What’s your favorite album? When was the last time you listened — actually listened — to it from start to finish? With intention, like watching a movie or reading a novel.
Musicians spend years making their albums. They struggle over melodies, harmonies, rhythms, phrases (musical and verbal), bridges, verses and syllables with the same intensity with which you compare notes on the “Forensic Files” reboot, loot corpses in “Fortnite” or pound cabernet during pandemics.
But most of us are only partially tuned in when it comes to listening to albums. We put on artists’ work while we’re scrolling through Twitter, romancing lovers or vacuuming (and now disinfecting) the house. We rip our favorite tracks from their long-player discs and forget the other songs. We listen in our cars, with traffic noise blaring in from outside, along with the “thump-thump” coming from the car in the next lane clashing with the “bumpity-bump” coming from ours.
There was a time when listeners treated the mere existence of recorded sound as a miracle. A wonder, a kind of time travel. Priests warned of early wax cylinders being tools of the devil. Vintage photos show couples seated around the hi-fi as if it were the fireplace, the hearth of the home.
The late experimental composer and teacher Pauline This Oliveros coined the phrase “deep listening,” defining it as a kind of “radical attentiveness.” “I differentiate to hear and to listen,” she wrote. “To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.”
Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” caused a riot. The least you can do is commit to deeply listening to a full album.
So put away your phone and cue up an album, or stream it in. Get comfortable, ideally in a spot centered between the speakers. No stereo system? Put on your headphones (pro-tip: Audio-Technica has become the recording studio standard) or earbuds, or lock yourself in a closet with your best Bluetooth speaker. Dimmed light will create a good environment for this kind of thing, but this is Hawaii, so a space with partial natural light will do.
Close your eyes to avoid distraction, even if it’s from our serene seas and majestic mountains and cooling tradewinds. You’ll probably treasure them more afterward anyway. This is about the difference between stillness and music.
Even if we can’t be together, deep listening to an album just might help get us through this pandemic together.