Playlist of Babel: Ben Ratliff’s Magical Index

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Whenever I open Spotify, I think about Borges. I think about the Library of Babel, his short story from 1941, in which the universe takes the shape of a mammoth library containing 410-page books, all of which contain all possible combinations of basic letters and characters, and therefore contain all of the knowledge in the universe, from the past and from the future. Of course, no one can read these books — to the eye, they look like gibberish. But somewhere, buried within the pages, are all the books ever written, all the sentences that have ever been or ever will be, and the librarians simply don’t have the codex to understand. So they become terribly depressed, start cults, speak of a magical index that will make everything make sense. In the process, some go mad.

Sometimes, in the face of the musical cloud, it can feel like we are living in a gluttonous but undecipherable infinite library of songs — and that we don’t have the magical index that will make them all make sense together. Each song itself might work on its own, a self-contained little koan of tonality, beauty, intensity, dynamics, volume. But in the cloud, each song also feels flung out of space, forced to have adventures and interactions with songs it would never meet in a record store or on the radio. One moment you’re listening to Skrillex, and the next, shuffle might pull up a Debussy suite. These interactions, while often thrilling, can also be maddening: what does it mean when we have the power to throw all the songs ever written into random playlists, causing them to lean into each other and argue with each other, find both friends and enemies across centuries?

How do we, then, understand, and more importantly, appreciate these songs, divorced from records and genre and time. Where is our magical index?

These questions seemed to be rattling around in the brain of New York Times’ music critic Ben Ratliff when he sat down to write Every Song Ever, which might now be the closest thing we have to a codex for guiding us through the new, ever-expanding musical galaxy. What Ratliff realizes is that “music appreciation” in a traditional sense has ceased to have meaning in a world where all the various styles and eras are flattened into the same shiny boxes that we carry around in our pockets, and yet there is a merit to the ways people used to learn to comprehend exactly what they were listening to. In a recent interview, Ratliff says he was inspired to write the book by looking back at the “appreciation movement” of the 1930s and 40s, a time when people bought books that promised to decode the secret language of musical form. In Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music, for example, the composer broke down classical music into its basic parts, explaining time signatures, dynamics, rhythm, harmonics, and so on. Of course, such a book seems particularly attuned to a long-past moment when acquiring a taste for Mozart and Mahler was an American aspiration, but Ratliff wanted to channel the generous spirit of a time when musicians of all stripes were keen to open up their world for others to revel in and better comprehend. He says he thought to himself: “If a book like that were written now, how amazingly different it would have to be.”

What Ratliff hopes to create with this new book is a new language, a new system of tools for understanding what, exactly, we are listening to when we click open iTunes and start hopping around. In a world of endless options, how do we form new groupings of sounds, and how do those sounds speak to one another across huge chasms of time? Ratliff argues that we no longer need to look at music in simplistic terms like “genre” and instead should be listening intently for patterns; he wants to create new ways of listening that allows for rap and ragtime to be played back to back and serve to highlight one another as a result. For Ratliff, a syncopated rap beat and a saloon rag both exhibit a certain kind of musical intensity and speed that naturally draws them together, even across hundreds of years. The new classifications that he comes up with for imposing order on our all-you-can-eat musical buffet include “Audio Space,” “Improvisation,” “Stubbornness and the Single Note,” “Sadness,” “Closeness,” and “Loudness.”

These terms, veering into abstraction, come across as overly vague at first, but Ratliff digs deep into each one, coming to their meanings not in a didactic way but through his own meditative meanderings through sound. One gets the sense, reading Ratliff’s work, that he is the kind of person who bathes in music, who always has a record spinning and another on deck. He has listened widely and voraciously, and as he wanders, often with beautiful prose and cultural references to everything from modern art to Miley Cyrus, through his own back catalog, his themes start to emerge and bubble up to the surface, revealing themselves to him and to the reader at the same time. He writes, “Tone doesn’t demonstrably exist in composed notes. It exists only in played ones. It’s the most human part of music; the carrier of emotion.”

His is the type of criticism that seems to unearth itself; every revelation feels all the more earned because Ratliff isn’t telling, he’s discovering. And that is precisely how he feels a good listener in the age of Spotify should approach their musical habits. Of the modern listener, he writes, “He can walk out of whatever styles of music raised him, and into others yet unknown to him, where he has complete access, because listening gave it to him. He doesn’t have to wait for music to define him. He can define it.”

Some of Ratliff’s new musical categories are more convincing than others — he shines when he focuses on the technical aspects of listening more than the social ones. For example, when he writes about the concept of “Density” in a chapter called “Granite and Fog,” he makes a beautiful case for linking classic motifs from the 1800s to heavy metal riffs of the 1980s: “Beethoven’s ‘Grosse Fugue’ creates an almost impenetrably meshed atmosphere with dozens of measures of forte or above…Big Black’s ‘Passing Complexion,’ from 1986, with electronic drums, barking and trebly bass line, and rumbling guitar harmonics against a separate, chopping, rhythm guitar line, sounds like four giant machines in a factory, heard up close.” Ratliff is at his best when he is purely describing what he hears, leading the reader through the sonics of arias and Top 40 hits in equally careful detail.

His conclusions – which turn on songs he says are defined by their “Community and Exclusivity” and their exhibition of “The Perfect Moment,” are more ephemeral. Ratliff argues that there are songs that bring people together, and at the same time keep people out by creating aural systems that only the initiated can understand (bebop, for example, jazz complicated enough that it kept out anyone who wasn’t a student of the form); and yet he doesn’t fully explore how hearing these types of songs together reflects back to us our broadened identity politics, or how listening to Spotify might be an act that has the converse power to take us out of our cultural niches.. He confines his observations to the music alone, and this is both the power of the book (it teaches us how to hear better), and the place where a reader may feel a lack (it doesn’t necessarily teach us how that hearing will help us live better).

Still, Ratliff has done something wonderful, which is to give us his own draft of the magical index, a way through the complex and often paralyzing vastness of the cloud. He bookends every chapter with a playlist, a group of songs that will help the reader experience connections across centuries and cultures — I made several of the playlists on Spotify and tried them out for myself. At the end of my listening, I felt awakened, like all of the songs in front of me had bigger stories they were trying to tell. I no longer felt the fear of standing in front of an unconquerable library. I now feel that I have a way to listen, and through it, a new way to see.

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