roll was a blending of those two forms… I guess the new generation’s music will have a synthesis of those two elements and some third thing, it might rely heavily on electronics. I can envision one person with a lot of machines, tapes, and electronic setups, singing or speaking and using machines…” —
Jim Morrison, 1969 (via poortaste)
I kind of hate Jim Morrison, and I definitely don’t think that he was some sort of Rock n’ Roll prophet, but, I mean, it’s easy to make that claim when quotes as, well, prophetic, as this one exist.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of pop culture as a singular event in the Media Age: things like the Super Bowl, or Michael Jackson’s funeral, or the presidential debates, that you can count on LOTS of people encountering and engaging with at the same time. This is part of why I like social networking, especially Twitter’s immediate-delivery format: it allows me to partake in a wider dialogue surrounding whatever cultural event I’m consuming and experiencing, in real-time, with no filter. I like live-blogging for the same reasons. I know it’s a cliched thing to say, but I always think it’s cool when, for example, someone says something stupid during a presidential debate and everyone reacts to it: it’s this way of reminding me, I think, that I’m not alone, and there’s something about the idea of everyone ceasing their daily operations to consume a single cultural event that’s totally fascinating to me. What’s even more fascinating is that these mass cultural events don’t happen in physical groups, but rather in an accretion of numerous small cells: Super Bowl parties or Nielsen Families or whatever your preferred unit of measure is.
So why don’t we have these mediated experiences with music? I think it has to do with how we listen to music in the “audiophile age”. The idea of the “audiophile age” itself, when you think about it, is kind of ridiculous: we have all this fancy audio equipment to allow us to listen to incredible amounts of audio information with digital clarity and immediacy, but we choose to spend it mostly on singles (if there’s any doubt about this, take a look at the iTunes sales statistics: we aren’t buying albums anymore), valuating music’s new portability and accessibility over its sound, construction, or consumption experience.
Now, like anyone else, I’m certainly susceptible to the siren song of the audiophile age: I have three different types of iProducts (not to mention the procession of earlier models, the multi-functionality of my iPhone, and the variety of iAccessories), I was an early adopter of the iPod, I have 135 Gb of music on disk, and I’m as proud as anything that my library is safely stored on an external hard-drive, accessible and editable remotely from either of two computers, which can stream wirelessly to my fancy home theater (this is partly an excuse to brag about how much work I did to set that damn thing up).
However, I think that, in all this excitement about how great it is that we can move data around more efficiently, we’ve lost excitement about what that data actually CONTAINS. I’ve talked about music’s physicality before, and that’s certainly important, but I’m not necessarily advocating a return to analog domains, especially when digital recording and reproduction can provide us with such unparalleled clarity, quality, access, and repeatability. What I’m advocating here is a model where all this technology is in the service of a great listening experience. But, that’s not all I’m interested in: people regularly hold listening parties for normal albums, and, really, what is going to a club with a DJ except a big listening party?
I want to start holding listening parties for “album experiences”. So what’s an “album experience”? It’s an album that demands a different kind of engagement than a standard pop album: albums like The Flaming Lips’ “Zaireeka”, Sleep’s “Dopesmoker”, or Orthrelm’s “OV”, or album-esque music, like Tristan Perich’s “One-Bit Symphony”: album-length experiments in format, materiality, and the nature of recorded music and listening in the “audiophile age”. I believe that exploring the important issues in recorded music, and getting to the stage where we can improve our experience with ALL recorded music, initially necessitates a movement away from the traditional “song/album” format to things that provide a longer, more involved experience.
Part of watching a film is settling down for the long haul: you surround yourself with snacks and beverages, get in a comfy chair, turn the lights down and the sound up, and prepare for an experience where you focus SOLELY on that cultural object for the next few hours. The Super Bowl, big television premieres or finales, the presidential debates: these all function the same way, but are abstracted to a scale of millions upon millions of people. However, we don’t have this experience with recorded music, which is undoubtedly the most popular format for music’s consumption in this day and age. Sure, we go to concerts, but few of these (outside of the symphonic experience, an experience that, in my opinion, is RADICALLY flawed) force listeners to sit and do nothing but LISTEN. If you go to a rock concert, you don’t sit and listen to the music, taking it all in, nor should you: rock concerts have sub-par acoustics, the music is meant for dancing and appreciating in individualized, embodied manners (as, really, all music SHOULD be: the condition of classical listening, while noble in its focus on music, is bankrupted by its stuffy audience conventions), and the audience experience is much more interactive. The irony of this is that, while we think of going to concerts as our ultimate interactive music experience, it really isn’t that at all: at the very best, it’s the penultimate experience.
Popular music in this day and age is designed for consumption via recording. The nature and prevalence of digital recording methods mean that sound can be captured and reproduced with an efficiency that live reproduction is simply incapable of: there’s so much frequency information that unless carefully mixed and mastered, our ears simply can’t make sense of it all in any meaningful way. To really hear popular music anymore, we NEED to be listening to a recording: it’s not simply a matter of convenience, although the convenience of being able to listen to your favorite band at the touch of a button is certainly appealing. However, we need to be LISTENING to the recording, not just engaging with it as background music, or interacting with it on a song-by-song basis.
This is where the idea of the listening party comes in: to glean a deeper appreciation for the music and to focus on it more effectively, we need to ritualize its consumption the way we do with film or television events. All of the rituals involved help provide a set of external stimuli to which we are conditioned appropriately: when the lights dim in the movie theater, we shut up and settle in for the film (except for those assholes who talk and leave their cell phones on, and who knows why those people are there in the first place: probably to make out). These rituals, once again, exist in live music (the conductor’s baton raising/the tuning note in the orchestra hall, or the dimming of the house lights and the playing of the intro music for a pop concert), but we’ve already established that live listening to pop music is a sub-optimal experience (at least in terms of listening), and that these conditions don’t exist for music on record. I’ve actually been interested in music and ritual for a long time, but these discussions have always centered around music’s physicality, not how it prepares someone for the listening experience.
While this physicality is, in my opinion, part of the preparative ritual, it’s also important to remember that we can’t our condition our brains for protracted, engaged listening unless there’s something of some length with which to engage. So, while listening to an album of songs would be fine eventually, it might not be fine initially: we need to train our brains to ritualize our experience, to prepare for a long haul, and to settle into the mode of listening, or else we become trapped in a more transient temporal experience. To view songs in the context of an album, one needs to be able to sustain interest through the entire length of the album, and sectionalized song formats, in a singles-focused day and age, tend to, in my opinion, reinforce singles-oriented listening. This may, ultimately, be a case for “album listening”, and I’m certainly not trying to deny the power of good singles or short compositions (of which I’m quite fond). Really, what I am lobbying for here is a RITUALIZATION of listening on record: acclimating (or re-acclimating, depending on your point of view) ourselves to engaged listening, and allowing those rituals to enrich our experience. While, for example, I certainly have a more comfortable experience watching films at home (and while the quality is arguably just as good, if not better), the ritual of going to see films in theater is a part of the experience far different from my experience at home.
Ultimately, what I’d like is to combine the physical social interaction of things like film in theaters or sporting event attendance with the mediated experience of mass-culture events like the Super Bowl, in a format where ritual is supremely important to the experience and intent focus is paid to not only the physical aspects of the cultural object but also the cultural substance of that object. I think that having listening parties, wherein groups gather in person and online (via live-blogging, Twitter, etc.) to listen to albums that explore the idea of “album-length” in a ritualized and focused manner, is the best way for us to rediscover why it is so great, so thrilling, so engaging, to listen to recorded music in the “audiophile age”.