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?


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  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

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    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.

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    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

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

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    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).

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