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.

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.

The Listeners

John Colpitts aka Kid Millions

John Colpitts and I have been engaged in one of those personal and professional relationships that seem to be specific only to New York. We have worked together on multiple projects and know each other well enough to say hello and maybe have a pleasant, if cursory, chat to catch up on projects. This makes us friends in the taxonomy of the Brooklyn music world. We’ve never shared a meal, and we know more about each other’s gig schedule than even the most insignificant part of each other’s personal lives.


When I asked John to take part in The Listeners it was primarily because of this common but strange relationship we share. Unlike Ken Vandermark, we hadn’t spent a lot of time together talking about tastes or ideas, so I had no idea where the conversation would end up or what music would end up being played. Given John’s history as the drummer in the experimental rock juggernaut, Oneida—and with his own percussion group Man Forever—I had certain expectations. I would probably hear some drums, for example. And, to an extent, those expectations were fulfilled as we careened through excerpts concentrating on Jim Black in Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, The Grateful Dead, and The Boredoms—before taking a short break to have a comforting take-out meal of tortas in his Ridgewood home.


The conversation during these first pieces was what you would expect from our specific kind of relationship. There were histories and revelations, shared acquaintances, and filling in of blanks. After lunch, John put on some early Kool and the Gang, however, and the conversation began veering more toward personal experiences: how we view music, our blind spots, and, ultimately, deep talk about our relationships with listening and self-identifying as musicians.


It is this last portion of our talk that makes up this episode. The meat of the conversation happens in silence while John searches his library and his mind to find the next record to play. At certain points either one of us seems to be telling the other that it’s okay to stop, that what has been said is enough for the surface task of recording. However, and it’s difficult to describe, there was a feeling that something hadn’t been said and that John had to find the right music to get his point across. After a short digression from Kool and the Gang, he settled on John Tavener—the first music we listen to in silence—and the conversation rushes forward to an abrupt but meaningful end.

Ken Vandermark

I loved watching reruns of the Dick Cavett Show as a kid. I treasured the opportunity to watch fascinating people speak candidly about how they lived and worked. They weren’t promoting anything. They weren’t being hustled for time. They didn’t reveal a shocking truth. They were just human beings talking about their passions. As interviews veered into self-promotion and public relations fodder, I lost interest. The subject became more of a product and less a creative human being.


I often remember thinking what I was seeing was a real slice of who Bette Davis or Oscar Peterson actually were—that I could intuit their natural way of speaking, their foibles and predilections from the 44 minutes I saw of their conversation. At some point, I became cynical about these same interviews and cultivated a belief that these people had highly rehearsed who they were, how they spoke, and what persona they wanted to present. Whether that’s true or not, of course, I don’t know, but recently I have wanted desperately to find someone who could renew my faith in a person who was both articulate and spontaneous about the thing they love most.


I think Ken Vandermark might be that person. This episode of The Listeners was recorded during a short stay in Chicago as he and I prepared our second duo recording. In the three days I was there, in between rehearsals and performances, Ken and I had four conversations about musical topics, only the last of which was recorded and is presented here. Putting the microphone in front of Ken changed absolutely nothing about the level of passion and precision with which he spoke. Before hitting record, he and I had already had long and weighty conversations about improvisation models, how one fits into jazz history, understanding the way that education affects musicians, and what direction we felt our music, individually and collectively, was headed.


There is no ambiguity of purpose when Ken puts on a record. He thinks about what to listen to and can articulate his reasoning. For the taping, he had picked the opening to Witold Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto because he had recently been considering the repetitive elements of that piece and thought it may expand on the conversations we had been engaged in about our own playing or the listening we were doing.


From that point, the conversation veered through a few different neighborhoods of thought, and the music changed accordingly. It’s a more interesting experience to hear the thought process as it’s being expressed than to see a bland list of ingredients, so I urge you to listen all the way through with the kind of attention you would have if you were in the room with us. Perhaps you agree, or perhaps you don’t. But, the listener will best be served by engaging.


I will give you the three pieces that are excerpted here, without Ken or me talking over them. In most cases, they are just prevalent snippets of longer pieces. Sound American suggests you search for and treat yourself to experience the complete recording. - Nate Wooley

Ben Vida

At this point in the issue, we’ve been lucky enough to cover multiple ways of listening through the examples of the listening experiments and these Listener podcasts. This episode is especially unique, however, because of the role the music takes in my discussion with electronicist, guitarist, and composer Ben Vida, viz. a tangential connection with an intensely engaged aesthetic discussion.


Ben may been known best as a member of the Chicago-based minimalist rock band Town and Country, but I feel like a real power resides in his solo electronic compositions, large installations, and warm, lightning-fast synthesizer improvisations. Every conversation we’ve had has been refreshingly free of chitchat and shoptalk. Instead, we tend to plunge immediately into the broad musical and aesthetic concerns surrounding our own music and the thoughts that are currently inspiring us.


Even though we were both settled on the format of our taping, the nature of our relationship immediately took over as Ben put on a recording of Miles Davis from the 1950s. Essentially we were off to the races, covering topics that had nothing to do with the music we were listening to, like audible form in composition, foreground and background contrasts, and the role of an audience as “ready-made” or found art.


Meanwhile, the music just plays on. There is a short period of historical field recordings that provides background to the conversation. At this point, I was so engaged in our exchange that I didn’t even notice he had changed the record until I was editing the program. Finally, he settled in on a solo Derek Bailey recording. It almost feels as if he chose it purposely to bring us back to the task at hand. We admit our delighted befuddlement about Bailey’s improvising as we come to the slow realization that connecting our conversation with the music we were listening to was what we came together to do in the first place.


I find this to be a beautiful representation of the power that music wields over our inspiration. The conversation Ben and I engaged in would have been entirely different in silence. The initial Miles Davis recording began a series of thoughts that spun out in an almost manic fashion before finally connecting again as he put on the Derek Bailey record. In a way, like the philosophy of improvisation in the British scene of which Bailey was a central figure, the conversation was running in parallel to the music: keeping track of its direction and feeding off of it, but rarely choosing to fold it in and acknowledge it in a somewhat straightforward way.