Willy-Nilly Listening

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Though it may not be the most accurate way to describe what I mean, willy-nilly listening captures the random element of how I often encounter music as it accompanies other things. It’s overheard in that loud car that zooms past, it’s background for those TV shows, it’s keeping strangers on the subway at bay by filling headphones, it’s the latest pop hit soundtracking the moment that is this week. Most of the music I notice I can’t really control (which is the number one reason why I compose).

Willy-nilly Listening also describes some of my deliberate listening as I keep up with trends or re-visit agreed upon old gems. I skip around from one music to another, sometimes listening to just a few seconds as if taunting the music, come on, let’s see if you can hold my attention. (I’m somewhat ruthless about not giving musics the benefit of the doubt. It has to prove itself on its own terms.) Sometimes after skipping around for days or weeks I’ll return to one piece and obsess on it, playing it over and over again, trying to figure out how it works–or not figure it out and just bask in its workings. If a music has made it this far up my attentional ladder, I might then see how it fares when I play it in juxtaposition with say, Messiaen or Autechre–just to mess with it a bit. The point of this exercise is to ask: What is this music doing that other music’s don’t do? But now I notice how those other (older) musics are still working their respective magics. What were those musics trying to do that hadn’t been done? All of a sudden my willy-nilly listening reveals itself to having more goals that I realized.

“Music is a machine for producing anticipation” notes the critic Dave Barry in his book The Music of the Future (118). Barry’s idea strikes me as a fundamental insight about how all musics work—from the mood music in TV ads, to Bach’s fugues, to pop and jazz and EDM, to West African dance drumming, to even ambient music. In generating perpetual anticipation, music brings a method to our attentional madness, giving us a series of cues for what to attend to and how to attend for as long as the sounds last. (“Music” said one of my teachers, David Burrows, “is a hypothesis that works for a while.”) When we listen we’re always comparing what we’re hearing to what just happened and what might be around the corner, suspended in a state that, for me anyway, is halfway between dreaming and perfect lucidity. Whether our listening is willy-nilly or not, there are few better ways to spend our time.

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