Music of the Cloud

How We Listen in the Streaming Age

By Yonatan Collier

In 1966, the pianist and writer Glen Gould wrote that “the determination of the value of a work of art according to the information available about it is the most delinquent form of aesthetic appraisal.” Gould’s contention was that we are unable to judge music on its own merits; our judgment is clouded by what we know about the composer, the performer, their lives, their beliefs and so on. To bring the argument up to date, is it possible to judge Kanye’s new album based on just the music that it contains? Can we listen to the music without thinking of the man?

Fifty years ago, Gould came to the conclusion that “we have never really become equipped to adjudicate music per se.” Living as we are now, in an age of limitless information, it has arguably become even harder to separate the music we listen to from the information that surrounds it. These stories that surround music can have a limiting effect on our listening habits. We align ourselves with certain genres, certain stories, and disassociate ourselves from others. If I listen to Steve Reich I will probably dismiss Rihanna as being vapid; if I listen to Rihanna I will think that Reich is stuffy, dull.

Of course, these are generalizations, but in his new book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, Ben Ratliff challenges many of the ways we categorize music. In the book, he does indeed talk about Reich and Rihanna (and Cortijo y su Combo and James Brown…) in the same sentence.

This book styles itself as a kind of musical appreciation guide for the cloud era. When we can listen to pretty much every piece of recorded music in history at the touch of a button, often for free, our listening habits are unquestionably going to be different to those of listeners in the pre-Internet age. Ratliff is concerned that although we have an endless supply of new music to listen to, algorithms used by the likes of Spotify can lead to our listening habits becoming entrenched. “In many cases” he writes, “having rapidly acquired a new kind of listening brain — a brain with unlimited access — we dig very deeply and very narrowly, creating bottomless comfort zones in what we have decided we like and trust.”

He contends that genre labeling is an intrinsic part of this problem. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, he expanded on his ideas that “genre is a static idea. Genre is for merchants and spectators… as long as listening is served up to you by external forces based on notions of genre or other reductive categories, we have a problem. But it doesn't always need to be that way.”

There is some truth to this statement – record labels and record stores have certainly coined genres as a way to classify, and therefore more easily sell, recorded music. The fact that the names of many genres have been coined by musicians themselves, does however call into question the idea that genre is primarily for merchants.

In any case, Ratliff’s rejection of genre as an organizational tool does lead to some very interesting musical juxtapositions. More often that not, he organizes the chapters in his book by sound, and in this way he does perhaps show us a path away from the “delinquent” form of appraisal so deplored by Gould. He groups together pieces of music based on qualities such as “speed”, “repetition” and “closeness.” This allows for the unexpected musical combinations described above. For example, on repetition he writes that “the effect of repetition depends not on one figure being repeated identically and unaccompanied, but on a relative change moving against a relative constant, which is really the key to life’s riddle of time and gratification. Once you establish that, you can hear it in a piece of music by Rihanna and then make connections to other examples of musical repetition." He is therefore able to bring in music by Reich and James Brown, and perhaps open the door to our listening to all of these pieces of music in a new way.

Ratliff has been the principal jazz critic for the New York Times for the past twenty years, but he seems very comfortable across a wide range of genres. When discussing speed in music he compares Outkast with jazz pianist Bud Powell and 19th-century classical composer Franz Liszt. His writing as a jazz critic does seem to have prepared him for writing clearly about the music itself, while avoiding as much as possible the temptation to write about the artists involved or any of the other information that surrounds these tracks. An interesting anecdote from the Pitchfork interview has Ratliff recalling a conversation he had with music critic Greg Tate, who had worked at the Village Voice in the early eighties. Tate told him that the writers at the Voice “really loved the challenge of writing about an album without addressing the music at all. It was a Lester Bangs thing to do, to a certain extent, a wild stunt. And it was subversive because it was going against some stuffy obligations to describe certain things about a record.”

Writing about music in that way certainly no longer feels like a stunt; it feels like the norm. Ratliff’s "sound-first" approach is refreshing in a world where we all know what artists are saying on Twitter, while discussion of the music that they're making gets pushed farther and farther into the background, an afterthought to the conversation. He concludes: “I just think there is a lot of information right there in the music that shouldn't be ignored.”

Whether Ratliff’s approach will work for everyone is debatable. The kind of people who will put this amount of effort into listening probably already have varied tastes, and will most likely think deeply about the music they listen to. People who only listen to a handful of artists or a couple of genres are unlikely to seek this book out, or put the work into listening to playlists of this type, so Ratliff may well be preaching to the converted. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have something interesting to say. We are at the dawn of an age where we are all developing a new kind of relationship with recorded music, and it is illuminating to witness a writer grappling with the possibilities that this brings.

Published April 15th, 2016

Yoni Collier is a music producer, composer and writer who has been signed by (and then fallen out with) too many record labels to mention. He now freelances as this keeps arguments with colleagues to a minimum. He has written music for TV and award winning short films, and has worked as a producer with numerous artists. He also teaches music production at Leeds Beckett University.