Listening With Teenage Ears

Jonathan Bellman

Robin’s blog about listening to art music while many others were living and dying by various popular styles put me in mind of another, in some ways parallel chapter of my own life. I already mentioned that I turned the radio off around 1975, yeah, but from my sophomore year of college on (’76-’77) I was a music major, and my world, quite simply, was blowing open. Singing in choir, attending studio classes, friends’ recitals, above all music history classes—a dizzying array of undreamt-of musics (at least for a suburban kid in a not-particularly-musical household) appeared more or less instantly. And here’s the thing: when you are discovering all kinds of music, medieval and Renaissance music especially, and you’re around 19–21, you want to … get those records, now. I got home from my first year at UC Santa Barbara at winter break, 1977, and immediately commandeered my dad’s car and drove out to Tower Records in Los Angeles, where—it seemed—you could buy anything. Anything! This is not even to mention the used record shops.

So: I bought a variety of the old Lyrichord recordings of the Yale Capella Cordina (the conductor—Hail Alejandro!—was the early music scholar and music history professor at UCSB). I had previously bought Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, and New York Pro Musica records, and Nonesuch Christmas (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque) records. I got a recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos (Ashkenazy/Solti) and Bach violin/kbd sonatas from a record club. I filched my parents’ Chopin Ballades record (Peter Frankl). And I listened to these things over and over and over, obsessively. And I sang along. Probably few things would be more ghastly than my singing falsetto along with Russell Oberlin, the nightingale countertenor of the New York Pro Musica, but I did endlessly, especially the Early English Polyphony recording and in Orlando Gibbons’s London Street Cries. This is not from score, mind—this is learning the music the way teens do, by ear, over and over. It was teenage listening, in a pure form: obsessive, ravenous, gourmandizing: not only wanting to own the music, wanting to drown in it and make it part of your cell content. It was the very opposite of what people imagine classical listening to be: chaste, dispassionate, restrained. Nothing neat and nice and cultured about it: pure teenage fire and yearning and dreaming.

Frankly, I still like to listen this way, to care this hard about music I hear to the point of tearing off slices with my teeth. Perhaps this accounts for my impatience with concert hall behavior—sitting as if in church, enduring the performance, and at the end applauding oneself for having attended. I long assumed it was just my—er—vernacular sympathies that made me (on the inside, at least) such an impatient, poorly-behaved boy. Now I’m not so sure; do we really know how people heard music in former times?

(I freely admit that I may be a case of arrested development; that my musical immaturity level might mean I’m a questionable choice to be teaching the Great Works. Fortunately, though, I have tenure.)

One of the great things about teaching the entire music history survey, which I did for ten years, was that you get excited about things on a yearly cycle, but you don’t have time to over-listen and wear stuff out in your own ear. Early polyphony, troubadour songs, Renaissance polyphony; you rediscover it every year, you strive to put it across to students of varying commitment levels. Beats the heck out of high culture and blue hair, folks. Thing is, there’s a physical immediacy to listening that way—a bit of youth it’s good not to forget, the LA freeway with a Santa Ana wind and … “Brown-Eyed Girl” comes on, or “Blue Sky” or “Celluloid Heroes” or “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” Your next half-hour has just been made, really made, and the day looks completely different. Keeping that organic tissue-memory alive means that in class, you hit that CD player and it’s your favorite song on the car radio, the one you were wanting to hear—“Rose, Liz, Printemps, Verdure,” Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, Quartet for the End of Time—and somehow they’ve got to get that.

Except Wagner day. But never mind. Every job has its disadvantages.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to Listening With Teenage Ears

  1. Kip W says:

    I listen to classical music the most (not exclusively) because of the thrills. It pleases my spine, and, at its best, turns me to happy protoplasm.

  2. Eric says:

    I, too, turned off the radio upon finishing high school and discovered a whole universe of amazing music in my first years of college (I remember I was in awe of Berg). However, when I landed my full-time college teaching gig in 2001— the gig I still have and will have until I retire in 30 years or so—my teaching load included a course in popular music. Thus, I had to go back familiarize myself with all the pop music that I HADN’T been listening to during the previous 15 years (I graduated in ’85). When I started listening to the stuff from the late 80s and 90s, and saw how fantastic much of it was, I felt I had really missed the zeitgeist of my generation both culturally and musically. Bands like Radiohead, Tribe Called Quest, and Beck were really doing some interesting stuff, but I was completely oblivious; I was holed up in fin de siècle Vienna debating the respective merits of the 12-tone systems of Schoenberg and Hauer. I didn’t see the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked! Instead, I was reading a book in the ivory tower. Lesson learn, however: these days I try to adored and understand the masterworks of the past while keeping one foot firmly rooted in the present.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I don’t see anything at all wrong with your minority post-high school experience–indeed, no need for a “lesson learned,” even. So while you missed the heyday of Radiohead or Beck or whatever, you obviously found something that spoke vividly and immediately to you at the time. If you came to reconsider it, or put it in the context of more mass-market musics, so? You may have missed something of the zeitgeist of the 80s–biting my tongue here; perhaps you were fortunate enough to have missed Iran-Contra also, and the demise of the American reputation abroad–but your own personal geist was flourishing. And, obviously, you weren’t so far, nor were you away very long.

  4. Lyle says:

    I’m a non-academic following this blog for things like:” It was teenage listening, . . make it part of your cell content. . .opposite of what people imagine classical listening to be”
    – A nice distinction I’d never made but seems so obvious once pointed out – Now I’m wondering if a particular music or performance can tilt the listener more toward that sort of response – And what the pros and cons of the two types of listening are – Thanks for the thought provocation.

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