Editing Is Essential: Or, Doing More with Less
I haven't talked much about the intersection between music criticism and music production—that is, the fact that I'm making music as well as reviewing it. That's not to say I haven't promoted my own efforts on this blog, but I haven't really elaborated on the overlap (or the divide, as the case may be). In large part that's because I haven't figured it out yet. There are a host of thorny professional issues regarding conflict of interest—for instance, with every release on a new label or remix for a new artist, I'm likely narrowing the range of artists and labels I can cover in good faith—but what I'm less clear about is how the act of making one's own music, the day-to-day habits and rituals, impacts the day-to-day habits and rituals of listening to others' music.
I don't have any doubt that my listening habits are changing. A good part of this is a product of the times and the technologies. I spend most of my waking days at the computer, which serves as my primary musical interface. If I buy a CD or receive a promo, it gets ripped straight into my iTunes folder—currently, 513 gigabytes in size, offering 166 straight days of listening. I still buy vinyl, both for DJing and home-listening purposes. (For the former, vinyl is a necessity—I haven't yet dipped my foot into the waters of digital DJ programs, though I anticipate getting up and running with Traktor Skratch shortly, if only for curiosity's sake.) But I don't find myself playing vinyl that much, aside from when I (all-too-infrequently) practice. What can I say, I'm lazy: cuing up an MP3 is far easier, even if I have to download it first. (I'm reminded of one Christmas from my childhood when my parents gave my brother Harry an LP of the Star Wars soundtrack. "Perfect!" said Harry. "Now I won't have to get up to change the record, I can just play one side after the other!" Younger readers may be unaware that the record players of yore allowed you to stack records yea-high, with each new platter coming on automatically after the previous side had finished. In any case, I remember my parents' scorn at what they perceived as extreme profligacy on poor, convenience-minded Harry's part.)
Anyway, all this surplus means that I skip around a lot, and between blogs, forums and random discoveries online, there's really no excuse for feeling bored with the music at hand. I'm lucky: I get paid to sit in my living room and flip through MP3s (provided, I suppose, that I have something mildly interesting to say about them). Any critic worth his or her salt needs to be aware of his/her privileged and unusual position, and the way that position impacts his/her adjudications. That's basic. But increasingly, I think that any of us who call ourselves music fans would do well to think about the lived context of music—the when, where and with whom (not to mention what formats on which devices, via which media channels). That's why I'm fascinated by Michelangelo Matos' Slow Listening Movement, which was the inspiration for this post in the first place.
The conceit is pretty simple: Inspired by Alice Waters' "Slow Food Movement," Matos (an editor and freelancer with a voracious musical appetite and admitted obsessive-compulsive tendencies) decided to make a few restrictions for 2009. Upon the purchase of a new CD, he'd have to listen to it in its entirety before buying a new one. Same goes for downloads, legal or no. He shields himself from the onslaught of promos with still more proposed rules of behavior—rules he admits he'll follow only as long as he can, owing to their severity. (Life is life, after all.)
Matos writes, "SLM isn't really about spending more time with less music," which strikes me as odd, because that seems to be precisely one of the pillars of his project. But maybe he's onto something, because what I'm getting out of the blog so far isn't necessarily more insight into any given song or album, but rather a far greater understanding of Matos' listening process, the tics and givens that frame the soundtrack of his everyday life. Part criticism, part ethnomusicology, you can't read it and not start thinking about your own habits, and maybe even the rules you've set in place without realizing it.
To bring this back to the beginning, how does music-making affect listening? Does it make me a more attentive listener? I put dozens, scores of hours into a given track. I wish it were otherwise, frankly—one might be less inclined to persist with ill-conceived ideas if one hadn't invested so bloody much time in them. My skill level and my compositional inclinations necessitate many hours of chasing details. Maybe a more spontaneous process would permit a more objective, disinterested assessment. (If I ever do manage to bang something out in a matter of hours, I'll let you know how that goes.)
But I do wonder if that extreme focus isn't giving me new ears. It makes me more critical, sure: there's always an "I could do that" feeling when you hear someone you think, frankly, is getting away with something. And I find myself becoming more impatient with house and techno tracks that stick to the formula without distinguishing themselves in sonics. Maybe it's just because I haven't found the means to craft the sounds I want to make, but I find myself searching more than ever for the otherworldly sound, the dark shadow that runs through a song without ever revealing the shape that made it. Translating that into my own music is another question—but it's a start, this turning the world on its ear.