Jan 11

The Year Of Difficult Listening

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(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. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 36
    punctum on 18 Jan 2011 #

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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).

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.)

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.)

  25. 55

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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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

  29. 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.

  30. 60
    wichita lineman on 19 Jan 2011 #

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

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