Omnivorous Listening

by Michael Cain    ¦   May 18 2017

My initial thought upon hearing the term “omnivorous listener” was I might be a poster child for the idea. Since I first started interacting with music as a young child I found that my listening habits were almost always way outside the frameworks of most of my friends. A lot of that was informed by the fact that I grew up in Las Vegas in the late 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s and what that city was like then and the kinds of music that could be found there.

My father was a jazz musician, and although I didn’t grow up around him, the idea of jazz became a very central idea in my mind at an early age. It was an almost mythic field that contained many ideas all at once: father, African American consciousness, creativity, ritual, otherness, soul, and identity. I was familiar with the idea of jazz long before I heard the music.

I should mention here that I am biracial, a term that I still find hard to use and identifyBarack_Obama with. Given my age I’m pre biracial as a term. As a kid I was called a range of things, black, mixed, half and half, half-breed, even “what are you?” But never biracial, that came later as a category. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s fascinating article for The Atlantic on Barak Obama “My President was Black” he accurately, in my view, points out that President Obama was the first black president of the United States, and, also the first biracial president. (At least that we know of, I’d add.)

This is an important distinction and one I very much identify with; these are two different realities with different perspectives, sometimes overlapping and sometimes not. The reason I mention this here is one of the earliest realizations I had about my listening habits was they were always connected to the concept of identity and my connection with the different cultural groups I was engaging with. With my rock friends it was the Beatles, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and as my friends from back in the day know about me, I’m a Thomas Dolby fanatic!

That group of friends was decidedly white. With my black friends it was Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, all forms of Funk, R&B, Soul, and later on Hip Hop. And when I was a kid in the 60’s, 70’, and early 80’s in Las Vegas, rarely did the t’wain shall meet.

I would also factor in that I started studying piano at an early age and so classical music got in there when I was quite young as well. My piano teacher was an amazing classical pianist who also had a deep love of jazz, even though he felt (incorrectly) he knew little about it. He knew more about jazz than he took credit for, and always encouraged me as an improviser and in creating my own music, for which I was extremely lucky. These different roots continued to grow in me and are what largely contributed to my going to CalArts in the 80’s and studying a great deal of world music, primarily African, Indian, and Indonesian music.

The point I’m getting at is, for me, the idea of omnivorous listening is connected to a couple of key ideas and concepts, and the first, perhaps, is the idea of identity and identity work. That work, in this modern and diverse age, is largely done today through the lens of music. The role and function of music itself has evolved to be one of the main vehicles for doing this work, which includes knowing the music (and therefore rituals, sensibilities, beliefs) of our own cultural groups and others outside our groups.

This is the single most shared dynamic I see in my current students today, to a person, they use music (and I mean “use” not in any negative way) as a vehicle to explore their own identity as people living in an age of diversity. The specifics of the music itself are almost secondary to what they are using the music for in terms of learning about, working with, and forging their own identities. Yes, they want to learn to play well, but more importantly it seems, they want to know what studying music will tell them about themselves. They have gotten the message that by studying music they will be able to explore aspects of their identity that they wish to develop. I have come to believe this is the single most influential factor in students choosing to pursue musical studies these days.

Another idea which is quite obvious but important to note is that the concept of omnivorous listening is, itself, predicated on the ability to hear different types of music almost at will, and that is directly linked to the advent of the ability to record sound and music. Prior to that technological advancement, many North Americans were hearing music either in church or at home, at various gatherings, but it was a very fleeting and temporal thing. Music recording technology, and the subsequent technologies to disseminate music quickly and over vast distances, such as radio, etc., allowed for people to engage with music in altogether different ways. And that is roughly a hundred years old, which is to say not very old.

Out of that I would suggest that one of the biggest issues in being an omnivorous listener isn’t what we listen to but how. That has changed the very function and nature of music itself, and, among other things, allowed for the creation of the concept of an omnivorous listener. We can listen to different things from afar, in our own space, and by ourselves. Repeatedly.

I use sound systems with receivers and quality speakers. To this day I have quality sound in my home, my office, my car, and my headphones. Most of my students listen on their smartphones, and quite often comfortably without headphones, just through the small speakers built into the phone. When they play something for me, most often from YouTube, sound quality is almost always a non-issue, which amazes me. Great sound quality is less relevant to the work of identity that’s being done, a distant second in priority to access and availability.

And perhaps the last point I’ll make here about omnivorous listening comes from something I learned about myself while making a solo piano recording in Japan in the mid 90s. I was recording in a small town outside of Tokyo, staying in a very beautiful and quiet traditional Japanese inn, recording in an exquisite and pristine concert hall, on a beautiful piano. The music I listened to exclusively during that entire time? Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Public Enemy, basically the hardest Hip Hop I could find.

And I’d blast it on my headphones. It struck me how I needed to hear and feel something so opposite to the kind of music I was recording. The project, somehow, required that kind of listening and I was amazed by how specific it was. I could only hear what I wanted to hear during those sessions.

This would be one of the most important points I’d make about omnivorous listening, it seems to only apply to the category of genre. In actual life and practice, where I’m always working on a musical project of some kind, and managing enormous amounts of musical material through teaching, I can only, and I mean only, listen to what I want at any given point in time. The reality is, as the years have gone on, I have become an extreme “univore” in my listening, which has, by the way, had a significant impact on my friendships and musical relationships. I simply can’t go to most concerts to support my friends near as much as I’d like to. I have learned that if I take the wrong sound in, if even only for a few seconds, it can have a disastrous effect on what I’m working on musically.

It can potentially get “stuck” in my ear and head and that becomes a real problem for me. No matter how great the music or musician, if it’s something that takes my ear and energy away from what I’m working on, I simply can’t take it in. If it’s a concert I have to leave the concert immediately. To this day when I am able to venture out to hear music I will always sit near the exit, and will more often than not have to leave within moments. Again, this has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the music. It could be the greatest music ever produced, truly, but if it’s the “wrong” sound to take in at that particular time I will, literally, have to race out of the venue.

Clearly, this naturally would register as being offensive to a majority of my musician friends and I completely understand this. One time I went to see a great pianist and friend perform in NY after not seeing him for many years. He admonished me for being so reclusive and communicated that I had acquired a place as a pianist in NY and needed to support the community of pianists there. I felt he was completely right in the rebuke and all I could do was apologize for being so reclusive. Actually, I was at once flattered that he thought my participation in the community mattered, and at the same time felt he was completely legitimate in his admonishment. As fair as his position was, it simply doesn’t translate into my actual life. True, I am reclusive by nature, but music is energy and vibration, and the wrong vibration at the wrong time can take me completely out of what I am working on musically.

I’ve come to accept this about myself, and have found that I will have to commit to a lifetime of apologizing to my musician friends, but my larger point here is something that I think I do share with a fair amount of musicians–in actuality, we are, by nature, extremely specific and particular about what we listen to and when. Many of us are actually univores in our listening habits, and what drives what we listen to, when and why, is one of the most important issues we can explore in ourselves as musicians and humans. We’re doing something with the music we are listening to, working with or through an idea, exploring something about ourselves or others, trying to feel or learn something about ourselves or others. And that always is in relationship with where we are developmentally in life, intersecting with the work of individuation, of becoming, that is always occurring. There is an incredible specificity in that work, and that is something I have found has only intensified with age.

With that said, getting back to the task at hand, by far, the music I listen to most these days falls in the Hip Hop category. I’d guess at least 90% of what I listen to is Hip Hop, with Electronic Music of some kind a close second. What I notice is I need the beats, the grooves, the musical language. I need to hear, for better or worse, how the community is moving, grooving, feeling. It’s like a lifeblood to me, even though there are times that the messages in the music (misogyny, violence, etc.,) I do not identify with or support. The most common theme in my listening is I need to hear the music directly from the community, and it has to be music not from the academy. It has to be from the street, so to speak. There are too many artists to name but suffice it to say, black music from the community, and decidedly not the academy, is the most enduring and repeating music in my playlist.

And, as usual, that isn’t how I’d necessarily describe my own music. Go figure!

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