I had an “aha” moment this week while I was reading a book about Cuban music for one of my classes. There were a few nuggets of truth (at least the truth as I see it) that stuck out to me. Particularly when it came to the author’s engagement with details while listening. Alexandra Vazquez writes:
“Listening in detail is a mode of engaging things that are bigger than ourselves. It offers alternative approaches to the too-muchness of events.” (Listening in Detail, pg. 27)
I like this passage because it reminds me that I don’t have to put the pressure on myself to always take in an experience in its entirety (especially music). Sometimes, it’s fine to lose myself in the details. It doesn’t cheapen my experience to focus on one small part. This isn’t just true of musical experiences, it’s true of life experiences. This idea, to me, goes hand in hand with my desire to be more present in each moment. “Listening in detail” may be a way to do that. It might simply be just another name for the effort toward presence. When we decide to be present, listening in detail may be inevitable.
“What might it mean to think of listening in detail as something that can’t be helped? For some, getting lost in details is inconvenient, time consuming, and a general aberration. For others, getting lost in details is not a choice…Details attend to us even as we attend to them. The comfort that details provide is, to some degree, due to their ability to embody familial and familiar substances, whether constructed from memory or made anew. There is often an instant recognition that calls your attention to a [musical] detail: you can’t help but recognize a loved one, a time and place, or the sound of an experience. For similar reasons, details also carry what can feel like unbearable reminders of past violences. They keep alive history’s painful parts.” (pg. 29)
There are several things that I like about this passage. The first is the idea that once we surrender to being present, getting lost in details, or going down the proverbial rabbit hole, may be out of our control. That’s especially beautiful when you think about soaking up experiences. Who wouldn’t want to get lost in those moments?
I also like Vazquez’s idea that details (the ones we choose to home in on), are the things that are somehow (for whatever mysterious reason) recognizable to us. There is comfort in drawing on experience to order our present.
This reminds me of a Chuck Klosterman article from Esquire that we used to open up discussion about “taste” in our History of Pop Music course at Maryland. I did a social experiment my second semester of teaching and asked my students to submit their own list of what my friend Robert calls “Klosterman moments.” These are small bytes of music that represent who you are, speak to you on your own terms, say something poignant to you, or simply make you feel something intense. It may not even be possible to describe why they have these effects, but the details wrapped up in these moments qualify them as your own personal “Klosterman moments.” (He provides a partial, but extensive list of his own towards the bottom.)
This discussion always inevitably led the class to ask me what my own “Klosterman moments” are. I have to be honest and say that while it is entirely fair and frankly expected for somebody to ask me what my favorite music is, it’s a question that I have also come to dread as a part of the small talk when getting to know somebody. I’m sorry, but it’s entirely unfair to ask a musician what their favorite music is. I work with music for a living. I can find something to like (or simply interest me) about nearly everything. It’s my job to be interested in music. Asking me to distill the possibilities down to my “top 3 bands” or some similar request, is entirely maddening to me. It changes every day. It depends on my mood. It depends on whether I’ve had enough caffeine today. It depends on if I squeezed a run in after class. It depends on what I’m reading for class this week. It depends on if I cracked my left ankle when I woke up this morning. And it depends on if the stereo system I’m using has enough bass.
Seriously, though. Maddening.
I like the idea that we can free ourselves, as musicians, from the responsibility of creating an ultimate and all-encompassing list of just 3 bands (or songs, or albums, or pieces, or whatever the parameters are) that represent all we think is wonderful about music. Klosterman and Vazquez give me ways to express what I love most about music, without having to firmly root myself in any one musical doctrine (you know, like a Beatles doctrine, or whatever floats your boat). So what ARE my Klosterman/Vazquez moments? Here is a partial list that I will limit to pop music only for consistency’s sake (which is entirely unrepresentative of my entire music taste):
Brett Dennen, “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” – particularly that back chorus echo during the actual chorus; I also just love that his voice sounds so free and imperfect (especially when he switches into his falsetto)
Florence + the Machine, “Cosmic Love” – the harp glissandos throughout
Grace Weber, “If You Stop Loving Me” – the bridge, everything about it; also, that pause (yes, silence) at the end of the first chorus before the drum hit
The Beatles, “Twist and Shout” – grate-y, grind-y, NOT pretty vocals
Wolfmother, “Vagabond” – yep, that stomp/drum kick, can’t help it; also: “Cause I’ll tell you everything about livin’ free”
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, “40 Day Dream” – if my siblings and I started a band, all of our songs would sound like the opening 35 seconds of this song
Alison Krauss & Union Station, “My Love Follows You Where You Go” – the flirting between major and minor; oh, and her voice, of course
This is obviously not an exhaustive list and doesn’t even begin to consider any of the other genres that move me. And of course, this list will probably change by tomorrow. But it says something about who I am today, for sure.