Friday, June 17, 2016

Book: Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty by Ben Ratliff


Ben Ratliff is one of the leading music writers for the New York Times and I originally became familiar with him through his jazz reviews and his two books, one about jazz in general and another on the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. In this book he looks at ways that music can be listened to in the "age of everything." He asks you work with a conceit at the start: "everything" really isn't available to steam at the tap of a key, but so much is that the (unstated) implication is that albums and genres are dead and we will have to find new ways to regiment our listening. I was originally interested in this book because some of the chapter headings and the ways that he posits listening to music is similar to the way I write about music in my blog. I have no musical training, so I write as a purely emotional response to what I am hearing. Ratliff does too, but he also goes quite deep into the nuts and bolts of the music itself, and I think that if you have knowledge of musical theory you will get more out of the book than I did. It also depends on how deep you want to go with the narrative as well. I tried to read the book for enjoyment and just regular reading pleasure, but again you probably need to go long and have one hand on the book and another tracking down the streams of the music that he writes about. There are many references to classical music and they really left me in the dust. Which isn't to say that I got nothing from the book, there were some very interesting parts, his chapter entitled Purple, Green Turquoise talked about how people become de facto investors in music and groups/musicians, although often by buying the very items that streaming looks to erase. He writes about collectors of Grateful Dead tapes and a man who is doing a quantitate analysis of Phish concerts. This leads him down his own personal rabbit hole of John Coltrane's music and then to vast catalogs of Merzbow. He writes well of the "authoritative" voices of Muddy Waters, Mark E. Smith and Nina Simone and juxtaposing the Miles Davis' tracks "Rated X" and "He Loved Him Madly." His look at volume teases Blue Cheer records and The Who Live at Leeds versus the loudness war of today. So yes, there are moments of insight in the book that I found very interesting. In the end though, it was just a little too much, Ratliff's knowledge and analysis on everything from classical music to Senegalese pop just made him sound like the smartest guy in the room, which he undoubtedly is. Do people listen to music in the way he proposes? He doesn't cover that in the book. I stream a lot of music, even ponying up to the premium tier of Spotify, and I still usually listen by album or "starred" playlist of songs I like, but I wouldn't think of linking the songs in the manner that Ratliff suggests. It may just be that he sees connections where I do not... and that would go a long way towards explaining why he is writing for the New York Times and I am writing a blog that is read by a few dozen people! Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty - amazon.com

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