Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Music

Back when I tutored at the Yeshiva College Writing Center, I attended a training session which involved working with a paper I wasn't allowed to see. The unofficial motto of the Writing Center is: We work with writers, not writing. (The official motto, according to the promotional pens, is something along the lines of: Helping writers for more than 20 years.) So this exercise made a sort of intuitive sense, helping me to focus on the writer and not on the sheet of paper which contained the writing. I remember having a tremendously difficult time with this project. I was able to converse with the writer, but I had only the most limited idea of what the writing consisted of. The fact that the writer read his paper aloud helped almost not at all. I needed to see the writing, to, in a word, read it.

I don't know if I've ever been much of an audio learner. Listening to things is great as a type of background ambiance in a whole bunch of different settings (while driving, at work, composing blog posts, etc.), but it seems woefully inadequate as a complete destination for my attention. I know that many people disagree vehemently with this assertion, and I'm OK with that. They're right: for them listening to music is an activity. For me it's not. Sometimes I wish I could do close listenings of audio works in the same way I feel comfortable performing close readings of writing or films or paintings or photographs. But it doesn't at all come naturally to me. I only like songs I've heard before which, as you can imagine, makes it hard to expand my musical tastes. And but also it flies in the face of how I like experiencing almost everything else. I do enjoy rereading, but there are dozens of books or TV shows I wish I could read or watch again for the first. I don't like listening to new music because I understand almost nothing about it the first time through. I watched the new episode of Flight of the Conchords last night with my roommate, and he mentioned that "You Don't Have to be a Prostitute" might be FotC's best song from a musical perspective, even if it was somewhat lacking in the humor department. And, to be honest, I did not at all notice anything remotely related to the music.

And all this is part of why I find this project I'm about to describe so cool. This dude at Jamsbio Magazine (and yes, this is the first I'm hearing about this magazine) has ranked every The Beatles song from #185 to #1 [via kottke.org]. The list is heavily subjective and I imagine that is part of the fun of the project. I most appreciate the explanations and analyses which accompany each selection. He explains what I should be hearing when I listen to the song.

Here's an example from "A Day in the Life," ranked by the partial ranker as the #1 ranked song in the history of The Beatles:
Let’s take it from the top, shall we? As the crowds cheer at the end of the
“Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise, the gentle acoustic strumming of John Lennon is heard.
And his very first line can’t hide his lack of enthusiasm for the story he’s
about to tell: “I read the news today oh boy.” The world-weary sarcasm is
impossible to miss, even with John’s voice at its most ethereal. He then
proceeds to tell an odd tale about a man who’s “made the grade,” which would
seem to be a positive thing, at least until it’s revealed that he’s apparently
been killed in a car accident.

Or has he? The car-accident reading is backed by Lennon’s later interviews
in which he claimed to be referencing the death of a young, moneyed friend of
the Fab 4 a few months before “A Day In The Life” was recorded. But in the song,
John sounds like somebody who keeps changing his story in an attempt to keep the
listener’s interest. The line “Well I just had to laugh” doesn’t seem like the
proper response to a tragedy, unless the harsh truth of the situation inspired
some typical Lennon gallows humor. And as for “He blew his mind out in a car/He
didn’t notice that the lights had changed,” that sounds like an impatient fellow
honking his horn at the car in front of him, oblivious that the traffic light
was now red. The whole verse plays out like a dream, and dreams will play a
heavy role throughout the song.

This is the type of detailed, analytical music writing I can really get into.

1 comment:

Josh Schneck said...

If I am recalling correctly you participated in a test in "Study Skills" in 6th grade to figure out what kind of learner you were. I got kinesthetic (I might have been the only one), which apparently meant that I would be good at note taking. Maybe Mrs. Lichtman kept records, you could find out...