The Lost Art of Listening – Bailey Matsuda and ‘Umi Perkins

Increasingly, music is, as bassist Pete Doktorʻs former band name suggests, “audio wallpaper.” Jazz pianist, teacher and former member of the Pagan Babies Bailey Matsuda hopes to  find “a new (for him) way of listening to new (for him) music.” He states:

Bailey Matsuda

“It occurred to me while driving that I had a point of view percolating just under my awareness regarding a different kind of listening experience, one that seems to be disappearing more and more. I mean, who goes out to listen to live music anyway? We go out to drink, be with friends, hang out, dance or [“other activities” editorʻs note: censored] and it seems like the last thing that ever happens is that you have a band that is actually playing some happening [stuff: again censored] in a place where people go to listen. Not here, not in Honolulu.

“Ok, maybe Sarento’s on Tuesdays thanks to Dancin’ Dave, or sometimes at the Atherton Performing Arts Studio at KHPR. Or maybe at the Musician’s Union in their new studio once a month. But it’s the usual suspects at these venues. I did try to do my part to circumvent this trend and these choices.

“I hosted a ʻhouse’ concert at my apartment with a friend. The guests were all from his circle of friends, but I knew one or two of them. Light food for dinner/snacks and some beer and wine, and an hour of songs that no one had ever heard. An evening of songs, and one of mine could be construed a jazz ballad, but it was accessible and told a story.

“So I pose a question: has listening to digital radio or lists from iTunes or Pandora or even our own library of CD’s really become the definitive listening experience for us?

“In short, I have no idea what to listen to, who to listen to, or where to find it.”

Classical guitarist and composer Andrew York asked a similar question in the liner notes of his 1993 album. He asks us to imagine going back to a time when music was not so ubiquitous, say, the 17th century. Imagine hearing chamber music in an intimate setting. The exquisite melodies, harmonies and counterpoint. It really affects you. It may even change your life. Now compare that to today, where popular music is elevator music and vice versa. As Radiohead singer Thom Yorke put it in Karma Police, the music these days “buzzes like a fridge” – it blends together in an autotuned, grungey sameness.

Is there a way to delete and reset our listening apparatuses, and reclaim that innocence that made us love music in the first place? It seems that several things contribute to this deadening of the listening experience. First, is the excessive technology, such as autotune and scrubbed sound that make us think that people really sound that way. We should be less critical of imperfections in the sound, and look for the soul of the music. Second, musical illiteracy. There were times in the past when music really mattered to a large listening public – not just Vienna in Mozart’s time, but the “Troubador” period of singer-songwriters in the 1970s: Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. The songwriting mattered, the songs mattered then, not just celebrity. Third, we need to re-engage with music by playing it, with others, listening to it live, or just really listening.

Troubador video and album on the 1970s singer-songwriters

Of course there are always counter-currents. Some musicians are going against all the trends Iʻve just derided. One positive thing about the new music environment is that there are many more microniches. On the other hand, it seems to have enabled people to become more narcissistic in their musical tastes.

As I watch my older daughter being to engage with music I see a few things that capture her “beginner’s mind” (in the words of DT Suzuki): true vocal quality (Michael Buble’s slightly cheesy but unscrubbed flawlessness), catchiness (Don McLean’s American Pie – science has just begun to show how Norah Jones and the Stones have much in common at an as-yet-mysterious level), and humor (Weird Al’s Star Wars version of American Pie). Perhaps what we ultimately need to know is when to be more sophisticated and when to be less so. This art of listening is not only lost for music – we donʻt listen to each other in general. As the humorist Fran Lebowitz said “the opposite of talking isnʻt listening; the opposite of talking is waiting.”

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3 responses to “The Lost Art of Listening – Bailey Matsuda and ‘Umi Perkins

  1. Leialoha A. Perkins

    Perceptive. Thought perceptive. Microniches is an insight. Is it not to the credit of the Non Listeners that they are looking for their own voices that they sense or feel match the voice of the last inspiring recording artist they heard and loved (the microphone and engineering of vocal sound management well hidden so non-existent in their response)? Was Mozartʻs audience perhaps too easily convinced there was nothing to be had after Mozart? Or beside him? Runner -ups did not count. So the Viennese tastes were excellent but autocratic? People listened, contented to hear
    what Mozart produced, which was a whirlwind. It gave them little time to think how to get a handle on anything possibly “wanting” (if trained in classical music, that was not a possibility — which means well, happiness was to enjoy and enjoy oneʻs cultivated ignorance . . .of an essentially (then) closed world. Today, the world is multi-cultural, claims to value something more holistic like Every Musical (self-defined) Experience, or at least to hear it and if not understand it, give it its day in court. E.g. jazz. Delta Blues. Australian Aborigine Dreamtime songs (on a cd, if legitimate).
    But of the first (jazz) – very selectively; of the second, all of it; of the third, of what iʻve heard. Besides Hindemith and Maria Callas, favourites; beside Pucciniʻs operas and Kate Smithʻs “America.” And some outstanding movie music (DesPlanteʻs in “The Painted Veil”; ? in Dr. Zhivago — the war ravaged scenes, the country snow scenes, Lara; and of course everything about the mythic of Star Wars). Now, thatʻs an ordinary modernistʻs taste.
    IT leaves out a LOT. So even though I think i listen, i probably do not. American Black music is historical, but the confusing of guts and caterwauling into microphones is a natural end point, like some Hawaiian music renditions (no names) that depend on the listener to cozy up from habit (which is o.k., but is it listening?) . . .then going to sleep, happy (new standard?). . . . I will say one thing, from chance experience. In Boston,the rage for decades was Baroque music. After Hawaiian music, Popular Continental American music, and Cowboy music in Lahaina and Honolulu. one noticed that the narrowness of a One Period Musical Mania had the effect of making one really LISTEN for structure, because of the similarity of patternings. The music in Hawaiʻi was simpler and immediately charming (or not), and the structures obvious and repetitive (it seemed, by contrast). Easy in, easy out (those years. but not since Pahinui and after). You almost donʻt need to listen, as thereʻs in a sense little to hear –except for moments when you do, by chance, and it sticks. Listening is harder. Was harder, i mean. Since Peter Moon, Ohta, and company, the ʻukulele has given life to the Form, i.e. it became sort of “literate,” compared to the “orality” of the former decades . . .Thereʻs more of us, more kinds of us listening and making (music or music-like doings), and changing the old four dimensional Country of Sound to well, it looks like the New Sense of the Universe (“The Uncertainty Principle,” e.g.). Weʻre exploding. Deconstructing evolution . . . going in all directions ..and being shaken
    like rag dolls in some quarters.

    In the 40ʻs, every Hawn. home was music filled. People knew each other. Talked. Today, we donʻt. And singing like hearing poems has gone the way of the reading of the Bible . .. less catastrophically. Perhaps we donʻt believe in it? We talk. Somethingʻs happening. In time, music will follow. Not making it, so much, but liking it enough to want to hear friends, at least, sing their own compositions . . .before taking off, to imitate them . . .except often the genuinely musical by any real standards are like all artists since time immemorial . . .isolated and if not that, little recognized . . to do their fullest, best in their lives.

    One last item. I hardly go to hear chamber music any more, or the symphony. Theyʻre expensive. And Cds are, yes, engineered for
    perfect performances. What is missing is the musicianʻs presence and the fellow audiences. And NOBODY hangs around afterward to complete the experience. Itʻs a let-down. So, who needs it? (Though when one has it, itʻs unforgettable?) A Cd leaves no let-downs –andyouo donʻt expect to talk about the music and the performance afterward. You are right, though. The choicest things come simple, packaged small, for unreasonanbly few for audience, but appreciative.
    Iʻm a poet. Itʻs exacly the same way for poets. Population growth and one world “we are the world” notwithstanding.

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  2. L.A.P.

    Briefs, Thinking Back What It Was Like Musically, Growing Up in Hawai’i, in Lahaina, in Honolulu

    Splashes and Eruptions of Colourful Leis and Upsurges of Singing and Music met me dockside, in my first visit to Honolulu in l939. I couldn’t believe that we were like Bobby Breen, the child wonder, singing “Hawai’i Calls,” as, in the movie of that name, he arrived in Honolulu and loved the world dockside so that he burst into song.
    Hugging, kissing, talking above everybody else . . .yet the singing went on, the rhythm of Hawaiian sweeping through the crowds.
    When I left the Waialeale, it was to step for the first time on a dock that, unlike Mala Wharf, in Lahaina, had two floors, one stacked on top of another, but the musicians were in plain sight and the singers and dancers. It turned out the musicians were there for a family, not for us all, but they did not stop singing until most of us were off the boat, because though hurrying to leave, we hurried in slow motion, not wanting to leave when the music was incredibly stirring for us to move, keep moving, in harmony, it seemed, with the beat, but not exactly leaving. Because we knew the songs being sung. We listened. But we sang, too, silently, as though for the passengers that hadn’t come down the planks yet .. .Still, it was like what Bobby Breen saw, and burst into song, and every one of us kids who heard him, just another kid, sang with him, having just learned the tune after hearing it once . . . singing part singing, as we did at home, in Lahaina, nights, sitting and lying on lauhala mats, on the spacious verandah, nights . . .everybody knowing where s/he fit . .. .

    Singing was communal, participatory. Solos were leads and occasional. But everybody had his favourites and everybody got a chance to do his part. Today, group singing is not welcomed. Solo is the thing. And once the soloist or guitarist or ‘ukulele player or group takes off, they never give over the role. So we’re locked into a one man style, a one band style (one style or many, still, one band) . . .Nobody is invited to MAKE MUSIC. Making music is for the stage, not the old backyard on a warm summer night or the front porch when it’s raining in winter. It’s competitive.

    Who needs that? We need Concerts like those offered the Messiah Chorus lovers. Everybody sings. Not on stage, but — like at home, sort of in the back yard, summers, the front veranda, when it rains. It’s for fun. The Old Public Radio word for it was Singalong. We could do live, if the children had a role of their own too;or half-live,like on Skype. It’s healthy. For those of us who have hardly any voices left to speak of — we
    coulld lip sync. Lip sync to records, even — Pahinui, Pavrotti, Genoa Keawe, Maria Callas, Bob Dylan and, even better, new singers, isolated geographically and from centers of mass communication . . , every island has them. Colette Machade introduced one of them in her OHA inauguration. I don’t know his name. But his singing moved us to tears. Who is he? You see, we need to give access to the new and the old . ..not competitive . . . just to lead us . . .give us a chance . ..We’ll never be Marion Anderson or Paul Robeson or Johnny Almeida or Moe Keale, or Myra English . . . but I, for one, would certainly love to try, with others. What we need is a chance to Hear AND Sing, and to HEAR and PLAY MUSIC TOGETHER.

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