Having Music On
Lately I've been working to foster positive attitudes such as gratefulness and acceptance, and the idea that music, all music, is essentially a gift and blessing. It's been going well, though I've been not insignificantly tested by my favorite local coffee shop, which maintains the bizarre practice of piping in the same song over and over again. Earlier this summer it was some sort of faux-Bill Evans piano trio sounds for some week straight; yesterday it was, weirdly enough, a smooth jazz version of Pink Floyd's "Breathe" -- repeatedly.
Wallpaper muzak is incomprehensible enough as normally utilized, but to actually limit the playlist to one track over and over is truly puzzling. What is the idea here? In modern background music listening is never really expected or planned for, but here it is actually impossible--anyone who tried would quickly go nuts or leave. Even tuning it out became difficult once I realized what was transpiring. So this smooth "Breathe" was an attempt to change the atmosphere of the place in a certain way (not a positive way, for this patron...) rather than even nominally pretending to be something someone may want to listen to.
I've often accused myself of "just putting music on," of not engaging frequently enough in concentrated listening. I do have a long tradition of listening to music while doing other activities, but the music is often the real focus. In high school I relished long math assignments, as they gave me the chance to put some music on and busy my active-thinking brain with tasks on paper, leaving my ears open. Similarly, last summer I did a lot of Counterstream Radio while playing online Connect 4. I've digested so much music in this manner over the years -- and while it's not a perfect form of listening, it allows for more learning than it may initially appear. I may not have listened analytically and memorized the chord progressions on all those Beatles albums back in high school, but my right brain was all over it, delighting in Beck's complex surfaces, exploring Pavement's emotional contours. I still know this music in an intimate way, although admittedly the assimilation of technical details requires a different sort of attention.
Active or analytical listening is often held up as the ideal, but meditative listening is another thing entirely, and in my practice of distracting the conscious mind with calculus or Minesweeper there is an analogue with the meditational idea of quieting thoughts to heighten the mind's susceptibility to transformation. I often find, having personally learned and accepted a piece of music in this way, that picking out the harmonic motion or formal system at work is a facile and superficial task by contrast.
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