It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of "culture."

- John Cage

How do you listen to music?

That's a simple question that's been on my mind lately, partly from 1) a sheer curiosity coupled with near-constant existential-crisis and over-thought of day-to-day living. And partly from 2) the experience of Portuguese-based Semibreve Festival that showcased three days of experimental electronica, which placed the emphasis on uitlising visual stimuli with that of sound. Through varied and often mesmeric large screen projections or abrasive use of lighting, it explored the relationship between sound and vision, and altered my way of listening to, and absorbing live music.

Consequently it was a challenging sensory overload at times full of wild non-sequiturs - the set of Ryoji Ikeda in fact going for this visceral bombardment, making an allegoric artistic statement in regards to information overload in everyday life. Ben Frost even made attacks on the sense of touch amid scenes of building shakings and bones vibrating for next-level headfuckery. However, on the other end of the (visual) scale we have Sam Potter of Late of the Pier who has curated nights in the past titled Blackout, where musicians play wholly in the dark alongside the audience, thus potentially heightening any state of listening.

But in regards to the non-live setting? 3) This is what cutting-edge producer and all-round gent Chairman Kato had in mind for The Focus Group, an innovative curated listening experience.

The how you listen to non-live music may well often be dictated by the where, the circumstance. Much of the time you'll be engaged with another activity simultaneously that relies on other senses, or train of thought; going for a run, on the commute, the radio, at your computer, wrapped in your headphones at work trying to block out colleagues whining. Music as wallpaper almost. Sometimes you may try and tailor the music to your setting, to heighten to what's going in your ears like these following clichés. Off for a bucolic countryside walk? Sigur Rós will cover that. On the N343 at 4am in the morning on a bus that splices through the somehow beautifully-lit South London urban landscape, estates bathed in strangely alluring orange street lights? Burial (there's even a genre titled 'Nightbus' for Christ sakes). Or mix it up and swap these around. I personally love a bit of Throbbing Gristle as I buy a pint of milk and Twix at my local Tesco Metro.

The availability of music is at a staggeringly easy-access level, a Spotify click away, a Google keyword search away. We want it all, and want it now. Target. Conquer. Engorge. Done, move on to the next mp3 life form. We've been "dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out” American composer and teacher Elliott Schwartz has claimed. Schwartz being the author of Music: Ways of Listening, a book published in 1982 that contains seven simple rules in regards to an enriching of the listening experience - such as training yourself to the sensitivity of sound in general (even the "hum of the refrigerator motor" for example).

It's rather easy to forget to actually sit down and listen to music for an extended period of time, with that as the sole purpose whilst doing nothing else. Hell, even when I make time to listen with people and swap around some 12"'s (steady) over some cheap whisky, we're naturally chatting away. I'm not a sociopath and therefore don't insist on a farouche-inspired silence during these occasions. I'm sure many readers, being of the impassioned disposition in regards to music, will find time to get into your headphones for an album you hold dear, or, hope to hold dear. Or knowing you lot, some duvet listening on a hungover Sunday morning. But it doesn't happen enough right? Or... as a communal experience?

For The Focus Group 003 (yes now three deep), Chairman Kato invited seven friends of the music-world for a simple challenge: to choose three songs that they feel passionate about, with zero restrictions in place, the only caveat to briefly explain in writing why these tracks are important to them as to justify their selections. And then listen to all these tracks in a darkened room with each other. I was fortune enough to be one of these invited curators.

Held in the backroom of a Dalston pub on a soggy Sunday evening, we all sat down with a specially concocted tea/punch bricolage by friend of Kato and waited for the music. After a brief announcement (essentially to turn phones off, and try and be quiet) the music started. I had little preconception of what to expect; for the first couple of tracks I felt a little self-aware - what should I stare at, ooo that candle looks nice, what kind of face should I be pulling? After that initial subtle awkwardness dissipated (and once the punch kicked in a bit), it was simply all about the music, and it was a beautiful, pure thing.

The rich soundsystem helped, being able to absorb one track after another with zero interruptions, with some tracks that I perhaps would never normally listen to on my own accord. It was a wonderful experience, over two hours of focused listening (plus a 20 minute interval), with little concept of the outside world and no distractions; and, what's more, enjoying the experience mostly with total strangers - albeit like-minded ones. It felt almost zen-like, and, a pleasure to sit and simply be, in pretty much complete silence for those two communal hours. With seven different minds it was inevitably an eclectic, capricious mix; from techno to Dylan, dream-pop to Forest Swords and stuff that I wasn't familiar with that swept me away.

Read the Programme Notes for the writings on each track, and Chairman Kato has uploaded the entire set to Mixcloud that you can listen to below. How you listen to it? That's over to you...

For what it's worth, my choices were:

  • Perc - 'London, We Have You Surrounded'
  • Wild Nothing - 'Paradise'
  • David Bowie - 'Station To Station

The next Focus Group (an end of year special) is due to be held on Sunday 9th December at The Duke of Wellington, London.
Kato's Roma EP is out now on Shades of Grey.