(This review first appeared at Spectrum Culture on March 2, 2017.)
I have a good friend from high school who plays the tabla. He took up the Indian instrument in the mid-‘90s, when he was just a Jewish kid in central-Jersey, listening to Talk Talk and Ozric Tentacles and Bela Fleck. One of the local college radio stations, Princeton University’s fiercely eclectic WPRB, had (and still has) a regular Saturday morning show devoted to Indian music of all stripes, and that’s how he’d first heard the sound and become obsessed. Not long after first exposure, he was taking lessons from Lenny Seidman, a Jewish guy from Philadelphia whose studio of young protégés was curiously well-populated with young Jewish kids from the suburbs. The next decade or so would take him from New Jersey to CalArts in SoCal, then to the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, and on to Kolkata, India, all in pursuit of mastery on an instrument he’d first heard by chance on the radio.
At this point, the two of us don’t get together all that often, but not too long ago we spent a late evening drinking beer and listening to strange music. The beer wasn’t memorable, but the music has stayed with me, from Morton Feldman to Kool Keith, Scritti Politti to Kneebody. At some point we talked about how much had changed since high school and the days of digging through dusty bins of used LPs, CDs and cassettes at our local independent record mecca. Interestingly enough, this friend of mine now works on music recommendations at Spotify, so it’s certainly not lost on him (or on me) how much easier it now is to get your ears around strange music, new or old. Back then, pre-internet, it used to take real effort (and real money), and it wasn’t at all unusual to go weeks or months without being able to hear something you’d never heard before. Now you can just dial up whatever you might want (and a whole lot more that you probably don’t want besides). My friend speculated that if he’d been a teenager now instead of then, he probably would have heard the intriguing sounds of the tabla and then spent a few days obsessively listening to whatever he could find online before moving on to something else, his future life’s trajectory not significantly altered.
Ben Ratliff’s book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty is ostensibly about this sea change in how we encounter and acquire new music. In the introduction he makes a compelling case for what it means to be “listening in the time of the cloud” by suggesting that we as listeners/consumers are more powerful now than ever before. He says that that power exists primarily in the form of potential, which we can choose to use (or not), and he warns that our power could be used against us (as streaming services like Apple Music, Pandora and Spotify charge us to listen while collecting our data for free). Ratliff argues that well-used potential could take the form of “a fresh kind of aural reception, an ability to size up a song and contextualize it in a new or personal way, rather than immediately rejecting it based on an external idea of genre or style.”
Of course, this more democratic approach to listening has always been available. It’s just that file-sharing and music streaming services have made much more music available to a much larger segment of the population. (It’s no longer just the obsessives with money and proximity to a good record store who are empowered to trek to the furthest reaches of the musical landscape.) In that sense, Every Song Ever is not so much about the vast potential of the cloud as it is about how we could listen and what we could listen for. To that end, each one of the book’s 20 chapters is devoted to a specific sonic quality that can be found in a wide variety of musical forms and styles; there are, for instance, chapters about repetition, speed, virtuosity, sadness, density, improvisation and so on. And the songs and symphonies and other selections that Ratliff highlights traverse a wide variety of musical styles and traditions.
But why, in the time of the cloud, is Ratliff’s book not accompanied by some sort of online or otherwise digital component? Each chapter is followed by a handy list of the musicians and works discussed in the pages that precede it. Ratlif could have easily provided playlists for each chapter on a preferred streaming service. No matter. It was easy enough to put together the playlists myself, turning to YouTube for the few selections that weren’t available on Spotify. True to the book’s title, (nearly) everything was readily available online. Even something like Janet Cardiff’s 40-speaker sound installation, “The Forty Part Motet,” yielded several pages of relevant results on YouTube. There was only one possible exception: Chapter 10, subtitled “Endless Inventory,” deals with the completist impulse and its failure in the face of hyper-prolific artists like Fela Kuti, Merzbow and the Grateful Dead. Still, even much of that can be tracked down with the right torrent search.
Ratliff’s prose, meanwhile, is clear enough and his ideas are thought-provoking if not altogether compelling. He’s been a music critic for The New York Times for over two decades, and has clearly been a sensitive and enthusiastic music listener for much longer than that, so there’s reason for him to claim authority on the subject. At the same time, his tone can tend toward being too authoritative, with his statements on a given topic at times veering sharply toward pronouncement in a way that might be off-putting to some. Consider an assertion like this: “Speed has no practical purpose in music. It doesn’t inherently increase or enhance the feeling of the notes themselves, or the listener’s physical pleasure.” Maybe so. Maybe not. Ratliff is reliably able to make a compelling case for his ideas—when he takes the time to do so—but I found that statements like these made me want to talk it out, to better understand where Ratliff might be coming from, to offer conflicting arguments or counterexamples and, ultimately, to listen to more music. Admittedly, that’s not a bad outcome for a book dedicated to listening more and listening more effectively.