Listening in an Age of Musical Plenty

There are over 30 million tracks available to stream on Spotify. That’s a lot of music to listen to, and most of it you’ve never heard before. How is one to make sense of all those sounds?

ratliff-bookBen Ratliff has some ideas. In his book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty (Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), Ratliff sets out to equip us with conceptual tools to deal with the overwhelming abundance and – crucially – diversity of available music. I nod along when I read that we need “reasons for engaging as a listener that can encompass Beethoven and Bach as well as Beyoncé, Hank Williams, John Coltrane, Drake, Björk, Arvo Pärt, Umm Kulthum, and the Beatles.” I’m delighted to meet new-to-me artists, and to find many of the tracks compiled on an epic, 15+ hour Spotify playlist.

Every Song Ever is “attempting to respond to a situation of total, overwhelming, glorious plenty” in listening choice. But despite there being much to like about this book, its parting lessons are troubling. This, it seems to me, is because Ratliff has taken aim at the wrong targets. Ratliff and I want similar things – richer experiences of more music – but he’s fighting the wrong enemies, and hence leveraging the wrong tactics.

There are three main “bad guys” in Every Song Ever. First up: the algorithms used to generate listener profiles and give musical recommendations. Now, I do find the Spotify surveillance state a bit creepy. I feel its watchful presence as I make listening choices – a presence that comes not only from the company (to be manifested in its conversion of my listening history into new musical recommendations for me), but also from fellow listeners, who might “follow” me – and whom I’m encouraged to surveil in turn. What we are listening to at this moment, or else to what and when we last listened, is information that by default is out there to be seen.

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Find friends to surveil

But what does it mean to – as Ratliff calls on us to do – “listen better than we are being listen to?” The symmetry of the statement gives it a compelling poetry. But with our actual listening to music and the metaphorical “listening” of big data to our online behaviors, we are talking about two very different kinds of thing.

Or are we? The conflation of the two helps motivate Ratliff’s project: it provides a need to differentiate “us” (sensitive, intelligent humans) from “them” (brute algorithms). And so – since algorithms have gotten good at recommending more of the same – we need playlists so diverse that only a human, not an algorithm, could make sense of them. While likely tenable at the time Ratliff was writing the book, advances in algorithmic recommendation have already dated this view. The problematic premise could have been avoided by recognizing algorithms as human artifacts rather than a static Other. Ratliff’s book trains us to hear certain connecting threads through diverse playlists, and so too could an algorithm be trained. There may be good reasons to want to escape Spotify’s “listening” to us, but listening more eclectically is not a way out.

Listening more eclectically can have rationales and virtues besides outsmarting algorithms, however. As Ratliff observes, listening today can be a regular “encounter with civilizations other than your own.” Hence the need for new strategies of sense-making. Which brings us to Ratliff’s second target: the old way of conceiving what it means to listen well. The old way – exemplified for Ratliff by Aaron Copland’ What to Listen for in Music (1939) – was (Western classical) composer-centric: it privileged terms and aims valued by composers, and “preconditioned” listeners to hear through their lens. The result was an emphasis on melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color and compositional structure.

Ratliff instead proposes to refine our hearing through terms derived from listening experiences, and from everyday life rather than from a specifically musical domain. He elaborates a new set of features to listen for, features like: repetition, speed, slowness, density, discrepancy, stubbornness, sadness. He discusses each in connection with numerous musical examples, yielding vertiginous musical journeys like the one that begins with Outkast’s “Rosa Parks,” Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” and Big Black’s “Passing Complexion,” and ends with Georg Friedrich Hass’s limited approximations, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Black Bananas’s “Powder 8 Eeeeeeeeight” (and includes some Miles Davis, Olivier Messiaen, and Chaka Kahn in the middle – all the tracks united by rewarding our listening for “density”).

Ratliff is correct that melody, harmony, etc. are the “fundamentals” traditionally taught as a prerequisite for intelligent musical listening, and I am excited to try alternatives. The problem comes in the execution. For a critic thinking way beyond the classical canon, Ratliff finds a surprising ally in Eduard Hanslick, the nineteenth-century Viennese critic who famously declared, “the content of music is tonally moving forms.” Ratliff cites Hanslick for the idea that music can mimic the motion of feelings; but more significant is the shared advocacy of a perspective that brackets everything outside the sound as “extramusical” and hence nonessential to musical listening. (Ratliff also cites the views of tape music pioneer Pierre Schaeffer – again for a somewhat different reason, but this thinker too was an influential advocate for a mode of “reduced listening” [Schaeffer’s term] that excludes from consciousness sounds’ material and cultural origins).

And so Ratliff teaches us to hear his selected features, so rich in potential to connect music to its cultural contexts and social histories, primarily in abstract terms. His chapters are enlivened by artist-biographical and wider contextual details (the “repetition” chapter, for instance, relates changes in track length and musical structure to a history of recording formats; the “memory and historical truth” chapter connects certain production features to senses of place and time). Yet he never goes too long without reminding us that as listeners we needn’t bother ourselves with all that (“Do you have to know the context of such a music to at least intuit the density of it? Do you have to know about persecution and history and old practices? I don’t think so. I really don’t think so”).

Interrelated with this stance is Ratliff’s third boogieman: genres. Ratliff sees genre as “a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less.” It’s hard to see why a construct for increasing music sales would also have listening to less as a goal; Ratliff seems to mean listening to less diversity – he also criticizes genre as a “direct route to the bottomless comfort zone.” When it is so easy to skip a track after just a few seconds (and the vast amount of music to sample might make such efficiency seem attractive), Ratliff’s ‘features to listen for’ really can foster interest and curiosity where one might have otherwise quickly rejected a song “based on an external idea of genre or style.”

The bigger problem here is the reduction of genre to a corporate invention. Genres are much more – and much messier – than that. Genres are forged when communities form around not only characteristic sounds and structures, but also such facets as performance conventions, the image of the musicians, and underlying values. All of these form a context within which to make informed judgments about whether a particular track is good or bad, conventional or innovative, in keeping with or in violation of a listening community’s expectations. That’s why Simon Frith talks about “genre worlds” in Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (1996), and Keith Negus about “genre cultures” in Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (1999). As Frith argues, “a new ‘genre world’…is first constructed and then articulated through a complex interplay of musicians, listeners, and mediating ideologues, and this process is much more confused than the marketing process that follows, as the wider industry begins to make sense of the new sounds and markets” (88). Genres can be exploited and managed for commercial purposes (as they are by labels and stores), but their commercial usefulness proceeds from their wider relevance to the social processes of creating meaning.

Ratliff knows all this. He observes in his chapter on sadness that “there is a culture around any music, and how you understand that culture influences how you hear.” Tellingly, he then proceeds to speak in terms of genre (without apology, for once), explaining the various shades of metal’s myriad subgenres. But he concludes: “every band, song by song, album by album, has its agendas, its concepts, its intent. We are not worried about that. We are worried about the larger issue – the message in the music alone.”

Ratliff’s twenty ways of listening thus add up to a stridently individualistic, even solipsistic mode of musical engagement. The key virtues to hone are a thirst for the inexhaustible supply of music, and an ability to find similarities that defy external categories. All that matters really is how sounds intersect in you. It is the perfect strategy for a solitary listener swimming in an endless sea of recorded music, never needing to come up for air. It makes it ok that “you often don’t know what you’re hearing.”

And so by offering “new ways to find points of connection and intersection with all that inventory,” Ratliff teaches us how to find satisfaction with what Spotify and its kin have to offer. But another way to respond to our “situation of total, overwhelming, glorious plenty” in listening choice is to leverage the similarly overwhelming, glorious plenty in ways to learn more about what we are hearing. Reading Ratliff’s book can be a step in such a direction. But here’s an alternate conclusion: let finding points of connection with all that inventory be enriched by thinking about how all that inventory connects to everything else. Rather than be satisfied by ever expanding playlists, leverage this age of plenty to discover more about when and where a track came from, what it has meant to other people, how it has made a difference in the world. This strategy offers no illusion of mastery over those 30+ million tracks. But it is by listening through the lens of fuller contexts that we can start to hear musical, cultural and social values outside the realm of what we thought imaginable.


The Robot’s Mixtape

What are we to make of algorithms recommending music to us? Head on over to issue 3 of the smart and richly illustrated new arts magazine, Even, to read an excerpt of my essay answering this question, by way of a history of human-machine relations:

The Robot’s Mixtape, by Deirdre Loughridge

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Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Thomas Patteson and I (Deirdre Loughridge) curate the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments. In this essay for the ever-fascinating Public Domain Review, we explore the peculiar lives of imaginary musical instruments – and with them the workings of speculative technology and unknown history of the imagination.

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Robert Fludd’s Temple of Music. One of the great seventeenth-century occultist’s contributions to the domain of speculative technology. From his Utriusque cosmi (1617) – Source.

And as the instruments of the hand either give motion or guide it, so the instruments of the mind supply either suggestions for the understanding or cautions.

-Francis Bacon

Numerous museums are dedicated to musical instruments. In Berlin and Brussels, Paris and Phoenix, one can wander rooms lined with musical artifacts from many times and places. Strolling through these rooms, one might admire the exquisite craftsmanship of a Stradivarius violin or the opulent artistry of a French harpsichord. One might linger over forgotten curiosities like the tromba marina, or abortive experiments like Adolphe Sax’s seven-bell horn. One’s path might follow changes in the instrumentarium from Renaissance woods and metals to modern plastics and electronics, and the experience might lead one to wonder at the diversity of species born from the physics of vibrating strings, air columns and resonating bodies.

Missing from such collections, however, is the peculiar class of what we like to call “fictophones”: imaginary musical instruments. Though these instruments, due to some measure of impracticality and impossibility, did not take sounding form, they were nonetheless put forth in the various means available to conjure objects in our minds: in writings, drawings, sometimes even in detailed schematics. One might suppose that imaginary musical instruments, deprived of physical reality, have no place in the cultural histories and heritages that a museum of musical instruments aims to illuminate and preserve. Yet in their own strange ways, imaginary musical instruments exist. What’s more, they have not merely shadowed or paralleled musical life; they have formed a vital part of it, participating in ways that show the fragility of the distinction between imaginary and real. No less than instruments you hold in your hand, imaginary instruments act as interfaces between mind and world, limning the edges of what we may think and do.

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 Fantastic rendering of a hydraulic organ in Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis(1650). Kircher would also write about the “cat piano”, see below – Source.

Take, for starters, Francis Bacon’s “sound-houses.” Bacon described these spaces for manipulating sound in his New Atlantis (1626), a utopian work in which a European traveller, lost at sea, happens upon a society living on the mythical island of Bensalem. The “sound-houses” represent the acoustic branch of Bensalem’s state-sponsored research program, which seeks both to produce knowledge of how nature works, and to translate that knowledge into real-world applications for human benefit. In the following passage, the director of Bensalem’s scientific endeavors explains to his foreign guest:

We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.

Bacon’s sound-houses are hypothetical, an exercise in imagining what could be. Many readers today find them prophetic, and it is tempting to read the line about “divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown” as if its author had a foreknowledge of synthesizers and tape. But to read the sound-houses in this way displaces them from their own time, and the experiments with pipes, bells and string instruments from which Bacon extrapolated. By reducing their role to one of prediction, furthermore, it sets the imaginary at a powerless remove from the real. Rather than prophetic, Bacon’s sound-houses are emblematic of the power of imaginary instruments to act upon the world – of the magnet-like force they exert, attracting (or repelling) certain modes of thought and action.

One of the first to explore the musical possibilities of electronic instruments, Daphne Oram, was familiar with Bacon’s New Atlantis. In 1958, she posted the passage about sound-houses on the door of the Radiophonic Workshop, the newly founded department within the BBC dedicated to electronic music, which she helped establish. At this early moment in electronic music, it was far from clear what techniques and sounds would prove valuable, what aspects of past musical practice would translate. Oram’s invocation of Bacon’s sound-houses suggests that such moments create openings for the imaginary to flood in – not just from the creative minds of individuals, but from a collective storehouse of fantasies. Imaginary instruments help ideas circulate together with the desire for (or fear of) their realization. As Bacon himself observed, “instruments of the mind supply either suggestions for the understanding or cautions.”

Bacon’s sound-houses illustrate one era’s technological imaginary becoming a later one’s reality – the course of things we’d likely expect. But the process can run the other way around as well. The tubo cochleato, for example, was described by Athanasius Kircher in his treatise on acoustics, Phonurgia nova (1673), as a device for amplifying the voice. Kircher’s student Filippo Bonanni also discussed the device in his book, Gabinetto armonico pieno d’istromenti sonori indicati e spiegati (Musical cabinet full of sounding instruments, shown and explained; 1722), where it appears among musical instruments both of common European use and from other parts of the world. As Bonanni explained, the tubo cochleato would amplify the voice much more than a straight tube; the evidence came from nature, from the fact that the ears of hares and other timid animals were formed in the spiral shape. But since it was extremely difficult for man to make a spiral so perfect as nature, it was near impossible to construct the tubo cochleato, and no one in Bonanni’s day used the device.

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Image from Filippo Bonanni’s Gabinetto armonico (1723) – Source.

In fact, the tubo cochleato was purely speculative. But only in light of later theories of sound propagation would the design appear fundamentally flawed, the concept out of line with basic physics in addition to human craftsmanship. For Kircher and Bonanni, the instrument was real. Kircher’s reality, indeed, included many things we would consider fantastic (dragons, for instance, as John Glassie has discussed). As a measure of the gap between our reality and Kircher’s, the tubo cochleato (like the dragon) attests to the power of research and experiment to debunk the fabulous. At the same time – perhaps more disconcertingly – Bonnani’s book reveals the power of images and texts to define the real through a blend of speculative and empirical elements.

Similarly hovering between the speculative and empirical is the curious device known as the cat piano. The earliest known image of a set of cats arrayed as sound-producing elements to be activated by the fingers dates to the late sixteenth century, that is, over a hundred years before the invention of the piano, at a time when it would more properly be called a cat harpsichord or clavichord. The image comes from an emblem book, Johann Theodor de Bry’s Emblemata saecularia mira et iucunda uarietate saeculi huius mores ita exprimentia ut sodalitatum symbolis… (1596), and shows a motley ensemble of animals and confused musicians. A subtitle to the scene, “there is no music sweeter to Midas’s ears”, alludes to the Phrygian King whose punishment for preferring Pan’s pipe to Apollo’s lyre was to have his ears turned into those of a donkey.

First known image of the cat piano from Johann Theodor de Bry's Emblemata (1596) - Source: courtesy of Robert J. Richards.
First known image of the cat piano from Johann Theodor de Bry’s Emblemata (1596) – Source: courtesy of Robert J. Richards.

From a comical image of cacophony, the cat piano underwent a series of unexpected functional transformations. By the 1650s it was a legendary music therapy: supposedly, an Italian prince was cured of his melancholy by the device when he found its meowing cats, triggered by driving spikes through their tails, irresistibly funny. The early-nineteenth-century medical theorist Johann Christian Reil offered a different account of the cat piano’s therapeutic powers. In his treatise on psychological cures for the mentally disturbed, Rhapsodieen über die Anwendung der psychischen Curmethode auf Geisteszerrüttungen (1803), he presented the cat piano as a hypothetical fix for dreamers unable to focus attention on the external world. As he vividly explained, the cats would

be arranged in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard fitted out with sharpened nails would be set over them. The struck cats would provide the sound. A fugue played on this instrument – when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expressions on their faces and the play of these animals – must bring Lot’s wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.

In yet another thought-experiment with the instrument, the eighteenth-century Parisian Louis-Bertrand Castel invoked it to prove his contention that what mattered in music was the combination of sounds, not sounds in their own right. The fact that one could make music from the individually ugly plaints of pained cats proved that “sounds on their own possess no beauty, and that all the beauties of music come not from sound, but from the melodic sequence and the harmonic combination of these sounds, multiplied and varied in proportion.”

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The cat piano, or “Katzenklavier”, as depicted in Gaspar Schott’s Magia universalis naturae et artis – Source.
Illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, Vol. 11 (1883) - Source.
Illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, Vol. 11 (1883) – Source.

The absurdity of a cat piano has no doubt contributed to its appeal across the centuries. But the license granted in the space of the imaginary points to illicit aspects of the real. The cat piano unearths an uncomfortable connection between music and abuse, between the artistic control of sound and the heartless treatment of sounding bodies. Both artistic control and heartless treatment are abetted by the keyboard interface, which gives players access to numerous pitches but only at a remove from their sources. That keyboards facilitate cruelty is a notion hardly evident in the history of realized instruments (a rare hint is found on an eighteenth-century spinet inscribed, “intactum sileo percute dulce cano”: “untouched, I am silent; strike me, I sing sweetly”). But it is front and center in the history of imaginary instruments. Jules Verne demonstrated the connection by substituting humans for cats: in his short story “M. Ré-dièze et Mlle Mi-bémol” (“Mister Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat”; 1893) a musician outfits an organ with a special register of children’s voices. From the perspective of the child assigned to the pitch D-sharp (or re sharp, in solfége), we learn the appalling truth:

then an air-current inflates my chest, a current skillfully controlled, which carries the Ray sharp out of my lips. I want to be silent, but I cannot. I am nothing but an instrument in the organist’s hands. His touch upon the keyboard is like a valve opening in my heart.

The keyboard finds yet more sadistic form as a species of organ in the film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Called the “Torturetron,” the instrument sends spikes into people’s sides so as to add their moans to the tones of its more conventional ranks of pipes.

 “Pas un son ne s’échappe…”, an illustration by Georges Roux from the first edition of Jules Verne's Hier et demain (1910) - Source.
“Pas un son ne s’échappe…”, an illustration by Georges Roux from the first edition of Jules Verne’s Hier et demain (1910) – Source.

Verne’s organ and the Torturetron exemplify the capacity of imaginary instruments to serve as “cautions” – cautions we would do well to heed in this age when so much of what we do takes place through keyboards and other interfaces that remove us from the carrying-out of our commands. The note of warning is one imaginary instruments have sounded with growing regularity since the nineteenth century, as the wonders of new technologies have stoked fears about their consequences for humanity. Amidst the rise of industrial machinery, for example, the French caricaturist J.J. Grandville envisioned a fantastic “steam concert” of intelligent, steam-powered instruments. The program, described in his book Un autre monde (1844), features such pieces as L’Explosion, mélodie pour 200 trombones (The Explosion: a melody for 200 trombones) and La Locomotive, symphonie à basse pression, de la orce de trois cents chevaux (The Locomotive: a low pressure symphony with 200 horsepower) and Le Moi et le Non-Moi, symphonie philosophique en ut (The Self and the Non-Self: Philosophical Symphony in C). At once fascinating and disturbing, Grandville’s anthropomorphic instruments express a fundamental ambivalence about the development of increasingly powerful and autonomous technologies.

Illustration from J. J. Grandville's Un autre monde (1844) - Source.
Illustration from J. J. Grandville’s Un autre monde (1844) – Source.

“Ask any good Frenchman … what he understands by progress,” Charles Baudelaire observed in 1855, “he will tell you that it is steam, electricity, and gas lighting.” Today, one might say that what we understand by progress is digital networks, mind-machine interfaces, and biotechnologies. These have been prime stimuli to twentieth- and twenty-first-century inventors of imaginary instruments such as Pat Cadigan, who detailed brain-sockets for music video production in the cyberpunk novel Synners (1991), and Richard Powers, whose Orfeo (2014) envisioned music encoded in DNA.

Grandville, Cadigan, and Powers illustrate not only a cautionary strand in imaginary instrument design, but also a distinct temporal orientation: each places his or her inventions in the not-too-distant future. In the history of imaginary musical instruments, the emergence of a futuristic orientation can be dated quite precisely. The turning point occurs with Louis Sébastien Mercier’s novel L’An 2440 (The year 2440), published in 1771. The utopian premise of the novel is reminiscent of Bacon’s New Atlantis: here too, an outsider encounters a society where experimental research is undertaken for the benefit of mankind; in the field of acoustics, a device made of springs is capable of imitating all manner of sounds, and is used to dissuade the King from going to war by letting him hear the horrors and grief it would cause. But where Bacon’s sound-houses were found in a contemporaneous foreign land, Mercier’s springs exist in their author’s home city seven hundred years in the future (Paris in 2440). The novel, generally considered the first significant example of fiction set in the future, promptly inspired other futurological visions, such as the fantastic image of a twenty-fifth-century postal balloon shown below, which would deliver mail via the air and have a pipe organ built into its bow.


Print by Balthasar Anton Dunker, probably dating to 1784, depicting the twenty-fifth-century postal balloon – Source.

The imagination is often figured as a site of infinite possibility, free to create without regard to material limitations. But touring the museum of imaginary musical instruments suggests that there are in fact certain grooves that form over time to channel the course of fantasy. Futuristic imaginary instruments flow along one such groove. The future orientation of the imagination directs its energies to the technologies synonymous with “progress” in the present – an effect that starts to show its peculiar limitations when one looks back at projections like the hot air balloon of 2440. This particular channel for technological fantasy was not always so deep. Before the eighteenth century, imaginary instruments typically appeared either in a contemporaneous foreign land (like Bacon’s sound-houses) or in the past, as devices that existed but had been lost (like the Tubo cochleato). The museum of imaginary musical instruments thus illuminates not only the intersection of reality and fantasy, but also the unknown history of the imagination. It reveals numerous paths of inventive thought not taken – paths covered up by years of “progress,” but which, when cleared off, might yet lead us back to something new.


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