Joining the Pod People

I finally got an iPod! To set up my new plaything, I decided to check out others’ little mobile music machines to help me learn to navigate my own. In doing so, I found there is nothing more revealing than borrowing colleagues’ MP3 players. It is like opening their closets and going through old yearbooks or letter boxes. It can be a revelatory window into their psyches, not only for what they listen to, but how they listen and organize.

For instance, one performer had playlists for walking, gym, shopping, and driving. Each of these contained an eclectic mix of styles from jazz to ambient to reggae to showtunes to rock. Not one piece of “classical” or “new” music existed in any of these collections. Instead the musician had parsed out a separate library for these works, dutifully creating categories for each time period, genre, and composer. Within these sections there was no ordering of the pieces beyond that of an arbitrary historical placement of the works. It was like all of a sudden being forced to listen to an audio book of a music history survey class. Unlike the creative eclecticism of popular styles found in this musician’s utilitarian playlists, the “serious” music was put aside for “serious” listening, categorized in such a way as to negate the individuality of each piece. It seemed like a Berlin Wall had been built between professional and personal music.

So why do some of us feel the need to segment off music we deem to be serious? Must we place it in a gilded cage? Can’t the music we write and play be heard alongside the music we most often hear outside of the concert hall? Does that lessen its significance for us? Are we afraid it will?

Personally I find listening to all types of music in all sorts of situations to be an enlightening, enjoyable experience. In fact, one of the best features of my iPod is the shuffle mode. In this setting, selections are played at random from one’s complete MP3 library. Thus, within one hour I can hear everything from Beethoven to Xenakis to my Spanish lessons to works for my students to my students’ works to my own pieces. With each new ordering, I find myself listening differently to music I have heard for decades, simply because of what it has been programmed alongside it on my machine.

Shuffling is not a new technology. Years ago in my own house my husband set our old 5-CD player on shuffle for our daughter to listen to throughout the day. He also took this idea live when Common Sense produced a show in which the program order of the performances was based on shuffling the pieces before each set. Inspired by this, composer/performer Pamela Z took this concept even further. Using her tech savvy, she hooked a 300-CD player to a 400-CD player then created a shuffle that crossfaded the all the tracks from the 700 CDs into one another!

Each of these shuffle situations had some limits imposed on them, allowing the shuffler to contain within the programming only selections he or she wanted. However, with the iPod, it has yet to make distinctions with its shuffle. You cannot single out selected playlists, but must accept hearing anything at anytime. It is all or nothing. I love it. I hope they never fine tune this feature for it is the only outlet where all the music in my life can finally co-exist on an even playing field.

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