Sankt Petri (Field Recording #1)/thoughts on “listening”

On the morning of July 13th, 2016, I visited the Sankt Petri Church in downtown Hamburg to get some rest. I sat on the pews for more than an hour, astounded and absolutely moved by the raw beauty of the sounds enveloping me. It felt as if this fleeting moment was carefully placed there… as if it was created just for me. Some moments you hear an organ being tuned, others you hear churchgoers taking pictures and meandering about, but the moment you allow for the inherent connotations evoked by each sound to dissolve, you allow yourself to appreciate the beauty lying beneath the unintended.

It felt wrong to take out my phone and press record, to simply rip this moment from its element, but I needed to share at least a fraction of it. This morning has thoroughly changed the way I approach music and my surroundings.

How can beauty like this just exist in the world, unnoticed? If I thought of this 12′.08″ fraction of time as a contemporary composition it would have a logical form.. as if serious compositional thought went into it. I could even consider this to be one of the most moving things I have ever heard, but is this classical music?

There is often a fierce debate here in Germany on the difference between “serious” music or E-Musik (E=Veranstaltungen Ernster Musik) and “conversational” or U-Musik (U= Veranstaltungen von Unterhaltungs-und Tanzmusik). There is a strict categorical difference, one that has led to a famous unnamed composer from Leipzig even telling me that rock & roll is “pure sex, just sex”… not music. These kinds of things often lead me to wonder why I write music in what most people call the classical idiom. By writing notes on paper, am I to upholding or confronting their tradition? If all I have listened to for the past month is music by Arthur Russell or Vince Staples, but then my artistic response (contribution?) is an orchestra piece, is it still classical music?

For me, writing music for the concert stage has become to be a way of listening and approaching sound. This approach has become something like a deal that I have made with the world around me: for the duration of this (classical) concert, I am turning my phone on airplane mode and trying my very best to simply listen to what is happening. If I can’t listen, I don’t go… Each individual is different, but approaching genre distinctions in this manner has truly helped my artistic output.

Art allows us to approach the mysticism of the world, and converse with it. Speaking for composers, we establish a unity between ourselves and time creating a symmetry. But, to evoke Stravinsky:

“music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.” (Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p. 53-54.)

Music is simply sound, and Igor Stravinsky’s words emancipate sound(22 years before John Cage did with 4’33”, actually)

What makes this captured moment so powerful… is it the fact that it’s happening in a church?… is it the fact that an organ is being played?

This field recording is music, because I want it to be. When you emancipate sound from music, you truly begin to listen.