Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Gifted Listener

The Washington Post ran an article recently about Joshua Bell and his experiment playing his 3-million dollar Stradivarius in the Washington metro, posing as a street musician. Except for a few passersby, he was generally ignored. He collected $32, of which $20 came from a single individual. The apparent point being that people were too busy, too unaware, or too self-absorbed to notice a world-class musician playing a world-class instrument.

Unfortunately, i think if you took most of the people on the metro and said "Hey, there's a top violinist playing a rare violin", you'd still get general indifference except maybe about the value of the fiddle. There are enough people in the world who listen to classical music that there can be "famous" violinists like Joshua Bell, who makes enough money performing that he can purchase a $3m violin. But the demand for this type of music is so small relative to popular music that most on-line music providers can't even be bothered to categorize it in a way that makes sense to classical music fans.

I'm not necessarily bemoaning the lack of interest in non-popular music. Whether or not the culture at large regards the music as valuable is irrelevant. However, the sort of music that Bell plays is, in fact, better music than even the best popular music; and it is available unlike most artifacts of the same time period. If somebody were going to offer you a Titian or a Turner to hang on your wall, you'd probably want at least to take a look at it before you declined, wouldn't you? So my problem is not that people don't listen to "art" music; my problem is that people don't try to listen to it.

What makes it worse is that i feel as if i am, in a very small way, a part of the problem. I've written here before that i think that music recommendations like those that i help generate for Yahoo! music steer the listener toward more of the same. In fact, that's essentially the way that the solution to the problem is stated: find out what i'm listening to and find more of the same that i'm not listening to. Like all problems solved by computers, the output is as good as the input. If i tell you i like baroque music and swing and hair metal and polka, then i'll get back a better variety, but still more of the same.

I've used my favorite Aaron Copeland quote before: "Nothing can possibly take the place of listening to music". It's quite OK to listen to a piece of music and decide that it does nothing for you, even if it is a historically admired work (for example, i love Beethoven, but i don't really care for the Missa Solemnis). However, the vast majority of music, even popular music, will not be heard on the radio or played in the park, so music has to be sought for (the weborati call this "discovery", but that term has negative connotations for me since it implies having a computer find things for you).

The culture of digital music promotes personalization, which is kind of like decorating your living room. Your goal is to be comfortable and surrounded by the familiar, with just a few touches of the exotic to allow you to express your personality. True musical discovery is more like a process of self-education: hard work, frustrating, potentially embarrassing, and occasionally tedious. It's also vastly more fulfilling, just like getting out of your living room in the real world. We don't build tools for this kind of discovery, because there doesn't seem to be a market for hard, frustrating, tedious processes, no matter how fulfilling they might ultimately be.

Copeland talked about composing for a "gifted listener", somebody who had no ambitions of being a professional musician but was still serious about listening for patterns, structure, even meaning in music. I don't think Copeland wanted to suck all the fun out of music, so that you're trying to discern the sonata form in the latest Linkin' Park single, but i think he'd be disappointed by the legions of IPod zombies who think that variety means turning "shuffle" on. If you think you like music, then try to find something that really doesn't sound like anything you've heard before.

1 comment:

BellCollecting.com said...

I've heard something in the subway today that really doesn't sound like anything I've heard before: it was the 'Saw Lady' (www.SawLady.com/blog) playing a musical saw. Around her was a group of teen-agers, listening and applauding. What were they listening to? She was playing a choral prelude by J.S.Bach! The fact thst she played it on a saw got the teenagers to listen. And they liked it even though it was classical music.