A big part of my love for music is thinking about it. I think about music and how it fits into my life and the lives of others. These thoughts include what songs personally mean to me, why certain songs resonate more with people than others, the history of music, and even what songs would sound great in film soundtracks.
Sometimes these thoughts can be extremely complex and hard to define. After all, even though I claim music is a big part of my life because I actively listen to it, play it, and talk about it, I also recognize there is so much of it I don’t have the education and experience to articulate. I read a book a few months ago about how people listen to music. It wasn’t long, but it was a challenging read. The book was Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty by Ben Ratliff. In twenty essays, Ratliff identifies and discusses twenty distinct ways to listen to music. The reason for this was because though we live in a society where we have the technology to access any kind of music from any part of the world at any time, our personal tastes are still homogenized.
Disregarding music categories like genre because they are commercial constructs, Ratliff focuses specifically on qualities in music that encourage people to listen to music with an open-mind. Focusing on musical concepts and ideas such as speed, silence, density, improvisation, repitition, loudness, and other qualities, Ratliff breaks down each quality and observes their distinct traits. Ratliff also provides a playlist of suggests artists and tracks that exemplify each trait.
I was reminded of this book recently after participating in a music study. A friend of mine in the community radio station I volunteer with advertised they had a friend who was studying sociology at the University of Chicago. They were gathering information on how people interpret and describe music using adjectives. Having some free time, I decided to participate.
In front of me on a desk were several dozen index cards with a single bold-faced word on each one. Prickly, sexual, sticky, round, masculine, hot, dry, and other words were there to be selected to describe the music I was hearing. The student would play me a sample of a track I had to pick five words to describe the music. I had to describe what I was hearing and explain my reasoning while including any associations I may have like specific artists, genres, or memories. It was tougher than it sounds.
After doing this for twelve songs, the student told me the artists and tracks she used. There are songs by familiar artists such as Tiffany, Tiny Tim, and My Bloody Valentine, but the clips she selected made them sound alien and unrecognizable when played on their own. I didn’t know some of the other artists, but one had me really intrigued.
Califone was one of the artists selected for this study. Looking back, I remember I was really struck by the clip I heard. There were no vocals in the clip. Just hard percussion and a swampy sound. When talking about it, I kept drawing connections to the musical style of T-Bone Burnett (specifically to his 2006 album The True False Identity). After being told to not think about the Burnett association, I described the track as being swampy though that word was not one of the words on the index cards. So, I had to find other ways to convey a swampy sound.
“Electric Fence” by Califone is a swampy song. It is an oddly lumbering and menacing sounding track that evokes a darker side of a place like Louisiana. The drums are heavy and the guitar murky. From a production value, the track sounds hazy and dissonant. Even when the vocals come in, they sound soft and almost distorted as if being sung from beneath water. The track was incredibly exciting and piqued my interest, but having to describe it in a controlled exercise took me really into it. I didn’t know anything about Califone, but I left thinking this is a band I need to keep on my radar.
It is interesting to think about music in alternate ways that challenge our previous conception. This experiment was really a mental exercise. It was fun, but I didn’t find it easy. Everyone will, of course, come to different conclusions on how they interpret these sounds. And that is a remarkable idea. To know that different people can interpret different things from the same source speaks volumes about the power of music. You end up seeing patterns and references you hadn’t noticed before, but were always there. In fact, when leaving the radio station where the experiment was held, I saw a Califone poster hanging on the wall.