The history of Richmond, Virginia, my beloved hometown, is not one of collaboration. If anything, our dark past has quieted us. We live honest lives of looking forward, never looking back. We have been branded with a forced forgetfulness of our history as the capital of the Confederacy, fearing our pride will disrespect. So over the past century the suburbs have crawled and crawled, scratching the long fingers of subdivisions over the hills, across the borders of the town. And the city ever so slowly passed away, as the ominous cloud of fear and regret swept over the blocks. Buildings vacated, trash uncollected, industry dissolved.
Only over the past decade or so, has life returned to the city. Revitalization efforts bring cross-sections of the populace together for a common hope. A turn is happening in my city, one where not only the college students inhabit downtown, eat downtown, listen downtown. The divisions of the city are beginning to blur, lost in commonality and community; supported and purported by events and people that know no bounds.
One group of people in the city, named The Foundry, have formed to do just this– bring people back to appreciation of the independent music scene. This powerful, yet quiet, collaboration has created one event in particular, called The Listening Room, that has been drawing all corners of the city together. Every third Tuesday of the month the Foundry organizes a show, much like any other music show seen in any other town, except there is one very important rule: no talking during performances. Yes, you can talk before the performance, you can talk in between and after performances, but when the music is playing, there is silence, and there is respect.
Silence means, of course, that the audience is hushed. Unlike the background music wailing at a bar on Friday night, where the band is nothing more than a stage to young peoples’ plays of drunken fraternization, silence means listening. I believe it was the first grade when my meek elementary teacher extolled the purpose and necessity of active listening. “Really listening,” she would say, “is not just sitting silently.” And only now have I learned it is a process of intake, and also, digestion, and occasionally, explication.
So to be one of the listeners, you must uphold your charge with the utmost seriousness. We listen intently to three acts, each punctuated by a fifteen-minute break, where we mill about, sigh at the impressiveness of the previous performance, grab at quartered donuts, and pour the free coffee. Being a listener is exhausting. For the caliber of performers that play, your heart is placed on the whims of the artist. We swell in their joys, we cry in their sorrows. For the few minutes that each artist plays, we parallel their songs. We are a diverse audience, representing generations and upbringings incongruous with homogeneity. Yet together we are a whole, and an audience in the fullest sense of the word, attuning our very selves to roll with the undulations of their music.
It is the musicians, though, who hold the most difficult task. In a world where independent artists grasp at the elusive attentions of the apathetic bar folk screaming ‘Free Bird’ yet again, they are instead met with silence. With a crowd ranging anywhere from one to two hundred people, their very admiration and reverence weigh in the balance of the performance. The artist has much to lose. In this rare state, when respect actually can be won, where their message can be heard, when their style can pervade– the artist stands before the crowd. Usually with sweat on their brow, and a guitar slung across their shoulder, they stand making quaking jokes, fully understanding the severity of listening, even if they are before the most gracious of an audience.
The vulnerability required to play The Listening Room is a serious trial, and not to be demeaned. The audience can hear inauthenticity, just as they can hear a misplayed chord. Performers do not just muster their strength; they muster their humility. For without pretense, show, or guises, they have to be fully human. And the audience reciprocates, providing a happily supportive and safe fan base: individuals eager to hear and accept this artist as yet-another great.
In the end, The Listening Room is not just a musical venue. It is a concept that brings the vitality of music back to the musicians and the audience. It is a gathering that has breached gaps unprecedented by the people of Richmond. It represents something far greater than the sum of its parts. It reminds musicians and listeners alike that music does indeed have the power to weave lines of connection between hearts, span audience divisions, and foster a common culture where it did not first exist.
I now have a rhythm to my Tuesdays. A dinner with close friends before, then an early arrival through the doors, we briefly greet the welcomers, where my hand is stamped with an iconic imprint of a gramophone. I meet friends new and old, and I again witness a group of people giving their time and energy to create arts that matter– arts that change people, because they connect people.
The lighting is always low and warm, and the pastries are always soft. Souls slow down as they enter the room, dragged backwards in the irrelevance of worry or apprehension. You drift into the larger whole, a congregated body come to respect and support artists. You become an integral part in this momentous concept.
The Listening Room will go on, spurred only by donations and hope, as long as there are willing artists and quiet attendees. And not just for this city of fractured history, but for all people to remember the function and power of art, this type of gathering is absolutely necessary.
If you are ever in the area, we welcome anyone and everyone to join us on the third Tuesday of every month for The Listening Room.