The Gesture of Listening to Music

Donenico Ghirlandaio, The Annunciation

A gesture, as Flusser defines it, is “a movement of the body or of a tool attached with the body, for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.”  It seems a quiet, unassuming definition.  But it becomes the foundation of a comprehensive theory of human communication, with specific gestures for speaking, writing, photographing, and many more.  Listening to music differs from the others in not being active, but rather passive.  He argues that this is exactly what distinguishes it from other – expressive – gestures.

In Renaissance painting, Mary holds herself, leaning toward the sound of the Word, suggests what he wants to say about music. Music, he says – and he speculates that the Word in this case may have been a song — doesn’t demand a specific, identifiable gesture, but rather asks any listener to adapt his body to take in the sound.  The gesture will look different, that is, depending on who is listening and what kind of music is being heard.  The absence of any other expressive movement is what singles this specific gesture out, in other words.  It implies that people who “use” music as the background to other things they are doing, e.g. driving or cleaning or – impossible for me, but many do – writing and record-keeping —  are not actually listening at all.   

It implies that real listening quite a difficult thing to do. I feel fairly sure it’s quite a rarity, for that reason. Flusser’s description underscores the intentional dimension of the gesture, as well as its submissive posture. Listening becomes a kind of intentional submission — not a bad definition of prayer.

 

Listening and Hearing

Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) wrote about music as part of an long-term effort to develop a theory of communication. In the book Gestures (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), I translated “Die Geste des Musikhörens” as “The Gesture of Listening to Music.” The decision seemed very straightforward at the time, even though the German title quite clearly refers literally to hearing music (“listen” would be “zuhören”). Flusser defines “gesture” at all points as a movement: other essays in the series focus on, for example, writing, painting, photographing, filming, shaving, smoking. They’re active verbs. I’m still wondering in what sense listening is a movement. It definitely is active, though. You can hear something by accident — it can just happen to you. But if you’re listening, it’s intentional.