by Robin Attas ¦ July 13 2017
Omnivorous listening might seem to be a given in this day and age. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has suggested that it reached its zenith with the arrival of iPods, writing in 2004 “I have seen the future, and it is called Shuffle.” And certainly, tiny earbuds and equally-tiny portable music players (or as many people call them now, “phones”) have changed the way we listen in many ways.
I’d argue, based on my quick breeze through previous blog entries, that it might be our childhoods, our family and regional and national cultures, our present environments and our past ones, that shape our listening habits more profoundly. One might point to globalization as a guide to listening habits: just as I now inform myself about events in South Sudan, France, and Australia along with the local gossip, so too my listening habits have become a mix of global and local. I’m not sure that everyone has an iTunes playlist with tracks including Aka Pygmie singers, Nina Simone,
Morton Feldman, and The Muppet Show, as I do—but as globalization continues, perhaps this trend toward musical diversity is growing. In my music theory classes, I tend to ask students to imagine “a person who’s lived their whole life in a cave” when I want them to expand their descriptions of music and challenge their assumptions about what non-musicians know about musical structure and style. I’m starting to wonder if, in the modern age, this person is less likely to exist (which is why lately I’ve been asking them to imagine aliens instead).
People have been omnivorous listeners, or just plain curious listeners, for a long time. European art music composers have incorporated folk and street melodies and rhythms into their pieces for centuries. Elements of West African traditional music crossed the Atlantic along with the people forced into slave ships, and blended with local traditions throughout the Americas to give rise to genres as diverse as jazz, salsa, and rock ‘n’ roll. And it’s not just globalization, mass media, and migrations that impact our listening habits, it’s our immediate culture and environment, too. Canada prides itself as a multicultural mosaic, and while that view is certainly open to critique, a pride in multiculturalism might equally extend to omnivorous musical tastes. Not just Nickelback, but New Orleans, Nicaragua and Niger.
When I think of my own listening habits, and from whence they sprang, like many other authors on this blog I think back to my family culture and my childhood. Music of all kinds was everywhere as I grew up: in my parents’ musical choices in the car and at home; at the local church on Sunday morning; in the studios of various piano teachers I terrorized as a child; in my elementary school music classrooms; and, as I grew older, in the bedrooms of friends and out of the speakers in the gym at high school dances. All of these experiences, and the diverse genres each one included, shaped my omnivorous listening habits. I’m going to explore the impact of three in more detail: Jurgen Gothe’s Disc Drive; the Winnipeg Folk Festival; and Sharon, Lois, and Bram.
Disc Drive was a radio program that aired on CBC from 3-6pm weekdays from 1985-2008, with Jurgen Gothe the amiable host for that entire 23-year run. Gothe’s show was playing in my home for probably all but a few of those 23 years, so much so that even now when I hear the theme music I get hungry for supper, drooling like a Pavlovian dog. The playlists gave me a different model for what a radio show could sound like: not exclusively “Classical,” as most of the daytime CBC Stereo (aka CBC Radio 2) programs were in those days, and not exclusively commercial pop or rock, either (I lived in the sticks, and so university radio stations with their own sort of eclectic playlists were, sadly, not part of my youth). I remember Canadian folk and singer/songwriter tunes, movements from symphonies, solo instrumental works in a range of art music styles, opera, jazz, and global offerings (never mind the occasional dip into Florence Foster Jenkins). Gothe united it all with jovial and eloquent remarks, sometimes about the music, sometimes about life, connecting what seemed like disparate genres with his own personality and warm vocal tone.
As an introverted teenager, I spent many a Saturday night alone at home (my parents’ and siblings’ presence didn’t count, of course). I’d sit in the living room, the stereo and my parents’ record collection in front of me, and I’d disc jockey the night away, unconsciously modeling the pacing and pairing of eclectic selections on Disc Drive. Thus, for instance, it seemed perfectly normal for me to move from the Sammy Kaye orchestra’s rendition of “The Old Lamp-Lighter,” with its smooth and silky vocals by Billy Williams, right into the disco Star Wars theme,
with only an unrelated anecdote in between. I’d internalized and normalized the idea that music didn’t have to be compartmentalized into genres, didn’t have to be relegated to specific times of day, didn’t have to be explicitly and obviously connected to make an interesting flow.
My upbringing also included annual trips to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a four-day music festival in early July, held in Bird’s Hill Provincial Park since 1974. There, omnivorous listening is as easy as wandering from stage to stage across the open prairie (or just sitting in your lawn chair on a tarp as the acts change in front of you). My years at “Folk Fest” gave me a place, as a teenager, to find musical voices that spoke to me in a way mainstream musical taste didn’t. While I certainly enjoyed thrashing to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and moping to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” in my bedroom in solidarity with my peers, I also found a different narrative in folk-rock bands like The Nields’ “Gotta Get Over Greta” and Moxy Früvous’ “River Valley.”
Ani Difranco, Bruce Cockburn, and others showed me that music could have a political purpose as well as a pleasurable one. And workshop performances that blended people I knew with people that I didn’t, plus the Main Stage at night that might put Indian sitar players before Inuit throat singers, and follow that up with Balkan dance music, ensured that I heard music I wasn’t familiar with, and wouldn’t have chosen myself, as worthy of a listen.
Recently I’ve realized a third major influence on my openness to omnivorous listening: Canadian children’s supergroup Sharon, Lois, and Bram (Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein, and Bram Morrison). The group formed in 1978, and continued until Lois retired from live performances in 2000. On one of their over twenty albums or on their TV shows The Elephant Show and Skinnamarink TV , you’re sure to find folk songs and schoolyard chants from all over Canada, the U.S., and the British Isles, French Canadian tunes, calypso and samba and mbira and more. They sing in multiple languages and multiple styles, and show their fans that the correct pronunciation of the Spanish “r” matters less than the willingness to try. Sharon, Lois, and Bram encourage their audience (including me) to embrace all the music the world has to offer, not just as a listener, but as a participant.
This realization has come as I begin to shape the listening habits of the next generation—my children. We listen to some of my childhood favourites (Raffi, Al Simmons, Pete Seeger), scatter in Sousa marches and Beethoven’s Fifth, sing the South African mining song “Shosholoza” and John K. Samson’s “One Great City!”
and learn the footwork to accompany Nicaraguan festival dances. Both my children hum and sing their own songs as they play. They’ve begun their own journeys of omnivorous listening, which will move off in new trajectories, ones which I hope will influence my own tastes as our house becomes filled with their preferences and identities. What I want to impart to my children is the same openness to different cultures and different viewpoints, the same empathy, that I learned as I was growing up, something I believe is more and more important in an age where, worldwide, it seems that close-minded government policies and individual actions dominate news headlines. Omnivorous listening opens our ears, but also our hearts. And you don’t even need an iPod shuffle to do it.