Varied Listening

Steve Smith, on the Log Journal, recently posted a nice meditation on a day in the life of a record addict.

And at some point it hits you: The amount of excellent music out there that you just don’t know about yet is quite likely infinite.

There’s so much music, period, being made and recorded nowadays that this isn’t at all unlikely. Or if not infinite, it’s effectively so: more than any human can expect to hear in their life. Smith also commented in an earlier post that when Simon Cummings, author of the excellent blog 5:4, posted his “Best of 2016” list, it “included any number of fascinating recordings I hadn’t even heard of.”

The other day, I posted a quote from Brian Eno about the ephemerality of music. Here it is again:

I really think that for us, who all grew up listening primarily to recorded music, we tend to forget that until about 120 years ago ephemeral experience was the only one people had. I remember reading about a huge fan of Beethoven who lived to the age of 86 [in the era before recordings], and the great triumph of his life was that he’d managed to hear the Fifth Symphony six times. That’s pretty amazing. They would have been spread over many years, so there would have been no way of reliably comparing those performances.

All of our musical experience is based on the the possibility of repetition, and of portability, so you can move music around to where you want to be, and scrutiny, because repetition allows scrutiny. You can go into something and hear it again and again. That’s really produced quite a different attitude to what is allowable in music. I always say that modern jazz wouldn’t have existed without recording, because to make improvisations sound sensible, you need to hear them again and again, so that all those little details that sound a bit random at first start to fit. You anticipate them and they seem right after a while.

The promise and the curse of being a music fan in the early 21st Century, I think, is a new kind of ephemerality. There’s simply so much great music out there, and it’s so readily available thanks to the Internet that, regardless of how good it is, it’s going to be harder and harder to listen to anything more than a couple of times. Every album you listen to a second time is a new album you can’t hear.

I’m the sort of music fan who will listen to the same album twenty times on repeat, when I like it. That means that my natural tendency is to miss an awful lot of great music. Over the past half-year or so, particularly since I’ve had a kid on the way, I’ve been trying to vary my listening more, to avoid the trap of only hearing (or playing for her) stuff I’m familiar with.

I try to be systematic, because imposing systems on myself is the best way I’ve found to avoid being lazy. I thought about the types of music that I tend to listen to most often (six months ago, mainly orchestral and piano music written by white men in the 18th and 20th centuries, and rock music from the 20th), and came up with six categories of work that defy those types:

  • Something written since the year 2000
  • Something I haven’t heard before
  • Something more than ten minutes long
  • Something by a composer I usually don’t like
  • Something not written for solo piano or for orchestra
  • Something written by a woman and/or a member of a minority ethnicity

I try to tick each of those boxes at least twice a day. And I try to take it easy on myself too: one work can tick multiple boxes (which is useful on heavy-workload days, when bedtime comes and I’ve barely listened to anything). There’s a handy iOS and Apple Watch app I use to encourage me, called Streaks. It tracks the number of consecutive days you’ve succeeded in doing something. (I was somewhere in the 40s for all of mine, before a couple of rough days last week broke everything.)

The other side of the coin that’s made this possible is Bandcamp. I’ve made my opinion of streaming in the context of classical and other niche-interest music clear in the past (more than once), but I see Bandcamp as fundamentally different: it gives far more leeway to musicians to make and sell what they want, to make money from their sales, and to control what can get streamed. The music on the service is also often far more interesting.

I’ve found some great music through this system: Caroline Polachek’s (free!) electronic album Drawing the Target Around the Arrow, Alarm Will Sound’s Modernists, Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder. There’s been plenty I don’t like too, but that’s not the point of this effort. The point is to find my boundaries, and push them.