The First Listener

Feb 12, 2014


Benjamin Taylorby Benjamin Taylor, SFCA Composer in Residence

In my practice as a composer, I have a philosophy that I believe helps me keep my bearings and objectivity, a way to remind myself why I’m making music. I remember the first listener. All music ever heard by human ears has had a premiere performance, but contrary to easy assumption, the first listener was there for the music before that event. The first listener was there before an editor or conductor saw the score, before a trusted friend or colleague listened to a draft. In truth, the composer should be the first person to know what the music will be, the first person to listen to this new music and (one hopes) enjoy it.

The drive to write music is often an incredible urge, nearly irresistible, and the excitement of trying to craft a piece of perfection can be a kind of intoxicant against better judgement. As a composer, I make every effort to be the first listener. I try to remind myself that musical quality trumps musical invention or novelty. I remind myself that my own desire to create well-structured music can not supersede a meaningful artistic experience for the listener. If I forget to take this role as a part of my job, I can lose perspective and wander into music that, while perhaps clever, complex, and intriguing, may completely miss the point and leave an audience at best satisfied with but never inspired by their experience. I believe that clever music can even be abusive to the audience, if the composer hasn’t remembered to listen as if s/he doesn’t know what’s coming next, doesn’t know the design in advance. So, I do my best to listen to my music during the writing process, listen as though I’m not a composer, not a trained musician. The result I strive for is music that reaches its audience with rhetoric rather than formula, with gesture rather than construct, music that touches an audience’s senses more than their intellects, that enlightens rather than confounds, music that is a narrative rather than a puzzle.

Being a listener as well as a composer is a topic I frequently cover with students. I may ask them, “this is a very clever idea you’ve come up with here, but do you like it?” And more than once have I received a confused look in reply. Their faces often seem to be imploring, “what’s the difference?” I then remind them of why we all began writing music in the first place: we composers all love listening to music. We all wanted to write music because we heard something we loved listening to, something that moved us, and we felt we could contribute something equally valuable. So, I try to remember that my experience as a listener is the impetus for my work as a composer. And I routinely hope that what moves me as a listener will do the same for others.