Friday, May 22, 2009

Slow and Steady ...

... struggles just as much as anybody.

I'm a fascinated and loyal reader of Michaelangelo Matos' Slow Listening Movement blog. Last Christmas Eve, he explained his plan:

I need to clean out my ears. So from January to November 2009, I'm embarking on a kind of purification rite. In that time, I'm only allowing myself to download one MP3 at a time; the next MP3 can only be downloaded once I listen to the first one. With CDs, if I buy one, I have to listen to it all before I buy another, and before I am allowed to rip any of it to iTunes. There will surely be exceptions--CDs that suck, that I can't deal with playing all the way through--but hearing a bad album end to end is, if nothing else, a learning experience, so I plan to stick by this rule as much as I can.


Like a lot of people who love music a lot, I am a pack rat and a glutton. The Slow Listening Movement is my way of trying to curb those tendencies. Partly this is out of necessity: I have back taxes to start paying off, I'm planning to move cross-country (hopefully speaking, soon; practically speaking, probably not any time soon), and I'm sick of feeling trapped by my own clutter, be it my overcrowded CD shelves or the ungodly amount of MP3s my 1TB hard drive contains. It's great to have an extensive reference library, and many of those MP3s are duplicates--organizing it will be a project in itself--but there's a limit to these things as necessities. I can stand to indulge myself with fewer mindless acquisition sprees. Of course, it's not really a movement if only one person does it, and I hope others try it as well.

Not surprisingly, the program hasn't quite worked out as planned:

I start each month hopeful. Finally, I think, I'll sit down and decimate the endless Word doc and the email Digital Promos folders both at once. I will fully catch up, at last. I hope that happens in June, because it sure as hell isn't happening in May. For one thing, I've gone to more shows lately than I have in quite a while--including a day-long noise festival featuring all women performers (much of it rather good) and, this Saturday through Monday, the Sasquatch! Festival, which I'm covering for So that's four entire days where I won't get to play whatever I want, however nominal that want is. And I've been roaming more--not just the purge relistens, but jumping on things when I feel the urge, such as this wonderful survey of "After You've Gone" covering nearly a century and 30 performances, which I went for last night.

But I feel like Slow Listening has been a success. Not because the Unheard folder has 28 albums in it I'll be lucky to hear half of over the next week, or because I've paid more attention to the music I do have (that's why I think this year sucks: very little has stuck), but because it's made me more systematic. I've never had a gift for physical organization (or, often, mental organization), but keeping close tabs on my acquisition habits has been really good for me.


Part of it too is wanting to simply focus on what matters. I'm 34 and this has been on my mind in every area. Part of it is recalling my early 20s, when my focus on music, always, always heavy, became something I could see as a life. (I mentioned working at Sebastian Joe's and First Avenue at the same time in an earlier post--1997-98.) The listening then was structured: album after album, CD after CD. That's something that's faded for me with iTunes: I can play singles and make mixes and flit about with impunity. "Making the time to sit and play one folder after the other so I can tick them off the damn list" is not a description filled with joy and longing, but doing it I feel like I'm getting something done, and that's a kind of satisfaction as well.

I love everything about this because it's all so foreign to me. The attempts to systematize listening is something I have little connection to and less desire for, but I get it. Matos is also a lister, and fellow lister Geoffrey Himes defended lists to me as a way of making sense of a year in music. I'm not sure that spreadsheeting the year would do that for me, but clearly it works for some people. Matos goes so far as to work out quarterly lists; I have to be coerced into developing year-end lists, and then I go with the CDs that I remembered fondly, which seems like as good a measure of the year's CDs as any - which ones wore well and stuck.

At the same time, I recognize that how we hear music affects our responses to it - particularly when we listen professionally. I'll often having listening sessions to go through discs in my "I think I want to review them" pile and figure out which of those I actually want to review, but I'll still get to a quarter of those at most. Right now I hope to say something about Justin Townes Earle, John Doe and the Sadies, Ian McLagan, Wayne Hancock, Jarvis Cocker, Sonic Youth, the Felice Brothers, Lady Sovereign, the Minus 5, Fischerspooner and the New York Dolls, just to mention non-New Orleans acts. When Arlen Roth, a Ray Charles reissue and Abstract Rude came in, I almost felt bad because more CDs were going into that pile, decreasing the odds that I'd get around to some the discs I'd hoped to review.

The impulse to try to normalize our essentially abnormal way of consuming music make sense to me. But as Matos' writing shows, he's not really closer to a "normal" listening experience, and his attempts to normalize his experience haven't aleviated his anxiety. Rather than fight his fight, I've given in, then created niches of normalcy. My iPod only has songs I like - no work allowed. When I put it on, I'm always pleased with the shuffle. When I'm in the kitchen, I only listen to CDs in the collection; that's not review listening time either. But in general, I've made peace with the ironies that separate my listening from my readers'. It's hard for me to listen to my favorite music - pop - because if it's any good, it catches my attention and stops me from writing. For professional reasons, I spend little time with the music I value most and instead listen to a lot of DJ mixes, remixes, electronic music, dub and sountrack music because they fit in my work life.

Matos' desire to focus on what matters also reflects a subtle anxiety, namely, does what we do matter? Since popular tastes and critical tastes have rarely walked hand-in-hand, in one sense what we've done has always seemed superfluous. Most of us have likely made some sort of peace with that, but living a life based on ideas at a time when the number of paying venues for writing is decreasing adds a note of gravity to everything.

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