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Saturday, February 20, 2016

How to Listen to Music by Hua Hsu

"This book, unlike his previous ones about jazz, concerns a common contemporary anxiety: how do we find our bearings at a time when there’s simply too much out there?" according to Hua Hsu, contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com. His first book, “A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific,” will be published by Harvard University Press in 2016. He is currently an associate professor of English at Vassar College and a fellow at the New America Foundation.  

"What does it mean to listen in the digital era? Today, new technologies make it possible to roam instantly and experimentally across musical languages and generations..."
Amazon.com

There’s a distinct possibility that I would never have been able to finish reading “Moby-Dick,” in my early twenties, had it not been for the Guns N’ Roses song “November Rain.” Released in 1991, when I was a teenager open to anything offered by MTV, “November Rain” was one of the many unusually long songs on the Los Angeles rock band’s two-volume “Use Your Illusion.” At the time, I was accustomed to songs that didn’t outstay their welcome, maxing out, typically, at four or five minutes. Thanks in large part to a gloriously overblown video, I found all nine minutes of “November Rain” enthralling. I had no idea what the song’s lyrics meant, or whether its drama really justified its lavish construction. But it was the first song I liked that could soundtrack my entire drive to school, or the time it took to run five laps. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but “November Rain” ended up being the song that primed me for the pleasures of extravagantly long, immersive experiences. Before I could imagine making it through six-hundred-page novels, endurance-test cinema, or hour-long jazz suites, I first loved a power ballad full of internal detours, false endings, and epic solos, and a music video highlighted by a man diving into a wedding cake.

Many of us first come to enjoy art in this way, not as a series of canons or genres to be mastered but as a web of deeply personal associations: affinities and phobias, echoes across time and space that resolve only in the most idiosyncratic spaces of your mind. This is the subject of “Every Song Ever,” the critic Ben Ratliff’s meditation on listening to music “in an age of musical plenty.” Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times for nearly twenty years, and it’s likely that the most radical changes that have come to music during this period have involved not style or taste but rather the way we consume it. Ratliff has championed esoteric sounds during his tenure at the Times, but this book, unlike his previous ones about jazz, concerns a common contemporary anxiety: how do we find our bearings at a time when there’s simply too much out there?

The critic Ben Ratliff’s new book explores the question of finding our musical bearings at a time when there’s simply too much out there.

What “Every Song Ever” offers isn’t a set of critical edicts but the spectacle of an active mind processing a world in constant flux. The book is loosely inspired by the idea, popularized by Aaron Copland’s classic “What to Listen for in Music,” that music can be appreciated according to standard metrics of rhythm and tone structure. “The old way of ‘correct’ listening,” Ratliff explains, involved a kind of “preconditioning”: “A certain language of rhythms and harmonies, signposts and cues, became consensual within a culture.” But that past age of music appreciation, besides being no fun, presumed a kind of finitude—it presumed boundaries. Listening to music, then, was a devotional, often self-contained act. At the very least, that old idea assumed that we had the time or the desire to immerse ourselves repeatedly, distraction-free, in a single piece of music. This isn’t the world most of us inhabit anymore. For the cost of a CD (or less), we have access to a near-endless supply of music, in a near-endless array of venues. Music appreciation in 2016 means curating your drive to work or your walk to class, playing a song a hundred times without ever stopping to scrutinize the lyrics.
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Source: The New Yorker


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