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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Since we were made to glorify God, worship happens when someone is doing exactly what he or she was made to do. I ask myself when I feel God’s pleasure, in the Eric Liddell sense, and it happens—seldom, to be sure, but it happens—when I’ve just broken through to a song after hours of effort, days of thinking, months of circling the song like an airplane low on fuel, searching desperately for the runway. Then I feel my own pleasure, too, a runner’s high, a rush of adrenaline. I literally tremble. There is no proper response but gratitude. The spark of the idea was hope; the work that led to the song was faith; the completion of the song leads to worship, because in that startling moment of clarity when the song exists in time and history and takes up narrative space in the story of the world—a space that had been empty, unwritten, unknown by all who are subject to time—then it is obvious (and humbling) that a great mystery is at play.

— Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark

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Over the years, the Spotify algorithms have correctly identified that I tend to like “chill” music of a certain BPM: smooth, inoffensive songs from the 1960s and ’70s, or more recent ones with washy synths, echo-y guitars, and vocals that are either passive or nonexistent. As I continue to listen to the playlist, dutifully saving the songs that I like, the weekly playlist begins to hone in, if not on an archetypal song, then an archetypal mix—we could call this “the jenny mix”—and other potential mixes are measured for their likeness to whatever the current archetype is.

But it also so happens that my car is from 2006 and has no auxiliary input—which means when I drive to Stanford twice a week, I listen to the radio. My presets are KKUP (Cupertino public radio), KALX (UC Berkeley college radio), KPOO (a San Francisco community station owned by Poor People’s Radio), KOSF (iHeart8os), KRBQ (“the Bay Area’s Throwback Station”), and KBLX (“the Soul of the Bay”). Especially when I’m driving home late on Interstate 880, feeling anonymous in the dark, flat expanse, I’m comforted by the fact that some other people are hearing the same thing I am. I’ve come to know the physical coverage of the radio waves so well that I can predict when a station will fuzz out on a certain freeway interchange, and when it’ll come back.
More important, none of these stations ever play anything like “the jenny mix.” Instead they will occasionally play a song that I like even more than my archetypal song, in a different way and for reasons I can’t really pinpoint. The songs fall into genres I normally say I dislike, including Top 40. (It was only on KBLX that I heard Toni Braxton’s Top 40 hit “Long as I Live,” which I listened to obsessively for weeks afterward.) Especially with something as intuitively appealing or unappealing as music, to acknowledge that there’s something I didn’t know I liked is to be surprised not only by the song but by myself.

My dad, a musician for much of his life, says that this is actually the definition of good music: music that “sneaks up on you” and changes you. And if we’re able to leave room for the encounters that will change us in ways we can’t yet see, we can also acknowledge that we are each a confluence of forces that exceed our own understanding. This explains why, when I hear a song I unexpectedly like, I sometimes feel like something I don’t know is talking to something else I don’t know, through me. For a person invested in a stable and bounded ego, this kind of acknowledgment would be a death wish. But personally, having given up on the idea of an atomic self, I find it to be the surest indicator that I’m alive.

By contrast, at its most successful, an algorithmic “honing in” would seem to incrementally entomb me as an ever-more stable image of what I like and why. It certainly makes sense from a business point of view. When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to “be yourself,” What it really means is “be more yourself,” where “yourself” is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital. In fact, I don’t know What a personal brand is other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgements: “I like this” and “I don’t like this” with little room for ambiguity or contradiction.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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When you see a great performer, a singer or instrumentalist, at work realizing a piece of music, you are looking at one human being at the limit of their skill and concentration. All their strength, their freedom, and you could even say their love is focused on bringing to life the work and vision of another person. Think of Jacqueline du Pré’s legendary playing of Elgar’s Cello Concerto — memorably captured on film — and you may see what I mean. But you see it any time you go to a concert, classical or popular, when you go to a cathedral service with choristers, when you watch a singer close up on the big screen. Here is Someone who is completely themselves, free and independent, and yet for this time the whole of their being, their life, their freedom, their skill, is taken up with this mysterious, different thing that is the work to be brought to life. The vision and imagination of another person, the composer, has to come through — not displacing the human particularity of the performer but ‘saturating’ that performer’s being for the time of the performance.

Now, could we imagine what it might be like for a whole lifetime to be given up to ‘performance’ in that way? Because that, surely, is what we’re trying to say about Jesus as a human being. He is performing God’s love, God’s purpose, without a break, without a false note, without a stumble; yet he is never other than himself, with all that makes him distinctly human taken up with this creative work. If we look at great musicians, we see both the intensity of the struggle and the strength of the joy that goes with it. Whatever is happening, these performers are not becoming less human, less distinctive. In the fullness of their skill and their joy, another is made present. So with Jesus; this is a human life and a human will whose power and joy is the performance of who God is and what God wants, the performance of the Word of God.

— Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust

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Jaron Lanier … argues that digital networks that make information appear to be “free” have had the effect of making it harder for people to be compensated for their talents. We become laborers who cheerfully contribute to the value of the network (consider the staggering array of talent on display on YouTube), but that value accrues to whoever owns the network. Our desire for recognition from other people makes us post our best efforts online, and it is the ideologists of “free” who become billionaires while promoting the spirit of sharing.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Joint attention is an actual experience that we have. By contrast, the attentional commons is best understood as a purely negative principle, by analogy with the “precautionary principle” invoked by environmentalists. The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact.

What this boils down to: Please don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the backseat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Lite commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar. The attentional commons is an idea that I hope will catch on among those who are in a position to make such sanctuaries happen: building managers, commercial real estate developers, and interior designers. Here is a modest proposal: Could the Muzak be made opt-in rather than opt-out? Once every twenty minutes, somebody in the room would have to deliberately hit a button to restart it, and thereby actively affirm “Yes! We want some emo in here!”

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Further, such squeamishness [engendered by subjectivism] creates a certain normative vacuum in our public spaces. In walking off the field of our shared moral and aesthetic life, we cede that field to corporate forces, which are not at all shy about offering up a shared experience: the emo coming out of the sound system. That’s what we end up with. The way anonymous others leap in on our behalf and install these systems, without anyone taking responsibility for them, makes the shared experience unavailable for discussion. It can’t be subject to disputation, and this is why it feels suffocating.

The taken-for-granted presence of the Muzak system spares us the exposure that comes from bringing forward one’s own taste for others to respond to…. And this process is self-reinforcing: the saturation of public space by the inevitably lame manufactured experience spurs us to plug in our earbuds, reinforcing our self-enclosure.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Capon on playing recorded music (or probably audiobooks) in the home (what he calls the “liturgy of listening”):

I must watch that it doesn’t destroy the local liturgy of singing, playing, and telling my own stories. When I go to a man’s house, I should hear his children, not the Kingston Trio; his jokes, not Shelley Berman’s

— Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board

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