Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Alex Ross Missed the Point

Having just read Alex Ross's typically eloquent essay from last week's New Yorker (hoping my opinion is still relevant a week later), I can't help but wonder whether he's missed the point.

Ross talks about the joys of scanning his collection of CDs, of reading the old liner notes, of the personal connection he feels to each recording by virtue of its real, physical existence. He laments the economics of online streaming, where royalty payments are so pathetic, only the artists who have no need for them can hope to earn anything from them. (Aside: I was legitimately excited last month when my Spotify income surged to $1.95.) Certainly, he realizes that not everyone agrees: "If I were a music-obsessed teen-ager today, I would probably be revelling in this endless feast, and dismissing the complaints of curmudgeons."

But the problem of the cloud reaches deeper than Mr. Ross realizes. All nostalgia and ethics aside, listening to music from the cloud changes the perceptual experience of listening. Technology has shortened and divided our attention in many ways, and listening to music is no exception. And that's bad news for classical music in particular.

CDs, LPs, and cassette tapes: music in these forms is (or was) a commitment. You made a decision to buy a recording and spent your hard-earned money on it. Any time you wanted to listen, you had to decide that you would listen, what you would listen to, and physically go through the motions of starting some sort of listening device, while remaining in the same place for the duration of the recording. Listening was expensive, not just because it cost money, but in the cost of setting it up and parking yourself somewhere to hear it (or carrying around a massive portable player).

One of my very first recordings was a cassette of the Bach inventions. Cassettes were terrible, of course, but they were great because I couldn't skip ahead in the tracks: they forced me to listen all the way through.

At that point I probably only had three of four classical recordings to choose from (along with a handful of Madonna and Alanis Morisette tapes).  Every time I bought or received a new CD, it was an event! I always listened religiously until I knew the new recording inside out.

Sometime in middle school, I jumped on board the technological bandwagon (at the time, this consisted of acquiring something called a "MiniDisc") that allowed me to splice different parts of different CD tracks together. I thought this was great! I could finally take my favorite moments of every piece of music and listen to them next to each other, basking in the continuous ecstasy of musical climax after climax. But of course, things didn't work out that way, because a musical moment's power comes with context. Much of the power of the end of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, or Mahler's 2nd, or any piece, comes from all the buildup before it, and trying to cheat my way to that kind of musical epiphany was shortsighted and naive. 

In college, I swung back in the other direction. Having bought a record player and inheriting a bunch of my parents' old records, it was like elementary school all over again, and I could listen for long stretches of time. Maybe listening to LPs was a waste of time at a university (sorry parents!), but once I went through the tiresome routine of removing a record, cleaning it, and putting it on, I was certainly going to try my best to enjoy it and absorb everything it had to teach.

Listening today takes neither time nor money. MiniDiscs never rose to popularity, but what replaced them is more efficient and much easier to use (and much, much cheaper). On its face, this seems great! I doubt I ever would have bought six different recordings of the Marriage of Figaro, but I do have them all in my Spotify. But every time I want to listen to something new, the number of choices is mind-boggling. And humans don't always deal with choices intelligently. If I don't like something new right away, I don't usually follow through and listen to it again, the way I always would with a new CD, until I was absolutely sure I didn't like it.

Streaming makes it easy, too easy, to listen to music. We can listen any time, anywhere, for whatever tiny duration we choose, without taking our attention from whatever other task we might be engaged in.  If you're listening to Ke$ha and Taylor Swift, that's probably okay. Pop music can survive a five minute attention span. But "classical" or "art" music requires sustained engagement and attention in order to be fully appreciated and understood.

Cloud listening has the potential for good, but it doesn't lend itself to true listening. Unfortunately, that's what classical music depends on. The only solution: fight back against our habits!

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