Twenty Ways To Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($26)
by Dylan Hicks
Those who came to love music as adolescent record buyers of the last century often claim that scarcity, limited means, and the nearly sexual anticipation resulting from those factors heightened their pleasure and engagement in the music itself. Pining for bygone patterns of consumption is one of nostalgia’s dustier and more tiresome corners, but it’s perhaps true that the procedures and expenditures involved in hearing and collecting music before the advent of MP3s, file sharing, social media, and the cloud moderately encouraged attentiveness and patience. Support for this claim tends to be anecdotal: the zine review, the long bus ride, the parting with nine dollars and sixty-two cents greasily earned preparing Whoppers, the clerk’s nodding approval . . . from all this one emerged primed to make the investment in time and money pay off through hopeful and repeated auditions of one’s new album. In my experience, this sometimes meant willing myself to enjoy music that didn’t merit the effort, but often it led me to uncover delights not immediately revealed. Probably this speaks more to youthful curiosity and social ambition than it does to how commercial recordings were bought and sold in the 1980s, but surely the distribution process played its part.
Mind you, a great recording will survive various indignities: it will sound capacious on the fading signal of an AM car radio, will cut through the demographically rational but aesthetically errant associations made by a Pandora station. And it’s a luxury—for aging record collectors killing time on laptops, for teenage beatmakers honing their craft in the provinces—to access so much previously elusive music. But recall what follows Orsino’s famous opening lines, “If music be the food of love, play on”:
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
If, in the face of unprecedented muchness, we manage not to retreat to our narrow playlists of down-at-heel favorites, we might find ourselves approaching music like an infinite Gong Show, a vast library of unheard recordings just waiting to be silenced halfway through the first chorus. In Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds described this feeling of “glutted” indifference, “the aural equivalent of chronic-fatigue syndrome, where the auditory pleasure centre of the brain is fried after years of trying to process, absorb, feel too much music in too little time.”
Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty is a series of graceful music-appreciation essays designed for listeners transitioning from being part of “a species that needed to recognize only a few kinds of songs—because only a few kinds were readily available to us, through the radio, or through record stores, if we were lucky enough to live near one—to a species with direct and instant access to hundreds of kinds, thousands of kinds, across culture and region and history.” The adjustment Ratliff describes is profound for all, but it might be characterized as an amplification and acceleration of late-twentieth-century urban advantages diffused to everyone with a computer. Still an enormous change, but in some quarters felt more as part of a decades-long expansion of media and access than as a rapid digital liberation from musical Saharas—and indeed an expansion at the expense of community-building forces not easily replaced. In the ’80s, even in the midsized Twin Cities where I live, it was possible to hear jazz, punk, queer folk, R&B, reggae, blues, hip-hop, country, gospel, zydeco, and many other genres on the “left of the dial” community radio stations that now cling to life; to hear also a conservative range of classical and a dollop of jazz on the big public station; to find Fletcher Henderson and Merle Haggard and international music from the Nonesuch Explorer series at branch libraries whose hours are now often reduced; to share and tape records in defiance of the record industry’s nervous exhortations; and to be surrounded by the day’s pop hits. It was only a few gallons in today’s ocean, and it took some of the hunting and planning oldsters romanticize, but it was a lot of free or nearly free music, more than you could take in, much of it easy to come by. Most didn’t bother, of course, as they still don’t.
In any case, Ratliff, a music critic for the New York Times whose earlier books include Coltrane: The Story of a Sound and the useful Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, is encouraging us to see “a situation of total, overwhelming, glorious plenty” as an opportunity to listen more widely, attentively, creatively, and idiosyncratically, to spend less time tracking influences or half-stepping from favorite artists to their closet kin, more time searching disparate sources for spiritual and philosophical affinities, ways of musical being that apply to—that are part of—everyday life. “Algorithms are listening to us,” he writes. “At the very least we should try to listen better than we are being listened to.”
His short chapters mostly treat broad qualities not restricted to music, such as slowness, speed, discrepancy, sadness, density, and closeness. For illustration, he looks in depth or in passing at far-flung recordings progressing as on a random-play program that isn’t random—Satie segues into a Ritchie Valens forty-five played at thirty-three; the rumba of Patato & Totico leads to the Rolling Stones. Ratliff is particularly steeped in jazz, but his tastes are catholic, and his listening remains acute and informed beyond the fences of his core expertise. If there’s such a thing a virtuoso listener, he must qualify.
Many of the book’s sentences begin with “I am listening to . . .,” an epistolary or diaristic situating device that shifts us to the eternal present tense in which plots and melodies unspool. Though Ratliff is interested in how history, sociology, and other strictly extramusical forces shape music and our perception of it, his methods here recall New Criticism. The emphasis is on close listening, the auditory experience described without much preamble or garden-variety contextualization. He tries to sidestep the limiting designations of genre, the possible misdirection of a composer’s program notes, and the mythology that overgrows around famous recordings. The effect for the reader is something like a good immersive language course or a simpatico jam session—you pick it up.
Not every music critic—including some of the best ones—are as equipped as Ratliff is to talk about the rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, dynamic, and structural devices through which music achieves its fundamental effects. In describing the Beatles’ headlong “When I Get Home,” for instance, he explains that the “whoa-oh-oh-eye” hook leaps out all the more urgently because Ringo’s crashing underline comes in a half-beat ahead of the one—the downbeat or first beat of a measure, that is, where one expects this particular emphasis to fall —and he parenthetically notes that the vocal harmony on “eye” is built around a minor sixth interval, the same interval that ascends in the two introductory notes of “In My Life.” (Every Song Ever often sent me to my record shelves or to YouTube; on the mono mix of “When I Get Home,” what sticks out most for me is that John’s high, go-for-broke A is quite unsteady; the stereo mix has a more pitch-precise vocal but is altogether less pressing.) The book is by no means dense with music theory, but if you have a scrap of two of training, Ratliff might help you imagine, recall, or understand a piece of music; if you don’t, confusion won’t be significant or prolonged.
He’s also at home in the realms of translation, metaphor, and reanimation where music criticism often thrives, adept at glinting analogies that bring music to the page about as effectively as notation. On “Ain’t It Funky Now,” the James Brown band, he observes, enters softly, “like the team of burglars penetrating the jewelry shop in the Jules Dassin movie Rififi.” The pianist Bud Powell plays “long lines ending with a single abrupt unresolved note, the slanted autograph of bebop.” Another pianist, Hildegard Kleeb performing Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus, plays a two-note pattern “as an eater, holding a fork, breaks the surface of a buttery cake—with the understanding of it as a luxury.” A perfect musical moment “is the song blushing: an unplanned or perhaps only semiplanned occurrence in which the music suddenly embodies its own meaning.”
That buttery cake will feel overbaked to some, but Ratliff is a good stylist with a knack for forceful economy. His description of Tommy Duncan, the nonchalant singer for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, seems to come out of Flannery O’Connor: “He had a flat face and small teeth and did not smile easily.” Overall his tone, here and there reminiscent of John Berger, is measured, meditative, sometimes grave to excess. He’s occasionally witty but far from jocular. He’s never sarcastic, never in a rush. It’s not surprising that he’s more sympathetic to slow tempos than he is to breakneck ones. Slowness in music “invites reciprocity,” he writes, and “can be the speed of summing up, of finding a way to see life in the long view, perhaps all chapters at once, with motion decreasing in order to be understood.” In contrast, “speed in music is like a sweater on a dog: mostly for show.” His tastes are hardly genteel—he writes often about extreme metal—but he’s drawn to different varieties of generosity, to musicians who draw in listeners through an independent but unselfish stewardship of their talent and of music itself. Respect is a key word. He writes vaguely that “people have been known to hear the foundational examples of slow funk and connote it with love and respect.” Emotive, devotional songs—by Andy Bey, by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—are in the business of “respectfully acknowledging something more powerful and mysterious than the singer himself.” Thinking of the four descending notes with which John Lennon stretches out the name Julia in the titular song’s chorus, Ratliff writes that Lennon “is having less humble, more complicated thoughts in other darker places in the song, but he will not project this onto Julia. He will sing her name with a more neutral respect.”
As might already be clear, Ratliff is given to aphorism, confident with generalization. He’s interested in listening as an act of ontological exploration, and in delivering his findings without extended deliberation. His philosophical ventures don’t always resound with profundity, but they demonstrate how great music can coax rangy thoughts. In the book’s introduction he writes that the effect of repetition “depends not on one figure being repeated identically and unaccompanied, but on a relative change moving against a relative constant, which is really the key to life’s riddle of time and gratification.” I’m not sure that enhances our understanding of repetition or brings us closer to life’s riddle, but it gets at the clarity that can result from the gradual developments in Steve Reich or Chic.
The reader’s brow, though, should sometimes wrinkle. “With two notes you have structure,” Ratliff writes, “and you are already graduating into the possibility that someone else has played that structure before. But with a single note you have authenticity, because nobody else has played the single note exactly the same way.” It’s not a bad response to hearing Monk linger on a B flat in “Thelonious,” but it approaches mysticism. Elsewhere there’s too much sweep. An example from the chapter on speed: “Like nearly every popular musician before the 1980s, Jerry Lee Lewis played for dancers, which means he played for sex.” That asks too much of “nearly,” and dance, like rock ’n’ roll itself, is a manifold response, often expressive of sex but not its stand-in.
Such qualms weren’t frequent for me, but they intruded here and there, mostly as a result of Ratliff’s willingness to take on large material in small spaces. Stoutly but not grandly, he touches on some of the central debates that have troubled musical aesthetics over the centuries, such as whether emotion inheres in music or is only provoked by it. (In instrumental music, that is, or in the nonlinguistic properties of vocal music.) The former view—that the music itself is sad, happy, anxious, or what have you—is, of course, the popular one. It’s also, I understand, prevalent at various levels of acceptance in contemporary philosophy, even if the matter can never be resolved with the contented period of a closing major triad. In an overview piece called “Emotions in the Music,” Peter Kivy cites O. K. Bouwsma’s line that emotion in music is more like the redness to the apple than the burp to the cider. That squares with most intuitive responses to music and with the view Ratliff holds in the chapters “What If We Both Should Want More?” and “Blues Rules.” He favors a flexible responsiveness laid over skeptical foundations. In “Blues Rules” he writes, “What is sadness in sound per se? Nothing. It doesn’t exist. There is no note or kind of note that in and of itself is sad and only sad.” True enough; minor thirds, for instance, visit many cheery songs without disturbance and often sit out sad ones. “But the construct of sadness,” Ratliff goes on, “and the attendant contract that it helps build between musician and listener, has to do with how we might recognize it person-to-person: through silence and dissonant long tones, or through agitation and mania; through closed systems of harmony or phrasing, or through unnervingly open and dark ones.”
This is a sensitive application of the widely perceived correlation between musical expressiveness and expressive human behavior. We find, after all, that music understood to be sad is often, as Kivy writes, “in slow, halting tempo, subdued in dynamics, with drooping, faltering melodies,” and that sad people often manifest these same characteristics. Exceptions to such conventionally legible expressions are legion, however, and it might be said that musical expressiveness most closely resembles theatrical expressiveness. Interesting, too, to consider how much (or little) these perceptions have changed in average Western listeners over time. Certain historically dissonant, unresolved sounds—the tritone, diminished chords—remain edged or foreboding in some contexts, but by no means in all; we’ve had a long time to acclimate to such sounds, and to some modern ears there’s nothing more cloying and thus provoking of anxiety or alienation than music untouched by dissonance. I would have welcomed Ratliff tarrying longer with these questions. His chapter on sadness concludes with several pages on heavy metal, where, he holds, we find “no more variegated and better developed code of sadness and fatalism, and probably no better managed lie.” It’s a smart challenge to conventional ideas about what sadness sounds like (“subdued in dynamics . . . ”), and a reminder that emotional cues are filtered through cultural and subcultural codes. But the pages soon turn to more general (and cogent) thoughts on metal aesthetics and weltanschauungen. By chapter’s end one feels that the specifics of how sadness functions in and around music, while not abandoned, have been left somewhat suspended.
“I become a better listener when this Bizet speaks to me,” wrote Nietzsche a day after seeing Carmen for the twentieth time. “Also a better musician, a better listener.” Then with Nietzschean bravado: “Is it even possible to listen better?—I actually bury my ears under this music to hear its causes.” Ratliff doesn’t prescribe what to listen for; he demonstrates what that sort of ear-burying listening looks like from one person—careful, broad-minded, but with necessary dispositional leanings. Ratliff is more interested in composition, sound, performance, and affect than he is in songwriting, better at evoking musical gravity than levity. His contemplative open-mindedness can be equally recommended to people who still do most of their listening offline—Every Song Ever’s technological hook perhaps has more to do with how books are sold than with Ratliff’s essential aims. But the essays do seem meaningfully, at least optimistically, current—in their democratic eclecticism, in how they flout divisions of genre, geography, and era.
Because the book is a record of one critic’s deep, concentrated listening, the model it suggests might seem of a piece with the pleasure reading that happens in professorial studies: solitary, focused, a pen in readiness. That’s not the only model Ratliff intends. Needless to say, concentration is the best ally of musical enjoyment and understanding, but strained focus can lead to problems of the forest-for-the-trees type. Sometimes, such as after I’ve brought one of my singer-songwriter projects into a professional studio, my ears have become too anxiously attuned, so that even when I listen to favorite records at home, I’m nagged by every audio-technical flaw, every imbalance and unintended distortion, every surrounding sound: the constant low buzz of our ancient doorbell, the dishwasher hum. Finally, I realize that I need to spend a few days away from music.
And there’s the kind of potentially glorious listening that falls between concentration and distraction, listening summoned when Ratliff cuts to scenes of concertgoers and dancers. On the dance floor you drift between immersion in the music and self-consciousness, between syncing up with the snare and locking eyes with a partner, between wishing one song would last forever and wondering whether another demands the protest of hurried wallflowerdom. In listening with the body, sometimes you disappear—into the plural clouds, I guess—and sometimes the song does. But I’m approaching mysticism.