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  • Response to Peter Szendy’s Listen: A History of Our Ears
    The Music Friend
  • Holly Watkins (bio)

Peter Szendy’s 2008 book Listen: A History of Our Ears paints, in muted colors, a love triangle involving himself, music, and an unspecified listener. The book’s opening pages ponder what Szendy describes as “listening to music with the idea of sharing this listening—my own—of addressing it to another person.”1 The prospect of shared experiences, Szendy contends, is not incidental to but constitutive of musical listening, which, he argues, “exists only insofar as this desire and conviction exist; . . . listening—and not hearing or perception—begins with this legitimate desire to be signed and addressed. To others.”2

Szendy’s book elaborates upon these themes as they overlap with the concept of intellectual property: “who,” he asks, “has a right to music? Who can hear it as if it belonged to him . . . ?”3 The legal framework of Szendy’s discussion is not what interests me, however. Instead, my curiosity gravitates to the shadowy third side of the love triangle. Who, I wonder, is the “other” to whom Szendy wants to address his listening? The question is not biographical but psychological. Surely this other can’t be just any old soul, some casual acquaintance or, most implausibly from my point of view, students in a classroom. Indeed, as Szendy continues to allude to his auditory fellow traveler, his language migrates from the plural “others” to a much more intimate “you.” With this shift, the scene of shared listening is suddenly imbued with risk. “I want to make you hear this . . . a favorite moment in my own musical library. . . . When we listen, both of us, and when I sense, as if by telepathy, that what you are listening to is so far from what I would have liked to make you hear, I tell myself: this moment might not have been my own, after all. For what I wanted to hear you listening to—yes: to hear you listening to!—was my listening. Perhaps an impossible wish—the impossible itself.”4

What does it mean to want someone to hear as one hears, to want someone to undergo what oneself undergoes in listening? What interpersonal dynamics motivate such a desire? More is at stake here than merely wanting to spread the love. Psychoanalytically speaking, achieving the impossible, as Szendy construes the feat of getting someone to hear his listening, suggests perfect union with the other, an event that, were it capable of being realized, would heal the primary separation accompanying individuation. Some of us might seek such union, and the “oceanic” feelings considered to be its messenger, privately with and through music. Who, [End Page 145] then, is the “you” hovering at the edge of the scene? This “you” I name the Music Friend.

Okay, you ask, what is a Music Friend? You may have had one or two, several, or none. A Music Friend is someone with whom you enjoy a particular kind of relationship through music. The Friendship consists of intense musical experiences that are shared (here I am thinking mainly of Friends who listen to recorded music together, although no doubt other arrangements are possible). The pursuit of intensity, at least in the Deleuzian world of Elizabeth Grosz, is an erotic act. Music Friendships unfold in dedicated sessions whose boundaries, like those of artworks, are, as Grosz puts it, “not self-protective but erotico-proprietorial.” A meeting of Music Friends creates “an arena of enchantment, a mise-en-scène for seduction.”5 You get together, you play each other things, you scream and yell, you rock out. While Music Friendships can be competitive, in that each Friend tries to be the one who brings about the most marvelous experiences, they are perhaps better described as partnerships in the pursuit of musical voluptuousness. My question is not, with apologies to Suzanne Cusick, “who’s on top?” but, rather, who is subject and who is other in this highly charged threesome?6 Who or what is seducing whom, and how?

Music unquestionably makes the first move. “You have to listen!” is how Szendy hears its fateful call.7 For most...


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pp. 145-149
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