Soothing vs. Unsoothing Listening Experiences

Yesterday afternoon, Los Angeles-based composer Francis Kayali sent me a link to a provocative post on NPR’s blog, All Songs Considered (Stephen Thomson, “Owned And Abandoned, Bought And Ignored,” July 23, 2010). Thomson’s thread starter asked a simple but loaded question:

What recording artist has put out the most CDs you own but never listen to?

Francis thought that the same question or, so as not to needlessly offend folks, a more upbeat variant—e.g. “What new music recordings do you continue to listen to with pleasure on a regular basis, even after years and years?”—could lead to an interesting discussion on these pages. I’d actually be curious about the answers to both of these questions, but with explanations. When last I checked there were 129 comments in response to the ASC thread, but for me what was more interesting than the list of artists who respondents relegated to their closets were their reasons for doing so.

Two quotes, in particular, struck me as revelatory:

“Some music is a more ‘difficult listen’ that I’m seldom in the mood for.”—Niklas Andersson (rubythroat)



“I’m reminded of a few artists that have always been there for me in difficult times. Thankfully I haven’t needed their soothing in a while and so they sit unlistened.”—Amber Raley (amberaley)

Revelatory, because “mood” is never the reason I listen to music, and also because I imagine few people would ever be in the “mood” to hear a significant portion of the music that we advocate for so passionately here. I personally have never listened to a specific piece of music in order to be soothed during a difficult time, though the act of listening to music can often be soothing. However, it can be just as likely that the act of listening to a piece of music will actually be unsoothing and be quite a difficult time. But that very difficulty can often be what makes it so compelling, both intellectually and emotionally.

However, as I type these words I have the sinking feeling that they might come across to some people as being hopelessly out of touch with the way the majority of people experience music. Worse still, the reification of personal satisfaction as the ultimate goal of any activitity is so strongly reinforced in our society at this juncture that to challenge it usually results in being typecast as elitist. But if you are more concerned with yourself when you listen to music, are you really listening?

The same question can be asked about experiencing just about anything: books, paintings, food, movies, even—dare I say it—television. One of my favorite rants in Le Cahiers du Cinéma is a diatribe against the popular French film-maker Claude Lelouch who directed Un homme et un femme. I’ve never seen the movie, although the theme of its soundtrack by Francis Lai has been an earworm in my head for decades. However, my approach to listening resonates quite strongly with the approach to watching cinema promulgated in that article: Jean Louis Comolli’s “Lelouch, ou la bonne conscience retrouvée” (July 1966, translated as “Lelouch, or the Clear Conscience” in Jim Hillier’s Cahiers du Cinema: Volume II: 1960-1968—New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood, Routledge; about two-thirds of the article can be accessed here).

Basically, Comolli argues that to cater exclusively to audience gratification is actually not “audience friendly.” Rather it ultimately amounts to (in his words) “despising the spectator” since: “The desire to be basic means denying the intelligence of the spectator.” So where does that leave the pursuit of music as a balm for uplifting your spirits on a rough day? I would suggest that the very act of listening—which is allowing the input of someone other than yourself into your consciousness—is what is uplifting and not any specific music. While so many people these days choose particular music to serve as a personal soundtrack (often to shield themselves from things they think they don’t want to hear), it is the choices we don’t make a priori, the things that happen in music that we did not foresee (forehear?), that make listening such a satisfying act.

So then, how can a question about music you own but never listen to actually be answered? I have over 15,000 recordings, so obviously it would be hard to listen to all of them all of the time. But I have to honestly say that if there was something I consciously thought I had been neglecting, that would be the first thing I would choose to listen to. Admittedly this usually leads to a pretty incongruous and often emotionally unsettling play list at home.

5 thoughts on “Soothing vs. Unsoothing Listening Experiences

  1. Armando

    Man, I thought I was coming here to answer a simple question and contribute to another (fun but ultimately meaningless) internet list! Leave it to you, Frank, to turn it around into a thoughtful and insightful article.

    I am glad, reading your thoughts above, that it’s not just me who feels this way about the act of listening/reading/viewing (i.e. engaging a work of art) for the sake of sating a personal emotion. My art consumption (such a loaded term!) tends to be a lot more about engaging in what I see as a long-standing and ongoing discourse. Sure, I enjoy popcorn flicks as much as the next guy, but if I’m going to watch a film over and over again (or view a painting, or read a novel, or, especially, listen to a piece of music) I want to be challenged and feel like I’ve learned something through the experience. If art’s role is to put a mirror to the face of the world, and the world is not always pretty, then art is not always pretty. The idea that one should feel relaxed, or uplifted or otherwise “wallpapered” when listening to a piece of music cheapens the experience to me.

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  2. bgn

    I think you might be getting it backwards. Listening of the sort so many of us do here is a mentally challenging activity; there are times when one’s mood simply isn’t up to such a mental challenge. It isn’t a question of listening in order to get into a particular mood.

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  3. cbustard

    “Soothing” is a hot-button word among musicians (blame Shakespeare), and not the best description of music heard therapeutically. How about centering or spiritually enriching? I can think of a lot of music that does that/those for me, and to which I return again and again. (There’s also nostalgic, as in “our song,” but that’s another story.)

    Some of “my” pieces are complex, technically, emotionally or otherwise; but most avoid overt brilliance or exhibitionist passion. I tend to favor music that audibly moves toward a destination, although that destination isn’t necessarily a loud or emphatic climax. “Arcs” hit the spot for me – long crescendos or decrescendos, recurring motifs, etc. I prefer emotive winds to emotive strings.

    I haven’t heard a good new sad tune in years – not even from country music! The composers among you should get to work on that.

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  4. smooke

    For me, listening is all about my mood when I’m choosing the music and also the activity (or lack thereof) that I intend to pursue (or not) while listening. When I’m in just the right mood, I’ll put on some freaky modernism in my headphones at the gym (beatific smiles abound on those days).

    Mood is what tells me when it’s time to listen to any piece/song/artist. With 15,000 recordings (in your collection—surely far fewer in mine but I hesitate to begin counting), how else do you even narrow the field?

    -David

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  5. Matthew Peterson

    Dear cbustard,

    I think this is a good sad song:

    “sad song”

    I don’t much go spelunking for new ear experiences nor am I a quasi-religious listener nor do I walk around with ear buds playing my life’s soundtrack. I take the easy way out in this discussion: I say that I listen when I have the energy to really feel human. (one asks “What’s human?” Etc etc – and while everyone deliberates I manage to escape)

    Most of the last year I’ve been working hard on a piece. When I’m creating I rarely have the energy to truly listen to anything. Sad, I know, but it’s the way I’m built.

    Reply

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