EM Reprint: Silence

13 07 2009

(Note: Due to the eventual decommissioning of my former all-purpose web site, I will be reprinting select items here for the purposes of posterity/future reference.)

Silence
by Ethan Johnson
October 29, 2008

One thing is certain: From a purely self-interested perspective, 25 year-old me would not recognize 39 year-old me.

It’s not just the hair loss. I’m cool with it, but wow, after a mop of hair for many years it’s strange to see the top of my head coming into view week by week.

No, the least imaginable change over the last 14+ years is the drastic reduction of my CD collection (once in the 600s or so) down to about 15 (the real rarities), and my disinterest in being surrounded by musical performance day and night.

There was a time that I was all about the concerts. At my peak, I went to 70+ shows in a year. Summerfest, Ravinia, Cubby Bear, whatever. Then I’d have the CDs going, various cassettes being overproduced to provide the right blend of tunes for any given activity (usually driving), and working at a record store for the discount (thus the loads of CDs).

Not sure exactly when I swore off concerts, but remarkably, I haven’t missed going. There are very few musical acts I’d jump at the chance to see live, and of course, they don’t tour very often, if ever. I caught them the last time they did. Gene Harris is dead, which aided in my decision to cut back on the concert-going.

The last concert I attended was John McLaughlin at SMU. I’d seen him many times before, but this was a good ending point for that phase of my life. At least I didn’t go out on Milli Vanilli or something, although there could be a certain hipster charm to having done so.

I read a quote today that summed up why this change came about, as told at the Pratie Place blog:

The older I get the more I detest multi-tasking. I now prefer silence as a backdrop to all my activities – even listening to music takes away from their savor.

I don’t know that I’d call listening to music while doing something else “multi tasking” but semantically I suppose that distinction can be made. If you’re not 100% focused on a task, you’re multi-tasking, I guess.

As for me, I do appreciate ambient noise, which others might call “boring”. I have re-trained myself to gauge direction and distance of a sound, such as an approaching vehicle (large or small, from where, how fast, etc). I enjoy hearing birds and other animals outdoors, which reminds me that despite the neatness of suburbia, Mother Nature cannot be wholly suppressed. I don’t listen to background music as a rule, except in the car. People ask me at work all the time why I don’t bring a radio, and my response is that I tend to be on the move back and forth into the cooler, and can’t fully focus on the radio anyway. And I have to keep an ear out for customers.

The flip side to this is my long-standing, um, affectation that compels me to approach recorded music as a performance to be attended to, rather than relegated to the background somewhere. The CD collection has gone the way of the computerized MP3 collection, but as I used to put a record on the turntable or pop in a CD or cassette and listen to the performance, I do the same now with my headphones and computer. And in that respect, the act of listening to music is something of a scheduled activity, rather than something to layer into several other ongoing activities.

Despite my lack of workplace radio or similar, I find that I have been singing more often, without regard for who might be listening. I like to concentrate on the timbre of my voice, the delivery of the words, and to think about the words as I give them voice.

I no longer harbor any hopes of forming a rock band or selling any of my music. I have received the torch from my father in that regard, but differently in terms of art form. He had his poetry that ultimately had to please him, as I have my songs that must please me.

Perhaps it is the emphasis on the pleasure of music appreciation for its own sake, rather than wanting to be thought of (or given inroads to becoming) a “player” in the music business. In this day and age of overnight fame, maybe singing because we can is the antidote. Maybe respectful silent appreciation of a song is better than drunkenly shouting “Free Bird!” at John McLaughlin. Maybe the small sense of accomplishment that comes from strumming a guitar or playing a simple melody trumps the need or want to produce the Next Top 40 Hit.

The 25 year-old me can’t be too surprised at these changes, really. When I drove to Wyoming the first time, I switched off the radio in the western half of South Dakota onward. What music could do justice to the land?

It took years for me to re-learn that the land produces its own unique music. We can’t hear it when we’re plugged into headphones.

Just listen.

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