skimming the agitated surface, or: ‘physician, heal thyself’

April 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Posted in art, musings, new music | Comments Off on skimming the agitated surface, or: ‘physician, heal thyself’
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Before a break spent eating melting chocolate in the unseasonal Easter heat, I read a worrying missive by a long time associate of RFM.  I needn’t spell out the details, suffice to say it was a howl of barely coherent anguish and the cause was obvious: my friend was sick.  I put on my white coat and penned the following:

…the diagnosis is clear: you are suffering from download poisoning and may even have given yourself download diabetes due to over consumption.  Dr. Robert insists on the following course of treatment: download NOTHING for two weeks.  Listen to things you already have or, if you must listen to something brand new then listen to it ALL THE WAY THROUGH and MORE THAN ONCE.  Watch only what the TV presents you with or, if all that is crap, read. Or you could just sit in the garden and enjoy the birdsong…  Don’t take offence – this is just a TOUGH LOVE intervention.

Patient X replied:

YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY SPOT ON.  I have no problem admitting that I’m a DL-junkie, I KNOW my addiction is not making me happy(happier), that I’d feel no less undeprived in the long run if I took yr course of abstinence/treatment.  I have no excuses, except that these things just have to work their natural course till the patient decides for themself that s/he’s had it … don’t forget, I’ve come much later to all this internet malarky than you , i’m about ten years behind you.  Only been on the net 3 years, and the first year we didn’t DL anything (?).  It’s all still christmas morning in the sweet shop to me.

I’m also an arrogant so=and=so who believes (in spite of fairly frequent times when I’m proven wrong) that one listen is all I ever need, even if I was paying top wack for some one-thing-per-fortnight piece of music I’m loath to give things a second chance …  If I stopped DLing now I’d always be hankering after all the possibilities.  Worrying about getting left behind by all the herd who DL 38 things per day while I only manage 37…”

This gave me pause for thought as I remembered the similar situation I had found myself in just a short while ago.  I started to feel less like a doctor and more like an evangelical ex-addict now preaching abstinence.  I replied in turn:

Yeah, I get it – and I realise now that an intervention may not be as productive as I’d hoped.  To be honest, I think you are probably right about just having to wait for things to run their course.  To use an analogy with smoking: if you tell someone that unless they quit right now they are going to DIE SCREAMING then the first thing they do is reach for a fag.  Likewise if you tell them the money they’ve set fire to could, over their lifetime, have BOUGHT THEIR HOUSE then again: pass the Marlboro Lights.  However, if you set a date to give up then do nothing but smoke, smoke, smoke every second until that date arrives you get so sick of it that when you put out your last fag it is blessed relief to be a non-smoker and you don’t feel like you are ‘missing’ anything.  It has taken me over a decade to get to this point with mp3s so I appreciate you may be a way off yet.

Also, the second I was tempted to take a ‘drag’ again by that emusic offer (see ‘more recent electronics’ below) all the cravings came back with a vengeance.  I started devouring info, checking out ‘best of’ lists (including a comically premature ‘best of 2011 so far’ you’ll find at FACT magazine) and listening to mixes and podcasts looking for the good shit.  I came this close to buying a copy of The Wire – makes me shudder to think of that narrow escape.  The splurge did lead to me hearing some good new stuff, and it was fun skimming the agitated surface for a bit, but ultimately it left me nauseous and unable to give the music the attention it deserved.  I even hid the fact that I’d signed up a third time from my wife as I was so embarrassed.  Shameful, eh?  I am now running after the wagon that I fell off frantically waving and shouting for it to wait for me.

I’m interested in the point about repeat listening too as one reason for me swearing off downloading was to try and rediscover the joy of getting to know what I was hearing.  I’d come to treat a new piece of music like a book or a film: watch/read once, slide onto a shelf, reach for the next one.  Worse, sometimes music would get the same flick-through-and-discard treatment I might dish out to a magazine bought for a train journey.  That ain’t right.

Now I’m approaching music more like the way I tackle visual art.  A race around a gallery can be an exhilarating experience and can be helpful in, say, setting context or deciding your taste.  However, if this was the only way that you experienced visual art then I think it would be hard to develop any depth of understanding.  It is analogous to reading reviews that ignore the qualities of the thing under consideration and just list comparable things that it is ‘like’ – superficially helpful but not very interesting.  However, buying a painting or print for your house, or even a postcard for your office desk, involves a commitment to living with it and seeing how your appreciation of it changes.

Here is an example.  The picture at the top of this blog post is of a painting called The Shore made by Paul Nash in 1923.  The original hangs in Leeds City Art Gallery and I have stood in front of it many times.  I used a photo of it as the ‘wallpaper’ on my office computer for many weeks.  During that time I came to think of it as a masterpiece: it has an austere and melancholy beauty that is both hypnotic and heart-breaking.  What I have learnt about the circumstances of its production (a little can be read here) has only augmented its power.  A glance would not have done.

It is obvious, of course, that not all art or music is worthy of this attention.  Some is simply froth and skimming it is an appropriate response, much of it is just crap and ignoring it is perfectly sensible.  However some stuff does have a soulfulness that needs to be teased out (or, to put it less contentiously, content that is not immediately evident).  This is what those frantic downloaders can’t see as it is obscured by their splashing about in newness.

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