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.
“There is a specific temporality to social media. It is a time of perpetual manufactured crisis, in which we are constantly being prodded, reminded, and cajoled into updating, clicking our approval or disapproval, or merely checking in and registering our presence.”
“But if social media constructs its own time, what kind of music would be specific to that temporality? If Muzak, the radio, and records each brought about their own distinct forms, shouldn’t streaming services too? What, we might ask, does Spotify want?”
– Robert Barry, The Music of the Future (2017), pp. 157-158.
Is this a thing?
Here and there in the city I’ve been noticing people walking and biking around with bluetooth speakers or their smartphones hidden in their backpacks, tucked in their pockets, or dangling from their belts, playing music. It’s like a mobile party of one. Yesterday, on an otherwise quiet street, I did a double take when I noticed music emanating from somewhere on a guy in the photo above.
And then he was gone, his beats fading away.
Earlier in the day I had also noticed that the mail woman had R&B coming out of her pocket as she pushed her cart down the sidewalk, immersed in the music, singing along. Maybe carrying small portable speakers on one’s person is a variation on booming car stereos, but with an intimate twist: the music is loud enough to overhear, though not intended for the overhearer per se.
When I was a kid some of us had boom boxes, though the serious machines always seemed to be in far away places like NYC where they were used to broadcast hip hop beats to all within earshot. I had a small machine, but I never travelled with it because of what had appeared around the same time: the Walkman, a portable cassette player with headphones. (View my documentary on headphones here.) The Walkman was magical because it afforded a private listening experience that matched music’s sense of inherent interiority.
Today most of us listen to music on our phones, so hearing music coming out of small speakers on people keeps surprising me into doing double takes. Why do you do that? I want to ask. Does music gain power when it is audibly public, heard by many instead of just one?
“An interesting pedagogic exercise in sonic economics: identify and attend to the most prominent voices of capital. At the time of this writing, candidates might be Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, Christine Lagarde, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and so on. Toward the other end of the spectrum: a humming child laborer in Bangladesh, the hoarse cry of a teen mercenary in Angola, the exhausted but perky voice of a telemarketer in the Philippines, or the impoverished and wheezing welcome of a Walmart greeter in Ohio. Thinking beyond the human voices of capital, we might include the squeal of a factory-farm pig, the boot-up sound of a Mac computer, the chime of Big Ben, the opening bell on Wall Street, or the ping of a black-box flight recorder from the bottom of the ocean.”
-Dominic Pettman, Sonic Intimacy (2017), p. 102, n.26.
• A short video on French artist and sculptor Pierre Soulages on his creative process and use of black paint.
“It’s the light that is the real tool!”
• An article about hearing loss and volume at popular music shows.
“If musicians and listeners are both suffering as a result of exposure to loud music, then why don’t venues just turn the volume down?”
• A Red Bull Music Academy documentary about Afro-Peruvian music (meeting electronic music).
“I believe that the best refresher for native music is to fusion it.”
In a chapter on the sources of creativity in his book The Wandering Mind (2015), Michael C. Corballis draws on a 1960 article by D.T. Campbell (“Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes.” Psychological Review 67, 380-400) about the constitutive elements of creative thought. Campbell distills the process into two concepts: “blind variation” or wandering which is subject to chance discoveries, and “selective retention” or recognition of these discoveries. Using the metaphors of paths and sparks, Corballis elaborates:
“Blind variation is captured in the very notion of wandering, whether ambulatory or mental–straying from a set path into unknown territory. What we find there depends on chance. It is the randomness of our wanderings, then, that supplies the spark of creativity, although when we do stumble across something new and important we need to recognise it as such–what Campbell called ‘selective retention'” (154).
This notion of blind variation/wandering subject to chance discoveries resonates with Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s notion of creative tinkering described in his essential book Antifragile (which I wrote about here). And the selective retention/recognition part reminds me of Gerd Gigerenzer’s work on gut feelings, which are intuitive judgments derived from paying attention to cues in one’s immediate environment while ignoring unnecessary information. To sum up, what’s powerful about Campbell’s blind variation + chance + recognition model of creativity is how it posits the process of ideational/artistic craftsmanship as not inventing per se, but rather setting ourselves on paths where we might notice sparks flying around.