Monday 13 April 2015

Ruth, on: listening to music with the left ear.

Marc, in our last blog post, wrote about spending eight months without listening to much in the way of music, at least, new music.

I've been lucky enough to have avoided this, but I've found something else happening to me since taking up musicianship on a "serious amateur" basis.

Until I started in Moss & Jones, although music was a huge part of my life (in terms of hearing the stuff; I rarely walked anywhere or got on a train or 'bus without my walkman/CDman/iPod/iPhone on) I rarely sought out new music; it kind of found me. I'd hear a song on the radio I liked and buy it; someone would recommend an album and I'd log into iTunes to download it; an artist I already liked would release an album and... well, you get the picture.

Also until I started in Moss & Jones, I never really thought about how the music made it from the band/musician/orchestra/soloist to my speakers. I suppose if I'd ever been asked I would have just guessed that they played a song, and someone pointed a microphone, and that was what happened. I never really paid much attention to arrangements and dynamics either; in fact, despite even having played the violin in an orchestra, so being well aware of how many different instruments can be involved in a piece of music, and how they can be introduced one by one, played at different times and so on... I never made the leap from that, to thinking of a composer, sitting down and adding all the parts together, arranging and slicing and making harmonies and so on.

I heard the music, but I never really listened.

Then I started going to open mic nights. In fact, this was pre-Moss & Jones; I'd been going to poetry open mics off and on since I was about 19 and reading my own work, but it was only when I met someone who convinced me my singing voice wasn't that awful (the Jones of Moss & Jones, in fact) that I learned some unaccompanied folk songs and sang them live instead. Obviously, in order to learn songs I had to find them and listen to them, and so began my interest in folk music, folk singers and folk bands, which expanded as time went on. My knowledge of folk started as being dimly aware that there was a bit more to it than Steeleye Span's version of Gaudete, to looking up Roud and Child Ballad numbers for songs, knowing the difference between a jig and a reel, and boring people to tears by telling them how the instrument most people associate with 'folk' (the acoustic guitar) is actually a relatively new addition, historically speaking. The more I learn about folk music, the more I realise I don't know, too, which is a heady mixture of thrilling and disconcerting.

Of course, nothing gets you a knowledge of the grass roots local music scene faster than 'touring' the local open mic nights and as such I started listening to many more local musicians than I ever had in my life. I started attending more and more gigs, and not epic sold-out arena gigs but small gigs by musicians that were well-known locally but barely heard of elsewhere. I discovered music via Soundcloud and Bandcamp which didn't have a hope of making it into the top 40 (or the top 200) but suited my tastes down to the ground.

But as time went on, something else started to happen too. The more I started to write music for Moss & Jones, and certainly after we visited Catalyst Studios for the first time, the more I started to notice what other people were doing in their music. I could no longer just hear a piece of music; I listened, too. I heard the arrangements in addition to the notes; it was like I had some kind aural equivalent of x-ray vision, where I could not only hear the flesh of the tune but also the skeleton it hung from. I was listening to the strings, for example, but also the point where they came in, how one violin would come in first, then another, then another in harmony, and so on, and where they'd leave, either suddenly, or one by one. I'd feel excitedly jarred by a surprising chord progression, and wonder what the musician had done. I'd get ideas; often for ways I could change or add to our own songs, but sometimes things I definitely didn't want us to do, too.

At gigs, not only would I be enjoying the gig and the stagecraft - I'd also be learning. I'd see how they got the audience involved at a certain point, and would turn to Marc and say, "we should do that", or occasionally, "we don't do that... do we?"

And it is still like that, now. I cannot listen to a piece of music without an ear to how it's been put together, and I can't go to a gig without applying it to our gigs; even if the genre is vastly different to our own. Even listening to the trance music I danced to in my early twenties, I analyse how it builds up and think of how that could be applied to a song or two of ours, for example, and there has been more than one occasion on which I've been listening to an indie tune I loved in my youth and thought "this should really be shorter. The last minute is just filler. Let's not do that with our songs". At the same time as I've fallen more deeply in love with music, I've also become a little more critical too.

But for all this, my love of music is never spent. It's just that I seem to be enjoying it in a far more analytical way than I ever did previously. I've even looked a little into the neuroscience and philosophy behind music; never too old to learn! Although I can no longer just hear and enjoy music without thinking about it, I certainly appreciate it an awful lot more, and am in awe of musicians even more than ever. I realise that "left brain versus right brain" is a false dichotomy, but for illustrative purposes, it would be fair to say, I'm listening now much more with my left ear.

Friday 10 April 2015

Marc eight months without music

A year ago I stopped listening to music. This wasn’t a sudden thing; I didn’t decide one day to ‘kick’ music, like I’d kicked cigarettes, or Twixes or going on cookdandbombd during working hours. I just gradually reached a point where I didn’t have any music on my mp3 player and didn’t listen to any during the working day.

I still came into contact with music, of course – you can’t be married to a gifted and knowledgeable musician without hearing a lot of good music on a daily basis, but as of one year ago, I stopped listening to, consuming, or buying music.

This development came as something of a surprise to me, and a worrying one at that. From my first listen to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band aged 11, I had been powerfully obsessed with music; initially with sixties pop and rock, then prog, then the guitar bands of the nineties, then classical and krautrock and chart pop and chanson and dub and baroque and … pretty much everything I came into contact with.

From the age of 15 I bought monthly music magazines, and the weekly ones as well for a good few years. Not a month would go by without me buying at least two albums and my ears were pretty much constantly ringing from persistent listening to an ever-changing selection of music on my ipod.

So what was it that caused one of the abiding passions of my life to wane?

It seems to me now that a variety of factors was at play: in 2005 an old interest re-entered my life: Doctor Who. Fandom being what it is, a pretty fearsome range of magazines, podcasts, blogs and forums became available and I was (and to a large extent still am) immersed in this. Podcasts like Radio Free Skaro and Toby Hadoke’sWho’s Round became permanent fixtures on my mp3 player, and my monthly purchases of The Word (RIP), Mojo or Record Collector were supplanted by Doctor Who Monthly.

Another change in my life was that, as of about six years ago, I started taking writing seriously (or at least trying to). As I’ve written more and more comedy and looked further into how to be good at this, I’ve found Stuart Goldsmith’s Comedians’ Comedian podcast an invaluable learning aid. Each week Stuart interviews a different stand-up about their writing methods and views on comedy. Additionally, since being lucky enough to be asked to do some ‘additional material’ writing on Radio 4’s The News Quiz and The Now Show, both these shows have been added to the weekly download list.

Adding all those up, it doesn’t leave much time in the week (or space on the mp3 player) to listen to music. This element of the situation isn’t something I regret; when I’m walking around on my lunchbreak, I’m not listening to Hex Enduction Hour for the seventieth time – I’m learning how to be better at something I want to be good at.

The question remains, though: I wasn’t listening to my old albums over and over again any more, but what was stopping me looking for new music? This, I think, is where there’s been some kind of fundamental change in me. Simply put: I used to care about What Bands Did, but I don’t any more.

There are, of course, exceptions to this: I made my first music magazine purchase in three or four years yesterday to read the Blur interview in Mojo and I avidly keep up with any news on Beatles reissues, bootlegs, biographies etc. But the part of me which would have cared that the original line-up of the Thirteenth FloorElevators is re-forming for a gig in Austin this summer is, if not dead, then certainly dormant.

Blur and The Beatles are both old bands, though. Didn’t I want to hear any NEW music? It seemed not. Whereas in the past I’d have Youtube’d a new song praised by Pitchfork, or taken up friends’ recommendations, for almost a year I just…didn’t.

I know, to my occasional shame, that there is ridiculous novelty and startling new music out there and I’m not bothering my soon-to-be-thirty-nine-year-old arse to find out about it. Perhaps all this is a function of aging: at this time of my life, I’d rather write thousand-word blog articles about there being no good music than use the very computer I’m sitting at RIGHT NOW to find some.

In summary, podcasts took the place of music in my daily listening and I didn’t bother to look for new music to be excited by.

One question which people might ask, arising from this, is: ‘How can someone playing in a committed, active musical group just stop listening to music?’ The answer is: I don’t know. Not listening to music in no way affected the high level of enjoyment I get out of playing, performing and recording with Moss & Jones. It would be neat (in the non-Californian sense) to be able to say being in a band while not listening to music made being in a band in some way experientially different but that wasn’t the case. I loved playing music in Moss & Jones when I was a raging harmoniaphile and I loved it when I wasn’t.

As you may have gathered from some of the tense-jumbling in this piece, my amusical days are now behind me. For the past four or so months, I’ve been listening to music again, and enjoying it. The catalysts for this have been…

a.) Last November, someone very generously gave us a car. I commute to work in said car at least one day per week and, given that I’ve not mastered the jiggery-pokery necessary to hook the mp3 player up to the stereo, I’ve been relying on the vehicle’s cd player, and my long-discarded crop of cds.

I can remember the first one of these I put on in the car, in a ‘God, I hope I still like music’ way: Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. I’d bought this years ago but never listened to it all the way through. Now, hearing it through reasonably good speakers at a time when I had forty minutes to do nothing but listen (and drive), was pretty much the ideal circs for reacquainting myself with enjoying music.

I wonder, in fact, if listening to so many compressed mp3s through cheap, hissy earphones was part of what put me off music in the first place? A podcast through crackly earphones is bearable, a favourite album is not.

b.) Over the past five or so months, a few of my musical faves have reappeared with new albums, giving me the incentive of hearing something ‘new’ while also knowing it’s something I’ll very probably like. A part of my soul rebels at typing those words: I used to pretty much despise people who only wanted to listen to stuff they already knew they’d like. I think at the moment, though, that new music by artists I’m familiar with is a good way of easing myself back into new music in general.

For the record, the music in question has been Half Man Half Biscuit’s Urge ForOffal, what I’ve heard so far of Blur’s forthcoming The Magic Whip and the utterly wonderful You and I Alone by Daphne and Celeste (if you’re not with me re that last choice, go and give their debut album a listen: 7/8ths of it is fantastic).

So, now I like music again. HOORAY! Looking back to that time, though, the notion that I’d somehow lost the ability to enjoy listening to music was a genuinely frightening one and I’m very grateful that that it seems to have passed.

One thing remains: the thing I most want to hear in all the world of music is Ridiculous Novelty. THAT’S what I miss, and it’s been a long time since something’s hit me like that. So, dear reader, this is open to you: What can I listen to that will surprise the FUCK out of me?