Jan 11

The Year Of Difficult Listening

FT119 comments • 2,632 views

(crossposted with Tumblr)

The Year Of Difficult Reading is a blog reading project someone’s doing – tackle “twelve of the most notoriously difficult novels in the English language” across 2011, one a month. (Two of ’em aren’t English language novels, but they are very well-read in translation, so no quibbling!)

Obviously this project raises a million questions about the definition of difficulty, how it gets assigned, what the value is in approaching ‘difficult’ art, and so on. That’s precisely WHY I thought it would be really interesting to ask what a music equivalent would look like. What records would be on it? What balance of classical tradition and others? What does “difficulty” sound like – does material that’s emotionally or politically difficult stack up against things that are sonically taxing? The reading tumblr has picked stuff which – by and large – is already in the canon, but is this an option in music?

So this post is a call for suggestions, rather than simply discussion. Because it takes less time to listen to a record than to read a book – even a difficult record! – I think we can go for 52 items, not just 12. I’m not necessarily going to DO this project – I have enough on my plate as it is – but I’m very happy to crowdsource a curriculum and leave it open to any lunatic who wants something to take on. Or just leave it as a list and an idea. What I’m hoping to end up with is a list which would include material that you might see as “difficult” whatever your current comfort zone might be. Perhaps that’s impossible. Perhaps the whole idea is misguided. Let’s find out!

Your suggestions?


  1. 1
    Andrew Hickey on 17 Jan 2011 #

    Well, let’s see… depends what you mean by ‘difficult’, doesn’t it? If you’re talking atonal/’unpleasant’ then things like

    Stimmung by Stockhausen
    Deserts by Edgard Varese
    Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed
    Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band
    Lumpy Gravy by Frank Zappa
    Two Virgins by John & Yoko
    Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman
    Leng T’Che by Naked City

    Politically difficult…
    Uncle Dave Macon – wonderful banjo player from the 30s, but who recorded songs like ‘Run Nigger Run’

    Uncomfortable listening because of the musicians themselves:
    The demos of Charles Manson
    Gary Glitter
    Phil Spector
    Jonathan King
    Ike & Tina Turner
    Jerry Lee Lewis

    Historically ambitious works once regarded as difficult but now absorbed into the culture:
    Wagner’s Ring Cycle
    The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky

    Outsider music – music where liking it might say something bad about you, as well as being challenging
    Wild Man Fischer
    Wesley Willis

    Music that might challenge one’s preconceptions if you’re the kind of hipster/rockist/muso type who owns most of the above records like me:
    Celine Dion
    Barry Manilow
    The Bee Gees

  2. 2
    Billy Smart on 17 Jan 2011 #

    Jive Bunny 100 Hits
    Gazza & Friends – Lets Have A Party
    Bombalurina – Huggin’ An’ a Kissin’

    Skrewdriver? (Oddly I was looking up Mp3s of ‘The Green Fields Of France’ the other day and couldn’t find The Men They Couldn’t Hang, but could have chosen dozens of far-right versions. I didn’t. And, on reflection although the exercise might be intellectually interesting, it would invariably change the tenor of the comments for the worse.)

  3. 3

    Stimmung isn’t atonal! It’s a just-intonation b-flat dominant ninth throughout

  4. 4
    Tom on 17 Jan 2011 #

    #2 I think implicit in the project (at least it seems to be in the books one) is the expectation that each of these things is going to end up being rewarding as well as perhaps difficult. I think otherwise the project ends up a bit “LOL difficult music, oh those crazy Japanese” etc. That said I don’t think it’s a bad idea to be ambitious about what might BE rewarding (so Celine might well be in there!).

  5. 5
    Pete on 17 Jan 2011 #

    Well the other way of looking at it is via the honesty game, where we trot aspects of the canon out and people admit the artists / albums that they themselves have never engaged with. What is in Rock’s DNA that everyone takes for granted / thinks they already know.

    What could be more challenging is listening to the complete works of a particular artist. So everything by the Beatles / Elvis / Cliff (particularly Cliff – where you get a history of pop filtered through the prism of Cliff).

    Of course with FT’s readership it would be fascinating to do this with film!

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 17 Jan 2011 #

    Back on Popular’s thread for Starship’s “We Built This City” the conversation got on to Canon, after a trite remark of mine regarding “Trout Mask Replica”. As a result of that, I approached that album with a new perspective (thanks Marcello), and although some of it is heavy going, I did find some gems in there too. I have learned to approach a lot of “difficult” music since then, with fresh ears and an open mind.

    “Difficult” might be atonal pieces by Stockhausen (which I’ve found to be quite relaxing to listen to), to the dubious output of Skrewdriver (which I can’t stand to listen to at any price). So there’s some thorny territory indeed.
    Bringing things up to date, I’ve found some new ways to appreciate grindcore as a genre. A sub-genre within death metal, it’s speeded up and distorted, with a more than obsessive fixation with mortality and decay. So far, so alienated teenager, but there’s more than just pig noises and double kickdrum pedals to be found here. There’s good and bad in any genre, but nothing can persuade me to listen to Spermswamp for more than a couple of seconds (imagine the aural equivalent of the 2 girls 1 cup video, and you’re pretty close). Grindcore is not a million miles away from breakcore, and there’s much fun to be had listening to Venetian Snares or Bong Ra. Speaking of Bong Ra, his side project with Sickboy, Servants Of The Apocalyptic Goat Rave is well worth checking out. But now, what was once difficult to appreciate now becomes easier and enjoyable, so difficulty is personal and subjective, and after some exposure, the once difficult becomes normal.

    I’d be interseted to see what others find difficult.

  7. 7
    enitharmon on 17 Jan 2011 #

    There are lots of things I don’t care to listen to (although few of them would be regarded as difficult). They don’t generally make it to my collection however, unless they are members of the set of UK number ones 1952-1984 (with one notable exception which I explained in its Popular entry).

    The one thing that is voluntarily included in my collection (in which Trout Mask Replica sits happily) that I have not so far got my head round is Pat Metheny’s Zero Tolerance of Silence.

  8. 8
    Tracer Hand on 17 Jan 2011 #

    V/v/m might fit here. They have a “covers” album:


    Sadly their music seems to no longer be available on brainwashed.com.

  9. 9
    davek on 17 Jan 2011 #

    How about some ugly, tough prog? I love Magma: the repetitious, less-fusiony stuff like Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh is a better match for ‘difficult’, but there are other bands which inspire detached admiration or confusion as opposed to outright love ie Univers Zero, Art Zoyd, Henry Cow, that could be rewarding to tackle.

    Peter Brotzmann – Machine Gun is the most destructive free-jazz I’ve ever heard, and is sure to knock people off their chairs!

  10. 10
    Tom on 17 Jan 2011 #

    #10 I think there’s room for florid hippie prog too!

  11. 11
    Kat but logged out innit on 17 Jan 2011 #

    #6 – if you like Bong Ra then give the Wrong Music dudes a listen if you haven’t already. Shitmat and Scotch Egg are always good value.

  12. 12
    thefatgit on 17 Jan 2011 #

    I have a couple of mates who put me onto the Wrong Music site, Kat. Very useful.

  13. 13
    crag on 17 Jan 2011 #

    As it so happens I’m listening to Lightning Bolt as I write who some find “difficult”..
    I find nothing tricky about Trout Mask or Lumpy Gravy but I’ll have to agree on Metal Machine Music. I love a lot of “noisy” music but for me the most difficult music is the kind that is discordant/atonal/headache-inducing etc but also simultaneously boring and relenlessly monotonous and MMM fits the bill for me…
    How about Anal Cunt?

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 17 Jan 2011 #

    Off the top of my head I’d suggest ‘Still Life’ by Van de Graf Generator. I haven’t listened to it for years but I seem to remember having to concentrate very hard when listening to it way back when.

  15. 15
    Izzy on 17 Jan 2011 #

    I think the spirit of the book exercise is something like ‘you need to put the work in to appreciate these’. Here’s twelve albums that might qualify, which have all different reasons for difficulty, and only some of which I actually think are worth it:

    Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans
    The Beatles – The Beatles
    Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
    Radiohead – Amnesiac
    Oasis – Be Here Now
    Television – Marquee Moon
    The Orb – UF Orb
    My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
    Husker Du – Land Speed Record
    The Stone Roses – Second Coming
    Nearly God – Nearly God
    Kate Bush – Aerial

  16. 16
    Izzy on 17 Jan 2011 #

    Led Zeppelin – Presence

    you could probably cite the whole of Melody Maker’s Unknown Pleasures book here (Presence and Tusk are both in there).

    I don’t see difficulty as necessarily meaning musical or lyrical difficulty, it will be apparent. This is still pop after all.

    Rather as I see it it’s about records with a vision that, for one reason or another, don’t offer much to the casual listener. You have to force yourself to listen in a different way or to different things than pretty tunes to ‘get’ them. Any music geek will be familiar with that, I suspect.

  17. 17
    The Lurker on 17 Jan 2011 #

    In the slightly atonal vein I’d suggest David Sylvian’s Blemish and Bjork’s Medulla. Both interesting for being significantly more “difficult” than the rest of their output.

  18. 18
    swanstep on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Donding #1’s suggestions of some Ornette Coleman and late ’80s/early ’90s John Zorn/Naked City.

    Godflesh’s Streetcleaner… and, really, there was a whole genre of pretty popular but very hard to actually listen all the way through to ’90s ‘down in a hole’/drug/suicide records: Dirt, Downward Spiral, Antichrist Superstar.
    Nico’s The End (w/ Eno producing) probably got there first: a personal fave in the genre and v. challenging to listen through.

    Difficult to stay awake through: Eno and Hassell’s Thursday Afternoon, Aphex’s Selected Ambient Works vol 2.

  19. 19
    Ewan on 18 Jan 2011 #

    It’s difficult to say really; if you enjoy listening to something, how does one then quantify it’s level of difficulty? Enough people already rate their music taste by how unpopular it is amongst the ‘mainstream’, and I’ve probably fallen into that trap myself in my life. I suppose you could take an artist who can be placed in a relationship with the pop charts and then nominate a release which did badly with respect to those same charts, meaning it must therefore objectively be ‘difficult’. Plenty have been mentioned above. I’d also throw in a vote for Scott Walker’s “Tilt”. Most of his latter-day stuff is ‘difficult’ and I don’t often go back to it, but I still have quite a lot of time for “Tilt”. I find it rewarding, anyway.

    If it was just ‘unlistenable’ then plenty of stuff that’s hit the number one spot could qualify, but not all seem rewarding. I suppose MMM makes sense too. However, I like plenty of noise music, but I find MMM to be particularly tedious. And not just from being same-y (after all, LaMonte Young or, say, Charlemagne Palestine could produce some beautiful effects from sustaining and repeating single tones), but the way Reed does noise/repetitiveness, it just seems, oh I don’t know, it just seems tedious. On the other hand it at least is a recognised touchpoint; I’d not be able to select a single specific release from an artist like Masonna or Merzbow in its place, but I esteem both more greatly.

    I guess I like the jazz direction because I do feel I get more out of repeated listens in that context, and when it’s more ‘difficult’ it often just means there’s more to listen for. For a pop pick I’d vote for “Ascension” by John Coltrane personally, but “Machine Gun” as mentioned above, also v good!

  20. 20
    swanstep on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Godley and Creme’s _Consequences_ perhaps (although it might seem a little effete compared to all the extreme jazz stuff that’s been suggested).

  21. 21

    The key to me in this question isn’t how hard something is to sit through — free jazz is easy if you like free jazz — it’s how “hard it is to write about?”

    Probably since I was at Wire — where we dealt with free jazz and noise as a matter of course — I’ve been fascinated by the variance in levels of “writeability” in different types and styles of music; that genre M appeals to listeners who enjoy reading about it; and that contra this, genre N is preferred by those who have little interest in reading about it (or occasionally in reading at all). With all kinds of complexites and niceties in between.

    This to me is a far more important axis than the noise vs pretty continuum, or the eventful vs event-free continuum — because I suspect it’s orthogonal to any descriptive continuum you can come up with.

    This is a piece I wrote about Xenakis’s Persepolis (and a bunch of hommage-remixes) a few years back. The secret questiosn it’s picking at (A) “Can a music be IMPORTANT if its fans don’t like to read?” and (B) “What would reviews be like if they acctually applied the principles of the avant-garde musics they approved?”

    I pitched Metal Machine Music to 33/1/3 a while ago, and got knocked back: as it happens, Geeta Dayal’s book on Another Green World takes up a lot of the same slack.

  22. 22
    Andrew Hickey on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Wouldn’t say Consequences was difficult, in any sense.
    Agreed about Tilt though, though I’d choose The Drift instead.

  23. 23
    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

    #1: none of these is actually “atonal” and the kneejerk conjunction of “atonal” with “unpleasant” we can do without.

    #9: Machine Gun not strictly speaking “free jazz.”

  24. 24
    wichita lineman on 18 Jan 2011 #

    How many people have heard Consequences compared to Sheet Music? It’s length alone makes it difficult. I love 10CC but I’ve never dared go near it.

    I think albums I haven’t approached by artists who I generally like is one definition of ‘difficult’ – and a more intriguing one than a list of Beefheart, Zappa, usual suspects.

    Like a lot of people, I imagine, I’ve been thinking about Broadcast a lot in the last few days. I love them. But when Witch Cults of the Radio Age came out I played it once, then I saw them play an improvised version of it live, and neither time could I find a way in.

    Elvis’s 60s film soundtracks? There is gold in there if you dig, it’s about time and patience.

    McCartney II would have been in this category until a few years ago.

    Another difficult category: albums with great songs and dreadful 80s productions. Exhibit one, Tallulah by the Go Betweens.

  25. 25
    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Consequences leads very nicely on from Sheet Music. Absolutely fantastic piece of work, especially Peter Cook’s improvised contributions. If it hadn’t come out at the time it did come out – i.e. bang in the middle of punk – people would think more kindly of it.

  26. 26
    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

    My general view is that it’s listeners who are difficult rather than music.

  27. 27
    wichita lineman on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Well, quite. I must have a line I don’t want to cross, eg Mike Batt solo singles ? Give me more. Free ticket to see Hunting Of The Snark live? I’m washing my hair.

    This isn’t something I’m proud of.

    The Zappa Beefheart end of difficult, though, I think is more down to personal taste.

  28. 28
    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

    I had a free ticket to see Hunting Of The Snark live about twenty years ago and used it. Probably a half-decent show buried in there somewhere but unfocused and very cheesily presented. Given that the cast included David McCallum and Kenny Everett that has to be considered a bit of a waste.

  29. 29
    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

    But this is veering away from “difficult” music and towards things we like and don’t like.

  30. 30
    Cumbrian on 18 Jan 2011 #

    @26: In the main, I think you’re probably right. But there are some pieces that I think are difficult – and not necessarily because I am being difficult about them.

    The one that springs to my mind is “The Boiler” by The Specials. I’ve listened to it precisely once and found it a harrowing experience, as it is designed to be. I would class this record as “difficult” but I don’t think I am being a “difficult listener” on this one. I can’t imagine that many would find a woman screaming rape over the final minute and a half of the track a comfortable listen.

    This perhaps veers away from the point of the Year Of Difficult Reading though and its potential parallels with a Year Of Difficult Listening. It seems to me that the reading list is about books that are generally agreed to be quite dense or difficult to break down, which is perhaps easier to put your finger on than it is with music. “The Boiler” is difficult to listen to but I don’t think it is in the accepted sense of avant garde, as are many of the suggestions up thread (and perhaps some of the literature in the Year of Difficult Reading – I must confess I am not familiar with all of those books).

  31. 31
    Tom on 18 Jan 2011 #

    #30 yes, one of the reasons for leaving it so open was to see the kind of ways people came at the question. I think in literature there’s a subdivision of stuff where there’s general agreement that the effort is worthwhile, but also general agreement that yes, it is an effort. (Sometimes simply a function of length!). Is there an equivalent in music? Not sure.

    I think people use “difficulty” as a kind of social positioning tool more with music, too. I have no patience for people who dismiss music as difficult with the implication that people are only pretending to like it. But I also think that finding music difficult and dealing with that is a rewarding thing (not the only rewarding thing, not the MOST rewarding thing, just one kind of enjoyment).

  32. 32
    thefatgit on 18 Jan 2011 #

    There is another aspect to difficult listening, when confronted with reworks/re-imaginings of the same song ie:

    Candi Staton – You Got The Love
    The Source ft Candi Staton – You Got The Love
    The Source ft Candi Staton (DJ Eren’s Remix) – You Got The Love
    The Source ft Candi Staton (Now Voyager mix) – You Got The Love
    Florence And The Machine – You Got The Love
    Florence And The Machine (The XX Remix)- You Got The Love
    Florence Welch & Dizzee Rascal (Brits download)- U Got The Dirty Luv

    Here is an *almost complete list of versions of the same song. All these versions on YouTube have a string of vitriolic, passionate arguments by people pitching version A over version B or trashing version X in favour of version Y. Some purists will argue for Candi’s origial and cite subsequent versions as unlistenable. Some will find something to like in all of them, but have a firm favourite. Some will just say “I never liked any of them”.
    Personally, the Florence & Dizzee version is hard for me to listen to without wanting to smash something, but then again, I can appreciate it’s evolution from one thing to something else.

    *I’m sure I’ve overlooked a couple of versions.

  33. 33
    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

    The late Richard Cook had the best take on “The Boiler”: “impossible to listen to repeatedly but must be heard once.” See also Dave Marsh’s brilliant meditation on the same record in The Heart Of Rock And Soul; one of the best things he’s ever written.

  34. 34
    Birdseed on 18 Jan 2011 #

    I think one way to approach it would be to go for the *personally* difficult records. The ones you’ve fraught relationships to, that you dislike, that come from a social group you despise, consciously or unconsciously. Rehabilitate over-listened hits. Find the beauty in post-emo easycore, in hardstyle techno, in homebrew trance-pop, or whatever else you find most unlistenable at the moment. Or – horrendous suggestion, I know – try to understand the appeal of Radiohead. That is a different level of difficulty than just dense or complex music.

  35. 35

    There’s a not-bad book by George Steiner called “On Difficulty” which I must admit I did sorta-kinda buy because I liked the idea of being seen on the bus reading it (tho I’d already read and liked other Steiner) (I think thanks to something Paul Morley wrote about him!); which explores the functional purpose of “difficulty”, of various kinds, in poetry and novels: its use as an expressive tool etc etc.

  36. 36
    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Ah yes, the Difficult Fab Four; Contingent, Modal, Tactical and Ontological!

  37. 37
    Cumbrian on 18 Jan 2011 #

    #31 I think I’d agree that it is probably difficult to draw a parallel between literature and music in this way. I suspect that it might be easier to do A Year of Difficult Films than a Year of Difficult Music – though I have nothing but gut feel to go on with that. Though I understnad that is rather the point of the discussion: to try to come to an understanding of what difficult music may look like.

    #33 I shuld probably have a look at the Dave Marsh stuff. Only really know him from his writings on Springsteen. Thanks for the tip.

  38. 38
    Tom on 18 Jan 2011 #

    I used to be a bit annoyed by the variability of The Heart Of Rock And Soul* – that was obviously before I decided to start reviewing 1000+ singles, and now I’m pretty much in awe of it.

    *where his “Boiler” piece comes from.

  39. 39
    Cumbrian on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Nothing like walking a mile in another man’s shoes right?

    Though I guess, in your case, it is more like several Iron Man’s worth of distance.

  40. 40
    koganbot on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Mark, would you be able to give an example of music that’s easy to write about? I would say that I write well about some music, but someone could argue that I only write well about music when I figure out a way to write about something related to the music that isn’t the music itself. I might retort that they’re using a narrow definition of music. Nonetheless, it’s not like I wouldn’t know what their objection is.

    In any event, something I’ve never tried to do: explain why Max Martin’s melodies are generally better than similar composers’ similar melodies. Another thing I’ve never tried to do: explain what typically goes on in a Max Martin melody. The latter is something that some people – Dave Moore, for instance – could do well, but that I would most likely never do well. I doubt that anyone could do the former well, or, if they did it well, that I would understand what they were saying well enough to even know if they were doing it well.

    I was thinking of reviewing “The Time (Dirty Bit)” for the Singles Jukebox by simply saying “I like the dirty bit more than the Dirty Dancing bit. 6.” I thought that that would be acceptable in context since I knew that that little nothing of a review would be surrounded by longer and deeper considerations of, e.g., allergic reactions to cauliflower. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t claim that my little reviewlet opens anyone up to a nuanced understanding of the track’s musical structure, for instance.

  41. 41
    Ian on 18 Jan 2011 #

    I enjoy but I imagine would be difficult for you (in the plural): Andrew WK – ‘I Get Wet’
    A lot of people enjoy but is difficult for me: Radiohead – anything after OK Computer

  42. 42
    fivelongdays on 19 Jan 2011 #

    I Get Wet is a work of genius.

    “Party Hard”=The Greatest Single Of The Noughties.

    I’d imagine ‘difficult’ is stuff that takes you out of What You Usually Listen To. In which case, listen to Reign In Blood, by Slayer. But only the original tracklist.

  43. 43
    swanstep on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed R’n’Roll basically argues that there’s a big division between music primarily for dancing to and music primarily for sitting down and listening intently to (so the core of difficulty in music is ‘relatively hard to dance to’ though Wald doesn’t IIRC talk about that as such), and that the latter stuff is (a) easier to write about, (b) necessarily much more of a minority/elite interest, (c) an occupational hazard of critics to overrate and encourage, and (d) pulls apart black and white audiences (who’ll meet on the dance floor but read/listen separately or something).

  44. 44
    Billy Smart on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Ian MacDonald had a theory that there were three common forms of writing about pop music; literary criticism, musicology, and sociological/fashion/”attitude” writing.

  45. 45
    Bec on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Concept albums! The Mars Volta have three which are amazing, and rewarding and brilliant and often difficult…because the lyrics can be baffling and weird and visceral. Musically they ROCK ROCK but there’s a lot of atmosphere/buildup that often gets called ‘boring’ but it’s NOT.


    De-loused in the Comatorium – about a guy who ODs on rat poison and morphine and goes into a coma, meeting all kinds of weird people and being tortured

    Frances the Mute – about a guy who is trying to find out about his past / his family. I started writing a song-by-song on this and got, er, distracted.

    The Bedlam in Goliath – allegedly about three spirits who contacted the band via an ouija board. The wiki page on this album is brilliant.

  46. 46
    Tom on 19 Jan 2011 #

    #43: I’m thinking of throwing the Bangs And Works Vol.1 compilation onto the ‘curriculum’ – strikes me it would be quite an arduous home listen for many but ALSO is clearly technically pretty difficult to dance to, and yet is very obviously designed for dancing.

  47. 47
    JonnyB on 19 Jan 2011 #

    #15 – ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ – yes. I listened to this again on Spotify recently for a reason that I can’t fathom. And it was one of those ‘oh – why have I spent half my life hating this?’ moment.

    My 2p’s worth isn’t from the greatly adventurous camp, but two albums I struggled through at one point but grew to love: the live tracks from Pink Floyd’s ‘Ummagumma’ and Mercury Rev’s ‘Yerself is Steam’.

    For a different definition for other monolinguists amongst us: Georges Brassens.

  48. 48
    the pinefox on 19 Jan 2011 #

    I think I would find it difficult, in a way, to listen to records I don’t like the sound of, like hip-hop records.

    I suppose actually it could be said that listening is never ‘difficult’ – the music goes on, passes by, through your ears, whatever you do. Not like reading where you really have to engage successfully in some degree just to move forward.

    So maybe I would suggest that there is no difficult listening, only unpleasant and unwelcome listening.

    But then, yes, there might be other things that are difficult, like ‘understanding’ or ‘fully appreciating’ a record, or something – different levels.

  49. 49
    the pinefox on 19 Jan 2011 #

    btw corollary could be that ‘easy’ listening is what you like listening to, or is a positive sign.

    I remember way back in 1990s realizing that I found Lloyd Cole very easy to listen to. And I think that was in a sense where my extended advocacy of him began.

    I suppose I don’t like listening to things that I find difficult to listen to – but then, again, that is tautological for me; I don’t want to hear things I don’t like. But it is also true that I spend a lot of my listening time trying to listen to things I haven’t heard much yet – eg whatever is in the ‘Recently Added’ playlist on iTunes. I can’t say this is ‘difficult’ but it does involve some kind of challenge or obscurity, some kind of ‘task’, that just playing Lloyd or the Boss wouldn’t.

    (Listening to the Boss as I type this.)

  50. 50
    the pinefox on 19 Jan 2011 #

    you could also get at this by asking: is pain difficult?

    in a way pain is very difficult. but in a way maybe it’s easy – you don’t have to do anything, just suffer it.

    maybe the same applies to listening to music that you don’t like.

  51. 51
    wichita lineman on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Re: The Boiler. I think it’s little more than gratuitous. I bought it, and listened to it, because I thought I should. Most of us probably know someone who’s been the victim of a sex crime so we don’t need it to be explained graphically; I find rape scenes uncomfortable/unwatchable more than ‘difficult’.

    I know it’s an untouchable record and I’m fairly sure a lot of people won’t agree with me. Interesting to compare its lyric to tracks on the first Specials album (see the Too Much Too Young thread).

    I do like the intentionally not-difficult backing track.

  52. 52
    Billy Smart on 19 Jan 2011 #

    That makes ‘The Boiler’ an interesting case study in comparative art forms. IIRC it started as a youth theatre monologue written and performed by Rhoda Dhakar that Jerry Damners happened to see and set to music. Certainly the context of theatrical performance presumes a certain level of concentration on the part of the spectator which isn’t necessarily there in music.

  53. 53
    pink champale on 19 Jan 2011 #

    @40 not sure if this is what lord s had in mind, but it seems to me that ‘the boiler’ is a classic example of music that’s easy to write about* in that it gives you a great wodge of content to approach lit crit style. i’d have thought pretty much anyone would find it fairly easy to come up with 500 words on it, in a way that would be less true of, say, a sven vath album track. whether it’s easy to write *well* about, is another matter.

    *or at least it’s a record that’s easy to write about, i’m not sure the actual music is any easier to write about than anything else.

  54. 54

    @40: Well, if easy means “lots of people can do it”, then music that’s easy to write about must be the music that’s been written the most.

    Which would probably mean popular, extended stuff with easy-read themes, that’s been around for a good long while: “Dark Side of the Moon”

    For the worn sake of being contrary, I would probably instantly declare that I would not find writing about DSotM easy — I think it’s a rather sluggish and pious record, its insights as bewhiskered now as its sound, once an astonishing novelty, long talked out. But that’s what happens when you ask a professional writer about ease of writing: it’s already been done lots is a hindrance not a help. I’d be worried about inadvertently replicating something someone already said: I’d be starting by reading everything written about it, and never complete this (obviously), and never get anywhere.

    And besides, the above is all a fib: in my long-dormant history of music and technology, I had a plan to write an extended compare and contrast of DSotM and The Pop Group’s first LP “Y” — as a way into the very different approaches to technology and musical history of pre- and post-punk prog (to use a genre term that the fans of both records no doubt vigorously contest); both records taking as their topic social convention and its discontents, to put it at its blandest.

    And this would be very easy indeed for me to write about, in the sense of generating word-counts.

    Actually though, I think there’s an asymmetry here, between hard and easy — which is sort of obvious once you think about it. I *don’t* think there is music that’s easy for everyone to write about; but I *do* think there’s music that’s hard for everyone to write about.

    This is primarily because not everyone finds it easy to write: perhaps — I have no idea — most people find writing hard. Which doesn’t in any sense shut them away from a rich and complex understanding of or engagement with music. And — as I suggested up-thread — there’s music that’s actively fashioned for people who are suspicious of the “world of the written”, as they define it probably in various ways, in varying degrees of vagueness (literary; academic-theoretical; hipster-journalistical; no doubt more besides).

    As for music that’s easy to write about if you find it easy to write: well, this already begs questions. What do you find it easy to write about? You will primarily be drawn to music that allows you to write this way, with ease: or anyway to be drawn to writing about it. And you will be drawn to music that’s hard (for you) to write about, EITHER for the challenge (cf my Wire project mentioned above), OR for the peace and ease and release from professional demands and anxieties, because it’s NOT music that’s clamouring to be written about, and you can relax and enjoy it off-the-clock.

    Nevertheless, there is music that’s hard to write about by its own design — or, to say it better, that by design resists ease-of-writing: which is, or so my Xenakis piece argues, music that consciously stands away from established conventions of structure and construction and performance; music that gets called — not very edifyingly, “avant garde”. Music that doesn’t do the things that its makers take to be the easy-read — and thus tired or empty or captured — moves; the moves that generate ho-hum, hack, “easy” copy.

    With the result that avant-garde music tends to attract poor writing: partly because it sets the bar higher; partly because it repels established approaches. And then generates its own cliches, from within a narrower catchment. And this of course has its own knock-on effect; because the writing, being weak or dreary or repetitive, or tonally unself-aware is offputting to readers — and keeps them away from the music it’s about. I was pleased by the Xenakis piece, and it was fun (and relatively easy) to do; but it was (to me) self-evidently a one-off solution: it doesn’t the general problem of “appropriate” approach; approach “in the anti-tradition tradition”.

    Beyond this I can certainly imagine music made — perhaps in some terrain that combined emotional or political difficulty of subject (like The Boiler) with unstickiness or hostility of style, AND avoidance of recognisable conventions — that offers openings to very few writers indeed. Just because there isn’t an “easy for everyone” doesn’t mean there isn’t a “difficult for everyone”. Though of course over time, as more of it was made, the avoidance becomes ritual and the ritual becomes convention, and bingo, some self-appointed hard-o-naut has lived with of all that long enough to find they have a way through….

    (In regard to challenge, I actually find writing for The Singles Jukebox very tough, and hence excellent discipline for me: because I’m writing sight-unseen about stuff coming out RIGHT NOW — haha sortakinda, only kidding William — without a sense of everyone else’s response; and trying to limit the amount of advance reading round I do to generate connections… It was always what I was bad at back when I was an actual real professional pop journalist: seizing the uncolonised moment and carving it out in my own shapes.)

  55. 55

    heh ^^^tl;dr, where dr stands for “difficulty reading”

  56. 56
    wichita lineman on 19 Jan 2011 #

    I’ve just had to write about Dark Side Of The Moon. I’d never heard it before (parents too old, peers too young), and the last thing I wanted to do was read what other people made of it. So I spent a whole morning listening to 1970-73 Pink Floyd. I was surprised how much I liked large chunks of Obscured By Clouds and Meddle, and thought DSotM was an interesting stereo test record (the effects still sounded fresh to me as a first time listener) but lyrically trite after the more abstract/pastoral approach of the preceding albums. Certainly not the bloated prog monster I’d expected though.

    I’m now listening to the Blizzard Of Ozz album for the first time. Crazy Train sounds like REO Speedwagon! In a good way!

    ‘Difficult’ as in ‘I’m pretty sure I won’t like this’ is at the tame end of the difficult spectrum, but I think it’s valid.

  57. 57
    Pete on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Yes, I think there is something quite interesting in confronting those built in prejudices, particularly if they both are, and aren’t borne out.

  58. 58
    lonepilgrim on 19 Jan 2011 #

    I felt sure that Marcello would soon have something to say about Dark Side Of The Moon soon over at his ‘Then Play Long’ blog and was surprised to see that it didn’t reach number 1 on the UK album charts in the 1970s – whereas Atom Heart Mother did, which must reveal something about changing patterns in the purchasing of LPs. I recently contemplated buying my 13 year old nephew a copy of DSOTM as a rite of passage – although his tastes lean more towards the Black Eyed Peas

  59. 59
    punctum on 19 Jan 2011 #

    #52: I saw the Bodysnatchers performing their original version of “The Boiler” onstage in 1980 and it was quite something, but Dammers put in the necessary punctum (note also his version’s rhythm track’s deliberate resemblance to “I Can’t Stand It” from More Specials, which latter also features Rhoda Dakar on vocals).

    #58: No spoilers please. I do have a lot to say about Dark Side on TPL but not where you think.

  60. 60
    wichita lineman on 19 Jan 2011 #

    …I Can’t Stand It, which makes use of stereo just as effectively as DSotM.

  61. 61
    Chelovek na lune on 19 Jan 2011 #

    @24 Seconded re. Tallulah. Even more prime exhibit of this syndrome is the Lilac Time’s “And All For Love”

    @32 You’ve forgotten one early key ingredient/element in that progression, namely:

    Paul Simpson ft Adeva “Musical Freedom (Movin’ On Up)”.

    On difficult but rewarding music, where to start. Messaien, I think. Probably with something containing organ. Turangalia is perhaps, by his standards, relatively accessible, as is the Ascension de Seigneur, so stop messing about and go straight for the music of his opera on St Francis of Assisi. Well worth persevering with, though.

    Bruckner’s symphonies too. Perhaps not quite as incoherent (initially) as Messaien can seem – perfect for listening on headphones while wandering around Birmingham on a winter day.

    In an entirely different “genre”, My Bloody Valentine deliver the goods

  62. 62
    Tommy Mack on 19 Jan 2011 #

    ‘Difficult’ music

    NWA Straight Outta Compton – great fun musically, but how to approach the lyrics which basically make violence, mysoginy, greed and cruelty seem funny and clever? If you hold them at arm’s length are you guilty of cheap ghetto tourism? But then is the alternative to admit to sharing at least a shred of Ice Cube, Dre et al’s bleak worldview. Do you take the ‘important social document, LA Riots, historical context blah’ argument, which is surely just the cheap ghetto tourism plus a dose of pomposity and pseudo-intellectualism.

    I’ve never been entirely comfortable with liking this album and yet I’ve never stopped liking it.

  63. 63
    DietMondrian on 19 Jan 2011 #

    On confronting my own prejudices…Bruce Springsteen.

    My reflex reaction is to recoil from that throaty, yearning roar – as typified by the chorus of Born to Run – yet so many people whose opinions I respect seem to get so much out of the Boss* that I wonder whether I’d be rewarded for a good, hard listen.

    * Even his nickname makes me shudder.

  64. 64
    Cumbrian on 19 Jan 2011 #

    #63: I wrote a bit of piece in reply and then thought better of it for two reasons:

    1) I don’t suppose I am one of the people whose opinions you respect!

    2) In writing, I was thinking that the major problem with Springsteen – more than the earnestness and the bombast and all the trappings that go along with his most famous music – is the willingness for his cheerleaders to promote him at all costs whenever they get the opportunity.

    I was actually trying to avoid doing that myself. My current major bugbear with Springsteen is that, whenever he does something at the minute, it is a clarion call for certain middle aged journalists to trot out a piece about how wonderful his music is (the most recent of these I have seen was a Richard Williams piece on The Guardian’s website). I think the willingness of certain of his fans to proclaim Bruce Springsteen great would be a major barrier to my listening without prejudice if I were coming to him from fresh. I try to stay quiet and let people make their own minds up. Springsteen is certainly not for everyone – and I concede that his detractors have good points to raise against his music.

  65. 65
    DietMondrian on 19 Jan 2011 #


    1) I respect the opinions of everyone here!

    2) For similar reasons I took forever to admit to myself that I absolutely flipping love the Beatles.

  66. 66
    Billy Smart on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Springsteen is a major blind spot for me. Generally I find it all a bit effortful and lacking in playfulness – I have tried listening to all of the classic albums, but perhaps I haven’t been listening in the right way.

    Springsteen is an interesting illustration of my theory that with anybody who is supposed to be that good, there will be at least one song where it makes sense to you. With me, those two songs are ‘Wreck On The Highway’ and ‘Dancing In The Dark’. I don’t know why!

  67. 67

    Deaf spot!

    My route into Bruce is “Candy’s Room” — guitar solo!

  68. 68

    Exclamation mark!

  69. 69
    pink champale on 19 Jan 2011 #

    i’m kind of the same with bruce. my two that make sense are ‘born to run’ (obv) and ‘lost in the flood’ (er, less obv probably)

    a lot of my problem with bruce is the legendary e street band. as far as i can tell they’re just a shit pub band. pretty much every bruce song i’ve heard starts with a massive thrilling build-up which makes you think something brilliant is about to happen, it builds and builds until you can take no more and then finally, the release comes and it breaks into….ultra lame sax ‘n’ keyboard plodding.

    seriously he’d be better off being backed by huey lewis’ band.

  70. 70
    Cumbrian on 19 Jan 2011 #

    #64 I still have a problem with The Beatles post Revolver. I just find stuff like All You Need Is Love, When I’m 64 and all that a bit twee. There are obvious exceptions but I prefer them before they decided to go technicolour.

    #65 Funny you should say that – I was going to include something in my original reply, basically accusing Springsteen of heavy handedness. Don’t get me wrong – I like a lot of his work – but it’s a definite shortcoming. What is interesting is that the recent off cuts album from the mid 70s has a load of poppy tunes on it that he could have released instead of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. I like Darkness but this decision basically does mean that he is the architect of his own image – including the problematic heavy handedness.

  71. 71
    wichita lineman on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Surely someone’s written a great piece on Bruce Springsteen? Can’t think of one myself, though.

    Re: E Street Band. The Darkness on the Edge of Town doc on BBC4* brought up the problem of what to do with the saxophone, as most of the songs didn’t have an obvious place for it. The answer should’ve been ‘leave it off the record’. Instead, the doc decided the way it was shoehorned in was utterly wonderful, as ever it was with the critical view of Springsteen.

    Between us, we might be able to work up a decent bunch of “ways into the Boss”. Here are mine, mostly E Street light:

    1. I’m On Fire (obvious)
    2. Sad Eyes (less so)
    3. Leah (snap)
    4. Girls In Their Summer Clothes (not exactly typical, but lovely)

    *which revealed Patti Smith as an A-grade bullshitter regarding Because The Night. Her all-night writing session is put into relief by Springsteen’s recently released demo. “So touch me now…” That was her contribution. That’s it.

  72. 72
    Billy Smart on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Does anyone here remember John Gregory, the shady former manager of Aston Villa? He used to be the “rocking manager”, asked for his albums of the year by Mojo. There’s a hilarious passage in his memoirs where he describes the epiphanal experience of seeing the E-Street Band in America. “The concert was brilliant – four hours of pure effort!”

    I don’t think that John Gregory and I share many of the same aesthetic values.

  73. 73
    Conrad on 19 Jan 2011 #

    I have difficulty in seeing the Aphex Twin as anything other than unmitigated wank. But then I didn’t think Blue Jam was funny.

    Difficult though? I don’t know if that question works in the context of music, in the way it does with books.

  74. 74

    might have taken her till dawn to decide on that one phrase: because the night belongs to cutting…

  75. 75
    Tom on 19 Jan 2011 #

    #75 You can well imagine the E Street Band giving 110%.

    ISTR mid-80s Smash Hits, of all places, being very keen on The Boss.

    My route in was his pro-pop sentimentality. Byebyepride, who sometimes posts here, attempted to convert me at school with the imitation-Dylanish stuff but I wasn’t having it. But the “Born To Run” album did the trick. Serious social commentator Bruce remains a bit of a sticking point, though the stuff in between, like “The River”, I find enormously affecting after a few beers.

  76. 76
    swanstep on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Springsteen’s live 75-85 triple-set,which was mostly recorded in fairly small clubs rather than arenas, is pretty jolly impressive and affecting and is a really good entry point. (I’d recommend ‘The way to go out’ live set as an entry point to aussie artsy bruisers Hunters and Collectors over any of their studio works too.)

    Tallulah’s make-up needs a shake-up? The drum sounds on Right Here and I get Left Out maybe, but everything else sounds OK to me.

    Saint Peppermint Pattie Smith gets a life-time pass for Horses, maybe just for Birdland, doncha know. ;)

    But I’m losing my edge….

  77. 77
    Billy Smart on 19 Jan 2011 #

    Swanstep knows more about Bruce Springsteen than me, and I’m sure that he’s right, but “You should listen to the live triple album” is advice that would send a shiver down my spine when given about any act at all (unless someone’s stuck the three Johnny Cash prison albums or volumes of ‘James Brown At The Apollo’ together)

    Two Billy rules of thumb that call my muso credentials into question.

    1) You don’t need to have any live albums (unless they’re by Brown, Cash or ‘Sam Cooke At The Harlem Square Club’)

    2) You really don’t need to have the demo versions of anything at all.

    (I concede that this advice might not apply if I was a jazz person rather than a pop one)

  78. 78
    lonepilgrim on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Another slant on difficult listening that occurred to me is the not-very-good-no-let’s-be-honest-pretty-dreadful album by the artist who you have previously idolised where you sit listening while willing the music to be better than it really is.
    One example for me would be ‘Graffiti Bridge’ by Prince which pretty much killed off my obsession with the man and his music. Similarly my enthusiasm for Van Morrison in the late 80s early 90s waned after one too many albums of gargled celtic malarkey

    As far as Bruce Springsteen is concerned – I could never get on with the bombast of ‘Born to Run’ but I’ve always enjoyed the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ album for it’s concision. I’ve always found him very variable lyrically – he sometimes forgets to ‘show not tell’ so that the songs become too obvious.

  79. 79
    wichita lineman on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Re 77:

    1) and Neil Young’s Time Fades Away

    2) apart from the Go Betweens’ Tallulah ;)

    Actually, I had a copy of James Brown’s first Apollo on my shelf for 15 years before I realised I was never going to listen to it. Happy to watch him on the TAMI Show, of course. Live albums do seem a little like watching silent footage of a show.

  80. 80
    Mark M on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Me being rather flip about the difficulty/easy question as regards how a casual public approaches visual art. Randomly enough, finishes with passing dismissal of Dark Side Of The Moon, for which I’m neither about to apologise nor join battle over.
    More pressingly, the piece seriously undervalues Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, which was of course great. But that show I mention – Common Wealth – also turned out to be one of the most important moments in setting the mood for what Tate Modern has become, with Carsten Holler getting a Turbine Hall commission and Orozco now having a solo exhibit.

  81. 81
    JonnyB on 20 Jan 2011 #

    I always thought the reputation of Springsteen’s band was a triumph of branding – they had a name! So whilst – I dunno – Elton John and his Band brings forth an image (however unjustified) of anonymously competent session musicians, Springsteen had – you know – the REAL E STREET BAND. I was never much of a fan but in later life I’ve found myself turning up the radio when the big exciting stuff comes on – in that context the music does have a thrilling grandeur.

    I forgot to suggest Richard Thompson under ‘difficult’. From memory, the track listing on side one of Rumor and Sigh, which is often cited as an accessible way in, goes: Song about man corrupted by magazine advice about sex, ends up with disfunctional relationships; song about man released from prison just about to go on the rampage; very slow song about being dumped; song about checking a loved one into a barbaric mental institution; ummm – another couple of being dumped songs; song about fatal motorbike accident.

  82. 82
    unlogged mog on 20 Jan 2011 #

    I think one of the things about “difficult” music is its a lot harder to define any sort of unifying sense of something that’s hard to listen to than it is to define something that’s hard to read- Infinite Jest is tricky because it’s very long and you have to keep flipping between narrative and footnotes, even if you’re a comfortable reader of epics; that’s like ‘even if you’re a good mountain climber, Everest is quite a challenge.’ Listening to music, though, there’s no ‘good listener,’ despite the Pitchfork-type search for a skill at objective hearing and there’s a great deal of personal history to anything.

    Years ago I wrote a short, crappy post on Poptimists (which must still be out there somewhere but I’m at work and don’t have time to find it and in any case, it was short and crappy) about how difficult I found it to listen to Cascada- at the time I was still a bit indie, I guess and I wasn’t at all used to something as brashly melodic as ‘Everytime We Touch.’ Having enjoyed the works of Isis and casually pottered about listening to Squarepusher’s 45 minutes of hoovering drone songs, then found melody in the tentative, nervous pop of people like Tegan and Sara, it was like being assaulted by this confident, assured complete song. Not that Isis aren’t confident -as they clearly are, painting with broad riff-stokes- but the loud music I listened to had never come out with anything so tune-based. I got scared and had to switch Cascada off a couple of times before I worked myself up to a whole song. It was effing ridiculous.

    Which of course was because my listening was narrow. You can get used to anything, though- genreists always get so protectionist about things because they’ve gone through the process of ‘getting in to a thing’ and there’s always gateway acts and the question of whether to follow it through to the ascending drone finale if you originally like a bit of Boards of Canada is where all the ‘[w/e]core’ bullxshit stems from but there is a sense that anyone can stretch their listening to anything. And you can get used to various topics, even; whether it starts to affect your opinions is another thing. I’ve had metal friends who liked Burzum without becoming terrible racists but that doesn’t mean its comfortable to listen to. And some music is deliberately unpleasant, like Mistress and other current British dark metal bands’ barrage of noise.

    I find Kanye West fvcking unlistenable. Does that mean I should keep trying? Possibly. In the same way I’ve tried to read Pynchon tens of times and fallen asleep a few pages in (I am a long-book stalwart but hate him for reasons I can’t even define) but guiltily think I should have another crack at it, perhaps I should try My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy until I find that hook that lets me in. Plenty of people clearly listen to it without difficulty, though, so that’s my own problem, as is Gravity’s Rainbow. Possibly I should hammer Taylor Swift through my ears until I “get” it or am at least well qualified to say why I don’t. Maybe I should try going to gigs until I don’t find them uncomfortable. Part of me says ‘life is far too short’ and the competitive side says that’s the statement of a quitter but really, to get anything out of difficult listening the curriculum would have to be personal. It would take pretty specific taste to be able to take on someone else’s list and find there was nothing in there that wasn’t comfortable by your own terms.

    Anyway, that’s my pretentious ramble on the topic. As you were.

  83. 83
    Pete on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Yes, we are tiptoeing around a version of McLuhanesque definitions of hot and cool media here. As Moggy says not only does literature require a fair bit of active participation to get through the buggers, the difficulty can be related to density of text, language, and sheer physical length. Above we seem to be talking mainly about albums as our musical equivalent, which can generally be experienced within an hour with little active participation from the reader (if you have to read the liner notes you don’t get it). Whilst there may be some sort of through line on the music to try to “understand”, the general critical consensus with music seems to privilege the listener much more than literature does: both in as much as they can define what appreciation is and when they think they have finished. As such an analogous project is not only doomed to failure, but also really just an alternative version of canon building – namely the difficult canon – which probably makes much of the actual project (listening to the difficult canon) secondary to the process.

  84. 84

    Actually Pete, I think that’s wrong — or rather, there was an entire, coherent and extended tradition of and approach to music that had convinced itself otherwise (convinced itself that the “active” participation was a value): this tradition is the one rather vaguely called “classical”; and entailed a serious entry-level demand of knowledge about “how music works” (minimum requirement: being able to read scores?), so as to follow the composer’s own ideas as they developed; how a dischord should resolve; how sonata form works; what the role of the tone-row is in serialism etc etc

    most of the music mentioned in this list has been fashioned in resistance — albeit latterly inherited and unaware resistance — to such a seemingly monolithic notion: that “classical” music forms and manifests the proper modes of listening; and a whole range of elements are played with that classical shies away from (many of them quite hard to score readably: like microtonal effects, or rhythmic niceties)

    But the resistance is very divided within itself about any equivalent claim to “seriousness” — has it ever been achieved? is its achievement a “good thing”? should it even be a goal? The dream of a shared protocol of close reading nags at many a musician self-barred from the classical canon — Ornette invented his own, called “harmolodics”, but no two people who think they know what he meant by this agree on what he did mean, at least once you get to the detail of it, so while it’s a named protocol it isn’t really a shared on

    I can never remember which one McLuhan called “hot” and which “cold” — but the actual dynamic (not part of mcluhan’s argt i don’t think) has been that cold — defined against hot — wanted to BE the new hot (or vice versa, which ever was the whippersnapper); to move from being defined in opposition and rersistance, to supplanting it, in prestige and adored value… while still retaining the rebel qualities — triviality! silliness! doesn’t call serious attention to itself! — that set it apart in the first place

  85. 85
    Hazel on 20 Jan 2011 #

    I think the dynamic of classical is different, though- there is ‘difficult’ music to play, certainly but is it any more difficult to listen to on CD than “pop” music? As I said in my post, your tolerances can vary but a lot of people might find classical extremely easy to listen to.

    I have a sneaking theory that all “difficult” tags in music are either subjectively heartfelt (and therefore v good, tick) or self-congratulatory.

  86. 86
    enitharmon on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Hazel @ 85

    Somehow I get the feeling that the whole point of this thread is music journos being self-congratulatory. Either that or it’s a brilliant self-effacing sendup of the genre.

    Whichever it is, I’m finding it endlessly entertaining.

  87. 87

    Plenty of classical music is lovely to listen to, and easy, yes — what I’m getting at is that a lot of its makers and players, perhaps more so back in the day, are nevertheless committed to believing that’s there’s more to it than just listening; not only more to be got out of it, but that you’re not really “listening” until you too are committing yourself to this. Jazz also has this — as do several of rock’s microgenres; and the post-classical avant-garde is committed to quite a complex working through and wrestling with and worrying about this. But “pop” — not that it can ever be treated as a single genre — is guardedly sceptical about this belief. Some popsters think the belief is just silly; others that it is not intrinsically silly, but nevertheless hung off the wrong types of music.

    So that some of the sense of difficulty is the sense of “stuff I ought to know but perhaps don’t” nagging at the immediate pleasure. Someone knows something you don’t; so are YOU missing out OR ARE THEY?

  88. 88
    Pete on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Which brings us back to the idea of “work”, that a truly great piece of art must demand something of the person experiencing it. The corollary being that once you have expended the effort it will be “worth more”. The suspicion however is often that expending the effort has made us like something just down to familiarity, or the fact that we spent the time (and/or money – not insignificant this factor) to like it.

    Pop music is very sceptical of this as you say, and favours the instant rush. The suspicion is that this makes the listener very easy come easy go, that Gaga song was the BEST THING EVER, but I’m over it now. Again some critics are wary of the idea that you can “get over” a great piece of art.

  89. 89
    Pete on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Having a genre called Easy Listening certainly isn’t helping!

  90. 90

    Play nice, Rosie! I do like a lot of different kinds of music and I’m interested in the different worldviews they entail! Part of the project I inherited at Wire was the exploration of their interplay, and it still nags away at me.

  91. 91
    Tom on 20 Jan 2011 #

    I wonder if FOOD is a better comparator than literature.

  92. 92
    thefatgit on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Haha! Can “acquired taste” be relevant in a musical context?

  93. 93

    I will scorn Masterchef until a contestant serves a dish involving the raspberry bootlace.

  94. 94
    enitharmon on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Mark, I think you know I’m not at all averse to scholarly analysis of such things. I do it myself sometimes. And I wasn’t aiming at you personally, just at the type. But it did strike that one might make an observation of the “why punk had to happen” type.

    I suppose most (if not all) of Leonard Cohen has to be included in the “difficult” category. And if Lennie, then Tim Hardin, and much of Bob Dylan. Does “difficult” then merge into “not superficial”?

  95. 95

    My sense — I guess it’s one of the things that got me interested in the first place — is that something “like”
    punk has been repeatedly recurring in music, since at least the mid-19th century: a new group of music-makers (and listeners) reacting against the what seems to be the closed-world impenetrablity of their predecessors, and precipitately dispensing with some element of technique or attitude which the predecessor world considered indispensible. Debussy’s or Satie’s scorn for Wagner and the germanic trend to overthinking structure; jazz, obviously; John Cage versus everyone; rock’n’roll versus jazz; rap versus 80s pop-soul. And so on…

    Some of it is “ourselves at 40 versus ourselves at 25 versus ourselves at 15 versus ourselves at 13 versus ourselves at 8”: and food fits in there.

  96. 96
    Hazel on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Something I was just thinking of was that the most difficult albums in might well be those by beloved artists who then do something else. For instance, if Bob Dylan made a synthpop album that might well be tricky for his existing fanbase. I don’t know if there are any legs on this but thinking of what I find difficult in my own taste -and I think to assess something as ‘difficult’ rather than ‘disliked’ might be that the artist can do other things, so this thing is a deliberate problematisation- is when an artist I like does, for instance, an acoustic album and I find my excitement at their new release tapers into worried boredom fairly fast. Devin Townsend, I am looking at you.

    Which of course brings in BEING A REAL FAN.

  97. 97
    Tom on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Dylan is a great example because he’s totally the poster boy for completely alienating a huge chunk of his existing audience. History has comprehensively pooh-poohed the people who didn’t think he should have “gone electric”, but if yr reasons for liking Dylan were “Masters Of War”, “The Times They Are A Changin'” etc and you thought, “Bah, this new stuff is just noise and riddles” it’s not exactly difficult to emphathise.

  98. 98

    Just to tie lots of stuff together here is my long-ago Wire essay on people pulling the carpet out from under their followers’ assumptions. I am pleased to see it begins with BROS! *congratulates self*

  99. 99

    (haha tho some of that piece i now find THOROUGHLY ANNOYING)

  100. 100
    Cumbrian on 20 Jan 2011 #

    #97 Agreed that Dylan is the major example of this. Neil Young is pretty famous for this stuff too though, running Dylan close just for the sheer number of times he has done it more than anything else. People loved the Crazy Horse stuff in the late 60’s – response is to make a record with a totally different backing band and starting including orchestral elements in his music. The success of Harvest lead to the “Ditch Trilogy”. He produced Trans – ditching the Crazy Horse sound that had been successful for Rust Never Sleeps for electronic influences. The record company asked for a rock n roll album, so he gave them exactly that and everyone hated it. Just as the fans start getting excited that his next release would be the long awaited Archives, his next record was in fact a concept album about electric cars.

    I don’t find Neil Young’s music difficult – but it’s clear that he sometimes enjoys being a difficult bastard himself. I don’t mind Everybody’s Rockin’ either. It’s not very good – but the joke more than makes up for it I think.

  101. 101
    punctum on 20 Jan 2011 #

    #96: Oh Mercy was pretty much Dylan’s “synthpop” album.

  102. 102
    Tom on 20 Jan 2011 #

    A gritty, patiently compiled century for this thread.

  103. 103
    lonepilgrim on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Hazel @96 makes the point more clearly that I was trying to make @78.
    I’d argue that Dylan’s ‘synthpop’ album was ‘Empire Burlesque’ – complete with Arthur Baker production.

    I know jazz ‘fans’ who won’t consider Miles Davis’ work from the late 60s onwards as jazz – or even ‘music’.

    Prince approach to alienating all but the completist fan has been to offer a surfeit of music to the point where I for one didn’t want any more.

    As for Mark’s points about ‘Classical’ music @84 & 87- I often feel very ignorant when listening to such music. I’m aware that ‘I don’t know much about it – but I know what I like’ – which is an attitude that in the visual arts (where I have some training) I disdain.

  104. 104
    byebyepride on 21 Jan 2011 #

    Excellent discussion, which I might try to post something more considered in response to later. [aka get all ‘classical’]

    Instead of that here’s a ‘pop’ response [throwaway]. [sort of half trolling but that wasn’t the point of the post so move along…]

    The record I’ve found most difficult recently is Keith Jarret’s Koln Concert. I understand that this was at one point *huge* to many people although reading online hasn’t allowed me to see whether that’s genuine masterpiece huge or Radiohead-esque faux-gravitas huge. But I can’t hear *anything* in it. I can take extreme music (Ikeda say) or modern classical (Schoenberg or Xenakis) so I wonder whether I’m just not particularly familiar with the jazz background against which I guess a record like this has to be heard.

  105. 105
    koganbot on 21 Jan 2011 #

    Audiences that are expected to participate in the music also include dancers, kids at rock concerts, choirs in church, kids at day camp, etc.

    Mark, I don’t think you got around to responding to this sentence: “Someone could argue that I only write well about music when I figure out a way to write about something related to the music that isn’t the music itself.”

    In any event, this song has gotten 3,380,640 comments, which would apparently define it as “easy to write about” (even assuming that not all 3,380,640 comments are by different people).

    Whereas, back in the day of this song, there would have been few musical analyses of it, and most of what was published about the band would have most likely been thought of as “biography” or “gossip” (as opposed to what got published about, say, Guns N’ Roses, or the Smiths, or Nirvana). But I wouldn’t say that a genre suddenly became massively easy to write about in 2010 that had been hard to write about in 1989 – rather, that now a lot of people are “publishing” who couldn’t before.

    Nonetheless, how much are they writing about the music?

    A lot of people here found it easy to type in thoughts about Bruce Springsteen, but were they able to say a lot about how Bruce’s stuff sounds? This was the comment that did the best, I thought:

    pretty much every bruce song i’ve heard starts with a massive thrilling build-up which makes you think something brilliant is about to happen, it builds and builds until you can take no more and then finally, the release comes and it breaks into… ultra lame sax ‘n’ keyboard plodding.

    I consider that passage good criticism – don’t know if I’d ever do better when it comes to the sound of Bruce – but really when you come down to it, the music description is entirely these phrases: “thrilling build-up,” “builds and builds,” “breaks into… ultra lame sax ‘n’ keyboard plodding.” Whereas people who write about “difficult” music do find a lot to say about musical structure, timbre, something that isn’t just the lyrics or the video or recitation of song titles with some adjectives sprinkled in. Whether the extra something that does get written about “serious music” is worthwhile (“arpeggios in the 13th through 44th measures”!) is a different question. My point is that in some ways, for those trained to do so, writing about “serious” music is easier than writing about dance music or pop music or rock music, in that there’s something people have been taught to say about the music.

    Number of comments now up to 3,380,984.

  106. 106
    punctum on 21 Jan 2011 #

    The second vid link provides this response:

    This video contains content from Vevo, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.
    Sorry about that.

    However, Google reveals it to have been this, about which I wrote some reasonably pointed musical analysis.

  107. 107
    koganbot on 21 Jan 2011 #

    72 comments! Not bad at all.

    Iirc correctly, Rob Sheffield’s piece in Spin as to how the New Kids were like the Rolling Stones included this comparison:

    Rolling Stones = The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n’ roll
    New Kids On The Block = Maurice Starr had New Edition and they sued him

    That’s not a direct quote, since I can’t find the piece and I don’t have an up-to-date email address for Rob. I did, however, find this in the archives:

    I am the guitarist responsible for, in the words of Rob Sheffield, the “84 seconds of acoustical guitar noodling” at the end of the new Tiffany album. I for one think Tiffany and George Tobin are to be congratulated for doing something a little different in the genre. I mean, 84 seconds without drum machine, synths or even vocals for that matter. Then again, how much stock can one put in a music critic, lacking the musical sophistication to identify what is actually a medley of three songs on the album, who labels it “noodling”? –Grant Geissman, Van Nuys, CA

  108. 108
    Z on 23 Jan 2011 #

    I think you can acquire a taste in music, as I’ve done so at various times, for example with opera, lieder, modern jazz. I don’t believe that one has to listen to an artist one finds superficial and uninteresting until one either loves or hates it.

    I pretty well ignored new music after the early 1970s for one reason and another, until about four years back, since when I’ve started listening to a wide range. This means that many modern rock classics passed me by, as well as a lot of more immediately popular stuff that hasn’t lasted. So now I come to them with a fresh ear and it’s really interesting to do so – you can pick out the quality, even if ignorant of the musicians.

    I’d call “difficult” music something that’s outside your usual comfort zone but that, even if it’s not music you’d choose to listen to for pleasure long-term, its quality starts to stand out after several playings (listen to it three times and either it starts to grow on you or it grates, whether or not you quite like it at the start). As examples, I’d suggest the Mountain Goats (Get Lonely and The Sunset Tree in particular), Wagner’s Ring Cycle and some Miles Davis.

  109. 109
    lonepilgrim on 27 Jan 2011 #

    I’ve been continuing to chew over this particular bone of contention and was struck by another definition of ‘difficult’ music which would be that which requires particular resources and circumstances to hear. This might include Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand (No.8)’, Stockhausen’s ‘Helikopter-Streichquartett’ or the Flaming Lips’ ‘Zaireeka’.

  110. 110
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Also Nam June Paik’s “symphony to last a million years”

  111. 111
    xyzzzz__ on 12 Feb 2011 #

    The notion that literature would require more active engagement than music is one I am amused by. With difficult novels, as with difficult music, I always turn pages/wait for the minutes to roll by where nothing registers until I get to a point where gradually you get to part you can make something out of by using past knowledge to connect with something new.

    You just have to wait.

  112. 112
    xyzzzz__ on 12 Feb 2011 #

    Looking at the list it certainly wants to confuse difficulty in technique with gargantuan length. 9,000 pages is the blogger’s definition (so it could have been just a bunch of 18th century bricks), whereas much of the discussion here is what types of knowledge you bring to the table. And I have my good and bad days with this question.

    But similarly with books isn’t there a lot of knowledge about language you’d need to bring to the table? — especially when it comes to poetry.

    A year of difficult listening would probably centre on works I get into and struggle with but only because I haven’t discovered that trick my mind needs to tell my ear so that it can be re-wired. Certain works by Milton Babbitt (who I was thinking a bit about this morning) and Beethoven’s late quartets come into mind.

  113. 113

    In book and music some kinds of difficulty directly relate to not knowing, at point, WHICH bits you’re meant to be storing as potential “past knowledge” when you get to the point in the future where you could use it. There’s always an overload of information — even music or literature that makes a point of cutting away irrelevant information (for example sources of narrative or quasi-narrative pleasure that are distractions in the intended context), as some strands of modernism do, can’t possibly cut away everything that might be distracting or irrelevant, in the composer’s or writer’s mind’s ear or eye. The flaw in Babbitt’s “Who cares about the listener” argument — even accepting that this wasn’t his intended title — is that the composer CAN’T tamp down all possible, well, punctum: the listeners ALWAYS bring some of their own sandwiches to the picnic, in the form of information they consider relevant garnered before the performance began. The point I was making in my Xenakis piece was basically that a sub-generation of post-war modernist composers really did behave as if music-making could sustainably be based on the establishment of little gaming clubs where the listeners all arrived with the appropriate rulebooks having signed agreeements that their responses would all fall within the correct set of rules. But all the little clubs were in effect competing with each other; diminishingone another’s listener-set rather than enhancing one another’s meaning-making.

    One of the differences between lit and music is polyphony — different things happening at once. Or perhaps say “at once” operates differently in writing. Hmmm.

    Actually a way to approach this project would be to list and isolate different modes of potential difficulty: so that length and density and intensity of polyphonic interweave — and interweave not just of melody — and etc.

  114. 114
    xyzzzz__ on 12 Feb 2011 #

    There were a group of composers establishing its little scenes but I don’t know if that is any different to splits in, I dunno, reggae or blues or jazz (yes classical would be different because of its going back to school dimension). All the in-fighting has diminished the audience but again, that’s as much to do with a scene connecting with more people one moment and not so much the next?

    Yes plenty of polyphony in writing but how its organized and experienced is completely different.

    Reflecting more on this question is, well, I wonder, building a list of things you can love but haven’t found out how to yet. And not so much things to struggle through and getting a grudging acceptance of its worth (if your ear can’t take Merzbow you can’t take Merzbow). I guess I’m thinking of people who loved indie and hated pop but now love it (you always had the capacity, it wasn’t much of a leap).

    You can always make too many assumptions here.

    Incidentally, I think an approach to reviewing classical on the internet is much easier with uploading. Isolate moments where [x] thing happens and what is good or not so good about it. Easier to isolate modes maybe…awkward to write?

  115. 115

    Factions are one thing, and yes, you find them everywhere. What I’m getting at are compositions which demand that the listener internalise a highly specific set of axioms of organisational choice — possibly relevant only to a single work — in order to be allowed to claim you “understand” that one work. The axiom-set isn’t transferable, sometimes even to the next composition by the same composer
    (at difft tmes this is true of Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis). And the effect was that you couldn’t develop a cultural sense of value — all these pieces had do be considered exactly as successful (which is to say, as unsuccessful) because they were all one of a kind. And what you also got was fan-clubs of hard music who — far from being better listeners or critics — seem to be more passive: that is, they’re aggressive across faction boundaries (same old same old) but allowng themselves to be shut out even of the discussion of the music they claim to favour. (Because they’ve accepted rulebooks and axioms which shut down the discussion; as a consequence putting huge constraints on the capacity of the music to come into its possible meanings.)*

    Babbitt’s piece could also have been called “Who cares about the perfomer?” — or “Who cares about the social?” It’s about lab testing new sounds and sound-clusters, new types of sound-motion — but shutting out any way these can get wound into the wider world, as they’re learned. So they’ve ended up as little more than the objective correlative of a narrow element of the dynamics of their own era — which is not an awful fate, but surely a far tinier role than all the life and time and passion invested by their makers deserves?

    *I guess the literary equivalent is Oulipo: axiomatic games of arbitrary rule and constraint designed to produce and foster the writer’s imagination. But Oulipo’s embrace of rules doesn’t shut out the reader: it has a playful openness and sense of shared enquiry, perhaps because it doesn’t so furuously set itself up as the one true pinnacle of Right Making.

  116. 116
    xyzzzz__ on 19 Feb 2011 #

    Picking this up from last week.

    I accept parts of that argument for a lot of modern composition in the sense that composers wrote a lot about their own music and wanted to carve their own identity for it (whereas pop stars give interviews and carve identity in a diff way).

    I feel I develop a sense of cultural value when I’m listening to modern composers (and composers of all sorts). If by that you mean that I can like [x] composition by one composers but not [y] by the same. I think that is true of people with different sets of knowledge (at least when I talk to them on msg boards).

    You are claiming in one sentence that there is a lot of in-fighting but on the other hand fans of this kind of music are more passive. I think the passivity is there but its easier to see because (unlike more popular musics) the volumes of people in the room are lower and there is a stronger archival dimension (the sleeve notes for those releases are usually of a poor quality). The music did develop in academia and labs (again, I’m prepared to accept the title of Milton’s essay as the editor probably inferred a ‘who cares’ attitude from). The point though is that a lot of this music comes from the wider world already and it is there as a response to it.

    Oulipo is more like what you’re describing — from what I’ve read guys like Perec, Mathews, Queneau had a high level of agreement on first principles. Whereas all sorts of music were played in the first years of Darmstadt until certain factions took it over. A lot less cosy.

  117. 117

    Yes, well spotted on “passivity” — not a very clear way of saying what I meant; and I’m not at all as sure that this quality persists in the same way today, among similar groups. Basically after the 60s, audiences of every type got somewhat more sassy towards their own gurus. I guess I meant that people were — in the service of what they deemed an exciting vanguardy idea — more willing to present themselves as followers. So they’d happily fight designated foes, but would be quite meek when they felt it was once more time to shut up sit down and listen.

    Partly this is a technological thing: a lot of this music didn’t get accessibly onto disc till a lot later, and I think the world of the sassy audience is deeply related to the world of listening via record and arguing laterally — in other words, the composer is not in the room, or anywhere near, and not in any sense responsible for the context, where all discussion is more likely to be on his/her terms.

    One of the things that’s often bugged me about much post-68 avant gardism is a sense that its fans feel “Don’t give it too rough a time or it will break and fail.” It has to be kept away from the world it’s commenting on. Though again I feel this observation — about a more recent tendency — is now somewhat dated.

  118. 118
    xyzzzz__ on 19 Feb 2011 #

    I’ve talked to a few of the practitioners and they give some of it a hard time while continuing to play it. Some of these centre on its makeup: namely that it is v white, middle class, mostly male (a post-identity politics critique) pursuit. Much more so than in the 60s where you had Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon, who all came from more humble backgrounds.

    A lot of work is being done on trying to uncover the early history of Darmstadt. Much of it is v shady. A more nuanced critique should emerge from all of this.

    The main thing I took from your Xenakis essay was on how its creation was tied with a v repressive regime. ‘Persepolis’ is one of my favourite works by anyone ever but its much harder to listen to now (I’ve been mulling over it these days when turning on the news)

    Another problem is that much of the best music is tied up in publishing: there are a few tapes out there (some of which I’ve gotten hold of) in private hands (as they have found their way onto the net). So again its harder to argue when whispers are all you can onto.

    Although there is quite a lot out there and scraps of light emerge now and then (and by that I don’t mean Alex Ross).

  119. 119
    Gareth Rees on 10 Mar 2011 #

    Some difficult but famous and influential pieces. Tom, is this the kind of thing you’re after?

    Philip Glass — Music in 12 parts (some of part 1)
    Conlon Nancarrow — Studies for Player Piano (number 5)
    Steve Reich — Come Out/It’s Gonna Rain
    Karlheinz Stockhausen — Concrete Étude
    John Cage — Freeman Études (number 18)
    Meredith Monk — Our Lady of Late (part 1)

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