Thursday, January 28, 2010

What is listening?

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.

[photo credit: Yuliya Libkina]


mrG said...

700!!! I daresay he meant to say he has heard 700 CDs. And given he'd issue such a pronouncement with bravado and authority, I'll wager it likely he's 'listened' to none of them.

And me neither. You're at least lucky enough to make the music you love your livelihood, in my case there's work (which often has ambient music of my choosing since I work from home, but quietly, since I work from home ;) and I listen in the car all the time much to the family's chagrin, so again, very quietly. Driving to band practice I insist, but when we carpool members again, the volume goes down low to accommodate talking.

which I find curious. I mean technically curious. why do we think it is totally OK to gab over a CD, even to (not me!) gab over a live performer (gawd I'd love to strangle a few of them) yet when the television is switched on the room goes silent for freakin' Happy Days reruns?!

That they'll "listen to' with full attention, they'll quote Lost and recall in detail the snarks on American Idol, yet did they catch the whole-tone scale played against the diminished chord 14 bars into the first solo? No.

I was reading Kenneth Woods review of Mahler's 2nd, the symphony of best moments, it reminded me of great moments of brilliant composition and stunning execution in Kind of Blue, great moments in Sun Ra's Hymn to the Universe, in Roland Kirk's 3 sided dream ... and it made me realize that in all my hundreds of hours of hearing mp3s these days, how often do I hear these 'moments'?

Not often. I've grown lazy, I'm just skimming. I read Ethan Iverson deeply review some recording and I wonder if my ears are even capable of hearing. In my rush to move on to the next CD, I wonder if I'm listening at all.

Lately I've been listening to a lot of back-catalog, back to the glory days of big bands, the RCA house bands (what we now call 'exotica' was just a dream day-job for them) and I've been trying to listen, to listen with the ears of a wannabee arranger, listening for new colours, for new rhythmics...

That first alto solo in String of Pearls for example, all those years, I'd totally missed that.

cinderkeys said...

These days I feel lucky if I get to hear music. Ideal listening conditions are just about impossible to come by.

Chris said...

I would honestly hate to be a "critic." The idea of hearing so much music that you can't LISTEN to it is rather depressing to me. I am constantly looking for new music but I still enjoy listening to the music that I already own. Like you said, there are many albums that I didn't like on the first spin and there are a few of them that I can't live without, now.

I think, mrG, that when those cats write about all the intricacies of the music they have had the good fortune of enjoying the music in they're "optimal" environment.

Mine is on the bed with good quality over-the-ear headphones and an ipod (most of my tracks are mp3 or mp4 so it's the best they will get, anyways). Laying there with my eyes closed and only a lamp on is my happy place! It is there that I can hear soooo much more from each piece than anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

andrew, you should check out jean luc nancy's Listening


Anonymous said...

I've never had the collector's impulse. My music purchases have always been based on 3 factors: 1) price 2) my mood at the moment, and whether the music is likely to fit it, based on what I know about it, and 3) price.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

G - I appreciate what you're saying about looking for "moments," though I sometimes wonder if such things are in infinite supply, particularly once a person has attained a certain overarching familiarity with the totality of music (and I do think that is possible, in a very broad sense). At what point are we forced to look for further examples of moments we've heard before?

W/r/t Ethan, I'd say about him what I often said about some of my favorite professors from grad school: good writing can create its own object. And Ethan is certainly a good writer. Does that mean he's listening more authentically? I dunno.

Vikram Devasthali said...

I ranted about this subject on my blog a few months back. I'm unconvinced that music consumption is directly proportional to music appreciation. And though I appreciate David Adler's drive to keep himself appraised of what's out there, perhaps he's lowering his chances of recognizing the good stuff by tearing through huge numbers of CDs so quickly. Or perhaps so many of those CDs are mediocre that the good ones stick out like sore thumbs.
As for looking for "further examples of moments we've heard before", people look for different things in music (and in government, as you pointed out not too long ago). Extremism in this regard--desperate clinging to the old on the one hand, quixotic striving for the new on the other--is rampant. In my own listening, I strive to be open to new experiences and appreciative of old ones; but perhaps my moderation is another man's cowardice. Time will tell.