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Background Noise or Fuel for the Artist? 

The extraordinary evolution of recordings has vastly changed music’s identity and purpose in the twenty-first century. I have become interested in questions about the ways in which recordings enable solitary listening. For this project, I undertook a series of interviews with a diverse group of listeners in order to gain better understanding of how these developments have impacted people’s listening. These interviews particularly take up the roles of catharsis, social interaction, and repeatability in the listening experience.

As numerous scholars have shown, the evolution of recordings has profoundly affected how we listen to music and relate to it. Recordings have expanded our opportunities to be inward with music, thus fueling our emotional state and creativity. Recorded music also changes the social interaction involved in the listening process. The work of two scholars, Evan Eisenberg and Eric F. Clarke, that considers how the evolution of music has been altered by the prevalence of recordings proved to be especially important to this project. Eisenberg and Clarke helped me highlight themes that are taken up in my interviews, notably catharsis, social interaction, and repeatability.

In the now-classic book by Evan Eisenberg, “The Recording Angel” (Eisenberg, Evan. The Recording Angel: Music, Records, and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. Print). Eisenberg explored the effects of recordings on one’s experience with music from many angles. In one chapter, Eisenberg discussed listening in terms of the subtle process of catharsis. Catharsis is defined as, “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” Eisenberg wrote:

Catharsis, on the other hand, seems to depend on active listening, and here records come into their own. In some ways they are even better than concerts: they address us more intimately and allows us more choice, so more self-expression. The problem is that our self-expression comes prepackaged; and we lose the desire to express ourselves the hard way, with our own arms and lungs. And despite Aristotle, despite Nina, my experience as a bad amateur is that it is the best catharsis. It will be a tragedy if, because of records, our standards become so inflexible that we cannot be happy amateurs. Then we will still be amateurs of music in the old sense-we will still lover her-but as one loves a movie star, not a wife. We wont make love to her. And our souls will have shrunk. (p. 208)

Catharsis can provide intellectual pleasure and satisfaction yet, it simply does not happen on demand. It is a process that requires active listening. One must be in tune with the music of choice rather than treating it as a mere background.

The use of headphones gives one the ability to feel that one has escaped the city’s noise and chaos, and they can intensify the listening experience, because they make one feel “inside” the music. The evolution of ear buds and the extreme portability of listening (via IPods and similar devices) today allows one to escape from the chaos of daily life behind a veil of personal music yet, this experience provides a false sense of catharsis. In the twenty-first century, headphones are usually a mean of escape— an alternative to silence—not an avenue to the deep experience of music needed for catharsis. The desire to be inside a record is made graphic by the desert island fantasy. It simply recreates a lofty and superficial experience in order to derail oneself from the chaos of everyday life.Catharsis is quite incompatible with the desire to shield oneself from the world with music.  Thus, there is a significant difference between the use of headphones as a shield against other external sounds and the experience of being energized creatively or emotionally by music through the process of catharsis.

Eric F. Clarke author of The Impact of Recording on Listening”(Twentieth-Century Music 4.01 (2007).).Clarke argues that the development of recording is the most significant change to have affected music in the twenty first century. One now has access and patterns of use in so many different ways unlike before. Clarke highlights the diverse range of listening practices and the repeatability of music in our everyday life; in other words, the ability to listen to favorite recordings many, many times—something that is really was not possible in earlier times when music could only be heard in live performances.

Like Eisenberg, Clarke accentuates the way that recorded music now often consumes one’s daily activities. Music is present in advertisements, boutiques, grocery stores, cinema, athletics, as well as in the seclusion of one’s bedroom, living room, and throughout the home. However, recordings eliminate the visual aspects of music. As a result, music today is no longer an object of visual interest. As Clarke observes, when listening to recordings:

The instruments and performers are confusingly entangled with the unrelated real objects (bookshelves, wastepaper baskets, potted plants, tables, and chairs) that are also ‘there’. Closing your eyes and allowing the virtual space to have free reign is one solution, but this can be socially unacceptable, either because others in the room may be unsure whether you have simply gone to sleep, or because it implies a visible withdrawal from the social context and an immersion in intensely private world that people may find unsettling offensive. Making eye contact with anyone else in the room, however, is not an option, since that kind of gaze either seems to invite the very response that focused listening prohibits (a spoken comment, a smile, some gesture of communication), or seems to convey some type of invitation or challenge-to be too ‘meaningful’. (Page 64)

In this analysis Clarke highlights the awkwardness that is potentially associated with listening to recorded music with other individuals present. Inwardness is often awkward in social context and is better suited for the solitary listening which recordings have made possible. This type of solitary listening is, I think, particularly conducive to the inwardness needed for the catharsis that Eisenberg describes. Compared to live performed music, recorded music does not foster social interaction but rather an intensely individualistic experience.

Although recorded music in the era of the IPod no longer stimulates the particular social interactions that it once did, whether through live performance or even on the gramophone or record player, the repeatability helps re-live a particular moment or gratifying experience that one would not otherwise have. Clarke stresses the importance and birth of repeatability by means of recordings. This repeatability has single handedly contributed to the “record buying public.” Clarke stated:

Recordings allow a listener to repeat a gratifying experience, to hear again music played in exactly the same way. We have become so accustomed to that possibility that it now seems almost too obvious to mention; but before the widespread availability of recordings, the breadth and depth of listeners’ musical experiences were determined by local circumstances.

Not only does the repeatability of recordings provide accessibility and convenience but also enable a particular gratifying listening experience that allows one to be nostalgic and deeply moved without the awkwardness that might arise in a social context.

As you can see, Eisenberg and Clarke both demonstrate that the evolution of recordings has impacted the ways in which one engages with solitary listening in the forms of catharsis, social interaction, and repeatability in the listening experience. The knowledge I gained from Eisenberg and Clarke prompted and aided me to conduct a series of interviews (http://wordpress.clarku.edu/musicresearch/with a diverse group of working professionals in the music industry and scholars to better understand how the role of catharsis, social interaction, and repeatability of music manifest in listeners today. The interviews I did exhibit all of these various characteristics however; two individuals in particular exhibited that it is possible for catharsis to manifest in different distinctive behaviors. In here interview with me, the gifted writer, Sam Reed explained that she incorporates music everyday into her life however; she particularly uses catharsis as a way to fuel her creativity when writing. Reed stated:

Music and words inhabit the same place for me, I have lived my life by them; words are what I do, they are my outlet, how I make a living, what I hope to be my career; music is my heartbeat for that. Music is such an enlightened thing, it is universal, you can hear songs in a language you don’t understand and still intuit what is being said just from how the song is put together, the inflection, the tempo, the base. Khalil Gibran, one of my favorite poets, said ‘Music is the language of the Spirit’. I think that sum it up perfectly.

Reed may incorporate music into her daily life including her house, her car, walking down the street, in the shower, and even simultaneously while watching television yet, she solely chooses a cathartic experience to deeply affect her creative process in the midst of her craft.

Edwin Barnett, MD on the other hand, is quite different in his listening practices of choice. Barnett relatively older than Reed grew up listening to jazz records at the young age of nine years old. It became a ritual every Friday and Saturday night with his father that developed into his adulthood. Barnett stated:

It was his ritual on two weekday nights but especially on Friday and Saturday nights. He would listen to a stack of 40 records at a time, continually stacking the records on top of each other. He never put the individual records back in their sleeves; that was my job to do on Sunday night. I loved to look at each record in the stack, wondering what it sounded like.

Barnett’s love of music started with the connection with his father. To this day, Barnett’s evenings after longs days of hard work at the Harlem Hospital in New York City similarly revolve around the ritual of listening to jazz on an LP record like his father. Unlike many listeners, Barnett actively listens in the privacy of his own home as a means of escape rather than an ignition of creativity.

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