Tag Archives: music listening

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A Lifetime of Listening


When it comes to the life of the ear, we all have our stories.

Because life tends to send us in circles rather than straight lines, we can sometimes catch glimpses of our earlier selves many years later.  Look hard enough, and we see at least some recognizable landmarks that we revisited more often than we might think. It is those kinds of moments that can make it seem like a subject picks its author.

In my case, a pattern emerges early and turns into a persistent interest, a magnetic north, always in sight. A lifelong passion for sound began as one of many adolescent boys in the 1950s who built crystal sets and tried to get a scouting patches for knowing how to send and receive Morse code. It was clear even then that radio rivaled food and water as one of the essentials for sustenance. That first “cat’s whisker” receiver was one of many breadcrumbs dropped over the years, creating a meandering trail that rarely strayed from the peculiar geography of the auditory world. When I did wander off the path–as with a hand-me-down movie projector that rewarded my tinkering with frequent electrocutions–the message to stick to the machinery of sound was clearly received.

Words and music that found their way to the ear always held me in their grip, like the weekend nights spent listening to KOA radio’s live bands from Denver’s old Elitch Gardens. It had to be KOA, the 50,000-watt giant with a tower and building that stood majestic and completely alone out on the flat prairie. At night and under a cloudless sky, it was an Art Deco apparition of glowing amber windows next to its broadcast tower. Lore has it that the fountain in front was also cooling water that circulated through the bowels of the building to keep the huge transmitters from overheating. Fact was then stranger than fiction to know that the high voltage equipment inside came into its own at dusk, sending its clear-channel electrons deep into six other states.

If it wasn’t radio as a subject, it was a one-tube electronics kit purposefully miswired to become a nuisance transmitter sending the sound of 45s as well as a generous dose of interference to the rest the neighborhood.  Then there were  also a series of shortwave sets attached to a hundred feet of naked copper wire surreptitiously attached to a nearby utility pole. Hearing the BBC from London was one of the rewards.

This was the 1950s. New long-playing records joined the singles on a two-tone portable Symphonic phonograph. Ravel’s tonal fireworks and the Eastman School’s Frederick Fennell were favorites purloined from a modest household collection. A family friend and Fennell’s Mercury recording of Leroy Anderson’s music-Volume 2 combined to rouse an interest in the acoustic mayhem that was possible with drumming. Lessons and an assortment of school and private bands followed, producing a musician good enough to play in a statewide concert band, but one who also made more of a splash falling off a stage mid-performance than with mastery of the forty rudiments.

If I was just an ok percussionist, I was still swept along with the post-war generation that was completely captivated by the many riches of audio recording. Record browsing at Tower Records or Sam Goody was a Friday reward for surviving the week. Bargain label reissues of classical and jazz albums began to accumulate, as did recordings of European organs that puzzled college friends looking through my stash of vinyl for the latest from The Doors. Bach and Buxtehude learned to hang out on the shelf with Basie and Brubeck. It was all stuff that had to be heard, even if the playback equipment was a sorry collection from Radio Shack’s sale table.

I’ve written before about the “sound-centric” person.  The label fits, and represents more Americans than we might think.  Especially in these times, our easy access to recorded music is such a gift.


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Where Does Music Mean?

The most ‘social’ of our media now seems to be used too often to keep others at bay.

Portable music has been with us at least since the Sony Walkman introduced in 1979.  Forty years later we are completely accustomed to taking a preferred aural environment with us, mostly drowning out the one we are in.  Even so, that isolating effect still seems like a peculiar violation of the idea of music.

Recently, in a supermarket I was competing for space in the detergent isle.  The challenge came from a tall man, perhaps in his 20s, his earphones leaking out sound like hundreds of little straight pins rolling around in a can.  We both wanted to extend our reach to a high shelf blocked by the other. At the same time his eyes seemed to take a cue from his aural isolation; he looked down and away. This shopping trip was strictly a solo effort in his own private space.  My friendly glance to him was ignored or not seen; his body and his head were in different places. And so I was both in the way and also not really there.  Nothing unusual about this in the 21st Century.  We now routinely enter the personal space of strangers without ever acknowledging them.  And yet there was this little insight:  what is arguably the most ‘social’ of our media is now part of the apparatus we use to keep others at bay.

People who study the history of performance remind us that music-making has almost always been a social experience.  Of course the simple idea of “cooperation” does not begin to describe the intense listening and blending that musicians playing together must master.  As for the rest of us, in most of the 19th Century families with any disposable income had a piano, and usually enough kids to assure some duty-bound performances to visitors.  Performances in private salons and concert halls came even earlier.  In England the Hanover Square Rooms holding about 900 people were used in the late 1700s to feature composers such as Joseph Haydn and George Frederick Handel. By the early 1800s halls were built and packed with listeners eager to hear small groups and even full orchestras.  To this day avid music fans thirst for “live” performances of a sort in both massive arenas and more intimate clubs.

Kate Winslet Singing Scenes from “Sense and Sensibility”

Kate Winslet has a lovely voice and I wish she would sing more in her movies

All of this makes me wonder if music belongs in the detergent isle at all.  Is part of its essence violated by a cheap ear-sized speaker competing with the commotion of a supermarket?  Is there a sense in which our love of the form has the effect of undermining its traditional powers to foster affiliation?

Communication ‘at a distance’ always exacts a price.

To be sure, isolated listening has increased the time we can spend with this precious art. The mass production of phonographs at the end of the 1800s was only the first step in making music accessible.  And who doesn’t cherish the ability to call up a great performance at will that can be rendered in detail on modern equipment?  Even so, I still cringe at the idea of stopping Andre Previn in mid-performance, or talking over the perfect phrasing of Ella Fitzgerald. Somehow such interruptions seem like a kind of abuse of the idea of ‘public’ performance.

Communication ‘at a distance’ always exacts a price.  When performers and their audiences are separated, something is lost, just as clearly as when a listener is in a reverie that goes unshared.