I listen to music all the time and all I ever really want is to be surprised.
This week I’ve been listening to lots of Arthur Russell. To discover Russell’s haunted avant-disco in the present day is to hear it through the mouths of ghosts, tainted and stained by all the artists who have been influenced by him. It is impossible to get rid of this context — of his death, of his legacy. The echoes of his echoes. It is not just Russell singing, but everyone who has paused at Russell’s singing in the past, who has his smudgy thumbprint on their ear. And everyone who has written on him, read or not. (And so it is, now, my voice too).
And yet it is still surprising. It still sounds totally and utterly new. Not just because of the unusual combination of sounds — the tortured, drenched sound of his cello colliding with his disco beats — but because of the spirit inside it, his unique voice. A colour or emotion, a hue that is unusual and distinctly his.
This is the case with all great music. It is like Ezra Pound’s idea of literature – “news that stays news”. Whatever order you hear them in, the classics stay new. They leap the narrative forward again. They build on what came after them. They develop their influences.
Because you might know the story but you haven’t read it until you’ve actually read it, and in the reading the story is reimagined, determined by the order of each fragment. No one listens in order. No one is born listening to the earliest recorded alien warble, only to grow up with the forties aged four and the sixties aged six, crawling forward through the years, slowing as the amount of recorded music exponentially increases. That would be silly. No one swallows the narrative of music whole. It only exists, insofar as it does even exist, as various, overlapping, contradictory and above all piecemeal versions, assembled out-of-order.
To hear Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day today is to hear the ideas of Devendra Banhart’s Rejoicing in the Hands and Joanna Newsom’s The Milk Eyed Mender clarified, purified — a reverse expansion.
To hear Can’s Ege Bamyasi today is to hear every ‘Vitamin C’ breakbeat lifted from it reimagined again as live drums. Like when I saw the entire DJ Shadow album Endtroducing… (widely credited as the first album to consist entirely of samples of other records) played by a live band, complete with two voices reading out all the sampled snippets of speech. (A magical live show — the absolute passion for that album by everyone on stage could be palpably felt.)
And more embarrassing examples abound — the surprise that the Pulp Fiction soundtrack did not, in fact, “pump it louder”. The no-surprise of the fourth, the fifth, by the time I actually got back through the thicket of covers to the real ‘Hallelujah’.
(Ironically, every time I listen to OK Computer, it’s ‘No Surprises’ that catches me out, sequencing-wise. I always forget it’s coming.)
Yet this ahistorical listening is of course supplemented with historical learning. It’s not like I take in Bunyan or Can without context. My point is simply that there’s no such thing as historical listening because we can’t un-hear the things that come chronologically later. One could draw a line and only listen going forward, to things on their release date — but you’d actually end up hearing less really new things, because most of the really new things are actually old things. History tends to repeat itself. To go forwards you have to (mostly) go backwards.
So it is that the two newest albums I’ve heard this year were released in 1972 and 1983: Lal & Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus and Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass. Why? Because they sound like nothing I’ve heard before, couple with the simple fact(s) that I’d never heard them (or of them) before. Both were reissued this year to wide re-acclaim, re-reviewing (re-re-viewing). Their physical rerelease not only pleased collectors but gave them a chance to be re-released— the dove exploding from the cage — and heard as though new again, by new ears.
It is easy to equate newness with technology, synthetic sound, fragmentation, formal experimentation. In fact, the newest-sounding, actually historically new album of 2017 is, to these ears, Richard Dawson’s Peasant. This glorious, ambitious, compassionate, moving, bloody, terrifying, uplifting album is about as far away from ‘now’ as one could hope to get — it is ‘set’ (so to speak) in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bryneich, in pre-medieval northern England, about a thousand years before recorded music began. Listening to it, you are transported back into that time, as Dawson tells the imagined stories of different members of that community (‘Beggar’, ‘Prostitute’, ‘Scientist’, ‘Soldier’). The instrumentation, too, manages to conjure something of the muddy, rural, and above all (and in all its senses) dark age in which these songs are set. That is, it actually sounds old. So why does it also sound so new? Because it says things about community and society that need to be said and heard in 2017? Partially. But also because it just sounds, once again, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. A new way of sounding, a new way of feeling, a new way of thinking.
Surprise. Equal parts emotional flip-in-the-tummy and intellectual startling. Both jolt awake, increasing attention and focus. How does this square, though, with the kind of somnambulant music that seeks not to jolt but to lull us? Is there not good music which acts as lullaby, as balm, or even as wallpaper? Forms which are antithetical to surprise? Where is the surprise then? I propose it is in the dreams induced. You don’t have to pop a balloon and make a bang to surprise someone. You might tie a thousand balloons to their chair and let them drift off, see new shapes in the clouds. There is such a thing as a soft surprise. A new tint of light. That is what it means for music to be truly psychedelic — the slow surprise of consciousness expanding.