Afternoon Dust

Reading notes: listening, openness, migration

Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff

On holiday I read Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now, by New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff. The author’s intention was to propose strategies for listening to and appreciating music in an era when vast amounts of it are available for free on the Internet, through legal streaming services services or illicit downloads. His starting assumption was that technological and economic shifts have produced corresponding changes in listening habits, requiring different approaches to the art if we are going to get the most out of it. I wandered glibly into the book, thinking it would be entertaining to read something by a professional, qualified music critic; I came away with a bit more than I’d bargained for.

Each of Ratliff’s chapters is devoted to a particular quality he encourages us to listen for when listening to music: “Density”, “Audio Space”, “Closeness”, “Discrepancy”, and “Community and Exclusivity” are all examples of such qualities. Taking a dizzyingly diverse range of musics, Ratliff shows how the given quality under discussion can be heard in each, though stylistically they may be very different. So ‘density’ is heard in the music of Outkast, Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonora Ponceña, Olivier Messiaen, Miles Davis, and Black Bananas; ‘disrepancy’ is a noted feature of works by Eliane Radigue, Willie Colón, Led Zeppelin, D’Angelo, Phill Niblock, and the Rolling Stones. “Nobody can love everything, of course,” Ratliff writes; “the urgent thing, now that we have so much catching up to do, seems to be how to access a strategy of openness, a spirit of recognition.”Ratliff, Ben (2016). Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now, p.10. Penguin Random House.

Ratliff flits from musical example to musical example like a bee among flowers, dismissing the traditional boundaries of genre with a shrug. “Genre is a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less,” he opinesOp. cit., p.11.. It’s convincing, because he clearly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to music. He makes cultural mobility look easy. But I wonder how easy it really is? To step into someone else’s music — formed from different cultural references, a different set of experiences, another way of living to your own — is to enact a kind of migration, and the further away the artist is from you, the greater the distance that must be bridged. The experience of another white, educated, English-speaking male is already another world — what then of that belonging to a Detroit ghetto rapper, or a refugee Sudanese guitarist? Ratliff spent years immersing himself in jazz before he could write his biography of John Coltrane, yet with Every Song Ever he seems to be suggesting that access to the worlds of others is as straightforward as identifying the “density” of their musics.

Music is often described as a common language, one that transcends boundaries of culture and background. People who subscribe to such a theory probably don’t have the same taste in music as me. More to the point, they probably underestimate the difficulty of migration, of entering into someone else’s world. More accurate, perhaps, to say that music is one of the easier migrations we can make, a rewarding and often enjoyable one that can serve as practice for the countless trickier journeys we undertake every day: through worlds shaped by the politics of others, ignited by the feelings of others, determined by the choices and habits of others that are not our choices or habits. It’s one thing to dip into a Sudanese guitar group’s music for a spot of cultural tourism, your own little world remaining intact and largely unchanged. It’s quite another to abandon your own set of perspectives and criteria for judgement for theirs, to give away part of yourself and take on something other as your own, to become part-Sudanese. Yet isn’t this what we mean by listening?

Ratliff is right to say that technological, social, and economic changes have brought a huge range of musics much closer to a certain group of enfranchised listeners, crowding round them from all sides. But this is not a condition unique to music, and the reaction it provokes is more frequently one of fear, anxiety, and the desperate clutching of expired certainties such as nation and creed than one of openness. Because openness is hard. Change and conflict make migrants of us all — but maybe listening openly can be a first tentative step to being more open towards each other. When considered as the beginning of a much more complex process, Ratliff’s approach to listening for musical qualities makes sense.

Every Song Ever