Tuesday 24 October 2017

Music: Why forgetting about genre is sound advice

Listening with fresh ears: Miley Cyrus and Pink Floyd are masters of the use of audio space, says music critic Ben Ratliff
Listening with fresh ears: Miley Cyrus and Pink Floyd are masters of the use of audio space, says music critic Ben Ratliff
John Meagher

John Meagher

On the face of it, the Grateful Dead, veteran drummer Roy Haynes, Pink Floyd, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Miley Cyrus have comparatively little in common. Even seeing Stockhausen - the visionary master of mid-20th Century electronic music - in the same sentence as the princess of twerking, seems utterly bizarre.

And yet, for the former jazz and pop critic of The New York Times, Ben Ratliff (inset), thinking of such artists in the same way is not strange at all. In fact, it might be the very best way to fully appreciate the true diversity of music that's out there.

Ratliff has written a daring new music-appreciation book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in the Age of Musical Plenty, which argues that in order to make the very most of all the millions of songs available to us thanks to streaming, we need to think differently.

So, in the chapter Getting Clear, which deals with audio space, he talks about how each of the aforementioned artists employ space, silence, pauses - call it what you will - in their music and the results are pretty special. And he appears to derive as much pleasure from Ms Cyrus's employment of space in the production of her songs as he does in the oeuvre of Pink Floyd.

Over the course of 20 essays - some provocative, some common-sense, some tricky to get your head around - he urges us to forget about genre (which he dismisses as "a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less") and attempt to listen to music with fresh ears.

That means constantly leaving our comfort zones and delving into areas we may choose to avoid. So, while Ratliff is best known among jazz aficionados, he finds much to celebrate in all strands of music - whether it's trying to find something new to say about the Beatles or declaring himself to be a Kesha-admirer.

The New Yorker was in Dublin last weekend as a guest speaker at the Hard Working Class Heroes festival and, when I catch up with him, he says the vast bounty of easily accessible music available to all of us is a cause for celebration, not castigation. "There's so much talk about information overload, but how great is it that - at the touch of our fingertips we have millions of songs to listen to, often for free, or for little more than $10 a month?"

Ratliff accepts that sometimes when faced with so much choice, it can be difficult to know where to begin, but argues that access to music now is truly democratic and an environment in which the adventurous music fan can truly prosper.

And rather than expect the algorithms employed by all the streaming companies to help you find really interesting new music, he suggests taking a thematic approach - such as 'speed' - which can bring the listener on a journey from Liszt to Jerry Lee Lewis and onto OutKast.

One of his book's most compelling chapters focuses on 'sadness', which finds common ground in such disparate names as Mozart, Nick Drake and Slayer. As with each chapter, it comes with suggested playlist - handily available on Spotify - and when you listen to Ratliff's wildly eclectic selection, you can't help but feel there's something utterly invigorating about taking such scant regard for genre boundaries.

He is anxious to point out that such playlists - and the artists he mentions in his book - are jumping off points to new discoveries, and are not prescriptive. "I want to show people what's possible when you start approaching music in a different way," he says.

"I'm not writing about a ­canon, or saying these are the artists and songs you must listen to if you want to truly get the most out of music." In that regard, his book is markedly different to the acknowledged classic of music appreciation, Aaron Copland's mid-20th Century opus What to Listen for in Music. And yet, ironically, he says it was such books that set him on the road to writing his own music appreciation volume.

Ratliff estimates that new music accounts for two-thirds of his daily consumption, with the remaining third devoted to comfort listening, to those artists like John Coltrane that he returns to time and again (and of whom he wrote an acclaimed biography).

"There's nothing wrong with listening to music for comfort," he says, "and if you're a Bob Dylan fan who wants to hear every version of every song he ever recorded, streaming will allow you to do that, and that's fine. But it will also allow you to make discoveries from different centuries and cultures that can enrich your cultural life, and that you may not have encountered otherwise."

Ratliff is sceptical of the power of such curated playlists as Spotify's Discover Weekly. "When I first started using it, I was really taken aback by how some of the selections seemed to know my tastes so well," he says, "but then I'd be almost insulted by how poor the other choices were."

As with most such services, Spotify employs a complex algorithm to work out what music users may enjoy, but despite suggestions that these programmes are getting smarter, they're still built around the idea of introducing us to new music that's often in the same ballpark as the stuff we already love.

"You, the listener, hold the power," Ratliff writes in his book, "but only if you listen better than you are being listened to." Sound advice.

* David Bowie fans might be tempted to descend on the Olympia, Dublin, tomorrow night for the Starman tribute show, but if it's the real thing you're after, there's been plenty of intriguing Bowie-related music being unveiled of late with an early version of Young Americans, The Gouster, seeing the light of day some weeks back while this Friday will see the release of the cast version of the Lazaurus stage musical that was on Broadway around the time of his death in January.

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