What does it mean to listen in the digital era? Today, new technologies make it possible to roam instantly and experimentally across musical languages and generations, from Detroit techno to jam bands to baroque operaor to dive deeper into the set of tastes that we already have. Either way, we can listen to nearly anything, at any time. The possibilities in this new age of listening overturn old assumptions about what it means to properly appreciate musicto be an “educated” listener.
In Every Song Ever, the veteran New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff reimagines the very idea of music appreciation for our times. As familiar subdivisions like “rock” and “jazz” matter less and less and music’s accessible past becomes longer and broader, listeners can put aside the intentions of composers and musicians and engage music afresh, on their own terms. Ratliff isolates signal musical traitssuch as repetition, speed, and virtuosityand traces them across wildly diverse recordings to reveal unexpected connections. When we listen for slowness, for instance, we may detect surprising affinities between the drone metal of Sunn O))), the mixtape manipulations of DJ Screw, Sarah Vaughan singing “Lover Man,” and the final works of Shostakovich. And if we listen for closeness, we might notice how the tight harmonies of bluegrass vocals illuminate the virtuosic synchrony of John Coltrane’s quartet. Ratliff also goes in search of “the perfect moment”; considers what it means to hear emotion by sampling the complex sadness that powers the music of Nick Drake and Slayer; and examines the meaning of certain common behaviors, such as the impulse to document and possess the entire performance history of the Grateful Dead.
Encompassing the sounds of five continents and several centuries, Ratliff’s book is an artful work of criticism and a lesson in open-mindedness. It is a definitive field guide to our radically altered musical habitat.
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About the Author
Ben Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic for The New York Times since 1996. He has written three books: The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (2008); Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award); and Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings (2002). He lives with his wife and two sons in the Bronx.
Read an Excerpt
Every Song Ever
By Ben Ratliff
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Ben Ratliff
All rights reserved.
Let Me Concentrate!
When we talk about "repetition" in music, we don't mean one unchanging tone, or exact copy of a tone, over and over, without evolution. That doesn't give you any reason to keep listening.
Early on a recent morning, just after five, a car alarm lit up the atmosphere outside our window. It produced one continuous tone, for about thirty-five minutes. What a surprise, and then what a trial. It bore right into my hearing. I didn't think about the various overtones that made up the sound, as I do whenever I hear the distinct blasts of the commuter train whistle down by the river, because the alarm was unceasing, purely irritating.
Obviously there was no human hand behind the sound, pressing a button down for some sufficient length of time. But it soon became clear that there had been no human programming to change the sound, either. I didn't even momentarily consider that someone needed to know his car was being burgled. I thought: Someone needs to kill that car. And then give its owner a new alarm, one that uses repetition instead of an unchanging tone.
When and why do we use repetition in our own behavior? There is a bad sort of repetition we fall into, unknowingly. We use it when we're being greedy or punitive, self-absorbed or cruel. We might practice it in the form of repeated scolding, or silently trawling through all possibilities of personal failure, or checking e-mail every ninety seconds. It is compulsion. It happens whenever we tell ourselves we may get something new out of the process, even though we know we don't.
But there is also good repetition, perhaps more periodic than continuous, with longer or perhaps irregular breaks between the actions. This kind of repetition might suggest positive upkeep, or providing for others, or adding to an ongoing process: helping your child get ready for school, cleaning your car or bicycle, doing the shopping, exercising. Expressed in music, the stops between tones allow the listener to think about how to move forward.
In music there's imagined to be a general split between two orientations: variation and repetition. But it's not a pure split. They coexist in music, as they coexist in nature. Everything we tend to classify as "variation" — sonata form, symphony, jazz — includes repetition. And everything we tend to classify as "repetition" — minimalism, reggae, R&B, techno — includes variation. The best of what we call repetition in music, heard closely, is really the opposite of repetition: subtle differences, slowly shifting backgrounds, a change moving against a constant.
If all music is ritual — which it all is, in some form — then let's say that variation celebrates the proliferation of life; the theme that binds the variations together implies a unifying power, maybe even a theistic one. Repetition is a little more about music itself, and thus a little more about humankind alone.
Repetition is a smart psychological operation — a way to make you focus on all that is in fact nonrepetitive. The music seems to stay put, while you (or your perceptions) change. Then you stay put while it changes. It suggests infinity or eternity, basically. But only by distant representation. We couldn't have actual infinity or eternity in art. We would hate it.
* * *
Repetition often leads to length, to the expansion of an idea. The idea of dividing a recording into a "part one" and "part two," in order to accommodate and justify that expansion, had grown familiar by the late '60s. It began not as an aesthetic conceit but a necessity, when classical pieces were divided across sequential sides of 78 rpm records. In 1935, Duke Ellington imitated that convention with a curious, inward, lovely, thirteen-minute, four-sided piece, Reminiscing in Tempo: he was calling attention to the fact that he could write in long form as ably as many classical composers — and perhaps with more originality.
But gradually this convention of record-making became more of a response to the demands of the body. When people start dancing, a kind of ownership ritual takes over. They've marked out their own physical space: it now belongs to them. Likewise, they've started to take ownership of the music they're hearing. They don't want it to stop. After imitating other people for most of the day, or week, or year — their mothers or fathers or supervisors, their smarter or more beautiful acquaintances — finally they're playing themselves, in whatever form they want. They can be as free as they want, as elegant or debased as they want ("We're dancing like we're dumb-dumb-duh-duh-duh-dumb," sings Kesha in "We R Who We R").
There are few ecstatic rituals outside of churches and bedrooms. Dancing is one. Making records is not. Making records is pushing against a clock ticking counterclockwise. It's playing in front of people who are thinking primarily about when and how you will finish.
In 1937 Benny Goodman wrapped "Sing, Sing, Sing," a concerto for his drummer, Gene Krupa, around both sides of a 78, labeled "part 1" on side A and "part 2" on side B. Later, rhythm-and-blues musicians and producers, having inherited the youth audience for jazz, made the idea their own. In 1959, the Isley Brothers recorded "Shout," parts one and two. In 1964 they did it again with "Testify," parts one and two, a crazy party, high on its own momentum, full of impersonations — of Ray Charles, of Stevie Wonder, of James Brown — and powered with a sped-up version of the rhythm used by every Twist song in the world. In 1967 Lee Moses made "Bad Girl," parts one and two, jangly and tense with a habanera beat. There were many others.
Releasing a single this way was based on an actual need. The need was to stretch out, to go long. Everyone understands why musicians sometimes need to go long. Why do kids want to play outside until the moon comes up and they can't see the football anymore? Why do new lovers want to stay in bed all day? It's the act of recording, the force of the gate coming down, that doesn't make sense. So, a six-minute single: that's putting something in the wrong box. That's healthy.
Here was a mode of resistance disguised as gimmick. You hear side A and you know the song, but you worry there might be something hidden in side B. Sometimes it really was all one piece, unintelligible if you didn't hear the whole of it. Sometimes it really was graspable by listening to one side, and there was little more to it than length: expansion for its own sake. At what point can you assume that repetition only leads to more of the same, or that it won't lead you to a new perception of what you're hearing? It's a good question. These records toyed with that question.
* * *
"Ain't It Funky Now" (parts 1 and 2), not a particularly famous James Brown song but in my opinion one of the greatest recordings in the world, works like a container for the ideas about repetition and length that he and his band were playing with in 1969.
Let's assume that "repetitious" and "long" are not pejorative words in music. Repetition is a sign of health. Granted, it's also a sign of sickness. In fact, sometimes repetition is totally sick.
The 45 rpm single of "Ain't It Funky Now" advertised that the artist had something to say with a group, a collective process to work out in real time. It was proof, in case anyone didn't already know, that the JBs were important, best understood as a process and a movement of their times; that Brown's records weren't just three-minute confections over a factory band. It also worked as an advertisement for buying the LP at higher cost, because there you'd find the whole mesmerization intact, without the fading edit in the middle.
And it was a step closer to a representation of infinity.
* * *
In "Ain't It Funky Now," from the first seconds you hear tension and contradiction. The rhythm guitarist, Jimmy "Chank" Nolen — his nickname an imitation of his sound — strums a quiet, steady-lurking note making a wary ninth against the horns, which repeat their own melody, happy-major and staccato. But everyone in the band, from the beginning, plays softly, entering like the team of burglars penetrating the jewelry shop in the Jules Dassin movie Rififi. It's the opposite of something else Brown did well, the first chord as room-clearing explosion, as in "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Starting quiet generally means you might have a plan to stay quiet for a while, and thus raises an important question: What kind of game is that?
Then Brown does an amazing thing. (It might not have been amazing had you been there; it might have looked like nothing more than a jam session. But it is amazing when framed and reproduced.) He starts to talk, rhythmically, sometimes repeating himself, not really going anywhere, cycling through his catalog of phrases, as an improvising musician does, as a preacher does, as oral poets do. But the classical way of improvisers and oral poets is to use nubby stock phrases as signposts or ending places for long lines. He is using only the nubby phrases.
"Ain't it funky now," he repeats, as often as he likes, sometimes as a neutral marker in between the band's repetitions, and sometimes as an exclamation, centering your attention. "Heh," he says, making little touches to the big matrix of rhythm, like an extra drummer. "Huh-huh."
He plays a couple of short solos on the organ, warning beforehand that he's about to do so. They're unschooled and concise, blunt, unresolved; he grounds them in a limited vocabulary of licks and figures. On a record, specifically on a record called something-or-other parts one and two — implying that there is something to be said here, work to be done — his act of casually taking inventory, checking in with his own tricks, takes on a different mystery. What's he up to? What's the point of this?
He is describing what he's about to do and what he wants the band to do in turn and keeps a running description of it, like a sports commentator. "A taste of organ," he notes, before and during his solos. He keeps punctuating with his voice as he plays: "Heh." "Huh." And then in a sudden, gruff command: "Hit me!"
A dynamic shift brings relief. The band breaks the pattern, switches the rhythm from 4/4 to 3/4, and blasts out three steps up a major scale; the drummer rolls twice, the band blasts out the same three steps down, then plays, all together, one of those "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" chords, as if to say, "and now ..." And now, what? Back to the usual: the soft, needling repetition you heard at the start, the major-minor friction, the spiel. What's he saying? He's describing what he hears and what he feels, but every line has its own emphatic rhythmic phrasing.
"Good God now," he says. "Heh." He further repeats the song's title, at regular intervals. He echoes the title of a Horace Silver song from some years previous: "Filthy ... McNasty." He creates a surge of phonetic power with the phrase "preacher daughter." He makes sounds with his mouth open and with his mouth closed. He treats his musicians like a commanding officer, or a dominant lover, pinning them with his attention ("You. Yeah, you.") or asking them the same questions over and over again. To Jabo Starks, the drummer: "Do you like it?" "Sure is funky now," Starks responds. "Do you like it?" Brown presses. Four questions, four answers: yes, yes, yes, yes. At a point in Maceo Parker's saxophone solo, he lashes out, exercising his power. "Man, quit that noise over there!" He pauses. "Take it down!" Another pause, and then Brown says something beautiful, maybe the signal moment of the whole six-and-a-half-minute song: "Let me concentrate!"
* * *
All good repetition in music is embodied by that demand: let me concentrate. The musician earns your trust through some form of a question, a testing of boundaries and a half-turn away from the audience. Music is a game between performers and audiences, a loop in which performers hold the upper hand, then audiences, then performers again. The performers, however, have the home-court advantage. They always make the first move.
Music doesn't have to do anything, enlightened listeners like to say. Well, yes it does. It has to begin, and it has to end. And for a lot of people it has to be recognizable as music, at least in some context. Being recognizable as music usually means that it makes the listener feel one way or another, enlightened or soothed or nostalgic or turned up. For an "entertainer" to ask for his own space can seem out of line, a form of breaking the social contract, like a chef emerging from the kitchen after you've ordered to tell you that he feels like switching your dinner to something else.
Steve Reich, as a student, was fascinated by the importance of rhythmic repetition in Javanese and Ghanaian music. (He wasn't too invested in European music after the middle ages. "Frankly, my interest in Western music slacks off from Perotin onward," he told an interviewer, when he was thirty-five.) He'd also been studying at Mills College in San Francisco in the early 1960s, where, alongside Terry Riley, he was involved with the locus of early tape-experiment music, the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Those three elements — a love of repetitive rhythmic music, a disinterest in the classical tradition, and a curiosity about tape edits that could build staggered waves of repetitions — led him toward writing pieces that subtly changed as they obviously repeated. His art is the sleight of hand with which he masks the changes; the effect of the art is physical thrill.
Four Organs, from 1970, is one chord, essentially an E dominant eleventh, played by notes divided among four Farfisa electric organs, that gradually changes its emphasis, taking away its root note of E and moving toward an A. (Changing the implications of a chord through different voicings, until the chord might be unrecognizable as such out of context, is a common musical strategy.) Underneath the organs, maracas keep up a steady metronomic shake.
Over the fifteen minutes of the piece, you come to know the chord in many implications, just as you come to know the tense atmosphere of the James Brown song. But the chord is implied in staggered waves; it flickers. You're just about always hearing a note within it. But the greater part of it, the wholeness of it, appears unpredictably.
This aspect of Four Organs — its "repetition" — is like playing a peekaboo game with a child. You're going to do it over and over: that's the repetition. But you've got to keep changing the way you do it, otherwise he'll expect it and will not be surprised. And at some point in the game — it doesn't take very long to get there — you and the child understand each other: you know each other's reaction time, range of facial expressions, sense of humor, degree of patience.
Of course, there has been repetition and length in music forever, among friends or in situations that amount to ritual. But over the last sixty years audiences in more formal or isolated settings — in supper clubs, in theaters, in front of the television set, in the car — have grown sophisticated about elaborate repetition and transgressive length in art.
A lot of that change happened in New York. In the late 1950s John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins started to teach listeners that thirty-minute saxophone solos weren't only for dancers on a jump blues, but for sitting, absorbed-by-the-particulars kinds of audiences. Coltrane and Rollins — both in New York — and the composer La Monte Young, an Idaho-born jazz enthusiast studying in California, all started hearing Indian music between 1957 and 1961. (Ali Akbar Khan's Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas, one of the earliest Indian classical-music recordings by a single artist to appear in the West, was released in 1955; Coltrane almost certainly was listening to Religious Music of India, released by Folkways in America in 1952.) Young wrote Trio for Strings in 1958, a piece that opens with a viola's a C-sharp drone held for three to four minutes before moving on. He relocated to New York in October 1960. Andy Warhol, who may or may not have been present at a performance of Trio for Strings in 1962, soon thereafter made Sleep and Empire, two long films, five and eight hours, that dealt almost exclusively with duration and the changing consciousness of the viewer.
* * *
Since then, the valuing of repetition for its own sake has become a shorthand sign of intelligence, not merely a show of avant-garde credentials. Four Organs was reviled at Carnegie Hall, in 1973. "The audience reacted as if red-hot needles were being inserted under fingernails," wrote Harold C. Schonberg in his New York Times review. Many listeners left. A few cheered. Schonberg disapproved yet hedged his bets: "At least there was some excitement in the hall, which is more than can be said when most avant-garde music is being played." But two weeks later, in a think piece about new composers, he put the knife in, turning what he saw as hippie condescension back on itself. "There is no 'content' in this kind of music," he wrote; "it is pure sound, and there is nothing to 'understand' in it." He continued: "Really it is 'art' for people who are afraid of 'art.' Or do not understand what art really is. Or who are too emotionally inhibited to want to share the intellectual processes of a real creator's mind. 'Four Organs' is baby stuff, written by an innocent for innocents."
Excerpted from Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff. Copyright © 2016 Ben Ratliff. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Let Me Concentrate!: Repetition 13
2 Past Present Future: Slowness 25
3 Draft Me!: Speed 39
4 What If We Both Should Want More?: Transmission 49
5 We Don't Need No Music: Quiet/Silence/Intimacy 59
6 Church Bell Tone: Stubbornness and the Single Note 71
7 Elevation: Virtuosity 81
8 Blue Rules: Sadness 91
9 Getting Clear: Audio Space 101
10 Purple, Green, Turquoise: Endless Inventory 111
11 I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know: Wasteful Authority 125
12 Granite and Fog: Density 139
13 As It First Looks: Improvisation 149
14 Eyeball to Eyeball: Closeness 161
15 Just a Little Bit: Loudness 171
16 R.S.V.P.: Discrepancy 183
17 I Still Believe I Hear: Memory and Historical Truth 195
18 On the Waves: Linking 207
19 Mi Gente: Community and Exclusivity 217
20 Slowly Fading out of Sight: The Perfect Moment 227