why they feel this way.

I’ll quote a section from Camus’ “Human Crisis” speech, which he gave during his first visit to the U.S. in 1946:

“…People can only really live if they believe they have something in common, something that brings them together… Nobody in this world, now or ever, should have the right to decide that their own truth is good enough to impose on others. For only the shared consciousness of men and women can realize this ambition. The values sustaining this shared consciousness must be rediscovered. The freedom we must finally win is the freedom not to lie.”

To me, this relates so strongly to everything discussed above. I’d like to finally direct your attention to one last area.

Musicians’ intentions & listeners perception:

To me, there is not a single compliment that is more gratifying after a performance than something like, “I could feel what you were feeling”. These kinds of remarks come to me every once in a while after a performance from an individual or two in different variations, and they serve as a powerful reminder of why I do what I do. But truth be told, I don’t see it possible for everyone to feel the same thing during any one performance. I remember this from the many concerts I attended with friends in NYC. We were always a relatively large group, and there was never any unanimous agreement after any show we attended about it being good or not. Some loved it, others regretted showing up. I can recall a few times where I felt not so great after a performance I gave, only to discover that people enjoyed it greatly!


The point of this whole essay is to simply remind both you and myself, that we must not forget the complexity of our situation. If we do, we in turn make our lives harder and may find ourselves imposing our opinions on others. Perhaps even, unwillingly having someone’s opinion imposed on us. It’s great if we can share our perspective with each other, but it’s a shame if we condemn each other’s perspectives and assume authority and better capability of judgement. Everyone is a competent judge of their own taste, and while we certainly can influence each other’s tastes, we must do so with care, respect and ethics.

“That’s one of the great thigns about music. You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they'll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.” - Dave Grohl

Edited by: Sima Itayim

  • Comments(2)

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Posted by Noreen Halpern Wed, March 15, 2017 19:44:57

Thank you for this brilliant insight on perception. How I wish I had this article when I was teaching a class on this topic! Once in a while, I'm asked to dust off the old notes. I now know that I'll have to adapt my presentation to include your article.

Posted by Joe Locke Wed, March 15, 2017 14:30:43

Thank you for this thoughtful essay, Makram. My father, who was a Latin professor, used to say "de gustibus non disputandum set" - in matters of taste there is no argument. And so it is. I will never forget when you shared that Stravinsky animation with me in the hall of the conservatory in Groningen. That simple act of sharing something you love with another - it can be such a connecting thing.

The Joshua Bell experiment - a perfect illustration of the "When & Where" aspect of your article. When I initially heard about that, I shook my head in dismay (and superiority) at people's insensitivity. But how many times have I been guilty of not being truly present to take in the beauty all around me? Thouands? ... Tens of thousands of times? I fear that is a low figure

And leave it to you to quote Albert Camus and Dave Grohl in the same piece! Both of these quotes resonated.

I am beyond gratified to know you, Makram. Please keep writing ... for yourself, and for us! xoxJoe Locke