The rock critic Lester Bangs dreamed of having a basement filled with every album of music ever made. This idea makes more sense from a collector’s perspective than a listener’s—the sense of completion is what’s important here, rather than the practical ability to actually enjoy that immense amount of media. Choosing one object out of so many can be psychologically incapacitating, hence the store layout of Trader Joe’s and the design of a Chipotle’s menu—and, from a musical standpoint, Igor Stravinsky’s thought that “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.” If one wants to discover new music, just having it available in one’s basement (or computer or phone or local library) isn’t enough. There has be a “Lester Bangs Decimal System” to help you find the music you weren’t necessarily looking for, something that replaces the old experience of thumbing through used LPs at a record store, where it was possible to make intuitive choices based on album art or the supporting players on a session.
Every on-demand music service available today has some kind of discovery mechanism. Pandora automatically feeds you music based on resemblance to chosen artists and songs you’ve previously voted up or down. Spotify and Apple Music also feature Pandora-type “radio stations” based on genre, as well as custom playlists, created for particular social situations, and occasionally, filtered with an eye to a deeper aesthetic focus. In his new book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff criticizes these streaming service discovery mechanisms. Ratliff writes that these mechanisms make recommendations based on extra-musical data such as genre—data that has a commercial rather than aesthetic aim. Instead of passively accepting these arbitrary recommendations, Ratliff encourages the reader to take a more active role in discovering meaningful music, by listening for the particular characteristics deeply embedded in any piece of music.
While Ratliff’s book is inspired by a seemingly timely predicament, his interest in the subjective experience of listening has been a long-running project. Ratliff’s 2007 book on John Coltrane, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, is as much about how others heard and reacted to Coltrane’s music as it was about examining Coltrane’s own intent as an improviser. His later book The Jazz Ear, a collection of interviews with noted jazz musicians originally published in the Times, focused on how musicians listened rather than how they played (or perhaps more aptly, how their means of listening impacted their playing). Even as a reviewer working week in and week out, Ratliff luxuriates in his personal, subjective experience of diverse musical works, rather than utilizing outside context to divine a performer’s intent. Only Ratliff could name avant-garde saxophonist Steve Coleman’s bristling and knotty Harvesting Semblances and Affinities as his favorite album and Kesha’s “Your Love is My Drug” as his favorite song from the same year. In Every Song Ever, Ratliff is in some way letting the reader in on his poetic and free-associative approach to listening—an approach that has allowed Ratliff to continually receive satisfaction from the otherwise the intimidating deluge of music he interacts with on a daily basis.
This listener-centric approach to writing about music puts Ratliff at odds with other writers who have published how-to listening guides. Composer Aaron Copland’s seminal What to Listen for in Music (which Ratliff cites in his introduction) argues from the perspective of the composer. For Copland, the composer tries to communicate something meaningful to the listener, and it is the listener’s job to develop a suitable vocabulary with which to perceive this meaning. While Milton Babbitt’s article “The Composer as Specialist” (aka “Who Cares if You Listen”) may have come from a very different musical mind than Copland’s, the composer-oriented perspective is the same. In Babbitt’s case, he knows that the music for which he is advocating will be unfamiliar and forbidding for almost anyone on first hearing, yet he encourages his audience to listen beyond their initial confusion in the hopes of gradually assimilating these new sounds and structures.
As Ratliff notes in the introduction, these composer-centric approaches are adequate for listening to Western classical music, but less so for music from other cultures—that is, music where the performer is the primary transmitter of information, and/or music that accompanies social situations occurring outside the concert hall. This inability of the classically-trained ear to effectively come to terms with non-classical music was famously put on full display in a 1995 issue of The Wire, where composer Karlheinz Stockhausen critiqued the work of intelligent dance music artists like Aphex Twin. Stockhausen, who got completely hung up on the danceable nature of the music and encouraged the artists to “immediately stop with these post-African repetitions,” was unable to conceive of music that sought to move listeners’ bodies while simultaneously tickling the mind.
Ratliff’s job is thus a difficult one: he is trying to articulate a way of listening appropriate for infinitely varied musical traditions, yet one that also retains space for aesthetic value judgments. The desire is to acknowledge the differences between apples and oranges while being able to say this certain apple is more delicious than this other orange. In Every Song Ever, Ratliff makes a valiant stab at establishing a holistic listening aesthetic for the twenty-first century. Over the course of the book, Ratliff makes a host of creative comparisons between disparate pieces of music, opening the door to even more thorough cross-examinations of what makes music work.
Every Song Ever’s subtitle—“Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty”—is a bit of a misnomer. While the book is divided into twenty chapters, each chapter focuses on a different “what” of music, adding up to a singular “how.” Some of the topics of Ratliff’s discussion can be described as physical properties of music—repetition, slowness and speed (tempo), and loudness and softness (dynamics). Other topics tend to fall outside of the music itself, many times inhabiting the space between music creator and music receiver—community and exclusivity, virtuosity, and the particularly abstract and poetic “wasteful authority.” In each chapter, Ratliff describes these different musical parameters, discussing how they’re carried out, what they represent, and how they can impact a listener. Ratliff then goes on to discuss how these parameters are featured across a wide variety of musical recordings, linking pieces in terms of the shared aesthetic experiences they engender, rather than through surface details.
In the opening chapter on repetition, for instance, Ratliff takes a deep dive into the James Brown tune “Ain’t It Funky Now”. The song is an elemental collection of Brown’s characteristic musical strategies, laid out one at a time—a percolating drum beat offset by a rock solid bass line, then a staccato lead guitar line over top of chang-a-langing rhythm guitar, then Brown riffing with trademark stock phrases. Ratliff’s description has the same structure and timing as the song itself, which helps bring the reader into Brown’s soundworld. At the end of the passage, Ratliff notes the final words that Brown utters: “Let me concentrate!” From there, Ratliff expounds on the means by which repetition allows the listener to zero in on the nuances of other musical parameters. In the case of “Ain’t It Funky Now”, the listener will no longer just recognize the existence of the guitars, bass, drums, and Brown’s voice, but the particular colors of the instruments and the small irregularities in the motoric rhythm parts.
With this idea of concentration established, Ratliff moves to a very different piece by a very different creator—Steve Reich’s piece Four Organs from 1970. While it might not immediately occur to a music historian to write about these two pieces in the same book, let alone on the same page, Ratliff shows how Four Organs creates a similar feeling of focus as “Ain’t It Funky Now”. In Reich’s composition, a single organ sonority is built up gradually over the course of the piece, while a pair of maracas beats out an unvarying pulse, allowing the listener to luxuriate in the chord’s bright dissonances and the electronic Farfisa organs’ warbling timbres.
As a reader (perhaps unusually) more familiar with Four Organs than with “Ain’t It Funky Now”, I found myself listening to Brown’s music with a new mindset. Listening to “Sex Machine” (which was the next track on a James Brown compilation I had checked out), I felt myself finding a surprisingly Zen aura in the music, beyond the energetic crackle of the drums and Brown’s rich vocal delivery. I tuned into the piece’s repetitions in a new way, making the shift to the song’s bridge feel like a big classical modulation. I would think that after reading the same passage, a James Brown fan might have a similarly potent experience with Four Organs.
Yet referencing such a wide range of music (or any type of thing for that matter) can lead to a couple of writing pitfalls—the writer can come off as glib and self-important, and the writer can lose the thread of the main argument. Ratliff deals with the first pitfall quite well. By placing his own whims and subjectivity front-and-center, Ratliff ensures that he never comes off as a know-it-all, someone who has the all the musical answers. Even when he makes what seems like a blanket statement, it is done so in a way that foregrounds his personality. In a chapter on loudness, Ratliff spends a fair amount of time comparing two musical styles well known for their high volume—punk and metal. After describing different musical examples, he distills those styles thusly: “Punk is busking and journalism and dogma and accountability and unity and the humanities. Metal is virtuosity and philosophy and disposition and rumor and misanthropy and science.” This rambling, poetic description positions Ratliff as an enthusiastic listener who’s still figuring out his own relationship to the music, rather than as a scholarly authority for whom the music is a closed book.
While Ratliff remains an affable musical guide throughout, there are points where his original aim recedes far from view. Some of the same poetic descriptions that make Ratliff such a personable writer can obscure the book’s overarching form. Some deep dives into certain songs feel like loosely related tangents, or the beginnings of a completely different book. In his chapter on virtuosity, Ratliff spends a lot of time comparing the work of two virtuosic jazz musicians—pianist Art Tatum and vocalist Sarah Vaughan. While Ratliff does a good job articulating the nebulous nature of what virtuosity can be by comparing the musicians’ disparate crafts, I didn’t come away from the chapter with a new way of hearing their music, nor with any insights into how these modes of virtuosity compare with those from other musical traditions. The discussion of virtuosity was more about the music than the experience of being in it, and it is the latter perspective that animates the best sections of Every Song Ever.
In addition to the issue of focus, Ratliff’s mode of listening primarily emphasizes music’s vertical axis—the experience of musical moments—over its horizontal one—the experience of moments changing through time. Ratliff does mention the proverbial “Law of Two-Thirds” that stipulates the climax of a long piece of music typically occurs two-thirds of the way through (or, depending on whom you ask, near the golden ratio), and he devotes a chapter to how very long songs affect the listener’s own meta-cognition, creating a sensation that the mind is actually holding more information than is believed possible.
However, the greater emphasis is on the experience of particularly arresting sounds that can be perceived in a relatively short time frame, even in cases where the piece in question is quite long (something true of Ratliff’s discussion of the sensation of density in Georg Friedrich Haas’s Limited Approximations for six microtonally-tuned pianos and orchestra). Ratliff doesn’t talk about how motivic development that takes a comprehensible musical object and manipulates its shape in real time can create musical momentum and a sense of inevitability—whether in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Sonny Rollins’s discursive solos on “St. Thomas” or “Blue 7”. He doesn’t talk about the power of juxtaposing highly contrasting musical materials through time, whether in the works of Stravinsky or John Zorn or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. While the concepts of motivic development and juxtaposition have most commonly been the purview of Western classical music, and although Ratliff is seeking to correct the classical biases of “how to listen” books, Ratliff’s emphasis on bite-sized musical moments has problematic implications for how we experience music.
If a piece of music is a delivery mechanism for aesthetically powerful moments, then a listener can divine a piece of music’s value by experiencing only that moment. I can imagine a reader of Every Song Ever, upon finishing a chapter, going to YouTube or Spotify to listen to all the tracks that Ratliff described. However, instead of listening through every track carefully, the listener might look for the musical moments that Ratliff described, to get a sense of how that moment feels, and then move on to the next track. The listener will now sound informed about this new music and might even be able to impress friends with their new knowledge. This mode of listening seems particularly well-suited for contemporary internet behavior, where aggregation has primacy over original, long-form content. In a way, trying to divine musical meaning through thirty-second snippets is an appropriate analog to the concept of Lester Bangs’s basement. In this way, the mind becomes a comprehensive collection of musical ideas, rather than an experiencer of musical ideas unfolding and changing over time.
In Ratliff’s defense, this tapas-style approach to listening has the potential to remain meaningful. In a recent interview with Boston Globe music critic Matthew Guerrieri, Ratliff said the following:
If I had never heard of Motorhead before, and someone said "hey, you should check out this band Motorhead," I could go to the computer and get everything they ever did in 30 seconds, and do that weird thing people do these days: listening to stuff really fast, in order to get the basic idea. And I think that it’s possible that I could have some sort of deep experience with it. I’m willing to believe that it’s possible.
In the process of tasting a wide variety of musical dishes, a listener may find one that in the space of single bite begs for more listening. Listening to Haas’s Limited Approximations may lead the hearer to his haunting in vain, or the work of other spectral composers. With such a large musical menu available at all times, just ordering an unknown small plate might be a positive development—and having the open mindset to potentially enjoy that unknown dish would be even better.
In a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair, President Barack Obama explained a major part of his morning routine:
You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.
While deciding which new song to check out may not be a choice on the same order of magnitude as the next Supreme Court nominee, it can still be an emotionally taxing one. Despite all the possibilities for discovery, it’s much easier to return to the superficially familiar, and to choose music by readily identifiable parameters such as genre. Every Song Ever's worthy aim is to break listeners out of these tired patterns. As the algorithms used by Pandora and Spotify increasingly reduce listeners to simple binaries, Ben Ratliff makes an important case for the beautiful possibilities of being a both/and listener.
Kevin Laskey is a composer and jazz drummer based in Philadelphia. As a composer, he has worked with a wide variety of musicians including the PRISM Quartet, Sō Percussion, Warp Trio, and trombonist Ray Anderson. He edits the blog Jazz Speaks and is currently pursuing a PhD in music composition at the University of Pennsylvania.