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Asceticism Run Amok April 7, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

Steve Almond laments the rise of new music listening technologies:

But for all the joys of such wizardry, I’ve been experiencing a creeping sense of dread recently when it comes to iTunes, a dark hunch that technology has impoverished the actual experience of listening to music.

See, back when I was a kid in the ’70s, the way I listened to music was pretty simple. I put an LP on the turntable, dropped the needle, then sat on the living room rug and listened to every single note. If I liked the record a lot, I would listen to it two or three times in a row, usually with the album cover on my lap, so I could study the lyrics and artwork. […]

I really miss the fact that listening to music used to be a concerted sonic and emotional event, rather than the backing track to some flashing screen. It was more inconvenient, to be sure. But for me, this inconvenience was part of the whole point.

I liked that I could only listen to my albums on a turntable in the living room. I liked yearning for my favorite records. I can still remember spending the entire day at school counting the minutes until I could get home to listen to the transcendent power chords of Styx’s “Paradise Theater.”

I even liked that there was a whole process involved before you got to the songs. You had to thumb through your collection, put the record on the turntable and then set the needle down with the utmost care.

I don’t get this. I understand the experience of focused, repetitive listening. It conforms to my own experience. (Aside from his interest in Styx who were dreadful)

But I don’t see why technology is to blame for his missing rapture. If he wants a “concerted sonic and emotional event” he can now have it anywhere he wants with any music he likes. If he listens only when tied to a “flashing screen” while distractedly multi-tasking, the problem is not the technology but his listening habits.

And the chore of archiving cumbersome albums, dealing with turntables, and waiting for the damn radio to play something good is surely not to be missed.

I’m surprised he doesn’t tell us about the whips he employs for his daily self-flagellation.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Nina Rosenstand - April 10, 2010

Without actually reading his entire piece, I think Almond’s got something–and he doesn’t even bring it up: the physicality of a sensory experience. He’s talking about rituals combined with an auditory experience, enhancing it. And indeed, the hands-on feel of the old vinyl record, the smell of the cover, the visual stimulation of the cover art, the feel of the rug you’re sitting on—it becomes a whole experience inextricably tied in with the music. Now you might say that (1) that is totally coincidental—we all listened to the same music under different circumstances, and the circumstances neither added to nor detracted from the music itself. And (2) that today’s listening experience—in front of the computer screen, or on your iPhone, or some other portable device—is just as physical, but with different attributes. And if you can’t concentrate, it’s your own fault. And I would agree. But recognizing that there is a greater physical experience surrounding our sensory favorite pastime is actually important—Merleau-Ponty talked about it, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone touches on it, and so does Antonio Damasio. We are not just minds experiencing mind stuff—our bodily being flavors the experience and makes it personal, memorable, and real. So Almond thinks that today’s music listeners have an impoverished experience of music compared to his own, because he sees his own way as being optimal in giving a more focused, less distracted understanding of the piece. Older concertgoers would have said the same thing about Almond’s turntable in the 1970s: an impoverished and distracted form of music experience compared to the fuller, more focused 2 hours at the symphony! In one respect we’re just talking about generations with different styles and technology. But in another respect each has a point: some physical environments simply lead to a more focused music experience, and some allow for more distractions. And if we’ve never experienced all our senses engaged in a musical experience, then we’ve lost something important.

2. Paul J. Moloney - April 10, 2010

I never could afford a decent stereo record player when I was young. Maybe that’s why I do not miss the LP era. I was not able to have the LP experience on a lousy record player. I have heard that the LP’s have a sound quality, a certain warmth or fullness, which CD’s have not duplicated. If they have that quality, I never recognized it on my record player. I would bemoan the fact, if it is true, that a good sound quality is lost forever. It would seem, though, that through technology the LP sound, without the drawbacks, could be replicated on CD’s. It might be that the better sound gives the better experience. It seems, for me at least, that CD’s can be just as inconvenient as LP’s, but I have the better experience.

The technology in video is amazing. When I watch the Disney classic cartoons from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, I realize that both the video and audio are better now then when they were first made and shown in the theaters. This brings up a question for the philosophy of music and art. Does the enhancement of the audio and video of a cartoon or movie change the nature of that cartoon or movie, or does the cartoon or movie remain essentially the same? When those cartoons were created by Walt and company they also created the potential for the future enhancement of the same cartoons.

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