The Hunt for Music in the Age of Anxiety
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
I recently bought my friend’s iPod Classic. Yes, that old clunky rectangle, one of humanity's greatest inventions – in 2020, something like that belongs in a museum. Simultaneously, I deleted my streaming services. Not as an act of resistance to the advancements of technology or as an appeal to the retro aesthetic (although the rectangle starts many conversations) but because I wanted to counter the habit forming parasites that lurk within convenience. I saw things creeping into my musical intake that I did not want there. My edges were being dulled. There were two main habits that were dangerous: the first was apathy, the second was agitation at an overload of information. The musical experience was becoming less fulfilling and I decided to examine the situation and take action by reintroducing the hunt for music.
In the iPod scenario, the “hunt” may seem quite laughable: buying a CD (or finding it) and taking it home and commencing the ancient, fabled process of connecting the iPod to the computer with the old thirty pin wide-style connector and “syncing” your library, whilst simultaneously praying it actually works and cursing at it when it doesn’t cooperate. I have found that the music I have had to work for I have come to know more intimately – I really listen. It makes me want to squeeze everything out of an album and makes me feel guilty if I do not. The hunt for music makes it, for me, infinitely more enjoyable.
Streaming music, despite being more convenient and having the ability to engage you to more music, has the unspoken side effect of making the listening experience apathetic. The knowledge that the song can be listened to at any time and anywhere sits in the back of the mind whether you want it there or not. The effect of this is a distracted listen. If you can listen anytime, why now? Or why put all my energy into it? This results in multitasking – scrolling through Instagram or Facebook whilst “listening” – perhaps ultimately leading to less engagement with the music, or knowing more music albeit on a more superficial level.
The second habit, agitation, is one that has come simultaneously with the rise of the “Age of Anxiety,” a phrase that first appeared as the title of W.H. Auden’s book and was the title of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2. This anxiety stems from the modern human being struggling to find meaning in an increasingly mechanized and convenient world. These dangers are echoed in the ease of music streaming. I find, with everything at my fingertips, I constantly feel unaccomplished and a perpetual sense of lacking. I come away feeling emptier than before. I can stream that anxiety directly into my ears.
I want to reemphasize the fact this is not a case for the resistance to technology, or a call in any way to “turn back the clock.” The fact that music is so easily available to anyone with an internet connection is nothing short of an absolute miracle and to take that away would be a crime in the highest degree. However, with the dawning of new technology comes a responsibility to understand it and not let it make us out to be fools.
Take for example the almighty algorithm, the puppeteer that lurks in every social media platform and streaming service. The algorithm is the enemy of the hunt for music. Multi-billion dollar companies are making decisions for us and making us into fools. There is an anti-human sentiment to the spoon-feeding nature of the algorithm, it voids the individual of their amazing ability to think. It wants to turn our brains to mush. The case for becoming a better listener is hindered by being spoon-fed music instead of earning it. Just like when we practice, we are hunting for our skills. Practice and playing is not something that can be honed with a monthly fee of $9.99 (or $4.99 for students). Listening can be approached in the same way.
So what about playing? It wasn’t until the 1980s that Jazz with a capital “J” made its mark on the world of academia. Hundreds of universities were awarding degrees in jazz and commanding the respect of those fresh out of the classical conservatoires. Not that the two are comparable but it is significant that we now have enough distance to dissect the new generation of highly “schooled” musicians. I myself am about to finish jazz school, so I mean this not in a patronizing way, for these are my peers and my musical family. I have lost count of how many times one of my jazz professors would say, “It’s a different scene now, man” gazing into space sometimes nostalgically, sometimes despondent. The young cats look at jazz’s ever growing history longingly or dreamily, and some politely and respectfully shelve it neatly in the archives to gather dust.
I’m interested in this difference of scene and suspect that it is closely related to the hunt for music. There is more to this hunt than seeking out ancient tech. Many of my professors talk about the spirituality and cosmic consciousness that was embraced in the 1960s and ‘70s. One professor in particular was hit hard by the news that the great McCoy Tyner had passed away. Rest In Peace. She played with him. We talked about him and she shared her experience and spoke very movingly. The way she describes the music of McCoy Tyner and of other musicians in that realm is never of technical admiration (however staggering it may be) but of spiritual admiration. The power of that music lies in its pursuit of the unknown. The hunt for music is the hunt for the unknown.
One result of the institutionalization of jazz is that we come away with formulas and equations. These equations solve many problems: How to play, how to practice, how to perform. Of course these are great skills to have but the problem is that this gives you an answer to everything. Firmly rooting you in the known. The result of this is the whole scene turns into the musical equivalent of who can recite the alphabet the fastest. Perhaps this is what my professors meant when they say, “It’s a different scene now, man.” Not all questions need to be answered. And the courage to not know is greater and more interesting than the ability to recount. I believe that music is a pursuit of truth. An unknown truth. What I fear is that our individual sovereignty to strive for the unknown is being smothered by sonic buzzword-hitting or masking the music in uncountable layers of irony.
The surplus of information in the world also has an effect on our playing. I noticed the ills of streaming seeping into my playing. I suspect I may be accosted with a few “Okay, Boomer”s, but with the amount of instant music and information at my disposal I felt my attention stretched too thinly over too vast an area. This, accompanied by the coddling of convenience, made my playing unfocused, with less purpose and conviction. I have heard this in other musicians also. It is an agitation that leads to never settling. The elimination of the hunt for music in the internet age also hinders the imagination, the part of us that wants to venture into the unknown. Being bombarded with facts and information can dull this muscle. As musicians, we “play” music; we do not “cram,” “regurgitate” or “win” music. That childlike sense of play is the musician’s soulmate and imagination is our instrument. ▲
Tristan Geary is a jazz pianist and a recent graduate from Bard College in upstate New York. He has been performing and teaching for many years. In addition, Tristan is also a composer, most recently writing for The Orchestra Now. Tristan hopes to move to New York City to pursue music as well as arts advocacy.