Music, Alone

by Jens Alfke ⟿ February 24, 2009

The feelings created by music are so strong, for me, but so ineffable. The problem of perception is usually described using color — how can we know if the visual sensation I call “red” is anything like the one you call “red”? — but only gets worse as you ascend to higher order perceptions, where even names become harder to apply. What do you call the feeling incited by “Guernica”, and even if you find the same words I would, is it the same feeling? And yet vision is our strongest, highest-bandwidth, most describable sense. We struggle to describe sound without using the technical terms of musicians, or vague metaphors.

It doesn’t help that so much of the music I like is so inward-focused: the guitarist gazing (not at shoes) at effect pedals, the producer sliding waveforms around a timeline, the listener bracketed in headphones like my picture above.

Everyone wants their experience of music to be shared. To play an instrument or sing for others, to blast the song from car speakers. To identify with music meant to shock, and use it to shock others. To attend a concert and know that those around you are hearing and feeling the same thing you are, right then: sitting following the intricacies of Bach, or exploding in a mosh pit. Drugs of many kinds help to collapse this emotional waveform, unite a group into a Bose-ian condensate, whether it’s alcohol to bring out desire and anger, or Ecstasy to turn arpeggios and filter sweeps into spinal shivers and universal love.

Nowadays I experience music by myself, mostly on headphones, like right now on the bus to work. Little circuits inside them are actively removing the signs of the outside world, leaving a weird sibilant hush that I fill with the noise I choose. My eyes are on a screen where I sort my music into playlists, or read what other people say about the music they love, and sometimes reach out and listen to their music myself.

I take little piles of songs and chain them together, finding the little hooks at the ends where they fit, making daisy chains to share with people. Is this creation? I didn’t create the songs, but joining them can make something new, like a work of collage. I would love to use the songs as words given to me, and string them together to tell a story. In some of the mixes I’ve made I can hear some of that: abstract arcs of emotion flying across 80 minutes, or juxtapositions that change the sounds on either side into something new that reflects the other.

The worst part about creation is finishing, and throwing the end product out the door into the sunlight where it blows away in sheets. Diana tells me the abalone are dying out because they reproduce by scattering their seed into the ocean and hoping the eggs and sperm will meet; and as their numbers decrease, so does the likelihood of this success. In some ways the progression of my musical tastes has been like that. The Internet has been a tremendous boon, but the distance involved always makes me doubt, as the notes and bytes fly away out of sight, that they’ll ever find a mate, or if they do, whether I’ll even know.