John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 2)

Become Ocean

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think you’re going to like this post.

Become Ocean is fine. It’s pretty. It’s interesting enough to listen to it ebb and flow, to build from silence to full blast and back again. But in the end, I have the same reaction to this piece that I did with the only other classic drone record I’ve listened to — Sleep’s Dopesmoker* — and it’s a question we’ve both posed on this blog before: What is this music for?

One thing this blog has caused me to examine about myself is the ways I like to experience music — and how that might affect my tastes more broadly, in a way I hadn’t really considered before. I think there might be a medium-is-the-message sort of component here, and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to try to unpack it.

Generally, I listen to new music in only a few specific settings: while commuting and/or exercising (these have been one and the same for a while now, since I bike to work and almost everywhere else); while doing primarily rote and/or visual tasks, like cleaning or organizing or photo editing; or while playing the popular computer game StarCraft II. I also like to listen to music while I drive, cook, and do certain computer-based tasks, but I don’t like these situations for brand new music because I can’t devote enough attention to it and/or there’s too much background sound.

What I like about commuting/exercising, sorting/editing and StarCraft is that they don’t take a lot of processing power, or at least not all at once. (Not at my StarCraft skill level, anyway.) I find I can almost never listen to music while I ‘work’, because my work generally either involves writing and thus consumes essentially all of my available brainpower, or involves working with audio and thus precludes music listening altogether. I usually don’t even listen to music when I’m just surfing the internet, because I either won’t absorb what I’m reading or I won’t absorb the music, so I’ve realized at this point in my life that it’s a lost cause to try and do both. And even StarCraft isn’t perfect; if a skirmish gets particularly heated, I’ll completely lose the thread of whatever I’m listening to for a few minutes.

Now, what these situations all have in common is this: while listening to the brand new music, there is something else that is actively demanding at least partial attention from me. With the rote/visual tasks or the real-time strategy, I’m diverting at least some attention away from the music, and sometimes all of it for brief periods. Commuting/exercising is probably closer to ideal, particularly when public transit is involved, but while this avoids the problem of concentration lapses, you’re also competing with other sounds. Cars, people, wind noise if you’re on a bike — all of it makes it harder to pick up on details in the music.

The more I think about this, the less of a coincidence I think it is that my favourite music tends to be energetic, driving, loud, bizarre, cerebral, and other similar adjectives — my favourite music tends to be stuff that really commands attention. I think this may be due at least in part to the types of situations in which I generally consume music, combined with my obsessive personality. (I’m one of those people who keeps entire albums despite only really liking one song, and I almost always prefer to listen to entire albums versus songs on shuffle or in a playlist or whatever.) In other words, I think my taste is at least somewhat affected by the use I see the music as having for me. Simply put, I seem to generally want music I can bob my head to while doing other things.

So, with that in mind, let’s consider my original question about Become Ocean a bit differently: What can I use this music for? It’s not rhythmic enough for bike riding. It doesn’t work for StarCraft at all. It’s far too droney and atmospheric for the bus. What I ended up doing was listening to it at work where, as you know, I’m currently doing some glorified data entry, so it worked well enough for that. But really, I find that music like this is of only limited utility to me. There’s only so much data I have to enter, only so many photos to edit. And besides, rote tasks like that are great opportunities for music that is too cerebral — some lyrically dense rap, say — for more attention-demanding situations. For me, this music falls into the same category as bands like Mogwai or múm: bands I really like, but whose music I really only ever listen to in specific situations, like at three in the morning on a deadline and I need something besides the silence to keep me clinging to consciousness.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m not approaching the music on its own terms. I mean, this piece clearly isn’t meant to be a workout mix, or a video game soundtrack. I’m sure it’s spectacular live. And I realize that it’s incredibly selective and hypocritical of me, given that one of my favourite musicians recently released an EP of moody space music, and I love it. But even though it’s selfish, the reality is that this kind of music is of limited use to me just because of how, why, and where I tend to listen to music, and I think that might be why I find it hard to get especially excited about.

All of this is to say: it’s fine music. But I think I understand your response to the Micronauts a lot better now.

But hey, speaking of workout mixes and long compositions, I think you’ll really like your next assignment.

— Matt

*OK, I guess it’s kind of obvious what a record called Dopesmoker is for.

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