audience participation

These days, my favorite music is old music. A few recent listens:

  • Music of Morocco, the anthology the writer Paul Bowles compiled and which was re-released in much expanded form last year by the wonderful Dust to Digital label.
  • Singles, a new collection of 45s spanning 30 years, from the late Sun Ra. Again, an expansion, this time of a two CD set from a decade ago on the Evidence label. This adds a third CD, much new material.
  • The Asch Recordings, Mary Lou Williams. 35 sides, most of them originally 78s, recorded for Moses Asch’s Folkways label between 1944 and 1947. The great pianist in a variety of contexts – solo, trio, small group, big band.
  • Why The Mountains Are Black, Greek village music recorded between 1907 and 1960. As has been noted frequently elsewhere, this stuff is abidingly strange to western ears. At times, it sounds like avant jazz from the 60s.
  • Complete Warner Recordings, the Busch Quartet. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, from the late 20s to the late 40s.

In general, I find myself much more drawn to old music than new, though I listen to a fair amount of new music as well. But the old recordings sound better to me, which is interesting.

I’m not listening out of nostalgia. While you can argue that jazz was more vital 50 years ago, I don’t long to go back there, don’t waste time comparing then to now. The Busch Quartet is wonderful, but there are lots of equally or more wonderful quartets in much more modern recordings. As for Morocco and Mountains, yes I’m smitten with how the music sounds, but I’m not especially interested (other than to understand context) in the time and place of the recordings – I don’t think of them as artifacts.

So what’s the appeal? Physics and physiology are a big part of it: I’m 60, have moderate tinnitus, some hearing loss. Paradoxically,  new, crisply recorded music is less satisfying. All the notes are there,  the sound reaches cleanly from the upper to the lower limits of audibility, the music is pretty much complete, but at the same time I know I’m not  hearing all of it. It’s a little like having a phantom limb; I’m painfully aware of what I’m missing, what’s just out of range.

Old music, on the other hand, sounds expansive to me. It’s all gaps and openings, missing frequencies, to which I get to add my memory, my imagination, my listening to complete the experience. In a weird way, there’s more fidelity in an older recording for me than a new one. Because there are things missing, there’s room for me in it. I’m drawn in.

One question: all music gets old, so will I feel the same way about, say, a Dave Douglas album recorded in the mid-2000s 30 years from now, in the unlikely event I’m around to make such a comparison? Doubtful. Some kind of fidelity threshold was crossed in the 1960s, I’d guess, after which time everything – absent the lo-fi movement – is pretty well recorded. I’ve been listening to some Arthur Blythe recordings from the mid-70s, and while I thoroughly enjoy them, they don’t have the same “old music” vibe I get from music recorded up through the early 60s.

It may be that my hearing gets worse and I turn more and more to the past as compensation – if so, it’ll be ok. There’s a lot of music from the 30s, 40s, 50s, both classical and jazz, I haven’t heard yet. More than enough to last.

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