News and Insights

Overheard: Two musicians, listening anew

I take special pleasure in reading the obituaries and life-retrospectives of musicians – I enjoy learning about their challenges and life-sufferings, as well as their relationships to music and how this relationship might change over time.

The highly respected conductor Claudio Abbado died in January 2014, aged 80. Claudio Abbado’s obituary included a story from another other great conductor, Simon Rattle. Abbado had shared with Rattle that, after the removal of a part of his digestive system for treatment of stomach cancer in 2000, Abbado was able to hear music like never before:

“My illness was terrible, but the results have not been all bad: I feel that somehow I hear from the inside of my body, as if the loss of my stomach gave me internal ears. I cannot express how wonderful that feels. And I still feel that music saved my life in that time!”

Reading this struck me as so beautiful. I was touched that, for a man who knew music so intimately as he did, there was still room to hear it on an even deeper level. He knew music from a terrible place of suffering with cancer, and thus experienced it’s saving graces. He then began to hear music differently, from inside his body, and thus experienced the wonderment of a new perspective. How hopeful this is – that beauty, wonderment, and meaningful new listening experiences await us, even in illness and suffering.

The influential blues guitarist, John Fahey, who I knew very little about before discovering him through a retrospective in the Guardian newspaper, shared his own fascinating listening experience in an interview in The Wire magazine back in 1998.

He explains that he was brought up in a racially-prejudiced household, and despite his love of American roots music, avoided listening to black singers and musicians for a long time, because of this deep racial bias. His friend put on a record of the black musician, Blind Willie Johnson, playing and singing “Praise God I’m Satisfied“. He described his experience of listening to this song, as something totally new:

“I started to feel nauseated so I made him take it off, but it kept going through my head so I had to hear it again. When he played it the second time I started to cry, it was suddenly very beautiful. It was some kind of hysterical conversion experience where in fact I had liked that kind of music all the time, but didn’t want to. So, I allowed myself to like it.”

This type of surrender to music can be transformative. It transformed Fahey’s life-long relationship to music and a shift in his consciousness, lifting the veil of bias that he’d grown up with.

When you allow yourself to listen to a piece of music in a deeper way than before, there is the possibility of internal change. Try it now. Click on the link above, and listen to Blind Willie Johnson. Listen with “internal” ears, from inside your body. Listen again.