Words by Milo Gooder
Image by Connie Wright
Last week, during a ‘deep listening’ exercise in the tradition of Pauline Oliveros*, which a teacher friend of mine organized, I thought I died. I was leaning against the wall of a dark basement drama studio listening to one of Oliveros’s quietly burbling soundscapes, my cheek pressed into some rough foam soundproofing, when I felt a kind of weightlessness behind my ears, a feeling I know from going to the cinema having drunk a large cup of coffee.
In the cinema version of this phenomenon it is a state of extreme comfort and contentment, the unmatchable bliss of 200mg of caffeine cruising into your circulatory system and the concurrent realization that your seat is quite comfortable and that you have at least 90 minutes of hi-grade entertainment ahead of you. The deep listening version, experienced in this drama studio for the first time, began in much the same way. Suddenly the soundproofing wasn’t so scratchy and the cooing instructions of my friend (“imagine that your tongue is a dolphin”) were not so completely meaningless and distracting. “My tongue is strangely thick and wet, a bit like a dolphin”, I mused.
But then I passed out, or thought I did, and the cooing and burbling suddenly withdrew into the thick darkness of my incomprehension, like that bit in ʼGet Out!’ when Catherine Keener says “Sink into the floor!” and Daniel Kaluuya falls through the carpet with a THX deep note plunge. My slowed brain activity was like a low-pass filter on the ambient noise of the drama studio, and suddenly I couldn’t hear anything at all. I had been fainting about once a week since a bad flu in December, and had also been experiencing a strange palpitating sensation in one ear, a low frequency fluttering which suddenly returned, now in both ears, as I slumped against the wall. It was as if my ears were communicating to one another their dissatisfaction with the near-constant, distracting cooings of my teacher friend, which were running roughshod over the quietude and attention to spatial and environmental conditions demanded by a ‘deep listening’ exercise such as this one. It felt as if there was nothing between my ears at all, which was a new development.
This faint was not, I don’t think, produced by the ineffable power of deep listening. In fact, I was hardly listening to the soundscape or the instructions at all (no shade to Pauline Oliveros). I was instead thinking about something I had been thinking about a lot in the weeks leading up to the faint; ‘what is music for?’. As someone who reads books most of the time these days, and is inclined to keep up with the culture, it is useful to ask questions such as these, to distinguish between the functions (if we can speak of these) of different ‘art forms’. A distinction I have often impressively quoted, for example (I don’t know who came up with it, sorry), is that ‘Art decorates space, but music decorates time’. This was the idea I was turning over in my head when I thought I died (or at least up until the dolphin-tongue epiphany).
Following my ego-death-by-deep-listening, I reflected that this quote is actually pretty wank, especially because of the way it feels constructed to sound deep, and induce awe if casually invoked in conversation. “Do any artists want their art to be merely decorative?”, I wondered. I thought art was about like, saying something, or something. Much of my recent reading has been on anxiety about the obsolescence of serious literature (‘the death of the novel’ being perhaps the most familiar and annoying version of this anxiety). It is interesting to me that no one has ever made an equivalent claim about music - that, as far as I know, no one has ever said ‘music is dead’ - apart from maybe at a house party or something. But it struck me that if one was to make a claim like this, they could look to the fact that music has become increasingly decorative. The deep listening session exemplified this decorative turn: we were listening to music as a kind of wallpaper, a sound bath, to reflect, relax, imagine our tongues as dolphins, do any kind of thing we wanted. But this is not restricted to Deep Listening. Due to my near constant reading, I increasingly find myself listening to music with no words. Partly because it’s relaxing and ‘decorative’, and partly just to block other sounds. Often I don’t even listen to music. I just put my headphones on. For comfort, and warmth, and so I can’t hear the whine of the electric door or the crunch of my laptop keys as I type this in a busy library. My friends have reported doing much the same, particularly on public transport, and receiving quizzical looks from other passengers who notice their headphone cable dangling uselessly at their side.
My grandpa listens to the radio a lot, and has developed a pretty good sense of what’s going on in the charts. He’s extremely critical, and the main object of his ire is that lyrics are rubbish now. It could probably be statistically shown that pop music uses fewer words than it used to, but what struck me first and foremost is that, with the exception of some rap music, I don’t really listen to lyrics anymore. Doubtless a part of this is that I am at an age (and in an age) where dance music has replaced music made by bands as the ‘cool’ thing, and not only is dance music often instrumental, it also equates ‘coolness’ with a certain minimal toughness. Cool music, is thus often subjected to a kind of sublimation, with the emphasis on the sounds themselves rather than the ‘meaning’ of the song in which they are situated. And without getting all Thom Yorke about it, I think Spotify and streaming services have had a hand in this decorative turn by privileging ‘vibe’. Playlists are curated along the lines of a common vibe (a handful of examples from a cursory scroll of Spotify’s “Browse” page: ‘Airpunch’, ‘Feeling Acoustically Good’, ‘Walking Back to Happiness’; or a slightly strange thematic grouping: ‘Creamy’, ‘Café con Leche’, ‘Arabic Coffee’), and even the older artists that the algorithms dig up every now and again seem to have been elected for exhumation because their particular brand of nostalgic vibe fits with the vibe I’m throwing out in my weekly music selections. I’m not the first to make this argument. I came across this interesting nugget in a (very positive) Pitchfork review of Khruangbin’s latest output
“Perhaps this is music for the Spotify era; a flowchart of sounds spawned from a range of music connected by the wonders of algorithmic technology. Describing how musical influence can be found anywhere, drummer Johnson describes Shazaming tunes in his local pho restaurant, and the band also offers curated Spotify playlists for listeners. Each one contains music that influenced the band while recording and allows the playlist to be tailored to the length of an airplane journey and tweaked according to the mood.”
It’s a bit of a depressing diagnosis maybe, but you have to have to appreciate drummer Johnson’s frankness about his Shazam use, because I normally hide my screen when I’m Shazamming tunes in my local pho restaurant. I guess what I’m trying to describe is the quiet replacement of a system of valuation and appreciation of music with a new model, which emphasizes different things. It reminds me of my relationship to vaping. I started vaping to stop smoking and almost immediately found it unsatisfying and pointless, so I just stopped vaping. I wasn’t angry about this; it was a great argument for vaping. But this technologically-appended anhedonia was an interesting new function of technology: making something redundant by making it a bit too boring.
This isn’t meant to be a jeremiad against modern music, just an observation that perhaps previous generations thought of music as having more substance than I do, of being closer to visual art or even the novel in terms of its story telling capabilities, or message-bearing potential. The song I listened to the most times last year, for example, was TOOTIMETOOTIMTOOTIME by The 1975, a song I didn’t really like (because the guy seems like a knob?) but I also loved, for the way it just washed over me like a faintly perfumed breeze, making me think about nothing, think nothing about it, and smothering the ugly roar of the city under its whitewashed-reggaeton-meets-video-killed-the-radiostar vibe. I don’t know even any of the lyrics apart from when he counts up the number of times something may or may not have happened in the chorus (it’s somewhere between one and four times). The song is so unobtrusive the only difference between the two parts is that a kind of piano sound, EQd to sound distant, enters the fray playing the same chord over and over. I don’t mean to sound like a snob here, I don’t feel embarrassed about liking the song. But I’ve stopped listening to that now, and my most listened this year so far is probably the inside of my unplugged headphones, only occasionally interrupted by a low frequency fluttering in one ear.
*Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) was an American composer and a pioneer of experimental and electronic music