Playing it by ear

Playing it by ear

October 22, 2009 10:40
3 minute read.

listening24888. (photo credit: Bill Dixon)

Dr. Stephen Horenstein isn't asking for much; he only wants us to lend an ear. The 61-year-old Winthrop, Massachusetts-born Horenstein has been pushing the musical envelope in this country for nigh on three decades. He has taught scores of eager students at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, founded the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, and fronted and taken part in numerous artistically adventurous musical projects here and abroad. But, while the saxophonist-composer's own output may not be exactly the staple fare of the 88 FM radio station his forthcoming, self-explanatory entitled 'Art of Listening' course at the academy features an extensive range of styles and genres. For example, the opening session, on October 30, which intriguingly glories under the heading of "Sound and Texture: The DNA of Music," includes works by Bach, early twentieth century electronic music innovator Edgard Varese, a piece simply called African Drums and even an American folk song. Further down the line (the English-language course goes on intermittently until May) one can find an excerpt from Beethoven's String Quartet sitting cheek by jowl with a Mick Jagger-Keith Richards creation called Sympathy for the Devil performed by innovative Sixties rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears. Then, in the "Time and Movement: Rhythm, The Energy Source of Music" session, a taste of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé is followed by an Indian work called Phinpalasi performed by iconic sitar master Ravi Shankar. So, what's it all about, Steve? "Enhanced musical perception brings enhanced listening pleasure," says Horenstein with pristine succinctness. "Academia is normally a place for imparting knowledge. My course, first and foremost, is about imparting pleasure." NORMALLY, ENJOYMENT is considered a matter of personal taste and even cultural baggage, but Horenstein feels there are some universal tenets the public may be missing here. "There's so much [music] that people are not enjoying, that they are closing their ears and minds and hearts to." Much of that, feels Horenstein, is due to the social conditioning to which we are subjected from the word go. "Babies are capable of making any sound, but by the time they are a year old they have lost a lot of that. That's what happens to us over the years. We become rooted in listening patterns." That, according to Horenstein, exacerbates into a highly compartmentalized music industry, which, in turn, guides us along well trodden musical paths. "Unfortunately, for us," he muses, "that dictates the sorts of boxes that music is put into. So the purpose of the course is not only to impart pleasure but also to break down little categories and to show the common ground of all music; to show the similarities as well as the differences." The course's participants will listen to short musical passages, on which Horenstein will expound - occasionally with the help of a quick demonstration on the piano - and discussion of the works will be encouraged. And there will also be some homework to be done in between sessions. "I'll give everyone a CD with all the works I play to take home with them, so they can listen to the material and get a better handle on it," Horenstein explains. Ideally, Horenstein would have liked us to leave our past outside the academy classroom and come to his sessions with no expectations, and no baggage. "It is better to play fragments of sound almost blindly, and to talk about how they are composed or about their building blocks,' he says. 'I'd like people to accept the music without the cultural filter, at least at the first step. Suddenly someone may say, 'Hey wait a minute, this is doing something to me.' I'd like people to come to the course with a tabula rasa (clean slate), and to be totally open to what they are going to hear. That's not necessarily an easy thing to do, but you get the rewards."

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