Expanded Ways of Listening

Ben Ratliff and Alex Ross
In Conversation

Alex Ross & Ben Ratliff

What do Shostakovich and DJ Screw have in common? More than you might think, writes The New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff in his new book Every Song Ever. His book is a celebration—of the possibilities for pleasure within music and of the act of listening at a time when listeners have never had it so good. This past week, Ratliff was joined by fellow music critic and FSG author Alex Ross (The Rest Is Noise) for a discussion of the book at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. In a far-ranging conversation, Ross and Ratliff talked proliferation of genre, the dangers of Pandora, and the changing nature of musical appreciation. Here’s a portion of their talk.


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ALEX ROSS: Let me start by asking you what kind of music did you first fall in love with, and how did you branch out from there? Because this book is really about moving from one genre to another. Could you retrace some of your journeys as a listener growing up?

BEN RATLIFF: Sure. Pop radio in the seventies, growing up in the suburbs north of New York City—a kind of isolated part of the suburbs. Musical culture wasn’t that available to me. Radio became really important: First AM hits, and then college radio, and then all of a sudden—oh, I was close enough to New York City to go to all-ages hardcore punk shows. It didn’t matter that I was fourteen, and I could get home slightly after dinnertime. That was a real world to get involved in, as a teenager.

But at some point somebody fed me a Louis Armstrong record, somebody fed me a Miles Davis record. Friends-of-the-family, “He-might-like-this” kind of thing. I got to college and had an opportunity to open the huge lockers full of records at the college radio station, and there was The History of Jazz and ten thousand LPs or something. And I knew what I had to do. That was actually my first experience with the situation we’re in—the situation everybody’s in—now. Total abundance, and what are you going to do with it once you have it? I always wanted to know about as much as possible, really. I still do.

AR: I had a crucial college radio experience, as well. It was the point of origin for what I do, for writing about music—that urgency we had to convert others to our cause. But what was also very important for me, and maybe in your experience as well, was being in this enclosed, dank basement space with people who were interested in very different kinds of music, and being exposed to their passion. I grew up listening entirely to classical music, and that’s when I discovered that there are other kinds of music worth paying attention to. I still try to capture that in my writing, and I respond to it in others’ writing—that sense of you have to listen to this! That sort of fanatical urgency.

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BR: Right. It’s important.

AR: And a theme of your book is, how do we preserve that kind of intensity in this world where everything is so immediately available all the time? You talk in the book about this paradox of multiplicity and abundance: People keep lapsing back to the familiar and not taking advantage of the explosion of possibilities. Talk about the genesis of the book and how you came up with this concept, given the context of the Cloud and “every song ever.”

BR: Sure. Practically whenever I meet somebody, or when I catch up with a friend that I haven’t seen in a long time, I will ask at some point, “What are you listening to?” And at a certain point—I don’t know when that was, ten or twelve years ago—more and more people told me, “Oh, well I listen to music through Pandora. Almost entirely now, because it’s so easy. And I don’t have to do anything.”

And it seemed very interesting then, that you could put in your favorite . . . you look within yourself, the most sentimental version of yourself, and you say, “Who is my favorite? My real, real favorite.” Then you put that into Pandora and it becomes the Me Station. You probably know that the way Pandora works is that they have the Music Genome Project. They can separate and identify parts of a song into these different descriptors. Is it long, is it short? Is there singing, is there not? Is the singing rough or smooth, is it a man, is it a woman, how big is the ensemble . . . that kind of thing.

By filling out those categories, they sort of realize what you’re looking for. So if you type in “Jay-Z,” you’re going to get . . . something. If you type in “Carole King,” you’re going to get something. It does its job fairly well. But it’s everything that is comparable, sonically, to whatever artist you suggest.

AR: It doesn’t push you to make the big leap.

BR: No, but it can introduce you to new things. That’s what people would always say to me: “I’m hearing new things. I’m hearing things that I’ve never heard.” But essentially, it would all be in the same kind of circle. I just started noticing this more and more. I imagine I was talking to people who were into their thirties, a lot of the time.

So I started noticing that, and kind of worrying about it, because the comfort zone becomes bottomless and you can either go down that forever now, really forever. And not really get bored, because they keep rotating things and making things just a little bit new for you. Or you can break out of that and explore. I tried to think, “Okay, what can we do in our listening to be anti–streaming service? How can we think in an opposite way from how they want us to think about our musical tastes and what we’re capable of as listeners? At the same time, I started reading old music appreciation books from the first half of the twentieth century. The music appreciation movement was a really big thing.

AR: Virgil Thomson called it the “music appreciation racket.”

BR: Racket, yeah. But the spirit of these books was really positive. The idea was, if you want to be a relatively educated person about music, or feel that you know how to respond to music: Here! We’re going to help you. It gave you a canon, really. Of classical music, almost entirely—

AR: But there were jazz books, as well, along those lines, right?

BR: Yes. But I’m talking earlier, earlier, back to the nineteen thirties, forties, that kind of thing. Like the Aaron Copland book, What to Listen for in Music. Which is a really appealing title. “What to listen for in Music!” I’ve had that experience. I’m listening to something new and I’m like, I can’t get a handhold onto this thing. What am I listening for? So this book would answer the question, it would say: Here’s melody, here’s harmony, here’s rhythm, and then here’s the sonata form, here’s oratorio, and so on. I started to think, “Well, if a book like that were written now, how amazingly different it would have to be.” Because first of all, you can’t just assume that classical music is the thing everybody ought to know about if they want to be relatively “with-it” listeners.

AR: And all those categories don’t really apply to new classical music, either. Nobody uses sonata form any more, with a few exceptions. It’s all outdated.

BR: Right. And you’d have to take into account that so-called classical music is just one of many, many, many, many choices out there, everybody knows this. And also, we have access to everything. Listeners have power all of a sudden. Access is power, and we’ve got power—in our pockets—what seems like everything. The book is called Every Song Ever, and we don’t have every song ever, we really don’t. There still are plenty of things that were recorded that are not online or not streamable. And of course there’s the whole rest of the history of music that was not recorded that obviously we don’t have access to.

But it is so powerful to have that thing with us at all times, and we can use it however we want, whenever. It’s like a fantasy of the biggest library you could imagine, which I find really exciting. But you can go to sleep in that library. You can wake up in that library. Nobody’s going to take your key away; it’s yours all the time. So what are you going to do with that privilege? What are you going to do in order to get beyond the shelves that are right in front of you? How are you going to get to the back shelves?

So I thought about ways—as opposed to the old music appreciation books’ “this is melody, this is harmony, this is rhythm”—I thought about other categories you could use that were really based in the listening experience. Like repetition, loudness, density, audio space—imagining the space of a piece of music. Within each of those chapters, pretending genre doesn’t exist at all and talking about examples of music that might be from different centuries, different continents, totally different musical traditions, but having a through line of an idea, which is a listening experience.

AR: When you were assembling these examples of various categories, how did you go about whittling them down? With the category “slowness,” so many possible examples come to mind. What was the logic behind settling on the examples for the categories?

BR: I love description. If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me, “Why do you do this? Why do you do this job?” I would say because I really like describing. And I think that describing something with a certain vigor, at best, can make the essence of that music rise up on the page, and all of a sudden it’s with you. So I had a short list of pieces of music that I really, really wanted to describe, in terms of what they’re doing. What’s the musical information coming out of them, as the listener understands it. Sound. Describe the sound, that’s what I’m really talking about. The Sarah Vaughan song was in there, for example. The Steve Reich piece “Four Organs” was in there, in the repetition chapter. The Chic song “Everybody Dance” was in there, too, that also went into repetition. I had, I don’t know, probably twenty-five pieces of music I really wanted to do something with. I started arranging them into different categories, and then finding other ones that could connect with them.

AR: So sometimes the pieces themselves led you to devise a category, to put a name to a quality that you couldn’t pin down yet?

BR: Definitely. And this is also an experiment in an expanded idea of “listening.” I’m suggesting a spirit of listening in which we naturally are interested in hearing more in order to make connections between kinds of music. These are twenty categories that I came up with, and all of you might have twenty of your own. I am not saying that these twenty are the ones. It’s a suggestion. These are categories, also, that I don’t think Spotify would be able to sell. [Audience laughter.] You know what I mean? I don’t think they’d be able to sell “slowness” as a genre. That idea appealed to me.

AR: Reading this book, you will really want to hook up a computer and find the examples as Ben goes through them. You’re going to feel incredibly cool as you do this, as you skip from one genre to another. It’s an amazing cross section from very well-known artists to very obscure ones—at least, ones who are obscure to me.

What struck me was that while you were making all these connections you weren’t smushing music together and leveling it out and turning it into this interchangeable substance. Which can sometimes happen when people try to write about all of music together. Those books about how music works, about what music does to the brain—looking at them, I always think, well, what music? Different kinds of music do different things to the brain. I get sort of irritated when all those differences are smoothed out.

Whereas here, you’re actually preserving differences even as you find common threads. You respect the individuality. You’re not saying Shostakovich is the same as DJ Screw and all the others. You’re pointing out one thing they have in common, but it can also actually make you notice all the differences as well. To respect individual personalities, but also genres. There’s a really interesting relationship to genre in the book. In one sense, you’re sort of obliterating it. But you’re also opening people up to genres they might not have explored, and respecting the tradition of each genre. It’s complicated that way.

BR: It’s a cliché now to say that genre doesn’t matter. “We’re beyond genre. I don’t like genre.” It’s true, I don’t really like genre. I think genre is really good for selling. I think that’s its prime use. I believe in tradition. I think that tradition can expand or reseed a body of music, and it’s very important. Tradition is practiced by participants, musicians. Genre is practiced by spectators or merchants. It makes less and less sense to me, actually, to say to yourself: I’m the kind of person who likes R&B.

Because the music itself is getting much more porous and changeable, but also, we can do anything we want. We have it all. It’s not a big deal to go find anything now. Maybe genre is also a holdover from early days when your taste in music was partially shaped by your experiences in getting it—what your local record store had in stock, what your local radio stations played, what was the music that was necessary to know in your community or your family or whatever. And now, much less of that is true. There are still local music traditions. I don’t mean to say that all that has disappeared—it’s just less true.

AR: So what are the spaces that would promote this kind of listening, beyond reading your book? For the most part, we have lost that space where music was preached in your face. Instead of the contemporary tone of “If you liked this, you may also like that,” it was, “That record sucks, you should listen to this one instead. You must listen to this.” Or, “If you think you hate this, you should be loving it.” [Audience laughter.] Which is a totally different algorithm that’s very difficult to quantify! So how do we hold onto that, that kind of face-to-face urgency of pushing people toward music that they don’t think they need?

BR: Well, from reading this book. But then after that, community radio, college radio, pirate radio . . . is still a great way to stumble upon things. Dumb luck. Music is all around us, more and more so. Partially, I think you can—especially now, with Shazam—encounter music that you don’t recognize, especially if you’re in a neighborhood that’s not your own, that you’re unfamiliar with, or you’re in another country. Interstitial music: something in a movie, something in an ad. There are all these places where dumb luck actually still occurs. And I think in record stores there was—and I’m not saying I wish record stores would come back, because I know they’re not going to come back, that’s okay, we’re moved on to something else, and that’s also okay—but the idea of the record store was really interesting in terms of what happened to you when you walked into one of those places. Well, you still can, but not so many. You go physically into the place, and just what you take in when you move your head around, you’re probably going to encounter something that you didn’t know about. Something will catch your eye. You move toward a part of the store you hadn’t moved toward before, just on impulse. And all of a sudden you’re seeing things—you move your hands across the stock, you start looking at things, you take something out, it’s an object. It has words all over it, often. When you look on Spotify, it’s just title of song, name of album.

AR: So many people will say they started listening to minimalism or great jazz artists on ECM just because the covers were so cool—that sort of spare, minimalist photography.

BR: I still believe in talking to people, I still believe in face-to-face recommendation, I still believe in going immediately to a record collection in somebody else’s house, just to see what it is. That can be a great random sampling, too.

In fact, I just thought about this the other day, another example of a random sampling is the National Recording Registry. The Library of Congress has a thing called the National Recording Registry. And every year since maybe 2002, they add twenty-five recordings to it. And they are very judiciously chosen. The idea is that all these recordings illustrate something about life in America. They’re not even all American music, they might be non-American artists that had some impact here for some reason. And the reason is presented to you alphabetically online on the Library of Congress website. And it’s great, looking at that list. Everything is good. Really good. And of great interest. It’ll be like, De La Soul, Eddie Palmieri, Leontyne Price, Beethoven as performed by a certain string quartet, Johnny Cash, etcetera.

It doesn’t really matter who you are, when you look at that list, you’re going to come across something you don’t know very well. If you say to yourself, maybe I should go through this list and actually hear this stuff, then you can start having an every-song-ever experience, trying to figure out: Right, these Beethoven string quartets. Never heard of them. But they connect in a certain way to something that I already know, so they’re about me, too.

AR: Right. Something else that occurs to me is that you have a really interesting chapter whose subtext is the rise and fall of collecting—how these days, there’s not so much cultural capital connected to amassing huge amounts of records. What used to be called “building a library” is now considered “hoarding.” [Audience laughter.] But the theme you devise for that chapter is the artist who is infinitely collectible. Am I getting this right?

BR: Or seemingly.

AR: Or seemingly activates this urge to collect everything. Not the artist who puts out the three classic albums, but the Grateful Dead or other incredibly prolific artists where you have to amass a total picture piece by piece. Which is a really interesting, unexpected cross section through genres. But it’s a thing.

BR: It is a thing. Musicians whose music really is best understood as chunks in an ongoing discourse. And if you follow that thought to its conclusion . . . there is a period of time when Lil Wayne was appearing on a lot of other people’s songs and making tons of his own albums, and it got to the point where it seemed like the only way to really know Lil Wayne was to hear all of it. Just knowing three songs wouldn’t do, because he was only to be understood in the whole thing, seemingly. And the same with the Grateful Dead, and the same with Fela, and other people like that.

AR: I want to ask about your own relationship, as a critic, with very mainstream pop music on the one hand and then with genres or subcultures that are way off the beaten track. Something that really strikes me about your work is that you’re not beholden to one or the other. You move back in forth in an uncomplicated way—you don’t seem terribly burdened by debates between Rockists and Poptimists, that kind of thing. It seems beside the point with your work. But are those issues that you think about and grapple with?

BR: Well, if I had any kind of training, it really was writing about jazz. I did more of that than writing about anything else, for at least the first ten years. One useful way of writing about jazz is dealing with the music as much as possible—talking about specifics, what’s going on with it. And also trying to make it interesting. But I did start to feel like, “Oh, this method can be used in pop music, too.” Sometimes I feel a little perverse doing it that way: writing about a Rihanna record in terms of the music itself. [Audience laughter.]

Because I don’t see a whole lot of it. And I understand why. Also, music is more than repetition and silence and loudness, I mean, I know that. Music is deeply, deeply coded, with history and politics and struggle and all kinds of things, and also reacting with and against trends and prevailing sounds and styles. But I’m glad that you sense that I’m not overly concerned, because I’m not, with arguments about one style versus another and Poptimism versus Rockism. Actually, I try to forget about all that. And I also feel somehow—this works for me, anyway—I can write in a voice that’s actually true to myself when I’m actually dealing with the music. When I start talking about how the song or the record is an act of cultural positioning, or what is the message, to me I start sounding like everybody else.

AR: What really sets this book apart is, it’s entirely about music. Just the stuff of music. There’s very little biography, political context, social context, etcetera. It’s not dry or technical, either; it’s quite personal and poetic in terms of how you go about musical description. But it’s just all music. And that is rare and refreshing.

Every Song Ever

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Ben Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic for The New York Times since 1996. He has written three books: The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music; Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award); and Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Bronx.

Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, became an international bestseller and has been translated into sixteen languages. Selected as one of the New York Times’s ten best books of the year, The Rest Is Noise won a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the Premio Napoli, and the Grand Prix des Muses, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ross has received honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music; in 2008, he was named a MacArthur Fellow. His second book, Listen to This, appeared in 2010. He is now working on a book entitled Wagnerism. A native of Washington, DC, Ross lives in Manhattan and is married to the filmmaker Jonathan Lisecki.

Listen to a fifteen hour playlist featuring music from Every Song Ever:

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