Put a Different Kind of Change in Your Pocket

My iPod broke yesterday. It’s not the first time and won’t be the last time, since I’m quite the clumsy person. You can only drop or step on those little machines so many times before they give in. But I miss it; in the years since I bought my first one, it has completely changed my listening experience. First of all, to everyone to who complains about the quality: There is absolutely no reason not to listen to CD quality sound on that device other than laziness. No one forces you to use 128kbps and no one forces you to use the crappy ear buds that come with it. I bought myself some nice earphones and digitize my music at CD quality or near-CD quality, depending on the music. True, that means I can’t fit 300,000 songs on there, or whatever Apple advertises, but it doesn’t really matter. Access to “only” few hundred albums in my pocket is good enough for me.

But I love what the portability does. Music for 18 Musicians is a more pleasurable and visceral listen while walking around in the city than it is in my living room. John Luther Adams’s music gains from being in the white, frigid environments that inspired it. Listening to a piece with a lot of reverberation in a tiny room can make it feel more open; dry music in a large space feels disconcerting. This convenience allows access to all these different forms of experience that perhaps the composer never intended, but can nonetheless be a wonder to behold.

The portable audio player–whether it is a Walkman, Discman, iPod, Zune, or whatever–has given the listener control over an ever greater part of the musical experience. In addition to the now “traditional” features of being able to switch tracks at will, program different orders for albums, and adjust volume and EQ, they can now also allow control of the physical space of participation, the physical activity engaged in during listening, and the quality and presence of the music itself. Don’t like the polish on your favorite artist’s latest single? Digitize it at 48kbps! I see no reason why there may not be a time when, at the mere turn of a wheel or touch of a screen, any listener can change the tempo, register, or timbre of their files.

Technology has allowed more and more control to be exerted by everyone involved with the creation and production of music, but the more far reaching implications are those that affect the audience. Listener interaction certainly possesses a problem for a Western style of music that can be the least participatory of any, but could also be an advantage for a field that is as nebulous as “new music.” Learning to relax the dictatorial control that composers and performers have over an audience might be a creative liberation.

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16 thoughts on “Put a Different Kind of Change in Your Pocket

  1. teresa

    Not to push an Apple product or anything…. but I have to agree with Trevor, at least in part. I have had an ipod for years, but didn’t listen to it that much. Recently, I got an iPhone, and that changed everything. Having now only one device ( a phone that is an ipod as well) means that I tend to listen more than before, because I have my phone with me all the time, and don’t have to remember to bring my ipod along. Of course, it’s nice to be able to check the weather anywhere in the world, or to have my calendar always with me, or check movie listings while I’m at dinner… but that’s another story (and Apple should pay me for that part).

    I think the greater convenience and portability of one device that can do everything, has changed how I listen and where. It was much more interesting to watch the United flight attendant do her spiel this time, while I was listening to a mix of Julie Fowlis and Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. And watching a Jackie Chan movie with The Roches and Prokofiev, was just surreal….

    I’m not sure if this is “creative liberation” necessarily, or just a sign of the times. But it has certainly changed my listening experience.

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  2. Chris Becker

    “Listening to a piece with a lot of reverberation in a tiny room can make it feel more open; dry music in a large space feels disconcerting.”

    But doesn’t listening to the music through a pair of headphones completely negate the experience of hearing music in the live spaces you are describing? Or are you talking about the visual experience in combination with the aural? I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to describe.

    That said, my experience with headphones and out of doors has been disorienting. Outside sound is always audible even listening to music at high volumes, especially here in New York City. So I gave up listening to music on headphones while traveling on the subway or walking around my neighborhood. I couldn’t listen. And volume in my ears now is an issue as I get older. I also enjoy air between myself and sound sources (air is something missing from a LOT of contemporary recordings but that’s another topic altogether…)

    That said, headphones were a formative part of my listening when I was a teenager as I spent hours listening to FM radio usually well past midnight. But that is the reverse of what you are describing. I was in a bedroom with the curtains drawn and the lights out. Not bumping into pissed of New Yorkers on trying to catch the 7 at rush hour.

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  3. dalgas

    Chris wrote: But doesn’t listening to the music through a pair of headphones completely negate the experience of hearing music in the live spaces you are describing? Or are you talking about the visual experience in combination with the aural? I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to describe.

    No, it creates a different experience. In Trevor’s case it’s the juxtaposition of expected and unexpected aural environments; in Teresa’s it’s the creation of unplanned, surprising filmic “soundtracks”, the visual and audio each reinterpreting the other.

    Curiously, some of my own most-focused listening experiences to a piece on headphones, have happened while walking around the neighborhood or sitting on a full bus. Then again, there are times when it’s hopeless to try cranking the volume enough to keep the focus on the music only; in that case, sometimes it works just fine to back it off and let the two audio spaces interact equally. Often, that can lead to some pleasant surprises.

    Steve Layton

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  4. Chris Becker

    “…In Trevor’s case it’s the juxtaposition of expected and unexpected aural environments.”

    I’m sorry, maybe I’m still waking up here, but I still need more explanation.

    Are you saying that Trevor is saying he – for instance – will listen to a piece of music that was recorded in a large space on headphones with his iPod in (for example) a small room and somehow the blend of the sound of both rooms is audible? And that this blend somehow results in an exciting sensory experience?

    I’m just asking – I’m not trying to argue any point here.

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  5. Chris Becker

    “Then again, there are times when it’s hopeless to try cranking the volume enough to keep the focus on the music only; in that case, sometimes it works just fine to back it off and let the two audio spaces interact equally. Often, that can lead to some pleasant surprises.”

    Maybe you are becoming sensitized to the ambient sound that was already there in the first place?

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  6. dalgas

    Don’t know about Trevor, Chris; maybe he’ll elaborate. But I don’t have much trouble picking up what he finds interesting: it’s not so much the two aural spaces sounding together, as the experienceing of kind of space inside another. It’s a classic technique of Surrealism, brought to sound.

    In the other case, it’s not so much about simply recognizing the ambient sound already there; it’s in the interaction of the semi-chance encounter of the two environments. Lautréamont’s “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”, again another seminal Surrealist idea.

    Steve Layton

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  7. Chris Becker

    I find when listening to music with headphones my eyes and body are competing with what is happening to my ears. I have to close my eyes. And these days – my ears get tired quickly after about 20 minutes of headphone listening. I’m not holding this up as being anything except an honest statement as to what my body does when headphones go on the ears. For me, the iPod experience is a completely unmusical, uncreative and unpleasant. Please don’t take that as an insult – I am not questioning any musicians’ sensitivity or intelligence here.

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  8. Trevor

    Agree with Steve completely, up to and including the name check of Surrealism. I always found it interesting that Surrealism didn’t have a convincing counterpoint in music (at least in my mind) until technology gave us the tools to achieve the appropriate level of aural unbalance.

    Anyway, what got me thinking about all of this was the talk I did with Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter back in November for their book, Spaces Speak: Are You Listening? They talked about the social consequences of having a population that was disconnected from its own acoustic spaces. This really made me start to intentionally play with those perceived spaces as a listener. You might find it unmusical, Chris, but I find it so damned interesting. As far shutting out the outside world goes – I used to use noise cancelling earbuds which did the job even at low volumes (even allowing me to listen to Morton Feldman on an airplane!), but both for physical and aesthetic reasons I switched to normal, over the ear headphones. The results from the bleed-through of the outside world can often be completely complimentary, or even more interesting than the original intent of the piece.

    I might also note that this concept of “differing levels of acoustic space” (or whatever you want to call it) is now used everywhere. For instance, the recent Radiohead song “House of Cards” features at least three different acoustic spaces at the same time, as though the band were playing in different parts of a cave.

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  9. Chris Becker

    “For instance, the recent Radiohead song “House of Cards” features at least three different acoustic spaces at the same time, as though the band were playing in different parts of a cave.”

    Trevor, this is actually a mixing technique that’s been around for quite awhile (see Pink Floyd, Montavanni, The Beatles, early 20s era Duke Ellington, etc).

    And it’s funny you mention In Rainbows because I think that’s a horribly mixed/EQed and mastered recording. Maybe I’d better ease on down the road here…

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  10. rtanaka

    They talked about the social consequences of having a population that was disconnected from its own acoustic spaces.

    Well, you could say the same thing about having a population disconnected from its own social surroundings — i.e. people. In the place I work, my boss has mentioned that ever since ipods have started becoming commonplace, none of the student workers really talk to each other anymore. It seems like all of the alienation we might feel in modern societies we largely do to ourselves.

    It’s probably a question of intentionality I think — sounds that “bleed” don’t have an origin in human intention, so it probably won’t be too interesting to those who look or long for some kind of human connection with the music they listen to. One of my professors used to be adamantly against listening to recordings other than for documentational purposes, and I think I understand why now. They are supposed to be examples, not a replacement for the experiences of real life.

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  11. dalgas

    Ryan wrote: One of my professors used to be adamantly against listening to recordings other than for documentational purposes, and I think I understand why now. They are supposed to be examples, not a replacement for the experiences of real life.

    Some are, Ryan, but some most definitely are not. There’s just no single, shining path through any art form. And even in a recording meant only as an “example”, it can be completely transformed simply by the context the listener creates for any of their experiences with it.

    And every recording — and every encounter with a recording — no matter how “unreal”, definitely happens in “real life”.

    Steve Layton

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  12. Trevor

    “And it’s funny you mention In Rainbows because I think that’s a horribly mixed/EQed and mastered recording.”

    I thought that too, and by all conventional means it is. In fact after my first listen to In Rainbows I declared “House of Cards” to be absolute crap for that reason. But there’s something about the blatancy of that track in particular, the total lack of blend and concern for an organic whole that I, again, have since found fascinating. Thats also why I used it as an example over the more carefully mastered Pink Floyd – the spacial dichotomies are more on display.

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  13. rtanaka

    And every recording — and every encounter with a recording — no matter how “unreal”, definitely happens in “real life”.

    True, but you have to admit by lending yourself to these types of abstractions you are in effect pulling yourself away from the reality around you. This would not be a problem normally since attending a concert is something of a shared experience, regardless if its “real” or not. But technologies like the Ipod has allowed, for better or worse, individuals to contain themselves within these individual contexts. It has both the lack of realism along with the lack of community that leads to a state of alienation, I believe.

    I guess personally I don’t buy and listen to recordings with the same fervor that I used to when I was younger. It’s great for finding out about new things that you never heard before, but somehow it seems to have lost its magic in terms of how much pleasure derived from it. Probably since I started writing music from experience, though…if I wanted a soundtrack of my life, it’s right there for me, in full detail. Coincidental sounds can’t really fulfill that kind of function, at least for me.

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  14. increpatio

    “It has both the lack of realism along with the lack of community that leads to a state of alienation, I believe.”
    Some would say that inventions such as books and mp3 players render alienation almost impossible, as one will always be able to immerse one’s self in the familiar. I, for one, am very appreciative of books and media players when on five-hour stopovers in dingy airports – indeed, I find myself able to thoroughly enjoy them.

    I don’t see how technologies which give people control over their own immediate sensory environment can be held in any way directly culpable for feelings of alienation.

    Reply

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