Saturday, December 21, 2013

Passivity and Music

I have mentioned before how much I appreciate the music writing of Steven Hyden. I don't necessarily like all the same things he does, but I do find unsurprising congruence in our tastes. His latest submission for Grantland is about the failure of music in 2013 to take-off, or maybe re-take-off is a better way to put it.

At one point in his article, in the context of troubles within the record industry, Mr Hyden quotes a Forrester Research analyst named James McQuivey from a New York Times piece:  "Music is an accompaniment, to add to your jog, your workday, your prep in the kitchen...But it's not something you're eager to pay for if you don't have to." Mr. Hyden asks his reader if it depresses them as it depresses him. I would not say it depresses me; my parents passing away, the plight of children in Syria, those things depress me. But the idea of a major shift not just in music but in music listening seems to be happening.

Life, compared to 30 years, is much more distracting. The pace of life seems much more frantic. I want to be careful to not verge into curmudgeon territory, but even in high school I do not recall my teen-age life being as filled. Listening to music has an ability to be an extremely passive or an extremely active endeavor. Much more so than other media. You can't read a book in the background. You can't go to the movies and half watch it, well I guess you can but you don't get anything out of it. TV comes close, many people have the TV on at night to help them fall asleep. My wife is expert at this, but I find myself unable to not pay attention if there is any semblance of plot.

Music is both passive and active. People can switch from one to the other on the fly. But like books and TV and movies, appreciation of music comes only from attentiveness. In another Grantland piece, Ernest Baker discusses the new Beyonce record and his reaction to it and passive versus active listening and that once he actively listened it the record changed for him.

One of my favorite activities is to lay on the couch with the lights out, put a record on the hi-fi, slip on the headphones, and just listen. Listen intently to every note, every fill, every nuance of the record. The immerse myself in it. I've written before that I think vinyl is the best way to do this because it captures the essence of the music better than any other medium. Digital and the compression that comes with that fails to capture that. I don't want to drift into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo but good music can be a transcendental experience and that is only accomplished through immersion.

But who has time for that anymore!!! Life beckons! Doing this or that. Going here and there. Tapping away on a smartphone. There are distractions everywhere. I have friends that do SOMETHING every single night. I can't fathom that.  Just from a shear exhaustion level. For me, I cannot exist without down-time. I enjoy spending quiet time with my wife, with my records, with my guitar, with a book, with just myself. My wife and I went to the mall this morning. I knew my iPhone was low on juice so I planned to charge it in the car. Except I and taken the charger out of the car (it's probably in the other car). I expressed dimly and outrage! What would I do without my phone. But then I decided that I would go without. I would find a way to endure a couple hours without my lifeline. And you know what, I survived just fine without it. Waiting outside the stores at the mall I just watched people, looked around, thought things. A constant stream of information was not necessitated in order to pass the time. As I sat down waiting for my wife and her search for final gifts, I sat in a chair and watched a young woman talk on her iPhone while texting with her BlackBerry. During the call and after the call her eyes never left the BlackBerry, her fingers never stopped typing. I am in no way judging that activity, but I find it the perfect representation of modern living.

But to be that tethered, to have that much access, how is there time, how is there opportunity to appreciate a piece of music? I started putting together my favorites-of-the-year list. One record that was on the cusp of falling off the top 10 list I gave a listen to a few nights ago. And in listening through the headphones it was revelatory, it impacted me in a way listening at work or while typing on a keyboard or surfing the web never touched me. By listening to it closely and deeply, it resonated. It was like magic, it was a fantastically enjoyable experience to hear and appreciate the creation within those grooves. I think less folks have that experience anymore nowadays. It scares me only in that music could suffer for it. That bands will no longer be around to create this.

Stay tuned for part 2! Steve's thoughts on the future of rock and roll!

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