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. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 67

    Deaf spot!

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

  8. 68

    Exclamation mark!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 74

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

  15. 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.

  16. 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….

  17. 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)

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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?

  28. 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.

  29. 89
    Pete on 20 Jan 2011 #

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

  30. 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.

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