Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

How To Listen To Music

January 25th, 2011

I saw this video clip on the BBC News last week. It’s about Classic Album Sundays, a club set up by one Colleen Murphy in north London in which members ensconce themselves in a room (usually in a pub, by the looks of it) and listen to an entire album from beginning to end. On vinyl, of course.

The whole thing is supposedly a reaction to the MP3 and a culture where songs are cherry-picked and then thrown together on a player set on shuffle. Murphy asks members to “sit down, stop multi-tasking”, and engage in some “heavy listening”. She wants people to take the time to listen to a “whole work of art”. This online version doesn’t have the complete piece as I saw it on TV. I distinctly remember an interview with a guy who said that people generally don’t read one chapter of a book and move on to read another single chapter in another book so why not afford an album the same courtesy?

Wait. Go here. That was apparently Neil McCormick of the Daily Telegraph.

“These are works of art at their greatest level. You can pick up a Dickens book and read a little bit of it and get some pleasure but you will not get the same pleasure as you would picking it up and reading it from beginning to end.”

One thing I have to wonder is how many people who attend these listening sessions are already of the mindset that at least certain albums deserve to be heard in their entirety in one sitting and how many people couldn’t care at all and are just there to hang out to listen to music and be with fellow music fans. I’m assuming that the club attracts the former.

Tony Naylor at The Guardian’s music blog finds the club “just a little bit uptight, a little bit Luddite” but thinks that it throws into sharp relief “the way we increasingly treat music as a disposable lifestyle accessory.”

We are all busy people and, as music fans, we now have unlimited musical distraction at the end of a broadband connection. We have increasingly little time to listen to a reserve of recorded sound that is growing exponentially every day. I find this can easily lead to drive-by enjoyment, a kind of panicked attempt to absorb as much music as possible – but without truly engaging with it. This is not the way to navigate your way through what Murphy believes to be profound art.

I think a lot of this is overblown. People have been engaging in “light listening” long before the advent of the MP3. And we’ve had a device which plays a mix of music where every song is by a different artist – it’s called the radio. There was no quote from Murphy to the effect that her club was a direct reaction against the culture of downloading and iPod Shuffles. The reporter notes “for her it is a strike against ”download culture’” but there is no supporting quotation. It could simply be that she wants to promote her “heavy listening” but I’m not sure. I don’t think that such a desire could only come about in a post-Napster age. People did not always pay strict attention to an album they had put in the 1990s or 80s or 70s.

On the other hand, much of the “balance” provided by naysayers in the article and blog post is just rubbish.

But to Peter Robinson of the website Pop Justice this is the past speaking.

“Most albums, you’ve got a pretty good idea. The bad songs are pretty bad, you know. We’re busy people. Let’s just get rid of them.”

Every album he owns is split, analysed and re-ordered. This, he says, is progress. The listener is in control and we do not have to sit through bad music. If he were to spend time with a “classic rock” album, he says the solution is simple.

“What I would do is open the track as an audio file, take out any drum solos, look for any guitar solo, take it out, close it and put it back into iTunes.”

Albums, he says, have often become meaningless. Some songs are given away as free downloads, track listings can change with bonus tracks being added or changed. You can, he says, listen all the way through but do not feel obliged to obey the whims of a pop star.

None of the commentary by “pro-album” people says that every album is a masterpiece. Notice how it’s Classic Album Sundays not just-any-old-album Sundays. And yes, the concept of an album is meaningless in some instances. But so what? That doesn’t then mean that it is thus in every instance. I agree with him in that, if bonus tracks are added and the running order is changed, then by all means adjust the running order to be that of the original if that’s what you want. But I’m not sure feeling obligated to perform surgery on every album you buy is exactly a sign of progress.

Over at The Guardian blog we have:

I realise you need a cut-off point. The KLF used to rail against the album format as a self-fulfilling con. People would invest heavily in albums and would train themselves to like them. I can believe that, too. Years ago, I worked in a record shop where we were forced to play the top 10 on a loop. Listen to Simply Red’s Life often enough and eventually you even begin to pick out favourite tracks (Fairground, of course).

Again, the club is about “classic” albums. If you don’t think an album is worth listening to in its entirety from beginning to end, then don’t. It’s easy. I never got the impression from the video clip that Colleen Murphy was saying that everyone should listen to every album in one go every time they want to hear some music. The idea was that some albums are classics and deserve to be listened to in toto at times because every song on them is great and the sequencing matters.

That digital media gives the listener control is great. (Although how much control a listener really has is debatable since they are still waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting, i.e. – write music, record it, and release it.) Listen to music however you please. It can be fun to take all those Hendrix compilations and sequence First Rays of the New Rising Sun as some surviving potential track lists have it or make your own. But there are albums that, when played as directed, make sense or give you a listening experience that you can’t have otherwise and that is, for lack of a better word, purposeful.

Some concept albums surely make more sense when you listen to the whole thing. Now why did the dog lick his balls? Because he can. And just because you can avoid listening to a concept album as the band intended doesn’t mean you should. Robinson’s comments give me the impression that he thinks that one is all but obligated to tinker with the creative endeavors of others and it makes you into a Che Guevara of music. The Beatles probably wouldn’t suffer if the track listing was all jumbled up in your play list but I think The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis would. There are times when I want to listen to 2 or 3 songs from The Lamb and there are times when I want to hear the whole nine yards. There are times when I want to hear Who’s Next and there are times when I want to hear those songs along with the rest of the Lifehouse tunes in the order most closely approximating how they would have appeared in the film. Putting “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as the lead-off track is fine but it’s stupid to say that listening to it at the end is somehow to be Pete Townshend’s slave.

And take albums where themes are developed and recapitulated. Sure, you can put all the developments at the beginning so they’re all bunched together but that’s to miss out on something. If you have no interest in that, fine. But, again, Robinson is off base to imply that musicians who do employ such techniques are a bunch of jerks who want to make you their slaves and confine you. He comes across as being very childish always crying because he wants things his way as there’s no chance that a musician would ever put an album together in a way that is “legitimate” or worthwhile. Putting some songs on shuffle is not a courageous act of rebellion.

So listen to music however you want to whether it be shuffled or an entire album straight through or, perhaps preferably, all of the above. There’s nothing wrong with having music playing while you jog or do the dishes but don’t forget to take some time to give some music your full attention.

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2 Responses to “How To Listen To Music”

  1. I couldn’t agree more and thanks for not misinterpreting the focus of CAS. Album listening is not an either/or situation and music listening can be done in so many different contexts – there isn’t one correct way. Thanks for getting it.

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