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Listen: On Music, Sound and Us


Listen: On Music, Sound and Us

One of the most disorienting, even ominous, things that Michel Faber reveals in LISTEN might seem like a mere triviality to deeply committed bibliophiles. This book was originally intended to be twice as long. I don’t know if Faber ever admitted the same about any of his previous 11 books (such as THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE or UNDER THE SKIN), which have received well-deserved critical acclaim.

With LISTEN, however, I think Faber did the right thing. After reading 450 fast-turning but often deeply arresting pages, I doubt if any world-changing observations and assertions about humankind and organized sound were omitted --- not, at least, from his highly personal and subjective lived experience.

"In a way, [Faber] has come up with the perfect anti-textbook --- an almost bullet-proof assurance that ordinary people, not the academically elite, will read it as eagerly and happily as I just did."

That is what makes LISTEN as much a memoir as it is an entertaining and often provocative sociological study of popular soundscapes, wherever in the world we encounter them. In fact, I’m still not sure if sociology or autobiography wins out here. Perhaps the constant (but not unpleasant) tension I felt as these two currents tugged at me throughout every anecdote, assertion, argument, analysis and old-fashioned rant was meant to be the “orchestration” of a book Faber says he’s always wanted to write.

Within some 30 chapters, with quirky titles like “Sorry for Your Lost,” “Where I Got My Parka,” “A Needle Through Your Brow” or “Impossible to Hear” (many even more eccentric), Faber gathers clustered musings on some very important things about music and popular entertainment in general --- things one might never suspect.

I encountered substantial content in his reflections about how we listen to all genres of music on multiple levels --- neurologically, physically, emotionally and conditionally. On more than one occasion, and in various contexts, Faber delves deeply into where our responses come from, what evokes attraction or distaste, and how encounters with styles outside one’s lived experience can completely reverse the polarity of musical preference.

The whole question of “taste” in music comes up for repeated examination, and whether we like it or not, it deserves to be addressed. In Faber’s world, poor musical taste, as hard as that is to quantify, results from deficiencies ranging from ignorance to racism. He apologizes (likely with tongue-in-cheek) for pushing our buttons or offending our sensibilities, suggesting that too much about formal music --- music that makes money --- is class elitist and programmed for emotionless mass consumption. Think elevators, airports, shopping malls and phones on eternal hold.

In covering myriad aspects of a subject obviously dear to both his heart and intellect, Faber inevitably comes out with critical remarks on a wide spectrum of popular performers, and no reader will agree with all (or even a fraction) of them. And he likely won’t satisfy anyone who comes to LISTEN in anticipation of startling new knowledge or insight about their preferred genre, be it Renaissance consort dances, high Baroque oratorio, grunge rock, atonal serialism, late Romanticism or New Age. The list goes on and on.

But when you consider how ubiquitous music really is, how it seeps in through every pore, every preconception, every emotion and every spirituality, one begins to truly appreciate it as not merely a whole body experience, but a whole being one. Music can take it. For uncounted centuries, it has survived the cynics, the haters, the incompetent, the maniacally driven, the tyrannical and the narcissistic, as well as all the good things humans have managed to cultivate in the potentiality of our species.

In writing LISTEN, with all its obvious incongruities, suspended ideas, bold assertions, cranky protests and illuminating “aha” moments, Michel Faber was on to something. In a way, he has come up with the perfect anti-textbook --- an almost bullet-proof assurance that ordinary people, not the academically elite, will read it as eagerly and happily as I just did.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 19, 2024

Listen: On Music, Sound and Us
by Michel Faber

  • Publication Date: November 28, 2023
  • Genres: Criticism, History, Music, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Hanover Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1335000623
  • ISBN-13: 9781335000620