by David James
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian country-and-western singer, who also happened to be a dab hand at philosophy, once memorably said: “Whereof one cannot make some passably tuneful of well crafted music, thereof one must be silent.”
All right, that is not entirely true. In fact, it is a total lie. But no more so than what you read in 99 per cent of the mainstream media these days, where drivel, mendacity and hysterical, context-free fake news items are vying with each other for supremacy in our “new normal” Dunciad.
But I am off point. The question I wish to pose is: “Is there too much music these days?” Because music is everywhere. You can’t escape it.
Pass someone on the footpath and you will see them listening to music on earphones in an attempt either to transform their sense of reality, or to escape reality. Sit on a bus and you will see teenagers doing permanent damage to their hearing as they listen to tuneless pop music turned up to extreme levels because the MP3 files are of such poor quality it is necessary to compensate by having it at dangerously high volumes.
Turn on the television, or watch a film online, and the music is constant. Actors don’t act any more, or at least not in the sense of communicating meanings through the words in a script. They mostly sort of grimace while musical codes, generally bastardisations of classical genres, transmit the relevant emotions.
Worst of all, technology companies have profited greatly by turning music into a debased commodity. It is no longer elevated aural art whose emphasis is on compositional or instrumental skill; it is just easily manipulated digital code that can be sold for a price.
RARE BUT VALUED
Contrast this to the 19th-century or earlier, when to hear music was a special joy. Beethoven’s, Liszt’s, or Chopin’s piano works, for example, were designed to be heard in small venues. The listeners would have found the experience intense precisely because it was not commonly experienced.
The aesthetic appreciation, the attention to nuance, the sense of musical occasion would have been greater because it would have happened for only a short time. There was no possibility, as there is now, of playing the track again by pressing a button or clicking repeat on a digital device.
This writer remembers an interview with the British jazz pianist George Shearing. He spent a long time complaining about the muzak heard in lifts, which he considered to be a type of music porn.
Shearing was blind, so the aural world was of great importance to him, and he was outraged that limitlessly bland versions of The Girl From Ipanema would assault his eardrums as he was taking an elevator – without any choice in the matter.
So, let us call it the Shearing principle: the need to start removing music from the planet, not endlessly adding to it. For all we know it is a virus damaging our immune systems. (I guess, to find out, we can ask the pharmaceutical companies to see if, after an obscenely short trial period, they can fleece us for a vaccine.)
“All right, Mr James,” I hear you say (actually, it is Dr James, but let’s not quibble). “Alright. Mr Dr James, obviously we will have to get rid of rap music?”
“No,” I would quickly riposte. “Rap is not music, it is toxic waste designed to destroy the last vestiges of what remains of Western civilisation.”
“OK, Mr Dr James, what about Chinese opera?”
“No,” would be my rejoinder. “That is just a weird collection of sounds designed to prove that Chinese civilisation never existed in the first place.”
What I am proposing is something akin to musical dieting. The current surfeit of music is gluttony for the ears. Just as gluttons cease to take any delight in food – they just need to shovel as much of it as they can into their mouths – so do modern listeners who endlessly consume whatever is available lose all discrimination or taste.
Reducing one’s listening to, say, two hours a day, would be a start. Spending a few days not listening to music at all might help to sharpen the ears. You can do it!
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.