I recently came across this interesting conversation about year-end lists over at David Adler's blog. The subject of year-end lists, of course, interests me greatly -- though at this point I have said my piece on the matter (at least until next year).
No, what I really wanted to riff on from the Adler piece was this phrase:
[...] I listen to some 700 CDs a year [...]
700 CDs. That's a lot. Something like, what -- two CDs a day, right?
Thinking about it, I started wondering: how many CDs do I listen to in a year? It must be more than a few, right? I mean, I try to pass myself off as sort of knowledgeable about music. (Ha!)
Well, actually, if we're talking physical CDs, it's not a lot, because most of my listening these days is focused on digital files of one sort or another. But if we're using "CD" as a metaphor for a group of tracks released as a single entity, and meant to be enjoyed in one sitting (more or less) -- sort of the modern equivalent of the "album" -- then, yes, it's a lot. It may be in the 700-a-year range. Who knows? It may be a little more, or a little less.
(I'm actually very curious about this, so I've started keeping track of titles as I listen to them. I plan to check back in with myself in a year to see what's what.)
Anyway, I have two categories of inquiry here.
First: is there a relationship between one's personal CD-per-year rate, and one's critical (or compositional) authority? Are we more trusting of a critic's judgments, or a composer's output, if we know he or she has consumed superhuman quantities of music? And if so, should we be?
Or, on the flip side: is there a certain point beyond which one can make useful statements about / contributions to music without necessarily embracing the compulsiveness of a completist ? Maybe there is some finite magical number of recordings which, once carefully studied, can provide you with everything you would ever need to know about the art?
Second: what the hell is "listening," anyway?
(I should admit here that though I appreciate music's power as a social unifier, I am equally motivated by a fascination with its ugly little cousin, perceptual variance.)
I would submit that everybody who actually cares about music has a preferred scenario for experiencing it: the ideal environmental setting, state of mind, playback technology, and so on. That's the scenario in which a listener can be most gracious, most receptive, most insightful, and most understanding re: a given work. That, for want of a better term, is "optimal" listening.
But how frequently do the stars so align? Most of my own listening occurs either in the car, or late at night, in front of a computer, occasionally accompanied by a glass of wine. Some of it occurs in the company of other people. Some of it occurs while I am doing one of the many other things I usually have to do throughout the day. And while I enjoy listening in all these ways, I suspect that none of them is optimal.
In other words, sub-optimal listening is inevitable (and is probably in fact the dominant mode of listening) for anyone not living in total sequestration from the ebb and flow of the world (including, of course, music critics and composers). But does sub-optimal listening "count"? (An analogy, I think, would be to say you have "read" a novel even though you have merely taken in most of the words.)
Or, is this no big deal? Do experience and critical wisdom give one the means by which to listen optimally, even when the optimal listening conditions have not been met? Has the human mind evolved an increased capacity for filtering out distractions?
And then there is the issue of frequency. Have I really "listened" to a CD if I merely play it once? (How many times have I hated something at first blush, only to fall in love with it a little later?) Does every recording deserve at least three full spins (say) before one can legitimately be said to have "heard" it?
As you can see, all I have tonight are questions.