I’m not the kind of audiophile people think when they read the term audiophile — the stereotype being a guy who spends incredible amounts of money on esoteric audio equipment, from turntables to preamplifiers, from speakers to cables, and has his own ‘music room’ with perfect acoustics where he sits in the twilight listening to rare classical music recordings handpicked from his huge vinyl collection. I find that a bit excessive, although I can’t say for sure I wouldn’t do that if I won the lottery or something.
Yet I’m the kind of person who has a fine ear, loves music, and can distinguish a mediocre recording from a better one. I’ve always been a musical type. My mother often recalls the positive effect music had on me since I was very little, and how I loved listening to music and changing 45rpm singles on my parents’ portable record-player (I still couldn’t read English, so I used to look at the various colourful labels to remember which songs I liked most). When I was living with my grandparents, my grandfather used to listen to a lot of classical and opera music on his hi-fi stereo. By the time I was a teenager, I had accumulated a considerable musical knowledge and a liking for the most varied genres, from 1980s pop music to progressive rock, from big-band jazz to Sixteenth-Century lute music.
I don’t mean to boast about my early musical achievements with this premise. If I’m telling you this is because I want you to understand how I used to listen to music without sounding too weird. Listening to music, for me, was like a personal ritual. If you’re a coffee or tea-lover, you know what I mean. When I felt like listening to a record or a tape or, later, a CD, I used to sit near my stereo, wear the huge Technics headphones my father gave me, and… listen. Just listen, to the whole record, tape, CD. Listening to music was an activity in itself.
For our busy, always-connected, multitasking lifestyles of this day and age, that must look like a waste of time. How could you just sit there for 45 minutes without doing anything else other than listening to music? I hear you ask. For some it must sound unnerving. That is probably because our busy, always-connected, multitasking lifestyle is eating at our attention all the time. Today most people’s musical experience is having a streaming service like Spotify or Rdio always in the background while they work or read or even talk on the phone. Today, for the most part, music is heard, consumed, not listened.
The shift from analogue to digital may have a part in it. Older media such as vinyl records and tapes, in their beautiful awkwardness, encouraged the listener towards a sequential audio experience. You usually bought an album to listen to it from beginning to end, at least of one side. Skipping was of course possible, but not practical. Those were the times of what I call ‘the album culture’. If people wanted a more casual listening, they usually purchased singles — smaller 45rpm records with one (or sometimes two) track per side. Then came the CD, and things got easier. The album format was still strong, but you could easily skip songs, choose to play one song on repeat and even program your ‘playlist’ of favourite songs in an album, leaving out the ones you didn’t like much. Or just listen to all songs in a random order. Fragmentation began, and with the digital revolution — songs as audio files you can very easily purchase individually — the phenomenon has become widespread, cultural.
It’s another field where the technological progress has brought us convenience while giving a blow to quality as part of the tradeoff. Our current listening experience is degraded on many levels: in the audio quality of what we
listen hear, and in the way we tend to experience music, i.e. as a musical salad-mix-style background while we engage in other activities. Like it were chewing gum. Something disposable. Attending to live concerts is, from what I’m observing, one surviving way of giving music our full attention.
I have experienced the transition from analogue to digital myself, and as my life got busier, I’m guilty as charged for having ruined my music listening habits. When I bought my first iPod in 2003 the convenience it served me on a silver platter was intoxicating: hundred of tracks with me everywhere. If undecided, just press Shuffle and off you go, etc. But I also started feeling a weird detachment from the music I used to listen and absorb. Even when I chose to play one album in its entirety on my iPod while I was walking or commuting or working, I often found myself listening to one of the last tracks and wonder: Whoa, have I already got to the end of it? I wasn’t even noticing. The weird thing I was feeling was that, despite potentially being with me everywhere all the time, music was really elsewhere, just a more organised background noise. That filled me with sadness. Perhaps it’ll sound silly to you, but as you may have guessed if you’ve read this so far, listening to music has always been a big deal to me.
The way I used to listen to albums on my stereo was greatly fulfilling. After a listening session (especially after listening to a freshly-bought album discovered by chance at the record shop and being positively struck by it) I usually felt more inspired and started writing at once, still holding on to the various feelings, moods and poetry connected with the music I’d listened. In recent times I’ve realised I couldn’t find that intensity, intimacy and inspiration anymore, so I decided to go back to that place. Of course it’s harder than 15 years ago: my life and daily routine have changed a lot. But I’m back on a ‘music rediscovery’ path. Every time I want to listen to music, I try to give it its own space, sitting and listening to it in my headphones without doing anything else. I still can’t do sessions of 45–60 minutes like I used to, but 20-minute bits are better than nothing, for now. And it’s vinyl or CD, not iTunes or Spotify.
Again, you might think this is crazy. I find it almost therapeutic. The sensation of feeling the music, not consuming it.