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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

What is Listening? In Harmony with our World

Written by By Eliza Garth, St. Mary’s piano faculty

A graduate of the Juilliard School, pianist Eliza Garth has devoted much of her professional life to the performance of the music of our time. The New York Times has stated, “Ms. Garth … has an exquisite ear for piano sound. One can think of no one better qualifi ed to play this intricate, shining music.” Her work has been recognized twice with Individual Artist Awards from the State of Maryland, most recently in 2010 for her performance of John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes.” She has been a member of the music faculty since 1989.


Our senses are integral to our daily experience, and we naturally take them for granted. This is particularly true with hearing, because our lives are full of sounds all day long. I have often tried to imagine the constant aural stimulation babies experience throughout their waking hours: all of that information coming towards them, and no filters to shut any of it out. No wonder newborns need to sleep every few hours! Adults develop filters out of necessity, but that’s not always an advantage; in an effort to distill and focus, we sometimes shut out too much of our world. And if over time we are bombarded with enough sounds that we shut off the part of ourselves that listens, do we also begin to shut off the part that loves?

Students of yoga learn a breathing exercise during which one focuses on the breath as it enters the nostrils. We can do something similar with our ears as sounds enter there, interact with our minds and hearts, and become transformed by our perceptions.

Consider the ways we are set up not to listen, particularly when it comes to music. Early in the 20th century, the experience of listening to music changed with the coming of phonographs and radios. Instead of going to a concert hall or picking up a musical instrument, people could switch on gadgets to play music for them. This made music more available to a mass market, but it also made listening to it a less social activity. It also gave music a new function: playing in the background, providing a soundtrack while people got on with their hectic lives − part of the sea of sound engulfing their ears.

For me, this raises the question: What is listening?

Much of my musical life has been devoted to performing works that are recently composed, and in many cases have never been performed before. Often, the music I play is reaching the listener’s ears for the first time. I once had a student who came to me, indignant, after hearing me perform a new work. The composer’s idiom was strange to her, and her suspicions were aroused. Had the composer been taking advantage of her, maybe even making fun of her? “What was he thinking?” she asked. “It is the composer’s job to entertain the audience.”

I responded that it is true that some kinds of music − movie soundtracks, pop tunes − are designed specifically to entertain, and I added that I had never met a composer who was out to alienate the audience. Most composers hope the audience will be engaged and moved by their music. But I also suggested that for many composers, creating a work of music springs first of all from the need to express something − as fundamental a form of self-expression as a child’s singing. The final composition may end up being a good deal more complex than the song of a child, but the first impulse comes from the same place. Composers write what they want to hear. 

Knowing this student to have a keenly empathic nature, I invited her not only to reconsider the composer’s role, but her own role as the listener. Perhaps she could approach a new composition the same way she might encounter any effort to hear another person – as one human being trying to understand another. In this way, listening would be a mindful act, something she could do for another and for herself – an opening-up, a “meeting halfway.” What listening would not be is a passive state, with the composer acting as provider and the listener as consumer.

John Cage, the American composer and philosopher, overturned many people’s assumptions about listening. He also took a view of music composition that differs from the one I’ve just been describing. After spending years composing as an act of self-expression, he found that he couldn’t be certain that the music he wrote conveyed his own thoughts and emotions. As he put it, a work that made one listener cry might make another smile. Around that time, the mid-’40s, he began working with a pupil who had grown up in India. When he asked her, “What is the purpose of music in Indian culture?” she replied, “To quiet the mind, making it open to divine influences.”

This captured Cage’s imagination, and his concepts of listening and the nature of silence began to change. Perhaps the essence of composing music is not really self-expression, he thought. And the essence of listening lies not in asking “What does this music say?” but rather, “What do my mind, body and spirit say when I encounter this music?”

Some time after his encounter with the student from India, Cage visited an anechoic chamber, hoping to hear true silence. When in fact what he heard was his own heart beating, he concluded that, at least in human perception, there is no such thing as absolute silence. He realized that there is no objective difference between sound and silence, but only between intending to hear and turning our attention elsewhere − that is, deciding not to hear. “Silence is not acoustic,” he said. “[Silence] is a change of mind.” He identifi ed this concept with the belief held in India that music happens continuously around us; it only stops in our minds, when we turn away and stop paying attention.

What had the student from India meant by a quiet mind and divine influences? After spending many years immersed in Buddhism, Cage came to believe that a quiet mind is one free of likes and dislikes. He embraced the idea that every creature, animate or inanimate, is the Buddha, and that each being – including each sound − is at the center of the universe. So, to Cage, the “divine infl uences” were the sounds, intentional or unintentional, that surround us all the time, many made by chance, there whether we notice or not. As divine infl uences, all sounds were to be honored.

What would happen, he wondered, if we set aside the idea that music is about communication, and instead regard “music” as a process of discovery in which we open ourselves to the sounds that are ever ongoing around us? Instead of using music as a way to express our likes and dislikes, what if music became a way for us to live in harmony with our world? Music would then be not an escape from life, to use Cage’s words, but rather an introduction to it.

Many people remember John Cage as the “chance” composer, and the work for which he is perhaps most famous, “4’33,” is indeed defined by chance sounds.

There remain many beautiful works by Cage that date from the earlier years when he composed as an act of self-expression. Among these is “Sonatas and Interludes,” a gentle masterpiece for prepared piano that called to me for many years before I felt ready to respond. With hindsight, knowing the discoveries Cage eventually made about the nature of music enriches the experience of listening to “Sonatas and Interludes,” as well as the experience of performing it. Both can be transformative.

Cage was a radical, and not all subsequent composers followed directly in his footsteps. Many composers today still compose to express themselves. They do so, however, in a landscape transformed by Cage’s insights, in which music-making is an act of community.

At the heart of Cage’s enduring legacy lies the possibility that, if we relinquish fear and judgment about that which is new, listening to music – whether formally rendered or created by random events – can light the pathway inward to our spiritual selves, and outward towards the rich universe that awaits our presence and our songs.