Thursday, March 23, 2006

Music As Wallpaper

Music today has become like wallpaper — part of the ambience. Hardly anyone ever just listens to it any more, unless it's to get up and dance.

As a child I became accumstomed to simply listening to music, allowing it to take over my full attention. Even when I was little, I would sit on the floor and listen attentively as my father practiced, sometimes for long periods of time. To some people nothing is more boring than listen to a musician woodshedding, but I enjoyed it.

We didn't have a record player during my youngest years. I no longer remember exactly when my father went out and bought a "hi fi", but by that time 33 1/3 LPs were common, a medium that was appropriate for the distribution of classical music, and much superior to the 78 RPM records that had become popular. Meanwhile, pop music came to be distributed with one song on each side of a 45 RPM record. I never owned more then a couple of those. I remember buying "Sixteen Tons" by Tennesee Ernie Ford on a 45 single, and listening to it many times. It was the very first record I ever bought with my own money.

In those days there was always the radio. Even then classical music broadcasts were infrequent, but whenever they were on, is was an occasion for my father to sit in a chair and listen attentively, so that's what I did, too. Before long I became a radio addict. Our radio was not portable. (They didn't have portable radios yet.) Our family owned only one, and when it was on, I sat right next to it and listened to it, for at least a couple of hours every night. I sat so close I could touch it, and loved the warm smell of the vacuum tube circuitry burning inside of it. I knew all the popular programs, the schedule, and what stations they were on, and could slip easily from one to the other, even there was no a mechanism to preset favorite stations. I had to turn the dial and "tune it in," adjusting it back and forth until the signal was the clearest.

When I started to learn music, it was already my habit to sit and listen attentively to it when it was playing. There was hardly anything to do that I enjoyed more. To this day my preferred mode of listening is with a score in my lap, because I don't want to miss any details, and I'm deeply interested in knowing how composers accomplished what they did. I suppose that's why I became a composer myself.

Today few people listen to the radio except as background noise. We listen to talk and news shows in the car when commuting because it saves what would otherwise be wasted time, enabling us to catch up on what's going on in the world when we are held captive in traffic, making it less urgent that we do so on or or to read a newspaper, or God forbid, by having to watch it on the evening news, when TV news has become a joke.

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