Hello again dear readers!

You know the line in the Talking Heads‘ song Psycho Killer which goes: “When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed”? Well, while I wouldn’t push any further into identifying with such a dangerous character, it does help explain why it’s been several months since Vol. 35 of this series.

Thanks to all of you who have been requesting that we resume the discussion. I’m glad to know that you’re as interested in these posts as I am in hearing your responses. I learn a lot from what you write.

OK, down to bidness.

Ever thought about bad music? Seems to me that the way each of us evaluates musical quality is not simple at all, and yet we do it on a nearly instinctual, automatic level. After all, it only takes a few seconds of hearing a piece of music for us to adjust our expectations about what’s to come later on.

Now I’m not talking about whether we like a certain style or genre here, I’m talking about that something that we each intuit about whether the music was made competently or not, or if it somehow fails as music (what a mysterious thing that is: a piece of music is both music, and it’s not).

I’m looking to hear your experiences and thoughts about that, such as: what kinds of musical incompetence matter to you, and what kinds don’t? Which flaws enhance the music you like and which ones detract? Is it possible for music to be too perfect and therefore ineffective for you? Et cetera and on and on…

Looking forward to reading your replies,

Cheers,
mz

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of learning of an important, definitive artist or record, then listening to the music and either not liking it, or not understanding what all the fuss is about.

What I’m curious about this week is how you listeners would describe or explain that experience.

Can you name some music that you both know is good but also that you just don’t like? Can you describe how you know it’s good? How can you hear the “good-ness” of the music, even though you don’t like it?

I always think of this when I hear people say they don’t like a certain genre of music, because almost every genre must have some artists that are good, right? Separating my personal taste from evaluations of the quality of music is a great challenge, but it can have great rewards. I’m very curious to hear how you all think of it!

Have you heard that sales of vinyl records are way up these days, and that last week Elvis Costello announced plans to release his upcoming record on vinyl only, with a coupon for a free download of the release with purchase?

No this isn’t going to be another post about how deeelicious vinyl is. But these trends seem to be related to something I’ve been hearing and thinking a lot about lately, which is the effort to reinstate a “rich experience” for music listeners.

In terms of vinyl’s resurgence, people say that vinyl record has gravitas and its own odd beauty, and it requires an attentiveness that confers a specialness to the music and to the act of listening; and beyond vinyl’s popularity, many artists and labels are seeking ways to offer real rich experiences to their fans.

They do this in many ways, like sharing more video from tours and backstage or by asking fans to help them create artwork for album covers or videos. What these things seem to have in common is that they are attempts to establish deeper connections to the band or artist’s community.

Given all that, I’m wondering some things: does a rich experience matter to you, either in terms of enjoying vinyl or CD album art or videos, or in terms of finding a way to interact with a band you like in some new way? Do you seek out or remember those kinds of experiences? Have any unusual opportunities to meet or interact with your favorite artists or music really added to your experience of the music, or otherwise been cool?

And I’m especially curious to know the following: if you could ask your favorite artists or bands for your ideal rich experience of their music, what would it be?

Tent_camp.jpgPhilip Alperson, in the introduction to “The Philosophy of Music,” describes “the four broad areas of music which were to become standard areas of inquiry in Western thought” about music. They are:

Formalist, which is “concerned with the qualities of musical form itself.”

Expressive, which is focused on “the connection between music and human emotion.”

Metaphysical, concerned with the “ontological, cosmological and religious significance of music.”

Ethical, concerned with “the effects and role of music within society.”

I read and hear lots of you talking about how the music feels, how it makes you feel, and things like that, so I bet that the expressive camp would be well-populated. And the idea of an ethical perspective on music might help clarify that muddy thing that so many people seem to be concerned with when they talk about how vapid and empty some music seems to be.

Maybe the formalist camp would be reserved for the most esoteric and avant-garde among us; and the metaphysical might be populated by new age listeners and certain composers.

Of course, we’d wander between camps. We might be in two or three at once, even.

Even so, do you think you can place yourself in one or more of these groups? What are your concerns when you listen to music? If you have no concerns, does that automatically mean you are an “expressive” listener? Are there any things that are missing from this list?

[Music] exists as and for appearance. There is no actuality underlying it… Musical coherence is abstracted from actuality, not based upon it… [Music’s] appearance and its actuality are one and the same.

Geoffrey Payzant, Glenn Gould: Music and Mind

ghost song.jpgClearly, it’s possible to create believable, effective, amazing recorded works independent of the quality of the music on which the recording is based. Even when a recording’s musical content is lackluster or unremarkable, vibrant elements (a great vocal performance, a hook, or clever stylistic choices, etc) can work to make the recording itself into a potent creation, such that the so-called “deeper” content doesn’t matter.

This seems obvious enough. Is anyone really going to be troubled by the suggestion that the sounds within a recording are of comparable importance to the so-called content (i.e.,the musical ideas, words, melody) that we ordinarily perceive to underlie it? I doubt it.

Now, some critics might say that this sort of music makes silk purses from sows’ ears, and common sense would probably agree. Anyone who has ever noticed a vapid lyric or a tired chord progression underpinning a beloved popular song has had that view, if only for a minute. Silk purses from sows’ ears.

But when we look more closely at a recording, we get into some trouble, because (to state the obvious) the true contents of a recording consist only of the actual recorded sounds themselves, and nothing more. The recorded sounds are not just of comparable importance, they are all there is.
Music is, as Payzant says, “entirely phenomenal… [it] actually appears, and its appearance is the kind of actuality is has.” In other words, that “coherence” that we recognize as a song is something that we abstract from the actual music.

This is both obviously true, and also more than a little unsettling, since most of what I hear when I listen to music, and most of what I am seeking when I listen, has to do with the sense of a song that is behind the one I can hear. I am hearing content that is implied by the recordings contents; or, to use Payzant’s terminology, I am interested in what I can abstract from the sounds I am hearing.

It is usually the excellence of those perceived deeper implications, and the quality of the communication transmitted through the music from another human soul who somehow found and adapted their experience into art, that matters to me, much more, apparently, than what I am actually hearing.

floyd.gifThe Red Hot Peppers records are the prototype for a school of phonography that includes Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Zappa, Miles Davis and The Beatles – master builders who would mean much less to us if their work had been done only on paper. Evan Eisenberg – The Recording Angel

(As per my last two posts, I recently read The Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg’s book on the significance and influence of recording, recorded music, and recordings as things. This week’s post continues to explore the ideas from that excellent book, specifically the idea that records are examples of an art form best described as “phonography,” or the art of making recordings.)

I don’t know about you, but I have for many years used the word “song” to refer both to the composition and the recording of the composition. I’m sure we all do this, like for example when we’re driving with friends and a long-forgotten record comes on the car radio, prompting someone to say “this song is so incredible,” or “I love this song.”

We use the word “song” as shorthand to describe something that encompasses both the song and the recording, and while it’s sometimes true that the song we’re hearing in that car is in fact a great song, I am certain that there are also many times when it would be more accurate (if a little bit tedious :)), to say “this record is incredible,” or “this is a great recording.”
I’m thinking for example of some old hit song that might be kind of silly, dated or just somehow dubious as a musical or lyrical piece of writing, but which still carries real power, impact, and maybe even deep truth. That truth may be coming from the recording, not the actual song as written, and the piece may well be deriving most of its identity and power from some artistry, achievement or serendipity in a recording studio.

Looked at from a certain angle, these records are no less good because they are good as recordings, they are simply good in a different way (one might argue that a great recording that also carries cliched words and/or music is a bit of cultural pollution, but that’s another subject…).

As it is, if we adopt this viewpoint, then we have to admit that our experience of recordings far outpaces our experience of songs, in the sense that we mostly hear the songs as recordings (and if we go to see a performer in person, we are then experiencing another form of mediation: the performance). The song then is possibly an abstraction: an ephemeral lead/lyric sheet delineating the words, melody, and harmony, without locking it into any one iteration.

Personally, this resonates with me. I like the way this notion disengages the contents of the song (the words, harmony, melody, etc) from any particular version of them, and therefore allows for two simultaneous dimensions to coexist: the song and the record.

I also like considering the resulting [slim] possibility that none of us has ever really heard a song in its purest form….

cheers,
mz

record_collection.jpgLast week I described my experience seeking out and listening to a fantastic Brahms intermezzo. After listening to the piece many times at work, I ended up scouring the web to find a copy to have for myself, and now a vinyl copy of the recording is wending its way from somewhere in the UK to my house in Oakland.

Why did I do that?

In The Recording Angel (the book that started me off on this quest in the first place), Evan Eisenberg posits a “tentative list” of reasons why people collect things. Quoting the first line of each of his reasons, they are:

1. The need to make beauty and pleasure permanent.
2. The need to comprehend beauty.
3. The need to distinguish oneself as a consumer.
4. The need to belong.
5. The need to impress others, or oneself.

I’m sure I can find myself in every category on that list in some purchase or another. In this case, I’d say my motivation is largely related to the first and second items on the list, in that I want to hear the music whenever I want, and I want to absorb whatever threads of insight and vision it might have to offer.

There’s also something else happening for me personally, which is that I want to hear the music in full audio, and I want to hear it in a good listening environment.

Eisenberg (mostly) wasn’t confronted with this when he wrote The Recording Angel, but the typical digital music file not only usually contains about 1/10th of the audio’s full information, but it is also often competing with the considerable visual distraction of the computer monitor, and the considerable temptation to do something else (i.e., check email) while listening (for the curious, we have discussed the digital music listening environment a bit in an earlier post).

With all this in mind, I’ve got a whole gang of music-collecting questions for you this week:

1. What motivates you to buy music as opposed to just listening to it when you happen to come across it?
2. Do you feel that the digital and physical music you buy are of equal value?
3. Do you feel that it is possible to collect digital music in the same way that you can collect CDs or vinyl records?
4. (Extra-credit) Is the intangible nature of a computer file something between traditional radio and traditional records?
5. (Ultra-double-extra-credit) Is there something about music’s new intangibility (aka digital files) that might allow it to be more essentially itself, by returning to the intangible nature music had before recordings were invented?

All ears,
mz

brahms1.jpgI’ve been listening to Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in Eb Major off and on for the last week or so, after being led to it by something I read in Evan Eisenberg’s excellent book entitled The Recording Angel (Eisenberg refers to Brahms as “the great consoler”).

My interest was piqued by that phrase, although as I sought out some Brahms, I wasn’t feeling any strong, immediate need or desire for comfort. In listening, however, and in hearing the aforementioned intermezzo in particular, I was influenced, somehow. I felt the emergence of a melancholy feeling, which was then addressed and assuaged by the music. I was in fact comforted.

The mystery of how this kind of thing happens has been pondered and expressed by so many smart and articulate folks that I think I had better keep my ears open and my mouth shut on the issue, at least for a while. In the meantime, I wonder if any of you out there have thoughts about this particular conundrum:

Does music create the feelings you have while you listen, or does it lure them out of you?

Can music impose a feeling upon you that you don’t really have? Can it introduce you to a feeling that you’ve never had (if there is such a thing)?

Considering the fairly extraordinary fact that in the span of five minutes you can 1. learn of a piece’s existence, 2. search it out, 3. listen to it, and 4. thereafter find yourself listening to that piece and only that piece for days afterward; how is it that certain pieces of music are so seductive and/or addictive?

yours,
mz

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constellations

Cool 2007 mixtape lists, everyone. It’s inspiring and humbling to get glimpses into the myriad worlds of music out there. It’s as though each of us is looking up at a sky stuffed with stars, inventing our own constellations.

With that in mind, let’s get creative and sort of abstract here for a sec (I know y’all are up for this!).

If you had to pick your favorite songs or artists and relate them to each other, constellation-style, could you? (Bonus question: is that like what Pandora does?)

Constellations are grouped by the stars’ relative locations, but that seems too limiting. For this little brain exercise, let’s assume you can group them by any quality you can imagine.

What would be your first constellation? Which one would be the most necessary? Would you have an equivalent to Polaris, the North Star, to guide lost travelers etc? I would.

What names would you use?

Et cetera, et cetera. This week, the sky’s the limit.

curiously,
mz

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Hey listeners!

It’s so good to be back in misty and picturesque Oakland again! Now that I’m here again I’m starting to think about the holidays (I know, only 400 shopping days ’til xmas…).

Since I hear so much music during the year, I like to put together a holiday compilation for my friends: weird stuff, the unusual, and the songs that really grabbed me during the last year.

I have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be putting on this year’s comp to tell the story of my past year. I’m wondering how you listeners would tell the story of your year in songs.

Anyone care to share the songs that hit you in the past year? The songs that maybe resurfaced after years of dormancy in your life? Your 2007 mixtape? I would love to hear….

cheers,
mz

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Hello again,

I just re-read all the responses to last week’s post. Incredible. It’s fascinating for me to see first-hand the variety of relationships that each of you has with music.

If there’s one thing that’s clear from your comments, it’s that there are many valid ways of hearing and listening. You’ve reminded me that we encounter music in inter-penetrating, overlapping, simultaneous, independent, and personal ways, and that these ways do not negate each other. Thank you!

But… by now you know me better than to think that I’d leave it at that, right??

People have posted a lot lately about what it is in us that influences our experience of music (i.e., our moods, past experiences, what we’re doing at the moment). Do you think it’s possible to talk about something that in the music and outside ourselves as well?

How can it be that some music is simply (and mysteriously) better than other music? How can it be that certain artists are frequently great over long periods of time? Mustn’t they somehow be superior, more rare, dare I say better?

How can that be? What is “better”?

It’s a slippery one so good luck my buddies! Please help me understand this.

best,
mz

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Greetings listeners!

I was talking to our podcast maestro Kevin Seal yesterday about these posts, and about the great responses you have all been posting; and Kevin suggested this very cool topic.

It’s about repeat listening, and the effect it has on how you experience music.

In your experience, what’s the difference between listening to a song the first time and listening to it for the second, third, fourth, or fiftieth time?

More questions: have you ever heard something that completely failed to interest you on the first listen, which later ended up being a very important piece of music to you? Have you ever listened to a song so much that you got sick of it? What’s going on there?

And for this week’s bonus round (and a preview of next week’s topic): do you think that the way a song changes with repeated listening is in any way related to where that piece of music might fit into the spectrum that goes from entertainment to art?

My hat is off to you for your great replies. Thanks in advance for this week’s contributions!

best,
mz

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hey all,

The last several posts in this series have been great. I have been fascinated and often surprised by your descriptions of how you hear music and how it impacts you, and I want more…! So here’s a deceptively simple line of questions this time, if you please:

When you listen to music, do you mostly hear the lyrics or the music? Do you hear both? Do you hear the words first and then the music, or vice versa? Does it depend on the genre of music?

And here’s a question for a bonus point: to what extent are you interacting with the music as you listen, expecting/hoping for the words or melody or harmony etc to go someplace specific, or not to go to a predictable place, etc? Do you do that?

the floor is yours, and thank you!
mz

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Keeping the survey train rolling…

I found myself wondering, as I dimmed into sleep last night, about what music those of you who do not play music would make, if you could (I know that many of you DO make music. This week’s post isn’t really for you directly, though I’d think any musician would be curious about this).

As I started to drift, I became completely absorbed in trying to imagine how non-musicians dream about music. I’m so curious to hear what sorts of bands or records or music our non-musician friends would get into if they could.

So, non-musicians (I do wish I had a better term than that): can you describe it to me?

In what genre would you work? Would you try to innovate? How? What do you think it would be like, not just to be a musician, but to actually play music? How would it feel?

Those of us who make music professionally, who are immersed in it all the time, pride ourselves on our ability to listen. In fact, many of us believe that it’s the listening, and not the sound, that makes the music and the musician.

We’re listening now.

best,
mz

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Hey all,

Thanks for the voluminous replies to last week’s post! It’s good to know that we’re having an impact on peoples’ musical worlds, and it’s even better to see how varied that impact is. The music does something different to everyone, I suppose…

Last week’s post went so well that I thought I’d follow up with a slightly thornier survey this week.

When you’re listening to Pandora and a song comes up that doesn’t seem like it belongs (yes, it does happen!), can you describe in detail what’s happening, within your listening, that brings you to that evaluation?

I’m asking for your internal mental play-by-play. Is the music you reject amateurish? Is it not the style you expected? Is there some deeper “inner ear” that makes the judgement?

Please give me a window into your aesthetic worlds…

best,
mz

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Hello listeners,

OK, it’s a survey week this week, so stretch out those typing fingers…

As Pandora’s music curator, I’ve had my sense of musical taste modified, re-made and even destroyed so many times that I think it’s pretty much gone. I consider this to be, aesthetically speaking, a certain state of grace (although it does make it difficult to answer questions like “what kind of music do you like?”).

What interests me today is whether you out there are being influenced by listening to Pandora. Is the discovery-oriented dimension of Pandora changing your sense of your personal musical identity?

Sometimes I’ll have dreams where I realize that the place where I’m living has rooms that I never noticed before; and sometimes I’ll realize it has fewer. Along those lines, is there music that you like now that you didn’t like before? If so, what is it? Have you heard things you used to like that now no longer seem to hold the same magic?

I could go on, but I’d rather that you did.

do tell,
mz

Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.
-Isak Dineson, ‘Babette’s Feast’

Everything is not enough.
-Townes Van Zandt, ‘To Live’s to Fly’

BOTH.jpg

I was saddened today to hear the news about Bottom of the Hudson, who blew out a tire on I-40 and rolled their van. According to the Fayetteville Observer, the band’s bass player (Trevor Butler) was killed and their drummer (Greg Lytle) severely injured in the accident.

First of all, endless compassion and empathy for the band’s families and friends and colleagues. This is a sad day for me, and for most people in bands. Those of you who are reading this, please give a moment’s thought to the band and their people.

I struggled with whether I should post about this, but the more I thought about it, the more relevant it began to seem. The best artistic work derives its urgency and life from an awareness, however subtle, of brutal truths. Fate’s horrifying lack of mercy; human fear, risk, and vulnerability; and the fact of loss itself, dark and troubling as they are, drive us to create, and elevate our communication with each other, giving it significance.

I have to confess that a part of me harbors a hollow, angry suspicion that Trevor Butler was not given leave to do his utmost. It seems cruel of fate to repay his creative urge with this, when he may have wanted to do so much more.

And even though I agree with Townes Van Zandt when he sings “everything is not enough,” this seems excessive to me. I usually take Townes’s meaning to be that human nature cannot get enough of what it loves, no matter how much it gets. Our desires will always outgrow our circumstances. Still, that’s small comfort here.

I’m left with the most threadbare insight to offer. I can bear some kind of witness to the limits, and to the partiality of the answers; and hope that it will suffice as the raw material for the empathy due to those who are suffering a much more primal loss.

In the meantime, and more importantly, here are links to the band’s websites, their label, and their Pandora station. There is also a PayPal link, to help the families of Trevor and Greg deal with the respective consequences of this. The best tribute we can give is to listen to their work, to send them support, and maybe to donate.

Bottom of the Hudson’s Website
Bottom of the Hudson’s Myspace Page
Bottom of the Hudson Pandora Radio
Absolutely Kosher Records

If anyone wants to donate to help the families of Trevor Butler and Greg Lytle, you can send donations via the absolutely kosher website, or directly at PayPal using the following address: both@absolutelykosher.com.

update – here’s a direct link to donate via PayPal, if you are so inclined:

best,
mz

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The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. . . As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves. – Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 1, 1862

Hey gang,

I happened to catch a bit of the Live Earth concert a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking.

I know that there are people who think that no one makes potent cultural music anymore, and that we lost music as a cultural weapon when the 60s ended. I usually hear this notion expressed when one of the old great lions produces a new album, and it usually says something about the supposed absence of political or social voices from any generation after the late 60s.

I thought it would be cool to officially “disenthrall” ourselves / debunk this notion by mentioning the bands, living or dead, that have made socially crucial and politically relevant records since the protest era. Were I to curate my ultimate concert to save the world, these bands would be on the bill for sure.

I’ll start with my top 36 (in no particular order). Please help me make the full list…

Minor Threat

Fugazi

Silver Jews

Black Sabbath

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

Elliott Smith

Casey Dienel

Cornelius

Caetano Veloso

Wilco

Nellie McKay

Public Enemy

Joanna Newsom

Brian Eno

M.I.A.

Lee Scratch Perry

Fiery Furnaces

Soft Boys

Robyn Hitchcock

Townes Van Zandt

Bad Brains

Gang Starr

Os Mutantes

Gillian Welch

The National

John Fahey

Kraftwerk

Diane Cluck

Talking Heads

Mekons

Sleater-Kinney

Boris

Minutemen

Mark Hollis

Nina Nastasia

Gang of Four

Billy Bragg

The Clash

that’s a start, anyway.

onward and upward,
mz

Hello music people!

The Play Listen Repeat banner is back again, with more stimulating and generally “aesthetical” musings for our collective discussion. If anyone noticed this blog’s hiatus, then thank you!

I saw Os Mutantes play yesterday, and Sergio Dias (also sometimes known as Sergio Baptista), singer and guitarist, is not only a personal hero, but a figure who raises some cool artistic challenges for me. I’m curious to hear peoples’ thoughts….

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Live, Dias plays astounding, virtuosic guitar solos while exuding a kind of supernatural joyfulness. Looking for all the world like a cross between Paul McCartney and Bugs Bunny, he shreds and smiles. Meanwhile, the band is playing a fearless kind of psychedelic, omnivorous pop music which careens from a capella contrapuntal vocal choir sections to proggy riffs, to bossa ballads.

I’m fascinated by the image of the happy virtuoso, the happy genius that this band, and Sergio in particular, projects. Os Mutantes was formed in the late 60’s in Brazil, a few years after a military coup which instituted repressive censorship and even jailed artists like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

Whatever your political leanings may be, it often seems that the world we live in is ever-darkening. I love the challenge presented by these artists, who show us a kind of triumph: human spirits in the form of artists, fighting the darkness with their joy and love, and not with anger or negativity.

Inspiring, don’t you think?
mz