On Listening

I’m from a small town in the Hudson Valley, the kind of Podunk place you pass through without really noticing. Just a stoplight and a block or two of stores and then you’re gone. This time of year it will be bitterly cold, snow blowing in drifts across the roads, and the trees will sway on their thin trunks and where the ice is broken stalks will poke through in the cornfields. For a kid it can feel like the middle of nowhere, all its natural beauty and promise more a barrier to the kinds of things kids like to do. The truth is, even in Upstate New York you’re rarely too far from somewhere, and I would sometimes go to concerts in New York City, though this proved a tricky proposition always, as I had to find under-21 shows, and they couldn’t be on weeknights, and had overall to be agreeable for my parents, who accompanied me in my early teens. Culture always felt like an exertion, and because of this a triumph.

Nowadays, as hipsters flee the city and carry gentrification like a virus up the river to Beacon, Kingston, Hudson, the upper-mid-Hudson Valley can seem like a happening place, ‘up-and-coming’ in the parlance of these new robber barons. There are arts collectives and music festivals, microbreweries and concert promoters. This all mostly happened after I left, first to the west of the state for college, and then out-of-country altogether. Coming back home now I wonder – where did all these people come from? – and sit feeling out-of-place in a bar in the city where I was born.

I started listening to music right when the internet was on the cusp of permanently changing everything, providing not instant access but rather its faint glimpse. My first CDs were stolen from my older sister’s collection, music she not only barely remembers now but can’t even place. We used ancient peer-to-peer programs, not Napster but a forgotten equivalent. I remember for years listening to a cover of Sum 41’s ‘The Hell Song‘, by some unknown band, and always assuming it was the original. This happened more often than you would think because unless a song came on the radio, there was no way to check. Sometimes my friends and I exchanged music but more often we made fun of it, even setting up Geocities-type websites to mock the others’ taste, Queen for them, Thursday for me. I still think I made the right choice.

Because of all this we held with a vise-like grip onto the bands we alone discovered. In some abstract way the act of finding co-mingled the music with our personalities, defining us as much as the act of enjoyment defined it. By this standard the first record I could reasonably consider my own is probably Twin Cinema by The New Pornographers. After seeing a four-star review in my friend’s copy of Blender, I made for the band’s website, listening over and over to the collection of posted tracks (‘Use It‘, ‘The Bleeding Heart Show‘ and the title track, if memory serves me right). It probably went this way for four or five months before I heard the whole album, a gift from my parents on my birthday. I remember distinctly thinking at the time, “I bet I’m the only person in my whole town who knows about this band”, and Twin Cinema was all the more dear to me for that entirely false belief.

As I did in those days when all the music I owned could fit in a small CD book, I listened to Twin Cinema obsessively, memorising every track, testing out my still small voice on walks along my road and in the woods. I pored over the liner notes, trying to figure out whether the strange sounds I heard were from a melodeon or an oboe, having no idea of either but guessing all the same. That the lyrics often read like free-associative gibberish hardly dissuaded me from singing along to them then, or indeed now. And though you can make convincing arguments that Electric Version and Mass Romanticare better, purer versions of the New Pornos, I doubt I’ll ever prefer them. However misguided it may seem, Twin Cinema feels like mine, from a time when something like that was even possible.

Not that it didn’t happen again, or that it still doesn’t. Only this: if all music is part of a conversation, then each song must in some way provide an argument, and serve as a snare for the listener’s ear. Otherwise we just move on to something else. Music really became my own during the time I stopped listening to the radio, not that while growing up there was much choice: local pop station K104.7, WRRV 96.9, ‘The New Rock Alternative’, Radio Woodstock 100.1, and the handful of country stations my friends and I reflexively mocked were all we had. I always had to seek out music; it was never coming to me. Because of this the joy of settling into music, of actually truly listening to it, was mine and mine alone. As I got older I developed a shell to deflect criticism, spent too much time in online forums perfecting the best and most venomous barbs to hurl at perceived opponents. Too much of music criticism reflects this same impulse, projecting a mix of pained self-consciousness and fuck-you reflexivity. So often it seems we aren’t even listening to the music, and I can’t say I’m all the better for it. Can you?

Ultimately, there is very little of the intellect when one purely listens to music. It is the same in a basic sense for most art forms. Back in October I stood in the National Gallery of Ireland looking at Francis Danby’s ‘The Opening of the Sixth Seal‘, a wall-sized oil-on-canvas depiction of the end of days. Gazing up, it felt like the bottom had dropped out of my stomach. ‘Sixth Seal’ is not even my favorite painting in the gallery (I think I prefer Jusepe de Ribera’s 17th-century portrait of Saint Onuphrius), yet every time I returned to it the dread feeling in some way remained. This is not to discount intellectual or critical study of art, of course, and what a ridiculous suggestion that would be. But if even the most academic, cerebral music is to work on us, our act of listening must be nearly unconscious, a beholding of the entire thing such that it seems almost to belong to us. I cannot make any claim over Danby’s ‘Sixth Seal’ but my inviolable fear upon viewing it belongs to no one else. Even if a series of invisible hands guided Twin Cinema into mine, implications for free will be damned; in my mind I found it. And when I listen today, there still it remains.

Robert Rubsam
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Robert Rubsam

Rob is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has been published at Roads & Kingdoms, Crux, and Flavorwire, among others. He is Features Editor at Noted.
Robert Rubsam
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