What does this sound like to you?

I recently had the experience of excitedly playing a recording of an avant-garde vocal work to someone, only to have her response completely dampen my enthusiasm. “… That sounds pretty sexy,” she said, and I suddenly realized the entire sonic content of the piece – despite its decidedly unsexy subject matter – could give the impression that the singers were performing an act generally deemed unsuitable for the concert hall. Similarly, a piece that I once thought was a study in oro-pharyngeal articulations was revealed to me as a nasty incidence of sleep apnea.

At first, wanting to defend my enjoyment of this music, I thought of these comments as merely literal minded, but my attitude has grown more sympathetic. I attempt an accepting and open viewpoint when it comes to hearing new sounds. Still, hearing a trusted colleague or friend laugh at something I play her has helped me to realize it’s possible that I’ve closed myself off from certain reactions to music by insisting that I take every sound as a very serious one.

My initial frustration has gradually turned to a kind of happy acceptance, as I realize that the baggage that allows my new favorite avant-garde recording to sound obscene or silly is the same cultural and human filter that can make someone deeply connect with a musical performance, no matter the sonic vocabulary. Besides, what harm does it do if someone in the audience blushes or giggles at heaving breaths or uvular trills? When it comes to audience response, I side with Cage: I prefer laughter to tears.

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