SA13: The Listeners Issue

Over the course of the last couple issues of Sound American, the central topics have been explored in a more distanced, slightly academic way. There is a reason for this. As editor, I have done my best to excise as much of my own aesthetic self as possible out of how the journal is presented. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an interest in each issue, or that my aim is to produce a dry technical journal. On the contrary, I have always wanted to make Sound American the sort of publication that I would want to read: slightly populist and equally engaging to academic researchers and musical neophytes alike. I can promise you that I will follow that vision, sideline my own narcissism, and do my utmost to err on the side of diversity of opinions in the future. This issue, however, is slightly special.


I have a problem.


Let me put this in context. I listen to music. A lot. I have been obsessively involved in recordings for so long that I remember the music I listened to during major life events better than the actual life experience. I would self-identify as a listener to music before almost anything else—more than a musician, a writer or editor, a New Yorker, an Oregonian. Ultimately, I don’t perceive this as a bad thing. Loving music kept me out of trouble as a kid. It continues to keep me out of trouble, in fact, and my passion for and memory of recordings is what allows me to make my living doing what I do.


In many ways I consider myself very lucky to have listening in my life. However, I fear that I’m losing my ability to listen with the same intensity and interest that I’ve had for the past thirty-plus years. I find that I am more comforted by the act of putting on an LP or CD than I’m excited by the music that is coming out of the speakers. It makes me feel as if I’m losing some of the power of my youth, like the high school football star realizing he can’t thread the needle between two defenders any more. [I apologize if this metaphor is off the mark. I spent my youth listening to records.]


So this issue, if nothing else, is an attempt to find out what I’m losing, why, and if I can ever hear a recording with the same sense of life-or-death intensity that was present just a few years ago. It is a very public attempt to understand the act of listening—not only as a general principle, but as a force inside the self-identifying “listener” that has driven, is driving, or will be driving the way we live our lives.


In this issue, we premiere a new series of podcast-style interviews called The Listeners in which I visit musicians in their homes or studios to have free-form conversations while listening to recordings. I’ve found that listening to music is as much a social lubricant for musicians as alcohol is for the office wallflower—the specific results being less professional biography than a refreshingly free exchange of ideas about aesthetics. Our inaugural program is with saxophonist, composer, and MacArthur Fellow Ken Vandermark, with many special guests and programs to follow.


In my quest to regain the sound, I thought it would be helpful to see how others listen to music. Nine people with different relationships to music-making (critics, audiences, promoters, multi-media artists) were offered a unique opportunity*: they were asked to pick a special recording—something they would be happy to just sit and experience. In return, SA sent them a recording we thought they might appreciate. These guinea pigs were then asked to listen to both pieces of music and answer some simple questions about their experience and how they choose to listen. The answers illuminate the many different models of how one can absorb music.


Finally, in answer to all your emails over the past years, we are beginning to release physical back issues of Sound American for collectors. SA1 is available now and features writing by novelist Rick Moody and Detroit artist, restaurateur, and drummer Ben Hall. The print run has been beautifully conceived in a ‘zine style by Federico Peñalva and will be printed to order at a price that every SA fan can appreciate. It’s a great way to have our older material at hand as we phase out the online archive.


As always, thanks for reading. Thanks for listening.




Nate Wooley, Editor




* Proper attribution for this idea must go to Bay Area music lover and lawyer, Marg Tobias. It is based on her business model of a brick and mortar listening club. In her well-considered plan, those that are too busy to find the time to really sit and listen to a record would purchase a membership and receive one hour-long slot a week during which they could sit in the club’s acoustically lovely room and listen to any recording. If they wanted, they could receive a two-hour slot for the same price, but only if they allowed the staff to choose their second. It’s a brilliant idea, and Sound American is using this platform to petition Bill Gates for funding.

Nate Wooley Stops Listening

I have always been a listener. My parents bought me my first stereo when I was twelve years old. A full stereo system for a child that age may seem a bit luxurious but by that point, I had already proven myself an avid absorber of music. I had worn out a large number of cassettes on various players—machines I had also worn out. It was a great stereo: turntable, receiver, and cassette player, housed in a monolithic faux oak cabinet with two speakers that—at that point—were probably the same size and shape as me. The single, nostalgic tear running down my cheek at the thought of that magnificent beast probably says more about who I am than the following pages of text ever could.


But the stereo has just a bit part in this story. The point is that, from that moment on, I was officially hooked. Since plugging those speakers in for the first time, I have made listening to music the major part of every single day—sitting down to anywhere between two to four records on average and many more on the weekends or holidays. On days of relaxation, I chain listen—lighting one piece of music off the last so there is as little silence as possible. With the exception of books, which hold a similar but not equal place in my life, I would say that this is my only true obsessive practice.


So, from this perspective, it would be easy to talk about my relationship to the act of listening in general or to expound on specific recordings that have stood out in my aural career. But, I know that I am not all that special in the amount or way that I consume sound, so I will hold back and let fresher voices comment elsewhere in this issue. I was trying to find a way to talk about my own experience with records that would be different—something I couldn’t realistically ask someone else to do. I wanted to give my collaborators a break and do an experiment myself for a change.


The kernel of an idea came to me during a conversation I had in August with Ken Vandermark, just before we taped his Listeners episode. We had been talking about how to absorb influences without losing the spirit of the music or simply creating reproductions. I realized I could find a way to explore how I learn and the way listening affects my own work and document the process for SA. I would simply limit which music I would consume for a short period, and then attempt to be a little less critical by trying to tap into a certain essence of the sound rather than taking it apart. It seemed like a reasonable way to approach an answer to the mid-life crisis I was having regarding my own playing.


Reasonable, however, hardly ever works for me. The “limiting” plan was too organic and simple. I tend to the ascetic, so by the time I was on the plane home from taping Ken’s episode, I had laid out seven days during which, instead of the gentle reapplication of energy I had proposed, I would go on a fairly strict music “fast.” While I wouldn’t hide from extraneous music in films, television, and radio, I would do my best to minimize my exposure to even these musical forms while cutting out dedicated listening altogether: no recordings at home, work, or at a live concert. I set the week up in the same way one would safely undertake a traditional body cleansing fast: a preparatory period, the fast itself, and some time to slowly return to “normal.” I found a seven-day period between a concert and some scheduled work listening, put it on the calendar, and went on vacation with a stack of records to live it up before the purge.




Preparatory Day




It’s the last day before I begin, and a part of me feels the need to bathe myself in music, hoping that some of it psychically sticks to me. I want to have a reserve of sound that will keep me going through the next five days of silence. I have a bunch of brand-new music sitting on the stereo gained from a recent birthday and a period of responsibly wild online record shopping, but I’m paralyzed by choice. I can’t think of what would be the “perfect” thing to hear right now.


I suppose it’s possible that the peacefulness of my recent vacation has allowed some silence to settle into my life. It’s also conceivable that, regardless of this pseudo-ascetic assignment for SA, I am just happy to live in a world with less music. After forty years, however, I know better. I think that the idea of being overwhelmed by choice is the more realistic answer. I feel the need to send myself off into the next five days with just the right piece of music to feed my mind and soul for the whole week. Ultimately, though, I have to believe this is impossible.


I have been reminding myself that I usually call bullshit under my breath when I hear someone talk about the nourishment they receive from music. I wonder what that’s about? Here I am, using explicit food references and desiring a pre-fast gobbling of sound, and yet I keep telling myself that music doesn’t have some kind of psychic “nutritional” value. I have had moments of discovery and satisfaction with listening in the past that would prove that I gain something positive from the act. And, now that I am faced with days where the act of listening to music will be barred, my first response is to try and gain the perfect satisfaction. Maybe my response to the word nourishment in relation to music is a sign of a growing cynicism.


I guess that’s something I’ll find out after this week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll abandon listening all together. I am always amazed when I see friends sell off their record collections. Often they have gone digital or there is an economic reason, but sometimes they’ve experienced a very real loss of the luster of sitting down with a record. I have to admit that I harbor some fear that after this week my already slightly diminished passion for listening—caused by its role in work and study over the years—will just dry up altogether. Besides cockroaches, my worst nightmare is that I’ll be another person on Discogs selling off their CDs and LPs so they can buy more toy monster trucks or Beanie Babies.




Thus far, I haven’t listened to anything. I guess it would work fine to just begin the experiment today, but I have a concert tonight and I see no way around that. Maybe I’ll pick a disc in the car for the drive home, and it will just have to be okay. Maybe I’ll listen to Oldies radio and let my last tune before the purge be Billy Joel or something I find equally ridiculous.


Later still…


I listened to two sets of improvisation with Don Dietrich (Borbetomagus) and his daughter Camille to end the day. I found it even more interesting than normal with the knowledge of the silence I was entering. I paid more attention to small details and tried harder to get everything out of the live performance than my normal, distracted self allows. My mind wandered less, and I spent less time thinking about how what I was hearing could affect my own work. Instead I simply wanted to accrue sound without value judgment and not waste time looking for connections to my music.



Day One:




I am a creature of routine to the point of possible obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I have many daily routines, whose completion signifies either a successful or unsuccessful day. One of my deepest concerns about this experiment is how the removal of the act of listening—which is a primary part of many of these set daily routines—will affect my mental health. One such ritual is my early-morning-post-run coffee, book, and record time. This is my morning trinity. I suppose music is the Holy Ghost? I have objective self-knowledge that, without this small amount of time to warm up my mind through reading and listening, I am a complete mental and somewhat emotional wreck. I am concerned with what will happen if just the Son and Father are left with no one to act as a buffer. So far, this hasn’t been such a problem. I do enjoy the full focus I am able to put into my reading. I don’t know if I would call that a revelation, but I do enjoy the novelty of silence.


The effects of my imbalanced morning routine are made present only a few hours later, however, as I board the crowded Q train to make my two transfer/three train trip to the DUMBO office. By the time I leave the house, I am feeling slightly “off” and a bit cranky. This feeling is not ameliorated when I board the train and listen to the general twaddle being spewed between people and into phones as we lurch toward Manhattan. At this point, I don’t know if my misanthropy is inherent and I regularly separate a somewhat diseased mind from the world using my headphones, or if this morning’s routine upset had made me a curmudgeon on a purely temporary basis.


At work, I come across my first unforeseen challenge. I hadn’t counted on an amorphous non-work/non-pleasure professional kind of listening and how much I have to engage in it on a daily basis. A video of Don Dietrich and I playing duo from last night arrived via email this morning and, without thinking, I put headphones on and pressed play. It took me fifteen seconds before I realized what I was doing, and I quickly shut it off. I can’t believe I fell off the wagon so quickly and easily. For some reason, the video didn’t register as listening, but why not? I can feel that the answer isn’t as simple as the addition of something visual. I should continue to pay attention to this feeling as I continue.




While I imagine that I’m going to discover some relationships to music I never thought about, there are some that I am very aware of. Before I had picked this period for my experiment, my wife had made a plan to have the neighbors over for dinner. Music is a social crutch for me in the same way that alcohol is for others. When I’m most troubled by social anxiety or shyness, I can always smile and retreat into whatever music is playing until I feel I can enter the stream of conversation again. I’ve gotten fairly good at this over the years. However, on this evening the silence was absolutely the loudest thing in the room as I struggled to find a shot of adrenaline for my anemic conversation skills between bites of food. I didn’t end up telling the neighbors about this experiment. I didn’t want it to devolve into a pedantic topic of conversation. I think they thought it was odd to be surrounded by that many CDs and LPs in silence. I thought it was odd. I don’t think I’m projecting my own awkwardness about no music onto others. It seemed palpable.


Ultimately, I think everything went fine, but my wife definitely noticed and wondered, while doing the dishes, what had been missing from an otherwise perfectly acceptable social visit: ”Right…the music,” she said before turning off the lights and getting ready for bed.




Day Two:




I can already see that the upending of my morning routine is going to be a serious problem. After a short night of sleep and an early morning run, I sink into the couch for the second quiet day of my new normal. I am valiantly trying to read, but I can’t keep my mind still long enough to get through a particularly knotty paragraph. I’m stuck. Some mornings are like that, with or without music. I will admit that, but having music to listen to usually allows my mind to wander away and contemplate something else before a renewed effort. Without that—and with the only sound being construction outside to attract my attention—I can’t find a way to center my mind.




Regardless of any self-imposed lack of listening, music is permeating my waking hours. I can certainly turn the stereo or radio or iPod off for five days, but I have very little control over my mind. I think I would feel better if something I felt had intrinsic artistic value was twisting and turning and repeating in my mind. The quasi-trumpet synthesizer solo from the Pet Shop Boys’ late 20th century hit, West End Girls, however, is doing me no favors.


Late 80s earworms aside, today is much easier. There hasn’t been any music thrown at me from work or anywhere else for that matter. The temptation to listen is abating, and I’ve been able to just concentrate on working in silence for the bulk of the day. I have noticed, however, a tendency to subconsciously create rhythmic patterns with my fingernails on the keyboard.




I’ve realized that music acts as background noise for a lot of my daily tasks. It provides just enough interest for me to get out of my own thoughts and concentrate on some repetitive task like chopping vegetables for dinner or stretching before going to bed. I keep wrestling with the idea that this kind of listening lessens the power of music somehow. I had an argument with a student during a short lecture at Berkeley last year on the topic of Éliane Radigue’s music. My argument was that how we listen to a recording provides value by giving us multiple frames of reference for the composition. I used the example of listening to a Morton Feldman composition while preparing dinner and splitting the attention between the cooking and the recording. The student was offended by the notion that Feldman could be appreciated with anything less than undivided attention. The argument was pointless, and I haven’t thought about it since. But it comes back to me now as I wonder about how the value of music in my mind changes due to its role in my daily routine.


Also, it’s frightening me how easily I seem to be getting used to a life without listening.




Day Three:




I doubt that the amount of focus I need on a day-to-day basis is all that superhuman by most people’s standards but it is, for me, not totally sustainable. Every once in a while, I need to take a day and let my mind wander a little while gathering energy to refocus on the tasks before me. Day three is ending up being one of these recharge scenarios and another situation in which I need music. I don’t need just any old music, but something that I can wander in and out of, engaging or ignoring as I see fit. On days like this, I crave a recording that can be enjoyed without feeling an impetus for dissection or analysis. I hadn’t put much thought into the hierarchy of music in my mind with “serious music” at one level and “enjoyable music” at another, but I’m feeling a very specific lack today, which is forcing me to define the difference. I find myself embarrassed to admit that I sometimes want music to passively appreciate. In my mind, I feel I should always be serious—ever diligent and working to absorb as much as I can from my listening. So, the thought that I want something for pure pleasure is against type. At the same time, I’m heartened to realize that I can still just love music for all of its revitalizing properties.


Since yesterday, music has been constantly in my head. Today, it’s Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite. The fact that my brain won’t give me real silence means, I think, that a vacuum has been created from the last few days without dedicated, or even background, listening. My mind is rushing to fill the void with recordings and performances long lost to my immediate memory. I think, for this reason, I have been craving certain music that I haven’t listened to in years. Today was Robert Wyatt. While I have only ever been a tangential Wyatt/Soft Machine fan, today I have a very real, very tangible craving for his early solo records. Strange.



Day Four:




Today is a lot easier so far. I have a lot of busy administrative kind of work, and it’s allowing me to pass the time rather easily. The day of relative rest also helped my focus immensely. When I woke up, I had a fairly uncharacteristic self-confidence in my ability to handle an afternoon of emails, spreadsheets, scheduling, and other numbing tasks without music to distract me. And, here I am at the end of the day, with no distress.


This experiment has made me think a lot about how I conceive of the music I make. Typically, I get some abstract idea for a composition or improvisational tactic from listening to a piece of somebody else’s music. The idea that comes to mind may or may not be a part of what I’m hearing in the concrete sound itself, but I begin to make connections and I find myself building the beginning of an idea. For example, listening recently to an early Caetano Veloso record like Transa evolved into an idea of long and simple improvisational compositions based on very slightly varied repetitions that build and build—getting more and more jubilant and ecstatic with each cycle. It is a simple causal chain: because I listen to A, I think of B. This process, to me, is natural and good. The problem arises when I try to actually work with this idea, and there is still a strong attraction to the sound of original Caetano Veloso recording. I end up, consciously or not, trying to write a version of the original, and that is never successful or honest in my mind. Now that I have stopped the practice of listening for a while, ideas like the example above come back but without the memory connection. My mind starts working through specific ways to address the broader idea without the constraint of the style or memory of the original piece. This is the first real positive effect from the experiment.




I’m adding the L.A. band Sissy Spacek to the list of cravings today. It’s very interesting what parts of my history are coming forth to fill the vacuum. It makes me wonder whether I’m ever accurate in the importance I’m attaching to certain music or periods in my development. No music from Messiaen or Debussy has been anywhere near the front of my mind this week, and I’ve spent years absorbing their music with no small amount of glee and satisfaction. Instead, I’ve had earworms of my youth like the Pet Shop Boys, Sonny Rollins, The Smiths, or AC/DC rolling around in my head alongside an inarticulate desire for pure noise. I’m not trying to understand the reason at this point, but just noticing how the part of my brain taken up by music-listening is choosing to spend its newfound free time.




Day Five:




This is the last day of the experiment, and it’s a Saturday.


In many ways, I’ve been dreading Saturday. On most weekend days I go through somewhere between three and seven recordings, not counting radio or incidental music of some sort. So, it’s safe to say listening is the focal point of my weekend. Books, records, coffee, and cats occupy any and all off time I have before I work again on Monday. If I have a beloved ritual, it involves all of the above items. And, as with all the music-related habits of my life, I am nervous about how a lack of organized sound will affect my daily experience and mental equilibrium.


I am trying to subvert the perceived Saturday problem by going to a café with my wife. No stereo, no records, no temptation, no sense of lack. In essence, my plan was bulletproof, but no such luck. There is a large article on La Monte Young in the Times, and I’m finding myself with the metaphorical itch. As I am adding The Well-Tuned Piano to the revelatory and growing pile, the four full days of silence descends on me with a weight that is surprising. I find myself with an uncontrollable urge to listen to anything. I guess I was getting cocky. At this point, though, I basically have the DTs. I would be happy with an extended Russian gym electro-remix of MMMbop. Really. That would be most welcome.




I’m doing much better now after keeping myself busy for the last few hours, and now I’m consumed with thoughts of what I will listen to first tomorrow. This is not a new obsession, as I do it when finishing a book as well. About 100 pages from the end, I start to look at my shelf to decide what to read next. It affects the end of each book, as part of my mind is already in the future, and I spend more energy being curious about what I’ve chosen next than in absorbing what I’m finishing. I am not feeling the silence or even able to reflect on it at this point. My mind is too active with the thoughts of tomorrow’s listening schedule. Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder has been sitting on my stereo and mocking me all week long. It would be reasonably satisfying to play it first tomorrow, but the music that I’ve been craving has nothing to do with the rigor of early dodecaphony. If this is the route I go, then it is pro forma. I think I will just sleep on it and see what feels right in the morning.




Epilogue: Breaking the Fast




I have a certain logic loop that happens when I’m hungry. I found out recently that this is a psychological subset of a newly minted phenomenon called being “hangry.” I get very frustrated with the vast amount of choices in front of me, and my lack of food exacerbates the problem until I am both depressed and livid—a state that probably already has the name of “dlivid.” This state always culminates with the pronouncement, “I’m not even hungry.” It fools no one, least of all myself. This is a vestige of childhood; a mild temper tantrum being played by a forty-one year old understudy. My wife, luckily, is highly trained to recognize this behavior and cajoles me into eating. I feel immediately better and am then slightly ashamed for having been so immature.


I am having a similar feeling today as I get ready to end my experiment. I grant that this experiment wasn’t so intense or rigorous that I should feel elation over the prospect of being able to hear some music. Realistically, it was more like a week of narcissistic navel-gazing than profound life assessment, but five days of non-listening was significant enough—in the life of someone who has listened to music every day since he can remember—that I am experiencing marked inner turmoil.


I have a large stack of discs on the stereo, some old, some new. I am making every effort to recognize that I am in a kind of choice spiral. So, after all the energy wasted on anticipation yesterday, I am just going to go for the low-hanging fruit and listen to the disc that was on the top, Pierre Boulez’s recording of Gurrelieder. It’s not that I am so interested in it over anything else, but I, for once in my life, am present enough to understand that what I need right now is to just get that first rush of organized sound out of the way so I can be more rational about my next choice.




I am not really feeling connected to and moved by music after trying all the recordings on my list from this week. I’m going to activate Sly and the Family Stone as the musical big guns. If I can’t connect to that, at least viscerally, I need to start worrying. Okay. Mmhmm. All is fine now. Sly is still perfect in attempts to make me happy. I finally feel like I’m back.




Ultimately, I guess I don’t feel jubilation upon hearing music again. I understand that this makes for a kind of an anti-climactic ending to a fairly simple story. But, it is an honest ending. Perhaps I had heard enough in passing this week, as I was inundated with more sound than I consciously absorbed. Maybe the time wasn’t long enough for me to really feel the kind of lack whose end produces a feeling of satisfaction. I think that what is making me the most happy is that there is SOUND again in my external life. I honestly don’t much care what it is, but I just like being able to sit at my desk with some kind of aural activity going on around me that my mind can bounce back and forth from while I work. I like knowing that I can put on a record while making dinner, or that I can use my headphones when I ride the train this afternoon. My big lesson from a week of experimentation is that music, to me, is a comfort. It’s not background noise, but a trusted friend. And, I’m happy to welcome that friend back into my life.