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?

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15 replies
  1. Ulysses says:

    I always wonder that’s real intention behind Feldman’s extremely long works. Coptic Light, I like it a lot, and I think I understand what’s going on there. But did he really want to express, or expect people to understand something in a 6-hour quartet?

    One of my friend attended Flux Quartet’s performance of that piece, like some of the audience, he slept through hours of it. Is this predictable reaction planned by the composer, as an attack to the conventions of the concert hall? On the other hand, I’ve also read that the concert was heralded as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and people walked in and out of the hall (when they had to) on their tiptoes. So it also can be interpreted as an attempt to force the curious listeners of avant-garde to listen as intensively, as least on the surface, as “classical music fans” listening to Beethoven.

    That’s just my guessing, since I haven’t listened to that complete quartet “seriously”. I tried several times but I couldn’t find anything to keep me focused. It like walking on a vast snowfield with no road signs, and random lights flicker here and there.

    Reply
    • kirk says:

      I understand your feelings about Feldman, and, in particular, his SQII. I think what Feldman wanted to do was make a sort of gradual music that evolves over time, and for which time was a key element. Now, you may or may not appreciate it; I can’t focus for the full 5-6 hours of that quartet, but, in a way, I think that’s part of the intention. That you drift in and out, and notice different things at different times.

      There are other very long works that are much more “interesting,” such as Einstein on the Beach (which I attended in, I think, 1984, at the BAM), and Berlioz’ Les Troyens, which I recall watching on French TV, live, some years ago, and being riveted for the 4 1/2 hours of it.

      If you want to really discover Feldman, the shorter works are probably the best way to get into his music. The Piano and String Quartet, for example, or Triadic Memories. They are between 1 and 1 1/2 hours each, and are very interesting.

      Reply
  2. Michael Scott says:

    I admit to being more of a “passive” listener than is good for me.

    But believe me when something truly spectacular occurs, my subconscious suddenly kicks into uber high gear and I can tell you where I was (practically within inches) and what I was doing when I moved from passive to active listener.

    My favorite example is an incredible measure in Kun Woo Paik’s version of Au Lac du Wallenstadt: vacuuming (the ULTIMATE passive form of listening) the carpet in Oak Brook Terrace, IL.

    Stopped me and my Electrolux mid-sweep and set me on a search through my other recordings to see how others have done it — I’ve yet to find anything better.

    My then spouse was none to happy on her return to find that I’d wasted the afternoon in active listening rather than in active vacuuming.

    And then there was Stephen Hough’s Spanish Rhapsody in the BA Claridge; Paul Lewis’ Beethoven somewhere mid-Illinois; Horowitz’ Schubert/Liszt Standchen on the couch on the drive in Chicago (wearing earphones); Kissin’s Liszt Sonata in Orchestra Hall, Chicago — left side under the balcony; Trifonov and Bozhanov at the Chopin Competition…in my office on my computer…

    We can listen in many way and venues and we can listen at multiple levels of consciousness. But when it counts, we can REALLY focus in…and ain’t it fun when we do?

    MPS

    Reply
  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    Like other hand-wringers and viewers-with-alarm, Kahane doesn’t seem to feel he needs to support his argument with evidence. “[T]he gluttony of 21st-century consumers who don’t know when to stop downloading and start listening” certainly sounds like a terrible thing, but how do we know it’s happening? “[W]e as a society have gradually (d)evolved to the notion that universal access qua quantity is axiomatically good”–devolved from when? What’s the baseline? Where is the data to support this claim? “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:” notice how “nowadays” implies better days in the past–but when? By what measure? Kahane’s entitled to his opinion, of course, but mere grousing is way short of persuasive argument.

    Reply
  4. Jeff Harrington says:

    What Gabriel is really lamenting is the loss of clout – the particular privileging that the new music world needs to differentiate itself between the loser DIY composers (who put out their music online, like I have for decades now or release through Innova or Centaur) and the winner ‘Label’ composers, those privileged to be on labels like New Amsterdam or Canteloupe.

    In truth, almost all new music labels, function practically as DIY labels. They may get a little state arts funding, but they’re backed by composers that have the dough to press the CD’s. Their sales are just as tiny as the Innova or Centaur releases they just have that extra magic – Clout.

    Without this ‘clout’ the labels will lose their instant NPR and press privileges and the press and NPR will be forced to do their job – actually listening rather than just accepting every New Amsterdam or Canteloupe CD as the next big thing.

    Reply
    • kirk says:

      Clout is important. It’s one of the things that real labels have over tiny indies, or over DIYers. It’s more of an issue in music, but it’s starting to happen in publishing as well, as ebooks take off, and anyone can publish.

      Reply
  5. louis says:

    I remember that record store Kahane refers to, it was Tower. Prior to that the only record store was Newbury Comics around the corner. Aimmee Mann of Til Tuesday was working the register. Just down the Street was the Berklee School of Music, the New England Conservatory, and Sara Caldwell was still conducting Operas.

    My CD purchases dwindled as DRM and RIAA legislation has turned me off. Still losts of old stuff and I do agree that listening had its rituals back when you had to apply discwasher LP cleaner before gently dropping the needle. From a behavioral psychology perspective, something you paid 20 bucks for gets treated differently than something you get for free. While not rigorously addressed in the editorial, research does support it. See for instance the Endowment effect in Capuchin Monkeys
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2581778/
    “the difference in music being available by download.” seems a reasonable distinction and Mr Kahane might do well to realize that a curmudgeon’s message is often lost in the delivery.

    Incidentally, I went with Einstein on the Beach as my weapon of choice when doing long bouts of coding.

    Reply
  6. louis says:

    My CD purchases dwindled as DRM and RIAA legislation has turned me off. Still losts of old stuff and I do agree that listening had its rituals back when you had to apply discwasher LP cleaner before gently dropping the needle. From a behavioral psychology perspective, something you paid 20 bucks for gets treated differently than something you get for free. While not rigorously addressed in the editorial, research does support it. See for instance the Endowment effect in Capuchin Monkeys
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2581778/
    “the difference in music being available by download.” seems a reasonable distinction and Mr Kahane might do well to realize that a curmudgeon’s message is often lost in the delivery.

    Incidentally, I went with Einstein on the Beach as my weapon of choice when doing long bouts of coding.

    Reply
  7. Stephen Mackenzie says:

    Funny, I remember buying too many LPs and never giving them the time they deserved. Lucky I still have them…

    We are living in the future, things have changed. I think some people are having trouble dealing with that. It’s a golden age for the distribution of creative works of all kinds, especially music. The corollary of that is of course that there is more of it out there than anyone could ever follow. But wasn’t it always that way?

    Reply
  8. Adrian Cue says:

    I do not know Mr. Kahane, nor am I familiar with his music. But this article has given me more insight in who Mr. Mc Elhearn is: Someone not hiding any modesty (currently reading the 16 volumes of his journals, to be followed by the 10 volumes of his letters), convinced about his personal views and uninhibited with regard to insulting other people (Poor Mr. Kahane. Perhaps he’s reacting to poor sales of his own recordings, which may not be the darlings of the “blogosphere.” and: I was doing this around the time Mr. Kahane was in diapers). Is this a vendetta against those who are ‘serious’ about music and like to enjoy it their way and not his’. Why? There is no need to feel excluded from the ‘elite’. Or is there? If Mr. Mc Elhearn allows himself calling Mr. Kahane a ‘snob with a grudge’, am I then allowed calling him someone with a ‘shallow interest in music (as he mentions himself: I’m a broad listener, rather than a deep one) who should not be reviewing classical music’? Is he not proving Mr. Kahane’s point by insulting him once again, and I quote: 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. People with a superficial interest often switch off when the listening gets to demanding. Let me assure you, I have nothing against anybody’s way of listening and I am glad if people do not feel a need for expensive equipment to fulfill their demands in that respect, but I do hope that others will be allowed to think, do and listen differently without being ridiculed.

    Reply
  9. Melodia says:

    I’m not usually one to drop comments on random blogs, but as someone who also has a huge CD collection as well as a large collection of purchased Mp3s and FLACs (the former mostly bought from eMusic when it was under 25 cents a track), I felt I had to comment.

    I think Mr. Kahane ought to read up on a little music history. Music as background entertainment is nothing new, at all. At least as earlier as the Classical persiod composers were writing serenades/divertimeni meant for such. One of the most famous pieces of music in the world, Eine Kliene Nachtmusik, was meant for this.
    Also, for a good deal of time, people went to the opera house to socialize /during the opera/. It was hardly a quiet ‘shut up and watch’ affair that it is today.

    And geeze, what about the millions of people who learned and played the piano in the decades before recordings? They didn’t do it to have people just sit there and listen to them….

    Reply
    • kirk says:

      Good points. Look at much of what Haydn composed for the Prince of Esterhazy; or Teleman’s Tafelmusik. Only in the 19th century did “classical” music – aside from sacred music played to captive audiences in churches – become an entertainment event in theaters and concert halls. But as you point out, most people didn’t go to the opera for the music even then.

      Reply
    • Sammi says:

      Oh, very nice point. The Paris Opera house was actually more of a bordello than anything else. Most of the paintings of the time show prostitutes – not the wives, and if you look at a number of them, the patrons are looking up or across at the other private boxes, rather than down at the stage. They even had curtains on those balcony boxes.

      Reply
  10. Sammi says:

    I am not one to claim to ever be an expert or even much of a plebe with music. I listen here and there, and I react to it much the way anyone with no visual art exposure or education might buy nice prints to match their couch. I feel no shame whatsoever in that. None. I am a visual artist, and I do work in audio quite a lot, but not in what anyone in this society would call “music” per se – except possibly Bryan Eno. I play with sound, I compose audio works with sounds and then pair them with visual media. That is the extent of my musical understandings. I understand well the cry of the elite vs the ignorant, I hear it all the time, and to some extent, it does hold some water, BUT… and this is important, I really think that the same people crying foul over the lack of “proper” understanding of art or music (or anything else for that matter) are not really noticing the trend that is inescapable. Kirk points to it when he mentions how radio has been the “disposable” mode of listening for decades. Very true. The trend I mean is change, transition, the turn over of attributes of any given generation to the next. Even as a contemporary artist who really needs people to have an education in some sort of visual language to access my work, I read Kahane’s words and I giggle… it makes me think of people who wrote or spoke “Ye Olde English.” It is the same basic argument.. Oh no, the world is changing from what I know and deem acceptable as “high brow” and it is obviously degrading into a mindless hell! Nonsense. On a smaller scale, it is also the same as the feeling one gets to wake up one morning and discover that most of the music on the radio is suddenly awful, and the new cast of SNL is just not funny any more. Transition, generation gaps, change – it’s all the same. We no longer say “Alas!” and we no longer wear powdered wigs. As much as I do hate to think that written language will someday be written entirely in txt format (srsly), the more one bemoans such things then the more evident it becomes that one has lost touch with the current realities of the younger generations. It isn’t better or worse, it just is.

    Reply

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