I was on the road quite a bit during the dog days of summer. If you’ve ever driven across the Prairies, then you know that radio reception has never been the best, so we rely on compact discs or downloaded music.
I’m a pretty equal opportunity listener, but I discovered years ago that I really prefer to hear seventeenth, eighteenth, and even nineteenth-century music on period instruments using a historically informed approach and small performing forces.
“Hello, my name is Tim I’ve been an Omnivorous Listener since I was 18 years old.” There, I’ve said it.
When asked to write an article for the Omnivorous Listeners blog, my excitement turned to obsession over my choices and reasons behind my daily listening activity. What a fantastic opportunity to define what it is I love about my favourite compositions and recordings, but what pressure!
If everyone is a musical omnivore these days, composers perhaps even more than others, it seems likely that now and then we’ll mix a couple of things that don’t go entirely well together. Or maybe we’ll mix a couple of things that you wouldn’t think would go well together, only to find that the combination is awesome.
It is a quiet Saturday morning here in Verdun, just on the edge of Montreal. My arm is a little sore, not from the usual excessive drumming or gear hauling, but because a few days ago I got my first tattoo. It is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I bought the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album Blood Sugar Sex Magik on double cassette in 1991. Looking at my tattoo today, I am reminded of the Chili Peppers’ album art filled with close-ups of the band members’ tattoos, the explicit lyrics and the music that blew my mind.
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.
In 2016, music critic Ben Ratliff published Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in An Age of Musical Plenty. He suggested that the use of language and terms referring to generalized human activity could open new ways of listening to music and musical engagement. Terms such as repetition, density or speed could help a listener navigate across different musical cultures and traditions.
When Pat Carrabré invited me to contribute to the Omnivorous Listening Blog I took the opportunity to have an unbiased look at my own listening habits, easily done through Apple Music’s recently played view. I adopted Apple Music as my primary listening hub about a year ago, and I now use it as a first stop for most of my listening, be it active or passive.
Argue’s “Secret Society” is an extensively rehearsed big band of 18 players, all conducted by the composer himself. iTunes categorizes the music as “Avant-Garde Jazz,” but I don’t think that label does justice to the many genres you are likely to hear on one of their albums. Like the best jazz, it can swing, but it also plays with new stylistic combinations, extended techniques and brilliant timbres. I really don’t know where the classical new music ends and the jazz begins.
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.
Performing musicians often keep a quiet house. Some will confess, apologetically, that they listen to far less music than one might expect. I tend toward the quiet, though without apology. Fascinating elisions and overlap of aesthetics, histories, and geographies emerge in waking life and cacophonous dreams.
The In-flight sound experience has always been a problem for me, since most airlines have a very limited view of what their passengers would like to hear. However, now that we can use our phones or tablets while in the air, it is much easier to bring along sounds that are worth exploring.
When I looked it up, I found that the term omnivorous came from research attempting to establish a connection between socio-economic status and cultural habits, specifically the expansion of so-called high-brow musical preferences to include such “radical” genres as rock and jazz. More recent studies demonstrate a growing recognition that deep, ongoing, informed engagement with music encourages omnivorous listening.
I listen to all kinds of music: French chamber music, Schubert lieder, modern art music from Adès to Zwillich, and everything in between. I’m just as likely to listen to a Leonard Cohen album as I am to a Bach cantata, or Quebecois folk music, classic rock, jazz, or opera. I’ve been known to sing along with Handel’s Messiah on road trips but a Journey CD will meet the same fate, only louder. Part of the fun of music for me is the infinite variety of sounds available now.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to pick up the thread
of an idea and see what others are thinking about the melding of audio and video—not just on the web, but also in the concert hall—and how our listening experiences are morphing because of this new contextualization. The fact that so many of us access music through a medium that links music to video has resulted in a growing expectation for musicians to “pump up” their recordings with added visual elements.
Every week, I look forward to a new installment of The Omnivorous Listener so I can read about what my friends and colleagues have to say about their own listening. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people who have careers in music might listen differently than others. I also wonder how a musicologist is supposed to listen?
Let’s think about this term “omnivorous listening” for a moment. The concept excites me when I contemplate the listening part, but it dismays me I’m when faced with writing about it. Excitement still wins out, however, because boundless musical curiosity and discovery have always been guiding forces in my life.
In my listening, I always seem to loop back to Four & More, a 1964 live concert recording of the Miles Davis Quintet featuring tenor saxophonist George Coleman and the young rhythm-section of Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums).
The trajectory of my listening behaviour has always been eclectic and dependent upon the type of music to which I had access, whether I was being ornery, whether I was trying to learn something, or whether I needed a soundscape to inspire, temper or reflect my emotional state.
As a listener, I’ve gone through many different “style” periods. My musical tastes were omnivorous and not very discriminating.