Music (Prologue)

by Jens Alfke ⟿ February 18, 2007

The problem with writing about something I dislike is that, after the momentary pleasure of getting it off your chest, there’s not a lot of motivation to read people’s responses (especially the argumentative ones.) Better to pick as a topic something that I do like very much … such as music.

I can’t claim to be an expert on music: I can only barely play an instrument, my dj skills are wack, the theory hurts my brain, and my knowledge is encyclopedic only in a few micro-genres. But I’m rabidly enthusiastic about it; and fortunately, music nowadays is tightly entangled with computer technology, which (like any engineer) I can easily sound like an expert on.

And fortuitously, this month is open season on “open letters” on digital music. I thought SJ’s was pretty damn good really, probably better than I could manage; but fortunately many of the answer letters have set the bar so low that I think I can hold my own even though I’m neither a half-literate sports team owner nor a PR duckspeak generation algorithm.

First some ground rules.

  1. I don’t speak for my employer. I don’t work on or cruise-direct anything directly music-related, and I’m not palzy-walzy with anyone who does. This is my blog on my domain, and I’m writing this on my computer on my patio on my weekend off. “I am not a number — I am a free man!”
  2. I don’t have answers. Questions and doubts are more interesting and useful at this stage. “If a man … be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
  3. I am not trying to sound cooler-than-thou (q.v.)

My background.

As disclaimed above, I don’t have serious Musical Skills. But I can listen to it real good! I love playing music, and the ancillary activities like discovering new artists, hunting down obscure albums, poring over liner notes and biographies, making mixtapes, and babbling to my friends about how they have to listen to this awesome new album I just found.

I’ve been in this state since about age eight(?) when I discovered my parents’ copy of the Beatles’ 1962-1966, the “Red Album”. After playing that to death and nearly going blind reading the black-on-red lyric sheets, I started buying their other albums. I was pretty monotheistic (quadratarian?) about the Beatles for a few years, but in high school I got into first jazz, then Classic Rock (which wasn’t that classic yet), then prog-rock, then New Wave and punk. Since then I’ve mostly listened to various flavors of indie-rock, post-rock, electronic-music-with-beats, and ambient music; with forays into New Music (aka minimalism or “that deedly-deedly stuff”), experimental noise, Balkan folk, big-band / swing, Baroque, instrumental surf, and so forth.

I’m aware that, in the grand scheme of history and the globe, that’s spanning the gamut of genres from A to B, but at least I know what I like. And I’m always willing to try new things — Renaissance polyphony, death-metal, 1930s country music, rai, Justin Timberlake — if, like Linus’s pumpkin, they’re sincere.

By the way, this is not meant to put down anyone else’s musical taste, or point out how cool I am. I could (and have) walk into any college radio station and get that attitude aimed at me by some DJ with a crate of out-of-print Lithuanian ska-tech remix 12"s. That’s no fun! If you want to club people with ’tude, explain to them why their favorite API sucks. You talk about music to share it, make friends, and find more of it, not to alienate people.

—skritchy turntable backspin SFX—

“…You talk about music to share it, make friends, and find more of it…”

Oops, there’s that loaded word “share”. Where’d that come from?

  • Who told me I had a right to “share” music?
  • What do “friends” have to do with what is, after all, a commercial transaction?
  • Where did I “find more of it”, hmm? At an officially-sanctioned retailer of shrink-wrapped CDs or DRM-wrapped files? Or maybe … on the interwebs???

Boy, those are some swell questions. Too bad I’m out of time for now. I gotta go.