After reading about the iPod Random Challenge on “Dial M for Musicology” (hat tip to our very own Friday Informer), I was all ready to dive into a ten-track shuffle and report on the results. It seemed, on the face of it, like a convenient way to avoid writing a real column this week. However, a quick review of my ten songs au hasard put the kibosh on my scheme: The name of this website is NewMusicBox, and there’s no new music on my iPod. (I won’t bore you by recounting what my iPod did come up with, except to note that I would have been entirely satisfied to listen to it on the bus. Thankfully, no selections from the complete recorded works of the Style Council or that two-disc Donovan compilation sabotaged my mix.)
To me, what’s most interesting about the iPod Random Challenge is that it epitomizes a “listening circumstance” about as far removed from concert attendance as possible. In fact, I couldn’t design a more affirmative musical experience if I tried: I load my portable hard drive with recorded vernacular music I find appealing, much of which has sentimental significance to me; I configure my device to present me, at random, with these nuggets; I enjoy the unexpected collage that results while I wait in the Midwestern frigidity for the 3N Lavender Express that will take me home. If I don’t like the song—let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the song is “Harlem Interlude” off the Ma$e/G-Unit mixtape—I can dismiss 50 and Murda in favor of Nick Drake (or whatever the device happens to serve up next) with the click of a wheel. I am in complete control of the sound coming out of my iPod, even when I’m not.
This is why there’s no new music (or, for that matter, older concert music) on my iPod. I don’t want to listen to it at just any old time: I want to have no choice but to give it my full attention, because that’s what it deserves. “Listening to music” on your iPod—or, for that matter, “listening to music” on the Cerwin Vegas in your bedroom or the six-disc CD changer in your car—is an entirely different activity from listening to music that is actually being played in front of you by real live humans. Some people really dig good recordings of new music, which is fine, but for me they serve only an educational purpose, kind of like an aural score. They can tell you what the piece sounds like, but the best recording in the world can’t explain to you what a piece is.
In response to protests that the new music of his day was too demanding on audiences to be heard too often, Theodor Adorno proposed that perhaps it was the protesters themselves who lacked the requisite stamina and that they were only exposing their own weakness by complaining. I agree with Adorno completely; my place is very clearly among those derided low-threshold listeners. I wish I had what it takes to stop listening to my consoling opiate of an iPod and restrict my intake to classical concerts alone, but I just don’t think I have the right stuff. At its best, new music is capable of asking the hardest questions and challenging the most deeply sedimented assumptions. Do you really want to go through all that on the bus?