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.