by Luis Ramirez ¦ January 25 2018
In my teenage years, I was a compulsive music listener. I did not hesitate to spend my entire life savings (which for a 17-year old from Mexico was only around $200CAD) on buying an iPod Classic with 160 Gb of storage, for the purpose of keeping most of my music collection with me at all times. By then I had already accumulated a lofty 600 Gb of music on my hard drive, so I loved having a convenient and portable way of listening.
In hindsight, I would say that my non-classical music preferences were completely determined by my siblings’ taste in music. I was the youngest of 5 kids, and as such I inherited their favourites. Even before I had any knowledge of music theory, I was leaning towards the tunes with the coolest harmonies. These pieces were so impactful growing up that I could listen to them at any time:
Café Tacvba is still one of the best Mexican bands to date, in my opinion. They create a unique mixture of Mexican rock, folkloric instruments, and indigenous narratives. Each of their songs seems able to morph into a different style across the spectrum of Mexican culture.
To be honest, I felt that my musical taste was reflective of everyone else’s taste. I just liked everything. Even the boleros that my grandparents liked to dance to had its place in my repertoire of influences. This lineage is a testament to the “eternality” of Mexican musical culture – while the popular music may evolve rapidly alongside the rest of the world, there is a core Mexican repertoire that seems to remain integral to life in Mexico. Music like Contigo, by Trio Los Panchos – gorgeous vocal harmonies and beautiful lyrics, complete with juicy interjections on the guitar.
My main source of self-exploration was through classical music, but this was no small task in my hometown of Aguascalientes, Mexico. We did not have a music library, there were few classical concerts, and all that could be found in music stores were insipid compilations such as “Best Classical Music for Falling Asleep.” Naturally, these barriers forced me to gravitate towards a place where I could have unlimited resources: The Internet. As soon as I discovered my ways around it, the internet became a magical portal that provided me with thousands of hours of music I had never heard before.
I immediately leaned towards the Soviet composers. I navigated my way through obscure message boards in Russian, converted videos to mp3 from YouTube in its infancy, and downloaded many torrents. I was devouring everything – if there was a composer I liked, I would not be satisfied until I had downloaded their entire oeuvre. Instead of expanding horizontally into new genres and styles, I wanted to extract as much as possible from a single composer. Armed with the internet and an insatiable curiosity, it did not take too long before my new iPod was full of music.
Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Schnittke were at the top of my list, and soon I was listening to things like this:
I was mesmerized. My fascination kept me glued to my iPod, listening to music every single minute of my day. Most nights I fell asleep with my music playing, often waking up to some beautifully frenzied work by Prokofiev. My obsession was such that I ended up memorizing more than half of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies from top to bottom. What’s not to love about this?!
Once I found something that I liked, I would listen to it on a loop until it was permanently etched in my memory. This might seem excessive, but at least now it is easily retrievable and available to me at all times.
Like I said, these were my listening habits as a teenager. What has changed since then? Oddly enough, these habits seemed to decline the more serious I became about studying music. The transformation was gradual, but there was a tangible shift in the type and amount of music I was listening to. I think the crucial factor was that over time, music became my job. The more I played music for a living as a collaborative pianist, the less time I had to listen to it. It is hard for me to find the pleasure of listening to music after a long day of playing for choirs, churches, ballet studios, and too many singers. Or, if you like formulas: The amount of music that I listen to is inversely proportionate to the amount of music I play.
Here’s a neat chart to illustrate this:
Thankfully, in addition to good friends that constantly share great music with me, what keeps my listening active is my ongoing exploration as a composer. However, one’s listening habits can change in such an occupation. I found myself taking a more analytical approach to music, another habit that could endanger one’s joy of pure listening. Nevertheless, it has been an excellent way to expand horizontally across genres, styles, and mediums, just like an omnivorous listener would do.
Even with little time for listening to music, I do like to keep myself up to date with the contemporary classical music scene. However, my most recent interest is centered around how the internet is being used to make music. In the same way that the internet first provided me with unlimited resources for music listening in my earlier days, now I am discovering its limitless potential for music making.
With Youtube being one of the main platforms for musicians to upload their work, there are no boundaries for human creativity (perhaps besides copyright concerns, but on the internet nobody cares), and the cross-pollination of genres is inevitable. Now, instead of listening to Argerich’s performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, I can watch the video of an Israeli drummer who “plays it” with drum kit:
Or instead of listening to my favorite recording of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony by Kirill Kondrashin, I can also find this flavourful Afro-Venezuelan version:
Some of the most interesting music-making on the internet results from collaborations of people around the world. One of the artists who is making use of this type of potential in an admirable manner is Jacob Collier with his Patreon site. Emerging as one of the most promising artists of today, his schedule is saturated with performances all over the world. Yet, he takes the time to invite fans into his creative space. He collaborates with them by taking user-submitted melodies and harmonizing them with multiple copies of himself, creating charming, colorful, and delightful renditions of the originals. He also regularly livestreams his entire process on his YouTube channel, providing a unique window into his compositional methodology.
When people on the internet find others with similar tastes and skills, some kind of interaction is often in order. One can simply download a video, add their part to it, and upload it, creating an environment in which original content evolves as it changes hands. Someone like Jacob Collier can upload his groovy a cappella arrangement of “The Flinstones” theme, while MonoNeon – a bassist with over 700 YouTube videos of him playing over other people’s videos – can download that video, include himself in it, and upload it, creating a kind of “forced” collaboration:
Then, a like-minded drummer named Reuben Gingrich sees this updated version and decides that he wants a piece of that funky fun:
The chain could go on indefinitely.
Thanks to the internet, the exploration of new music is one click away. Everynoise is a scatter-plot of 1524 different music genres – with just one click you can discover everything from vintage Italian soundtrack to progressive uplifting trance. Another great place I like to visit to discover new sounds is the top posts category from the list of all music subreddits. Simply add top/?sort=top&t=all to the end of the subreddit’s url and voilà. It’s a wonderful way of discovering new sounds, (even some for your children!) thanks to crowd-curated sites like Reddit.
Speaking of subreddits, a very interesting trend emerged recently when the user /u/smallgoblin posted a video of herself writing some equations with a pencil. The intentional strikes of the pencil were such that their rhythm lined up perfectly with the Cantina Theme from Star Wars. The combination of psychoacoustics, rhythm, and micro-inflections in the pitches of the pencil strokes gave the illusion that the listener was able to hear the actual soundtrack. The video went viral and alongside it a new music-making community was born: r/pencilmusic. In just a few days, the community grew to over 15,000 members. To me, this shows the potential of a globally interconnected world, finding community over shared interests in the oddest of places. The internet is changing the way people make and discover music together, and I can’t wait to see how music-making continues to evolve in the years to come.
Wanting to get in on the fun, I attempted my own pencil music cover of the Super Mario theme. I hope you like it, and thank you for reading me.