The Power of a First Listen

Marin Aslop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, tells a story about when she was a kid at home while her parents were rehearsing with their string quartet. Marin wasn’t feeling well: the dog was barking and, to top it all off, the string quartet played noisy and fragmented music. After the rehearsal she stormed downstairs and told her parents that she disliked the modern music they were playing. Her parents laughed, telling her that it wasn’t a modern piece they were rehearsing but Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. 

This episode is a great example of the impression of a first listen. A first listen is a time machine: no matter when it was concocted, a piece is transported to the present day. It makes us encounter music not as an artifact but as something truly modern. For listener and performer alike there is a lot of power in this first impression.

And yet after a first listen I compartmentalize the music, putting the work within a certain style and era. I throw the music back into the past. But music wants to escape the past. Music wants to break free into the present. What if we could channel the ability to always approach music with the power of a first listen? How would it change the way we perform and listen to music?

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