You’re looking into the glittering light. The boat is rocking, the child is chatting, apparently unable to distinguish between death and a game. All you can see is smooth, undisturbed water, nothing else. There are no more seagulls this far out. Almost flat water, you think, water and sunlight shall be the last things. It’s going to be your last day. Your last hours full of sunshine, hard, bright, white sunlight on hard, glittering faces. You’ve never heard this music before and yet you recognise it instantly. There is only life and the absence of life, nothing in between. There is this music and it is part of life, even if it is singing about something else. A woman is calling through human history: you don’t understand her language, but you can tell what she is singing about. There’s glittering light, rocking, a child chattering, the water is a voice, the sunlight is a voice, a voice is shredding syllables from below and from above on the borderline between the water and the sky: little shouts burst in the harshness of the sun, it remains calm, everything remains undisturbed, you would like to be uninvolved, you don’t listen to individual elements, you listen to the whole, you don’t think. You look over the side of the boat that you took on so much debt for, down into the depths. You’ve finished living now, you have nothing more before you except water, you’re going to spend a long time hanging on to the side of the boat once the child has stopped chatting.  You didn’t know anything about Gilgamesh, or anything about Sumerian phonology, you don’t have any French friends yet, you don’t know about ancient Egyptian grave inscriptions and the voice is not yours either. You want to be somewhere else. This music is your final accompaniment, it is music for an ending – you sense that immediately, even if you know nothing about it. The voice isn’t coming from the water, it’s coming from you. The water isn’t moving any more.

… I was cold. It was winter. Well, I thought I was cold. I might have been cold. God had told me I would be cold. Maybe I was dead. It wasn’t so much being dead that I was afraid of, but dying. Suddenly I felt cold. Very cold, or I was cold. It was night, and I was afraid. Claude Vivier

On the evening of 7 March 1983, the French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier went for a drink in a bar in the Belleville area of Paris. He picked up a young man there and took him back to his apartment to have sex. They met again several times afterwards. Later the man would stab Vivier. If, before he made his escape, the murderer had taken a glance at the composition Vivier was currently working on Glaubst Du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (“Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul”), he would have been able to read the text that is inaudibly woven into the score, which ends with the words: «I couldn’t take my eyes off the young man: it felt like I had been sitting opposite him for an eternity, and then he spoke to me: ‘Pretty boring this metro, isn’t it?’ I didn’t know what I should reply and, rather confused that he had returned my glances, said, ‘Yes, pretty much’, at which point the young man sat down next to me and said: ‘My name’s Harry’. I replied, ‘My name’s Claude.’ Then he pulled a knife out of his black waistcoat and stabbed me right in the heart.». That is the ending. Vivier had completed the first six minutes of Glaubst Du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele before meeting the man. The final section of the work was written during their relationship.  Vivier was 34 years old when the police broke into his apartment and found his body.

But does that actually play any part in how we experience the music? Is it at all relevant to immersing oneself in Giacinto Scelsi’s sound world that he would spend the night in hotel wardrobes rather than the bed and did not want to be photographed? Does it make a difference to know that Grisey unexpectedly died of a ruptured aneurysm and, unlike us, was never able to hear his final work Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (“Four Songs to Cross the Threshold”) performed?
For some years now, I have conducted experiments on how non-professionals listen to new music. These are done by students interviewing friends and members of their family. They then listen to a piece of new music together and afterwards have a conversation which is recorded and subsequently analysed in class. From what we have learned we then devise listening situations for an audience that is unfamiliar with new music. The people answering the questions are children, teenagers, younger and older adults with a range of different educational backgrounds – all without any previous experience of new music. The only other criterion for selecting someone as an interviewee is that they must have a relationship of trust with the person who is asking the questions. The presence and support of another person are key elements in beginning a process of listening to new music. That presence helps the person who is unfamiliar with new music not to distance themselves automatically from sounds which – as is the case in most other people with no previous experience – elicit flight responses.
The subject of the experiment receives no information about the music before listening to it, only instructions about how to listen: settling down in a quiet place, closing your eyes while listening to the music, and not communicating. The effect of the music on listeners who are (un)prepared in this way are almost without exception the same: they are gripped by an unknown world, shocked by their encounter with a universe they have never set foot in and rocked by emotion. It gets under their skin. Many of them describe images that draw on the repertoire of the film industry. The use of unresolved dissonant intervals, of dangerously static sounds, or sharp notes that break in suddenly, deep rumbles that swell threateningly, shrill trilling, loud breathing noises and unexpected twists are familiar to them from film scenes that feature existential emotions of fear, being abandoned, gloom, darkness, persecution and flight. Professionals know how to resist such associations.

Gérard Grisey also provides his work Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil with words. But these words form part of the music: they open the space, they define the stage for what happens in the sounds: 1. La mort de l'ange (Death of the Angel), 2. La mort de la civilisation (Death of Civilisation), 3. La mort de la voix (Death of the Voice) and 4. La mort de l'humanité (Death of Humanity).
That is enough, no more is required. The words that are sung and called out during the music are also intended to be heard and not read in parallel. And if they are not directly understood, this is all part of really understanding the whole. Gérard Grisey pushes our heads below the line that separates the water and the sky, the conscious and unconscious, hearing and thinking, experience and analysis.

Presenters, musicologists, fellow composers, instrumentalists and music teachers all make an effort to spare the public the power of a work of new music. If someone knows in advance what awaits them, they have been warned and are less likely to be overwhelmed. This is why new music is often accompanied by many words: it is described very precisely, it is analysed, it is discussed, its architecture is explained in broad terms and in detail along with its texts, its quotations, its allusions, how it connects to the life of the composer and how it relates to the work of other composers. Experts and experienced professionals are asked to give lectures on it.  These are able to de-construct a com-position, to isolate its constituent parts from the whole until the music lies there, neatly and tidily taken apart on the dissecting table before it is then finally transferred to the concert hall as a kind of corpse. 
Consequently, as listeners, we know what is coming. We are already ahead of the structure of the music. We are safe from its power because we know something, because we know a lot, because we know everything already. We even know what the murdered composer was singing about in the language he invented himself. We know what he wanted to hide from precisely this kind of knowledge. 

The listener must be grabbed hold of and, whether he wants to or not, drawn into the sounds’ flightpath without needing any special training. The shock to his senses has to be just as strong hearing a crack of thunder or looking into a bottomless abyss. Iannis Xenakis

Someone who would immediately recognise the music of Grisey, Xenakis, Vivier and Scelsi would be my young Afghan friend Amir, the same age as my sons, who survived crossing the Mediterranean by boat. He has looked into the abyss. He has had to withstand the glare of the sun longer than you or I or my sons have ever withstood thinking about death. He also has words for this and a voice – but the world does not hear him. Xenakis used his voice to make people who had to look over the edge into the abyss audible. He too, like Vivier, used a secret language. He was able to present to the whole world what the victims could not say out loud to those who were responsible for brutality and death. Xenakis, too, had looked death in the eye as a very young man, he too had looked into the same abyss, into the same sea as Amir. In the same place that fifty years later Amir made countless vain attempts to get on the ferry to Italy, where after every attempt the Greek police kicked him so hard he was unable to walk, where he had to wait for days till his knees would support him again. Where he kept on trying. That is where Xanakis was beaten and kicked over half a century before, and it remained with him for the rest of his life as a lasting wound in his face. His work Nuits, which he wrote in 1967 for twelve mixed voices, that shout, sing and whisper Sumerian and ancient Persian phonemes and syllables, was dedicated to those voiceless, nameless and wordless people to whom violence has been and continues to be done: «For you thousands of the forgotten whose names have even been lost».
We, however, we are sitting in a bar and take out the music recognition app Shazam. Something is playing that we don’t know, like I love you, Baby by Surf Mesa. Drinks and nuts, a cultivated female voice: smooth, flat, lightly swinging, singing about nothing, doing her work without any involvement. She’s not singing to say anything, she’s also not singing to create anything or to juggle playfully with the world. She’s not singing to make anything heard, to create any new order or to ask anything. There’s nothing to forget, either – we can hear that right away. And that bothers us.  It bothers us that we actually want to immerse ourselves in listening – and we’re prevented from doing so by a voice. Sometimes it takes minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes years for us to notice that something has been drowned out. Then sometimes we take out Shazam, to at least be able to give what is drowning things out a name. Surf Mesa’s sound has been made to drown out what we forgot to name before we have forgotten it.

My son has been sitting at home for three months and has turned everything off: phone, tablet, laptop – screens of all kinds. He’s struggling. For years he’s watched TV series, for hours and days at a time he’s stared over the side of the boat of his seemingly sheltered life into flat, merely lightly rocking water. He knew all the series off by heart and still kept watching them over and over. Then he started studying philosophy. And recently he decided to just sit there without any screens for long enough that nothing inside him needs to be drowned out any more. Every now and then he recommends I read Nietzsche. «We understand all this, as has been said, now and again and are extremely surprised at all the vertiginous fear and haste and at the entire dreamlike state of our lives, that appears to dawn before we awaken and whose dreaming is so much more vivid and restless the closer it gets to this awakening. Yet, at the same time, we feel we are too weak to withstand those moments of deepest contemplation and that it is not us that are the human beings according to whom the whole of nature is advancing towards salvation: rather that we poke our heads out a little once and notice what current it is that we are so deeply immersed in. And even this is not achieved by our own efforts, for this emergence and awakening for a vanishing instant, we must be raised up – and who are those who will raise us?» (Friedrich Nietzsche, from Untimely Meditations)

They are composers of new music. They are the ones who, as certain philosophers demand unconditional thinking, demand that we hear unconditionally. Not every kind of music requires this kind of unconditional attention. With certain music, it would even be counter-productive to listen more closely – we just established this recently in the bar. There is a kind of music that has been made to drown out a question. There is also a kind of music that was made to celebrate an answer to a question. There are all kinds. Hundreds of existing forms of music, spread all over the world, have numerous different functions: music can encourage escaping the everyday, illustration or therapy, music can be conducive to synchronising groups, accompanying rituals, reflection and distinction, or it can be expected to improve your mood, physical activity or memory of bygone times. And then there is another form of music whose function is to help people to listen with absolute precision. This is so-called «new music».

We live in a time that has been horribly polluted by a kind of tap that spits out lukewarm sounds. Apart from the internal combustion engine – the worst invention of the 20th century – there are loudspeakers to be found everywhere. How is anyone meant to create music against this backdrop of noise? Gérard Grisey

Now to the music of Gérard Grisey. Ideally do nothing other than listen intently. Start by listening to this music at home in bed, on headphones or a good sound system, without background noise. Repeat listening like this several times: listen to the whole piece without interruption, once early in the morning, once late at night. Practice being completely absorbed, don’t chop it up, don’t distract yourself by guessing the names of the instruments, look at the flat, empty wall, stand up to that surface, or look at the edge of the bed, fasten on to the wood with your eyes, or look out of the window, withstand the glittering of the sun.  Remain calm. Don’t be a good student, don’t be top of the class, don’t pass this test, don’t try hard. Don’t provide any answers when you are asked. Know nothing. If you are sitting in a concert later, you should shout along with this music inside you, talk along with this voice. Sing along with the sounds you don’t like too. You should pulse along with the irregularity of the events, your heartbeat should adjust to the beat, not the other way round. You should at least move your lips. You should not let yourself be distracted from that certain voice that others try to spare you. You can’t escape that voice. Eventually you are going to hear its song anyway. Listen, listen carefully, stand up to that music. Don’t distance yourself from it. Look and listen when others are clinging to the side of the boat. Submit to this music. Take your life into the concert with you and throw it beneath this music. Maybe this is your final day. You bought this ticket, now expose yourself to the power of not knowing in advance. We can’t help you.