Murdering silence with bad music 


PARIS -- In his novel Victory, Joseph Conrad's hero hears a sad female orchestra in a dour hotel on a remote South Sea island. "The Zangiacomo band was not making music," Conrad wrote. "It was simply murdering silence with a vulgar, ferocious energy. One felt as if witnessing a deed of violence ..."

The murder of silence has become a massacre on the mainland since then. The vulgarity and the ferocity of the music have been increased many times over through expanding greed and cutting-edge technology. More music than ever is being produced today, most of it owned and distributed by large corporations that control the media, the concert venues and the major distribution channels. Violence sells. Music that violates our sensitivity has become big business.

Walk into just about any public urban space -- supermarkets, restaurants, sports stadiums, airports -- and you will hear the aggressive sonic wallpaper known as background music, the increasingly inescapable soundtrack of our lives. It is branding more than music: an assault, an insult, a lack of respect for human dignity. Since bad music is so omnipresent, people must work harder and harder to make believe it's not there. And so music becomes something to escape.

Boarding an Air France flight not long ago, I heard, in addition to the usual aural soup pumped in to calm pre-takeoff anxiety, that one track of the pop playlist intended for the earphones (Enrique Iglesias, as it happened) had somehow escaped and was running wild in the cabin. Two different tunes in two keys, one major and one minor, at the same time. You don't want to make trouble on airplanes these days, so I waited for somebody else to say something. But nobody was listening. So I finally told the stewardess that I was sorry to bother her but I was a musician and it was driving me batty. She listened, heard it, and said; "Oh, you poor dear," and went to shut off Iglesias. One small victory. Later, she asked me if I thought it would be better for her daughter to study the flute or the violin. How quaint. I almost said to her that it did not make much difference because just about nobody listens to music anymore anyway.

Mostly, people do not listen to music because they are too busy multitasking. Distraction is the order of the day. We are monitoring too many screens. There is no time for concentrating on music all by itself. Listening to music has become something to do while we are doing something else -- reading the paper, driving, vacuuming, text-messaging. An adult doing nothing but listening to music is considered to be not doing anything. With music becoming more childish, it is mostly children who concentrate on music now.

Since fewer people are really listening, more and more anti-music is made specifically to not be listened to in the first place. It's a kind of Catch-22. Why bother to try and make subtle music if nobody is going to listen to it? (Listenable popular music is still being made in Africa and Brazil, but it is not popular in the first world.)

People of all ages still listen during concerts. Looking at the musicians, you're more or less forced to listen to them. So it is just possible that all the new concert DVDs being marketed will get people listening again -- though there will certainly be somebody with a ballgame muted on television while keeping track of a roast in the oven at the same time. It is, by the way, possible to eat and listen to music at the same time. For a guaranteed undivided-attention listening experience, read Bob Dylan's "Lyrics, 1962-2001" while he sings the songs.

According to The Guardian newspaper, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, an amateur rock guitarist, voted for Lynyrd Skynyrd's anthem "Free Bird" as his favorite guitar solo. Not that there's anything wrong with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their simple-minded, redneck, three-guitar rock 'n' roll was made for dancing, and dancing is a dandy homage to music. But it would have been a nice surprise if Blair had chosen a guitar player with a bit more, well, culture. Blair does not appear to be such a serious listener. Are there any serious listeners among today's national leaders? It would be nice to think that a politician who takes some time out to listen to music seriously would make a good leader.

During World War II, jazz fans in occupied Europe said that anybody who liked jazz could not be a Nazi. People listened seriously in those days. They could go to jail for listening to music. Adolph Hitler, remember, loved to listen to Richard Wagner. Speaking of which, Mark Twain, a serious listener indeed, said: "Richard Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds." This essay originally ran in the International Herald Tribune, Dec. 29, 2004.


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