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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Disembodied Listening

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone

Somebody must change

You are the reason I've been waiting so long

Somebody holds the key

Well, I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home


Come down on your own and leave your body alone

Somebody must change

You are the reason I've been waiting all these years

Somebody holds the key

Well, I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home

- "Can't Find My Way Home", lyrics by Steve Winwood

I miss the physical act of opening a gatefold album cover, carefully letting the vinyl slide out of the slip cover to hold gingerly in my hands (avoiding palms transmitting oils onto the album surface) and lowering the LP onto the spindle to its resting place on the turntable. I miss watching the arm raise and lower the needle into the groove and then hearing the magic, no less tactile than auditory, of the music issuing forth from the speakers.

I miss to a lesser degree, cassettes and CDs. But I still miss the interaction with materials to achieve hearing music sought after. While I appreciate modern digital technology, I feel that it's too immediate and too disembodied; so much so, that I have to be careful not to let this accessibility lull me into a sense that music is only one more digitally produced and available commodity.

Sitting in a cafe and hearing any number of songs come over the speakers is a joy, particularly if it's a new song or piece I'm not familiar with. Typically, I fire up Soundcloud, get the name of the tune, research it and then, well, buy it. Would I go back to the days of having to trudge around town to find the single or the album? Do I miss the hunt? Maybe.

Today, I heard Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home". I remember buying the eponymous Blind Faith album in high school. It was still in print, but relatively hard to find (and I think I sprung for the import). It's a great album, certainly, but even at the time, I appreciated the whole organic process, the ritual of playing an album. I could hear each guitar string, each contact of drum stick, and each time I played it (or any album, for that matter) there was something else to listen to in the mix.

I can't listen to music as background noise (and I appreciate Eno's theories on ambient music and love a lot of that genre); music asks us to be part of it. I can adapt in a different setting, like a cafe or a bar, where music is meant to be part of the environment. However, it's more than "part of"; music provides a context for the conversations or the reading, or whTever else is going on at the time.

I don't know that I want to hear Blind Faith from a digital source. What was playing today was a CD, by the way. Read those lyrics at the top of the page. Does the medium alter the work? I think it does.

Even reading on a device has a kind of unphysical/non-visceral engagement with a work. This is somewhat related, but I'll just mention it cursorily here: do you miss the tactile sense of thumbing through the pages of a book? Of taking time to linger over a passage on the page before you, with which you have a direct - felt - connection? Reading a poem on a digital device isn't teleologically different; but reading a book of poems on a device is not the same for me.

Music perhaps more so.

I have Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, King Crimson's Red, Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man, and obscure Gamelan music on an ancient MP3 player. Oddly enough, I like listening to those on this someday-soon-to-die device more than, say on my computer or iPad. Why? Because, there's a little more of an effort to make. Also, it's this same player that I've had with me in all over the world. Admittedly, my iPad has traveled extensively with me, as well, and I love that it has almost all of my music library on it (I have a lot backed up elsewhere to Google Drive), but it's weird that I don't listen to music while I'm writing a blog post or when I'm working out (never really liked that; never listened to music when I ran, either). But I do listen, and deeply when I'm walking (the aforementioned King Crimson album in India was a revelation while I was ambling about in the mountains...just sayin') or sitting quietly at home.

In that way, not much is different and contradicting myself (do I? Then, I contradict myself), it's still a wonderful way to enjoy one's time on this planet. But I find it funny that it's more of an effort for me to want to hear, say, Beethoven's Sixth Symphony off the iPad, than Massive Attack's Mezzanine. Having said that, once I do get the symphony under way, I acquiesce to its charms and considerable joys.

I think I need to go back to my original point. Maybe it's not the end result of hearing a work that is at issue; it's the ease and method of delivery that I'm wary of. I can't relate to music as product. It used to come presented in a more (sometimes less) artful package that you enjoyed for itself before or while settling into a listening groove. Now, I can find some obscure piece I heard in 1979 with minimal fuss and call it "mine" in mere moments.

I was and still am, on a Bowie memorial jag and when I listen to the stuff I had on either vinyl or CD, it evokes memories of specific times and places. I couldn't tell you where I was when I downloaded Heathen, Reality, The Next Day, or Blackstar.

Well, no. Not totally: I was at home in bed when I downloaded the rest of Blackstar (but I had no memory of getting "Lazarus", the single when it was offered back in the fall).

I have no particularly meaningful moments associated with much of the digital downloads that are new to me. Mainly, I got them because I heard them first and they meant enough on their own strengths that validated hearing them repeatedly. Still, there's a sense of disembodied discovery. It's rather like being in the bardo prior to rebirth where you have no body until you see you future parents and through a near-Freudian urging find yourself coming together in an incarnate form.

Similarly, let's take something like Diego Garcia's Laura. Strong album, good writing, and a keeper. But the seller for me was the single "You Were Never There". I downloaded that in a Starbucks (couldn't tell you which one or where, though) and listened to it repeatedly. But it was months before I took the plunge to check out the rest of the album. Glad I did, but the process seemed so distant from contact.

I didn't hear about Luna from a friend, I wasn't doing anything memorable at the time (probably reading), but there was something about the song that resonated. But I didn't have to struggle to find, acquire, and listen to it.

I wonder what it's like to have never had to chase music down? Right now, they've been playing a lot of Miles, Gil Evans, and Brubeck. You grow up with listening to stuff and saving up money to go out and buy a physical product to listen to as often as you can. Whereas, now, it feels more "deployed": I don't know that the medium is the message in this instance, but the medium by which the message is transmitted is increasingly ethereal. To play devil's advocate with myself, maybe that's not a negative.

Bucky Fuller wrote that technology trends toward the invisible. He theorized, rather neo-neo-Platonically, that the physical was ultimately the result of metaphysical principles. I think he would have been over the moon, then, with wireless downloads and the immediacy of social media. To be sure, I can't say that I don't appreciate where we've gone technologically (and I don't disavow enjoyment with the resulting convenience), but I feel we've lost something with the immediacy of fulfillment.

Maybe it's the little Buddhist in me that reacts to the idea that immediate gratification leads to increased craving or that facile aquisition of pleasure results in laziness and complacency. Or maybe, I should just go out and buy a turntable, amp, and a couple of speakers.


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