Listening with their eyes

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Over the years I have come to realise that many, many people don’t listen with their ears, they listen first and foremost with their eyes.  They make an assessment of the performer or performers in front of them, and this assessment in based on an internal framework of references that come from their own experiences, histories and tastes.  This has nothing to do with the sound and everything to do with what has been bought and sold through a profound and powerful form of consumerism.

At a recent event in Leeds this observation was crystallised for me by the poet Josie Walsh.  She said it was interesting how there is much more going on when someone is listening to a reading than simply listening to the words.  What these other things are that are happening during a reading Josie didn’t make clear, but I latched onto that ambiguity anyway and interpreted it from my own experience.  There are a range of things going on in the collective mind of the audience and minds are made up in the first few seconds, and as a result, these decisions are never re-evaluated.

In these times of the hidden persuaders an audience assessment is predominantly based on the requirements of mediocrity, all the boxes must be ticked.  It’s a democratic hit that chimes with the collective acceptance of something normal and easy to understand.  It is the girl with the golden song and the golden looks, it is the band that plays a cover version, it is the shallow poems from a young poet that simply needs more experience, and it is the lame comedian who has blandness in his heart.  I have watched them bask in the praise of the majority and realised that my own framework of reference is out of sync with the rest of the world.  And this is because there are several things going on here, a variation of things within which I find myself loving that which most other people don’t seem to enjoy.

The audience that listens with their eyes look for comparisons – can I compare this person to another?  Have I seen something like this before and did I enjoy it?  These comparisons are generally a fond enough pat on the back for “you reminded me of ..” or “that song was like another one I already know”.  They are based on looking back rather than looking forward.

The audience that listens with their eyes will look for clues from the people around them – how do others respond? Are they watching, or watching-watching? Do they look in awe or polite acceptance?  The audience that listens with their eyes make an immediate assessment that is based on themselves and not what has been presented to them.

The philosopher Herbert Marcuse spoke of the ‘consumer robot’ and how society had to some extent hypnotised us into a state of continual consumption, and that there was no room for dissent in this modification of our dreams because there was no need for it.  I think there is something of this in the way an audience responds to performance, opinions are formed by mass acceptance rather than individual taste, though you can never convince an individual of this.

The inspirational performers I have been fortunate to enjoy and be inspired by over the years are not the ones that will be plucked from obscurity by an audience that listens with its eyes.  They need an audience that truly listens with its ears, an audience that has the capacity to disassociate itself from rank consumerism and an audience that is truly open to new forms.  Those audiences are rare but you will find them at Words V Music.

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