Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I’ve been reading a book by Ben Ratliff, former jazz critic of the Times, about how to listen to music. It’s called Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty. Probably sounds odd to want to know how to listen to music, since all you have to do is sit there and listen. But Ratliff’s conceit is that the digital age in music dissemination has opened up the possibility to listen on demand to almost anything ever recorded, and that requires new ideas about what to listen for in drastically different kinds of music. In pop and rock you might be focused on the beat, but you wouldn’t be satisfied looking for that element in classical Indian ragas or a John Cage sonata for prepared piano. We also need ways to filter what we want out of the infinity of titles in the cloud.
What Ratliff has done is identify twenty characteristics that we might be able to find in all kinds of music. If you’re aware of them you can hop onto widely ranging playlists and appreciate almost anything that streams through your brain, elements like repetition, loudness, space, closeness, density. These can be a little more abstract than what we’re used to talking about in music: rhythm, dynamics, pitch. Sometimes, in reading about Ratliff’s experience with something like density I find myself calling bullshit and saying, “Yeah, but that’s nothing new, and being aware of it doesn’t make me like something I’m not inclined to like.”
At the end of each chapter, Ratliff provides a list of recordings cited, so you can go and listen to them yourself on Spotify or YouTube to hear what he’s talking about. Half the time, the artists I’ve never heard of do stuff that’s hard to listen to. It’s grating and harsh, it’s disorganized, it’s taxing. Check out this piece by Okkyung Lee. (I like to think I’m open to a lot of different stuff musically, but if I can’t stand to have something playing for more than ten seconds I start thinking “emperor’s new clothes.” In that vein, it seems like today’s composers write essentially for other composers in an academic mode, whereas in the old days a Franz Liszt was sort of his era’s Prince.) The other half of the time there’s a sense that he must have struggled to find pieces that fit the element he’s writing about because it’s not easy to hear in the song. (In the chapter on space, for example, he claims to be able to visualize the dimensions of the room the Velvet Underground recorded in. Guess what, it was a rectangle!)
At his best, Ratliff talks us through some recordings, such as Jimi Hendrix’s solo on “Machine Gun” or Coleman Hawkins version of “Body and Soul.” His riff on what Sarah Vaughan is up to on “Time After Time” is brill. He has a great way of landing on just the right words to describe what we’re hearing, like telling us Hendrix goes to the low register of the guitar to “kick up some dust.” He has a great ear, and his musical knowledge is vast, so I’ll often find myself having to back away from a knee-jerk reaction to listen more closely. A lot of the time our built-in prejudices keep us from appreciating something we might come to love if we let it in.
Still, understanding what an artist or record producer is doing doesn’t make a song any more palatable. I can’t listen to Miley Cyrus and get what Ratliff seems to love about her on “Party in the U.S.A.” (More like “Autotune in the U.S.A.” to my ears.) On the other hand, Ratliff gave me the right perspective to listen patiently to Phil Niblock’s “A Trombone Piece” rather than bailing after a minute or two.
I had the nagging feeling that some of Ratliff’s new elements of music were add-ons to get him up to twenty. Even so, they’re all thought-provoking and will help me perk up when I hear something I’m unfamiliar with, listening for something I can appreciate even if I don’t adopt it as my own. Thanks to this book, I’m hearing Nick Drake in a new light, I’ve revisited Bud Powell after a long time away, I’m hearing things in Pink Floyd and The Stones I never caught before, and I’m not immediately repelled by all rap music. Most, but not all.
I borrowed the book from the library, but it’s starting to feel like a reference I’ll want on my shelf for frequent consultation. Here’s the Amazon link for like-mindeds.