I am away at a curates’ study weekend at the wonderful Hawkhills near York – really good to meet up with some old friends, and meet some new ones. Anyway, this evening at prayers, we had a piece called “You are Lord in this place”, which is a vocal piece for quartet (i.e. four voices), and as I sat and listened I was struck – not perhaps for the first time, by certainly with the most force – that listening is quite a lot like seeing, in that while you can see/hear everything, you can actually only really focus on one thing at a time.
While I could always hear the composite effect, I could only pick out the individual melodies by intentionally listening to that particular voice – the alto, or tenor, or whatever. And, interestingly, it was very hard to listen to the words and the music at the same time, and in concentrating on the bass, say, I realised that I’d stopped listening to the lyrics, and had idea what had just been sung.
Of course it’s entirely possible that this is just me, and that some people can listen to more than one thing at once. I guess trained musicians are probably quite good at picking out notes. But the little I’ve read on attention suggests that we genuinely can only concentrate on one thing at once, and our brains trick us into thinking otherwise (in the same way that we perceive our vision as if we’re a video camera, whereas in reality sight is more like a spotlight, and a lot of what we think we’re seeing is essentially mental construction or interpolation).
However, the thing that really struck is it that the quartet piece is a little bit like the gospels. Four voices singing the same piece, but each with a distinctive melody of it’s own. And we can only focus on the detail of one at a time, and when we do so we are no longer fully attentive to the other three, even if they are somewhere in the background. There was even one voice (possibly the alto) which, like John’s gospel, was a bit ‘dissonant’ with the other three – by which I mean diminished or seventh-y (I’m afraid my music reading and theory runs out at this point, so I’m don’t suppose it’s the correct terminology). It was still harmonic and beautiful, but not in a natural harmony with the other three. In any case, it is only the four combined – music and words – which form the complete piece.
It made me ponder how we might listen to all four gospels? The piece at prayers was simple but beautiful, and was well performed and a joy to listen to. How might we ‘perform’ the gospels, to try and convey the beauty of their subject Jesus Christ?