The problem with listening, of course, is that we don’t. There’s too much noise going on in our heads, so we never hear anything. The inner conversation simply never stops. It can be our voice or whatever voices we want to supply, but it’s a constant racket. In the same way we don’t see, and in the same way we don’t feel, we don’t touch, we don’t taste.

You have these internal organs of perception and you have these objects of perception. For example, there may be a noise; then there’s my ear, which is supposed to convey the noise through the biological apparatus to the brain. The problem is that it’s almost impossible for that transaction between the sound and the brain to take place because of the conceptualizing mind. It stands right in the way. There’s a guardian at the door of the mind that basically turns everything into something else—into the mind that fabricates, the mind that invents, the mind that interprets. It’s the compulsively interpreting and fabricating mind that hears everything the way it wants to. So we have this biological apparatus for hearing, whether it functions or not. And then we have the conceptualizing mind-editor that checks everything that comes into the brain and puts the right spin on it, makes it look the way it’s supposed to look, adjusts it to our conceptions, whatever it might be. That’s on the door to the brain. Then inside there’s this tremendous racket going on. So we have two problems.

We don’t listen because our internal environment is not conducive to listening, and we have this tyrannical, despotic editor who has his own ideas! Or her own ideas. We have a tyrant-censor who controls everything that comes in. So between the environment and the despot, the chance of our hearing anything becomes very remote! Somehow we manage. More or less. We can get directions to the Brooklyn Bridge, we more or less can meet our friends at dinnertime.

Cage always said that there isn’t any such thing as silence. He said even if there was no sound in the environment, there would be the sounds of your own body. But there may be another perception beyond that. First we have to get to that point where we’ve entered a world where we can listen. Let’s say that we’ve tied up the despot, we’ve got him to shut up for awhile, got him drunk or sent him home. Let’s say that we’ve got the crowd of ninety-five lunatics in our head to stop. And then we say “OK, we have these biological noises, OK, that’s just the body.” Then the real activity of listening takes place. But awareness will be dormant until we provoke it, until we demand and insist that it become activated. And that awareness is something that can be cultivated and developed. Without any question that can be done. Then we come to the doorway of the world of listening. That would be awareness of what is there. Luckily for most of us, we’re not completely unaware of that. I think we have those moments. And they are beacons for us.

Being a composer is about listening. Being a musician is about listening. Listening properly or performing becomes a kind of harmonizing of parts of our being—our intellectual center, our emotional center, and our moving center. So when you’re performing, in the best sense you harmonize those three centers in this way. And the doorway—again the doorway—to performing is to listen. It’s the activity of listening that activates these three areas, and it’s in the way they work together that the performance takes place.

The essential activity of listening requires at least a minimal point of attention. And that allows us to keep the flow of attention uninterrupted. There can be other things going on—if I were playing a concert and someone shouted “Fire!” I would definitely hear it! Paying attention has a lot to do with being able to construct the detail of the attention. What may have appeared to have been, let’s say, a uniform sound, may turn out to be more complex. It may embody other attributes that you may not have been aware of before, things like amplitude or pitch or depth. All those are details of the sound. Once you have attention to the sound, you can begin looking at it in terms of detail. For the performer, you can’t hope to create the sound until you’ve heard it. That begins as an internal event and becomes perceivable as an external event. The performer hears first, and then he plays what he hears. I make it sound as if there’s a period of time that elapses. In fact it may be almost no time. But it’s not quite simultaneous because if it reverses itself—if you start playing and then hearing—you run into serious interpretive problems with the music. I can tell you that from experience.

The activity of composing has to do with visualizing sound. Now we’re talking about listening as a very active activity. In order to hear the music, I have to have the attention to hear it and then I have to begin to create the detail around the hearing. For both the performer and the composer, you’re not listening to the outside world, you’re listening to something that’s a different kind of world.

How do I listen? Well, how can I listen when there’s all this noise going on? Now I notice I’m not listening, then I notice that there’s someone telling me what to listen to. Then I notice that this is happening all the time. Now I notice that there’s a problem about listening, and now I know that I’m not listening. My own experience is that the mind—once having cleared the space—will continue to fabricate. So there is no empty place for listening. However, for the composer that’s a good thing because having cleared the space, I may know that I’m fabricating, but the fabricating can become the work that I do. I don’t imagine that it has some deeper level of authenticity, because it’s closer to some crazy idea of emptiness I might have. In fact, when I stop and listen, I fabricate. When I’m fabricating from a place of greater attention to silence, I might have a better chance of holding onto the image of sound and to acquiring the detail and depth of it.

I used to ask myself the question, where does music come from? That question occupied me for about forty years. And I never found out the answer. But I did find out that I was asking the wrong question. That was an astonishing thing. I finally said, “Oh, I’ve been asking the wrong question my whole life!” It was like asking how to get to Jupiter. When you’re on Third Street and Second Avenue, asking how to get to Jupiter is a very stupid question. The question isn’t where does music come from, but what is music to begin with? That’s a much more interesting question. And I’m developing my ideas about it. It’s almost too complicated to go into but it has to do with another way of experiencing music. Let me put it this way: I think that music can be experienced multidimensionally. What I suspect now is that actually music is a shorthand for something else. I mean that a piece of music is actually a code. An architect’s plan for a building is not the building. But it represents the building. I think that music may function in that way. So the hearing aspect of music, at least the aspect of music that is the heard aspect, is a code for a larger structure. That’s what I meant when I said I suspect it’s multidimensional. That the music is reduced from something bigger so that in a certain way it becomes the two-dimensional version of a multidimensional world. We often hear music in a much deeper way than we can communicate it to each other. We hear it in terms of this emotional depth. We hear it as physical presence. And if we think carefully about our experiencing of music, when we hear it as a sound event we’re actually only hearing one layer of it.

Very roughly the same thing applies to seeing, tasting, touching. These are just doorways of our perception. That’s a better word—perception—because then we’re not seeing or listening or touching. We’re perceiving. Cognating. So once I got over the idea of looking for the source of music, then I started asking, “Well, what is music really?” Then I began to see that what we call the stuff we listen to is only one aspect—the top of it. The despotic censor might be there, and also the crowd of fools that are babbling all the time. We can kind of shut them up a little bit. It’s very hard to get rid of them. But we can still function, we can still listen, we can still see, we can still taste. It’s not hopeless, but still, the sound aspect is one layer. Yet our experience of music can be quite different from that. Music is actually a kind of a symbol for a rounder, more complete reality.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters