Increasingly, music is, as bassist Pete Doktorʻs former band name suggests, “audio wallpaper.” Jazz pianist, teacher and former member of the Pagan Babies Bailey Matsuda hopes to find “a new (for him) way of listening to new (for him) music.” He states:
“It occurred to me while driving that I had a point of view percolating just under my awareness regarding a different kind of listening experience, one that seems to be disappearing more and more. I mean, who goes out to listen to live music anyway? We go out to drink, be with friends, hang out, dance or [“other activities” editorʻs note: censored] and it seems like the last thing that ever happens is that you have a band that is actually playing some happening [stuff: again censored] in a place where people go to listen. Not here, not in Honolulu.
“Ok, maybe Sarento’s on Tuesdays thanks to Dancin’ Dave, or sometimes at the Atherton Performing Arts Studio at KHPR. Or maybe at the Musician’s Union in their new studio once a month. But it’s the usual suspects at these venues. I did try to do my part to circumvent this trend and these choices.
“I hosted a ʻhouse’ concert at my apartment with a friend. The guests were all from his circle of friends, but I knew one or two of them. Light food for dinner/snacks and some beer and wine, and an hour of songs that no one had ever heard. An evening of songs, and one of mine could be construed a jazz ballad, but it was accessible and told a story.
“So I pose a question: has listening to digital radio or lists from iTunes or Pandora or even our own library of CD’s really become the definitive listening experience for us?
“In short, I have no idea what to listen to, who to listen to, or where to find it.”
Classical guitarist and composer Andrew York asked a similar question in the liner notes of his 1993 album. He asks us to imagine going back to a time when music was not so ubiquitous, say, the 17th century. Imagine hearing chamber music in an intimate setting. The exquisite melodies, harmonies and counterpoint. It really affects you. It may even change your life. Now compare that to today, where popular music is elevator music and vice versa. As Radiohead singer Thom Yorke put it in Karma Police, the music these days “buzzes like a fridge” – it blends together in an autotuned, grungey sameness.
Is there a way to delete and reset our listening apparatuses, and reclaim that innocence that made us love music in the first place? It seems that several things contribute to this deadening of the listening experience. First, is the excessive technology, such as autotune and scrubbed sound that make us think that people really sound that way. We should be less critical of imperfections in the sound, and look for the soul of the music. Second, musical illiteracy. There were times in the past when music really mattered to a large listening public – not just Vienna in Mozart’s time, but the “Troubador” period of singer-songwriters in the 1970s: Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. The songwriting mattered, the songs mattered then, not just celebrity. Third, we need to re-engage with music by playing it, with others, listening to it live, or just really listening.
Of course there are always counter-currents. Some musicians are going against all the trends Iʻve just derided. One positive thing about the new music environment is that there are many more microniches. On the other hand, it seems to have enabled people to become more narcissistic in their musical tastes.
As I watch my older daughter being to engage with music I see a few things that capture her “beginner’s mind” (in the words of DT Suzuki): true vocal quality (Michael Buble’s slightly cheesy but unscrubbed flawlessness), catchiness (Don McLean’s American Pie – science has just begun to show how Norah Jones and the Stones have much in common at an as-yet-mysterious level), and humor (Weird Al’s Star Wars version of American Pie). Perhaps what we ultimately need to know is when to be more sophisticated and when to be less so. This art of listening is not only lost for music – we donʻt listen to each other in general. As the humorist Fran Lebowitz said “the opposite of talking isnʻt listening; the opposite of talking is waiting.”