Music is so pervasive that I wonder that we ever hear any of it. For this post, I am even ignoring the phenomenon of everyone-wearing-earbuds-all-the-time.
But when we tell ourselves we are listening to music, what are we really doing?
The act of listening — immersing myself in — a particular recording has been a salvation for me for the past five decades. And people who were dead years before I was born, people whom I never got to encounter, have become familiar friends. Sitting down and doing nothing else but hearing what’s there is a deep pleasure.
But even I have to remind myself to slow down and focus on the sound, rather than playing the CD while driving, while writing emails, while cooking.
Even when we get rid of the pretense of multi-tasking (for the neurologists tell it is nothing but pretense) listening is not something we are accustomed to.
When I sit down to listen to a cherished recording — say, the 1940 Benny Goodman – Charlie Christian – Cootie Williams – Count Basie – George Auld – Artie Bernstein – Harry Jaeger ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — all sorts of unrequested associations come into my mind.
Personal: recalling the feel and heft of the original recording; what it was like to be in my upstairs bedroom listening to this; memories of discovering Charlie Christian’s music.
At the same time, there is a clamor of anecdotes and personalities: Goodman, scrambled eggs and catsup; Christian, tuberculosis, the rumor of odd clothing, eyeglasses; John Hammond, and so on.
Then there is the mind classifying and “analyziing”: how this ROYAL GARDEN sits in the long history of performances of this blues; its tempo; how Basie shapes it into one of “his” performances; Auld’s absorption of Ben Webster, and more.
It’s remarkable that the music — remember the music? — has a chance of getting through this amiable mental clamor, the “thought” equivalent of the puppy room at the animal shelter. Can we actually hear what Charlie Christian is playing, given the amount of yapping and frisking around that the mind is doing at the same time?
So I would propose an experiment. It isn’t a Down Beat Blindfold Test, because so much of that “test” was based on Being Right, as if listening was a quiz show.
I would ask JAZZ LIVES readers, whenever they can, to actually do the unfamiliar: to take a recording that they believe they know well and sit down and listen intently to it as if they had never heard it before. If what we call “thoughts” come in, push them away and start the recording over. I think I can guarantee that the experience will not simply be familiar, but deep and in some ways new, that layers and aspects of that recording, subliminally taken in but never really heard before, will spring to life.
Here’s ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, if you’d like to try it out:
(I purposely picked the video of the spinning red-label Columbia 78 for sentimental reasons. Of course you can listen to it in the highest fidelity possible . . . )
If we could actually listen to the music we so love, as opposed to trotting out our familiar associations, what wonders might we hear?
May your happiness increase!