Thomasa Eckert is a well-known singer and teacher in Seattle, and someone with whom I studied for many years. Considered a champion of 20th- and 21st – century art music, she has premiered many new works and performed contemporary music in concert and on the radio in the USA, Canada and Europe. Her work as a soloist includes performing with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, the Steve Reich Ensemble, the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra, Vancouver New Music Society, Paul Dresher Ensemble, the Deep Listening Band, and many others. In theater, she has collaborated widely including with Rinde Eckert, George Coates, Trimpin, and Jesse Bernstein. She is featured on recordings of John Cage, Paul Dresher, Bun Ching Lam, Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros, David Kechley, Michael Nicolella, and many others.
One of the things that has always impressed me about Tommie is not only her incredible ear and natural musical gifts, but also an approach to listening that she has cultivated over time, and which has made her a rare performer and teacher. A few weeks ago I sat down with Tommie to learn more about how her approach to listening has developed over her career.
HW: Do you think that everybody has an inherently beautiful voice?
TE: Well, I do, perhaps because of how I listen to people. I listen to people as whole. I don’t listen to just their sound isolated from everything else. If there’s something that someone’s doing that is hard or painful for me to hear, I don’t think that it’s necessarily the voice that’s causing that. It might be manifesting in the voice, but I don’t think I would say that it’s because the voice itself is bad, or that it would be impossible for the voice to be beautiful. Instead it’s that somehow, something is incongruent within the person. It would likely be that the person just doesn’t know something that’s actually possible to know.
Now, there might be some people who would seem to be completely unresponsive to shifting, but if you stick by them long enough, you might learn that the notion of “perfection,” as defined by the listener, is what is actually flawed. If the listener is actually embracing the full complexity of how much she doesn’t understand, she might begin to see movement, even if it looks like there’s no movement at all. And when she finds the movement in a sound, she’s found something beautiful.
So, if I hear a sound that has that movement in it, even if it’s out of tune, but it’s not stuck and isn’t solidly resisting the moment, I can find beauty in that. This puts me in a particular position as a listener. I’m considering the factor of the intention of the singer, that if he’s sincerely trying to express himself in some way and he’s failing miserably and frustrated about that, the attempt is still so touching, so courageous that I can find that beautiful.
Sometimes, though, I can get caught in judging really harshly; I’ve certainly been a harsh judge. When that happens, I would say I’m not listening deeply enough.
HW: So this is a curious thing, that you have such a highly developed musical talent and such a refined sense of musical discernment, yet it seems like you might almost be putting those abilities aside in order to listen. Do you think you actually put discernment aside, or do you somehow integrate the discernment into your listening?
TE: I think that I don’t put it aside. I can hear, “Wow, that rhythm is really off. They’re just not in the groove.” Or I can hear, “Wow, that’s really out of tune. You know, that chorus is so out of tune – there is not one in-tune chord I’ve heard all night.” So, I can hear that. But then, then I start listening from a different point of view and I think, “But I’m actually really enjoying the sound of this.”
HW: So the discernment doesn’t interfere with your enjoyment?
TE: Sometimes it does interfere. Sometimes I will have an attachment to a certain piece that I want to hear a certain way and, if I can’t hear it that way, I get really frustrated. Now, if I’m teaching, I don’t feel frustrated because it’s an open situation. But if I’m at a concert, I know that if I listen a little more deeply, I will notice that I have a prejudice and I’ll begin to question that. From a practical point of view, I want to enjoy the world that I live in. If I’m going to the concert as an audience member, I want to enjoy it.
HW: So you really go to every concert with the intention simply that you want to enjoy it? Not to evaluate it, judge it, figure out whether it’s “good” or not?
TE: I don’t claim to be virtuous as a listener, but my aspiration is to be generous. I have to say that I did spend a lot of my years judging performances, being very critical and I found that it made me very unhappy. And those judgments that I was putting on others, I put even more stringently on myself as a performer and it almost destroyed my happiness. When I would get up to perform, that same judge was there and it would ruin the experience for me, even if I did well. There was something that felt so wrong about it for me. I thought, you know, it doesn’t matter if I’m a really kind and loving person or not. It’s just really not fun to be this way. And if I’m going to enjoy anything in life, I’m going to just have to be more generous. And so, as I started listening, I found that you can hear anything you want in something. If you want to have a good time, you can find a way to have a good time. After a while I got really bored by listening to people tear apart concerts. And maybe it’s from being a teacher and doing it and always having to exercise this critical thinking , but I just couldn’t bear to think about music like that anymore. I just wanted to go enjoy it, love what people were trying to do, notice where the genius was, bring that out as an audience member, and then go home and forget about it.
The fact that we all fail, maybe a lot of time, doesn’t matter. I listen for the artist’s attempt to achieve something divine. And failing is part of the beauty of it. The failure is what drives people to keep going. I think that this is part of what artists help our society with. The mistakes drive the learning. So a grand mistake sometimes is the most exciting thing of the evening. I’ve been to concerts that have been “perfect ,” but I don’t even remember that I was there. So you learn to reject neither the perfect concerts nor the imperfect ones, but to just go, have a direct experience of being in the environment, and then let it go.
HW: When you think about the different aspects of music – intonation, timbre, line, and so on – is there any one of those that is sort of a deal-breaker for you? That you can listen for all of the nuance and all of the beauty in the world, but it has to be in tune or it has to have a line or it has to have the correct rhythm? Is there one aspect that you think is your bottom line?
TE: I think the situations where there is cruelty or some harm being done make me wonder, “Am I experiencing this as a prejudice in myself, or is this really an act of war on the audience?”
HW: What’s an example of an act of cruelty in music?
TE: When performers are pushing themselves in a way that is painful for them, it’s hard for me as a listener. Since I’ve done it myself, since I’ve pushed and hurt myself, perhaps I’m supersensitive to that. If I’m thinking purely musically, I suppose things that aren’t in a groove are really difficult to listen to. If there’s an incongruence, I have to work a lot harder. If there’s an aggression in some way — it could be an aggression in the phrasing, it could be an aggression in the musical line – that’s hard. It doesn’t depend on the type of music. You can hear aggression in a performance of Bach. I’ve been in that situation myself as a performer, when I really didn’t know I was being aggressive.
HW: How did you find out?
TE: I think from my own failures, and from my students. I’ve ended up having many students who have had grand difficulties, all kinds of difficulties, and who didn’t have anywhere else to go. I’ve found their problems fascinating, and so I’ve learned from those very severe problems.
HW: So, if you think of listening as a skill or even an art, how can somebody learn to listen?
TE: I think, by beginning by “assuming the virtue” in the situation, by assuming that there is an intelligence and goodness in the heart of the performer, and then following the thread of that.
HW: Let’s say you’re listening to a brand new CD of music you’ve never heard before. What happens?
TE: It depends on what the CD is. If it’s something that I’ve never heard, it’s often like a breath of fresh air. I often just love the surprise and unusualness of it. If it’s something in a genre that I might be less interested in, then I really put my effort into it to find what I like about it. That’s when I really try hard to hear the complexity that’s there, and I assume my own ignorance if I’m judging it harshly. Often, over many repetitions I’ll notice that there are some things that I’ve loved a lot, and I’ll start to love them less and less, and then there are some things I didn’t like at first, and I’ll like them more and more. That’s often really shocking to me. I’ve had strong reactions to certain things where I’ve thought, “Oh, God, I just don’t want to hear that again.” And then I’ve listened to it again and again, and I am amazed at how much more beautiful it’s becoming.
HW: Why do you think that is?
TE: I think I get better and better at hearing the intention.
HW: That’s what helps you to love something more. But what happens when you love something less?
TE: Well, I think that happens when something doesn’t have enough layers to it. That’s often when you don’t know for sure, until a piece stands the test of time in your own listening.
HW: If you could give your “listening self” of 30 years ago some instruction in listening, what would you say?
TE: I would say, “No concept.” Listen directly with no concept. Don’t comment as you’re listening, just listen. Just listen. Contribute with your presence. Let your presence contribute to the wellbeing of everyone around you, including the performers. Even if you’re not hearing very much at the time, if you keep doing it, you’re going to hear more and more and more.
I wish that I had read books that way because it’s the same practice in listening to an author. Most of the time when I read books, I was thinking, “Oh wow, so-and-so’s got to read this. I’ve got to tell so-and-so about this.” Meanwhile, there was all this other material passing by that I wasn’t even paying attention to. Now I think, “Wow, if I’d just listened to that author without any preconceived desire for some result, I probably would have gotten more out of the book.”
I want to be clear, though: you need to be discriminating. I think discrimination is really healthy for art; I’m not advocating to just let people get away with garbage. But there are critics and reviewers who have such a refined discernment, that they can give a critique that’s actually quite critical, but that is so attuned to the situation, that the artist can read it and say, “Wow, they’re right!” The critic is seeing and hearing so much of what’s being done, that he or she can point out the weaknesses from a loving position. That’s a rare critic, and an amazing listener.
This is still hard for me. I’m addicted to hearing things in a certain way. I think most people are. But I would like to be the kind of listener that I’ve described. I still feel like a neophyte in this regard. I still don’t listen in the ways I’m describing all the time, but when I do, these are my happiest times. I don’t think it’s being indiscriminate, I think it’s the opposite. It’s being discriminating in a totally new way.