The Comfort in Listening
Harnessing the calming effect of music to help get us through challenging times.
I haven’t quite settled into the writing rhythm, and putting last week’s newsletter together was a struggle. The working-at-home aspect isn’t a big deal as that’s where I’ve worked for most of my (sorta-)professional life. But the background hum of uncertainty, concern, and — let’s face it — fear throws new challenges into the mix.
I’m not alone in walking a tightrope between ‘now’s the time to get stuff done’ and ‘take it easy for your mental health.’ It’s an unusual juggling act, at least for me. I miss the days — they seem so long ago — when I would get lost entirely in creative tasks, the mind focused straight ahead for hours. It’s been like that for a while, but lately, the distraction dial goes to 11.
It’s about reclaiming space, throwing that bellowing inner voice off to the side. It’s a modern ploy to call this act ‘ mindfulness,’ and I’ve regularly meditated for years, but that’s not helping right now. We need solace and beauty — something that whispers hope. We need art now more than ever.
In my review of Jogging House’s beautiful album , I talk about music as an optimistic glimpse at what’s possible. I quote Brian Eno: “One of the reasons one makes music, or any kind of art, is to create the world that you’d like to be in or the world that you would like to try.” And, in the case of music, the listener experiences a taste of this world by losing herself in the sound.
Pioneering experimental composer Pauline Oliveros called this ‘deep listening.’ Deep Listening originally was the title of an album Oliveros recorded with her ‘Deep Listening Band’ in an empty underground reservoir. The space featured a natural 45-second reverb tail, creating washes of sound out of the trombone, didjeridu, accordion, and other employed instruments. There’s no resisting this immersion in sound.
But ‘deep listening’ was soon synonymous of a “radical attention.” Oliveros explained this interpretation as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.” It’s the opposite of how most people (myself included) stream music: in the background as a complement to our mood, office productivity, or housework. With deep listening, you LISTEN — no other activity is in the foreground.
Deep listening pops up in Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, which I recommended a few newsletters ago. Odell poses the concept as a resistance to a constant inundation of information and newsfeeds. Oliveros and deep listening also appear in Kyle Chayka’s The Longing For Less, which I’m presently reading. Chayka writes, “Such intense listening is meant to inspire compassion and understanding, a kind of acceptance that goes beyond the noisy concerns of the current moment that usually crowd our consciousness.”
Chayka, citing Oliveros, refers to this listening as “meditating on the organic sounds of nature and experiencing the resonance of unique spaces like caves, cathedrals, or wells.” But our present crisis makes it difficult to go out in public to explore these places. In quarantine, we need to listen deeply at home.
In the Los Angeles Times, Randall Roberts proposes a different take on deep listening: we should do it with albums. Silence your phone and any other potential distractions, set the mood (“Light a candle or not.”), sit comfortably between two speakers or put some nice headphones on, and listen — really listen — to an album from beginning to end. Lose yourself in the sound. Examine the lyrics and the performances. Imagine where the music is taking place. Roberts says, “The point is to listen with your ears in the same way you read with your eyes.”
Though not emphasizing the ‘deep’ aspect, Amanda Petrusich wrote about the reassuring qualities of listening to a favorite album in The New Yorker. (Side note: that article has the coolest gif and I wish I could steal it.) She refers to one album as “a reliable and instantaneous balm, no matter what’s happening to me or the world.” Petrusich also offers this: “The best thing about records is that, even when you don’t have anything left to give, they keep showing up for you.”
I propose we regularly set time aside to lose ourselves in albums. Choose an album and listen without productivity or house chores on the agenda. What should you listen to? A new album is fun, but hearing something for the first time might be too much work. No playlists allowed — only an intentional album song sequence will do. A favorite album or one that’s attached to nostalgia is good. Maybe an album you like but haven’t listened to more than a few times. Or perhaps listen to an album you’ve enjoyed but have only heard in the background while working or cooking or all the other things. Give it the attention it deserves.
Listen. Sit in one place, close your eyes if that’s comfortable for you, and listen with purpose. Pick out all the instruments, hear the acoustics (natural or digital) they’re playing in, follow the lyrics, note how the sequence flows. It could be tricky — sitting still is for meditators, not music buffs. But don’t give up. There will be a moment that you forget what’s going on in this world, replacing it with a “world that you would like to try.” That moment’s why we’re doing this.
This post was adapted from Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, a weekly newsletter loosely about music-making, music-listening, and how technology changes the culture around those things. Click here to check out the latest issue and subscribe.