On the Subject of “Seriously” Listening to Music

Via the Twittersphere, I became aware of an article by composer Gabriel Kahane about Spotify, digital music, and how we listen now. Mr. Kahane – who I had never heard of before today, and who’s biography touts him as a “peerless musical polymath” – complains that people are no longer listening to music seriously. He says:

Over on the Twitter, there’s been a flurry of discussion as to whether Spotify is an improvement over illegally downloaded music or if it’s basically the same thing. I’d like to propose a third stream: that the problem we face is not one of economics, but of the spiritual nature of how consume music. That is to say: what Spotify and illegally downloaded music have in common is that they both spiritually devalue music by making a surfeit of it too accessible.

and goes on to speak of:

the gluttony of 21st-century consumers who don’t know when to stop downloading and start listening.

This is an interesting point, yet one that is deeply flawed. Mr. Kahane is claiming that people no longer know how to listen seriously to music; that their way of listening is somehow wrong or deficient. It is the usual complaint of the elite cultural world dissing the plebes. My art is good, but you have to spend time to understand it; the art you like is crap because you’re unable to take the time to appreciate it.

Now, I’m one of those people who is willing to take time to discover art (I’ll not limit myself here to simply music). I very much like the music of Morton Feldman, for whom time is a key feature of his works, as some of them stretch on for hours. I’m a fan of James Joyce, and have read Finnegans Wake from cover to cover, with books of annotations to help me get through it. I’m a big fan of Henry James, perhaps one of the slowest novelists in the English language, and one who wrote the most. I’ve read Proust, in toto, first once in English, then twice in French. And I have a passion for Ralph Waldo Emerson, and am currently reading the 16 volumes of his journals, to be followed by the 10 volumes of his letters. So I think I’m one of those who can and will take time when it’s necessary. (Have a look at the Some of My Favorite Things list in the sidebar to the right to see some of my other obscure interests; you’ll have to scroll down a bit.)

Mr. Kahane claims that, in the past, when we spent $15 on a CD, “there was an economic imperative of sorts to grow to like it,” and says that “Nowadays, the only records that people seem to give second chances after an initial reaction of indifference or dislike are those given the stamp of approval by select tastemakers in the blogosphere.”

Poor Mr. Kahane. Perhaps he’s reacting to poor sales of his own recordings, which may not be the darlings of the “blogosphere.” He feels that, in the future, “listeners of the world simply bounce around from one immediately satisfying songlet to another, and anything that is truly visionary/difficult/new will probably get tossed aside.” What he ignores is that, for decades, this is exactly what most music listeners have done. It’s something called “radio,” and people switch stations whenever they come across a tune they don’t like.

I’m a broad listener, rather than a deep one. I have lots of CDs – thousands, in fact – and lots of music that I’ve bought by download. I write reviews of classical music, and I’m a fan of many kinds of music, from the Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan, from piano jazz to minimalism; from German lieder to Renaissance vocal music. It’s true that I don’t listen to a given disc as often as I used to – it’s simply mathematical. One thing I like to do is find those works that really move me and get multiple recordings of them, to really dig into them and hear what different performers have to say. (One example of that is Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, of which I have some 15 recordings. If you’re not familiar with that work, I recommend this recent recording by Jeremy Denk.) I’m often intrigued by new music, though I don’t pay as much attention to pop and rock as I did in the past, focusing much more of my time on classical works that I am unfamiliar with.

But does this make me a non-serious listener? In any case, who is Mr. Kahane to judge whether any listener meets his criteria for seriousness? The man comes off as a snob with a grudge, and saying that the world doesn’t appreciate Art is nothing new.

More people are discovering more music than ever before. Mr. Kahane should be delighted that his music, rather than being available only in a handful of downtown record stores, is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world. The flip side of this availability is, naturally, that those who are really interested in music will listen to more music, hence listen to any given work less. But would it be better that people only have a small selection to choose from, one that is “curated” by the big record store chains?

I think the number of people who are interested in discovering “new” music is probably not decreasing; if anything, it’s the contrary. Andy Doe, writing on Twitter, made a valid comment: “To argue that streaming services are bad for serious listening is like claiming that public libraries are bad for literacy.”

Mr. Kahane, the philistines are at the gates; just as they always have been.

Update: Mr. Kahane replied to my rebuttal to his post by adding an addendum to it which is a rebuttal to mine. (Yes, terrible syntax…) I will admit that, while I had no attention of being “nasty,” the use of the word “serious” in the conclusion is what irked me most about his post. It’s clear that this was not Mr. Kahane’s intention, and I take note of that.

Mr. Kahane says:

When I was a freshman in college, my classmates and I developed a habit of walking to the hulking tower records at the corner of, I think it was Mass Ave and Newbury. We would spend a good deal of time walking amongst the oppressively lit bins and leave with a disc or two or three. I’m not going to belabor the oft-recounted ritual of unwrapping, reading the liner notes, the aura-of-the-thing to quote Benjamin. Like so many kids of my generation and generations before it, I felt an emotional rush from these acts, and from the assemblage of a collection.

While he is much younger than I, Mr. Kahane does point out the affective nature of choosing and purchasing music, which, I will agree, has gone away as music has become dematerialized. Several years of my life were chronicled in Nick Horby’s High Fidelity, when I hung out in a record store in Queens after coming home from work, with a handful of other music fans, and then went to one or another person’s apartment to listen to new LPs. (The difference in our ages is such that I was doing this around the time Mr. Kahane was in diapers.) And, yes, there was something special about it. But the difference in that time and now is partly due to a change in age, and a growth in the size of my music collection, not just the difference in music being available by download.

No matter, I dislike thinking that the “good old days” were better. They were, in some ways, but in others they were not. Back in the late 70s, it would have been hard to find more than a couple of recordings of, say, Mahler’s symphonies, Schubert’s lieder, or Beethoven’s string quartets. Now, one can find many of them, quite easily, and at much lower prices. Should we lament the fact that music is cheaper, which may lead to some of us buying more?