Close Listening

In my efforts to share my new album Canons with listeners who might be unfamiliar with counterpoint, the harpsichord, and so on, I often mention that Canons isn’t background music: the stuff needs concentration. I suggest that listeners find a quiet place and really focus. But every time I say this, I realize that close listening is a thing that I myself have had trouble doing in recent years. I wonder, is close listening even possible now in 2017, the age of distraction?

Back in the 1990s, when I was in my teens and early twenties, I didn’t have the tools I needed to write the music I wanted to write – I was frustrated – but I did have something wonderful going for me: I was a passionate and dedicated listener with a very active listening practice. I’d spend hours listening to CDs, doing nothing but that, and it was bliss.

Now I’m in my early forties and I’ve finally gained the tools to create my own music. While I spend a lot of time listening to my own pieces as I’m working on them, my broader listening habits have lost their vigor and focus. Instead of sitting down to immerse myself in a full album with total concentration, I’m more likely to skip between clips on YouTube while checking my email or reading news, clicking “like” occasionally as a way of reminding myself to return – someday – to a piece of music that deserves more attention.

This decline of my listening routine is due in part, paradoxically, to my stride in writing music. My own compositions take much of my attention now, and they satisfy some of the craving that used to make me search outward. Another part of it probably has to do with growing older. Having spent my youth exploring every musical style and category I could find, I’m less likely to stumble upon a completely unvisited frontier that holds me rapt. And a big part of it has to do with the demise of CDs and all of the rituals that went along with collecting them, rituals that helped prepare me for, and build my investment in the listening experience.

I spent the summer of 2014 meticulously transferring my collection of over two-thousand CDs to hard drive, hoping that easy digital access to all my music would revitalize my listening life, but it seemed to have the opposite effect: without the physical process of searching for a CD on a shelf, putting it in the player, flipping though the printed liner notes, and so on, I found myself listening less often, and with a diminished commitment to any particular album.

Some years earlier I’d had a similar experience, where obtaining easy access to a trove of music proved strangely anticlimactic. I found out that as a cardholder at the Boston Public Library, I could log on to the library’s online catalog from anywhere and play a vast collection of streaming music in all genres, for free — stuff that wasn’t yet available elsewhere online. All this free music was a greater boon than I could ever have imagined in my teens when I used to spend weeks saving every available penny so I could buy just one coveted CD. And yet after browsing my library’s online collection and remarking on how impressive it was, I promptly forgot about it.  How could that be? How could I discover, and then simply ignore, the very sort of musical treasure trove I had spent my youth wishing for?

I’m tempted to blame my scattered listening attention on the Zeitgeist, to say that in the age of Spotify and YouTube — in the age of tweets and cat videos — it’s growing harder and harder to be a focused listener who shuts out the world and finds deep communion with an album-length creation. And without vinyl records or CDs to anchor the process of collecting and playing music in physical reality, the experience loses some of its significance. But I’m open to the possibility that my problems with listening today are incidental as opposed to fundamental, that they could be “solved” by some simple changes in my life. Maybe close listening is no more difficult now in 2017 than it ever was, as long as you set yourself up right.

I think that what I’ve been missing for some time has just been a good place to listen – I’ve almost had it, but not quite. While I’m reluctant to attribute my listening habits to material circumstances, it’s true that a person’s living environment – how it’s arranged – affects their routine behaviors. In recent years, my environment hasn’t been fully conducive to close listening. You could say I haven’t had the best listening feng shui.

I spent months in 2014 consolidating my music collection, but my overall listening setup became less convenient than it had been in some of my previous apartments, where there was always a beckoning shelf of CDs and a CD player that was completely disconnected from the internet and a chair where I could sit and listen without the distraction of a nearby computer screen. All those things mattered.

When I moved into my current home, I couldn’t find a good way to situate my “nice” stereo system (pair of bookshelf speakers, amplifier, etc.) in the office where I’d have the most privacy, so I put it in the living room, a place of interruption. At some point, the remote control for my amplifier died and I never replaced it, so turning it on and adjusting the volume meant walking across the room – a “first-world” problem that seems almost laughable in its triviality, and yet constitutes the subtle “friction” that influences the statistical mechanics of one’s daily behaviors. I never took the time to set up a dedicated computer for playing music, or a home file-sharing system to store it, so whenever I wanted to play my digitized collection through my nice stereo, I had to bring my laptop to a table in the living room, attach an external drive containing my FLAC files and also attach a DAC transmitter that would communicate with a receiver connected to the stereo, and then fidget with some software to get things to play.

While I had a library of glorious music within pretty easy reach, the slight inconvenience of accessing it made me more inclined to take the lazier route: fulfilling my listening appetite through those many music videos that came my way through Facebook and YouTube while I was surfing online, listening to them through my computer’s built-in speakers or a cheap pair of headphones that I inexplicably refused to upgrade. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with listening to music through Facebook or YouTube, except that when we encounter music through these online channels, we’re usually already in the state of distraction and impatience that web browsing perpetuates, and music can’t cure us of that, no matter how good it is.

What I’ve needed has been a quiet place, dedicated entirely to listening, free from interruptions, with an inviting chair, a good pair of speakers, easy access to my digitized collection, and no computer screen glaring in my face as I listen. With some time, some money, and some rearranging of my home office, I finally achieved that — just a few days ago.

Despite being an audiophile at heart, I’ve tended to skimp on audio equipment, fearing that if I let myself become too enamored of high-end stuff, I’d bankrupt myself, with audio nirvana remaining forever elusive. My view has shifted as I’ve launched my composing efforts and have come to see audio equipment not as an indulgence but as a tool of work that’s well worth the investment. So I recently invested in a great pair of studio monitors that let me hear things in my music collection that were simply never audible before. I control them from an audio interface sitting at the main computer workstation in my office. The interface has an analog volume knob that makes it easy, and pleasant, to adjust levels. I cleared out a corner in my office for the speakers and put my computer workstation facing at an angle away from them, so I can swivel in my chair away from the workstation and face the speakers directly with the computer screen out of my main line of sight. When I want to focus, I can turn away from the computer and toward the little “chapel” of music that I’ve set up in the corner of my office.

I may still be in a honeymoon period with this new equipment and new office configuration, but I do have preliminary conclusion. Close listening is still possible. I still have the desire, and the ability to immerse myself listening for hours on end. I can still study a recording, still commune with an album like I used to do in my teens. I can still find that same ecstasy in listening that I remember from my CD-collecting heyday in the 90’s. The internet has not ruined my attention span or my ability to engage with what I love the most. The internet has simply made it easier to become distracted, meaning that my fortifications against distraction must be proportionally stronger today.

In 2017, when we’re trying to concentrate on music, we need to give ourselves all the help we can, and that means carving out the right environment for concentration, which means solving a bunch of practical problems about how to arrange your space, how to gain some distance from your computer screen or mobile devices as you listen, how to make your collection easily accessible, and so on. In the days of records and CDs I think people used to spend more time on building their listening rooms, while today we’re more inclined to listen in random places, from our connected devices, as we attempt to multitask. But it’s still possible to set up a great dedicated room — or corner — for close listening today, and it’s worth doing. Forget all the angst about our distracted, Internet-addicted age where concentration is supposed to be impossible, and invest the time in creating a place where you can concentrate. I wish I had done that a while ago; I’m glad that I did it just now. Long live close listening!

My new “listening chapel” in my home office. My computer workstation is nearby, and it controls the speakers, but importantly, I’m able to face the speakers without the computer screen in my direct line of sight.  These speakers or “nearfield studio monitors” are designed for listening up close.  Arguably they’re a bit too close together in this nook, but they still sound fantastic.  The painting above them is by my father and is dated 3/8/1986.

One thought on “Close Listening

  1. Your “chapel” is a delightful haven, Ru, and you are lucky 🍀 to have a Sepp Seitz painting as your stained glass window – hope to visit soon👂

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