When I was about half of whatever my current age is, I spent a lot of time listening to some very loud music. I liked my power chords chunky, my singers screamy, and my drummers bleeding from the forehead. Not much has changed; the exception being I now attend a larger variety of concerts compared to my younger self. I don’t think this is unique to me. My peers and I all grew up with their own music and are perpetually hungry for new experience. As we grow, so do our tastes. We are now regular attendees at a variety of venues because we find something memorable at each of them that can’t easily be encapsulated by only one experience.
If you were to conjecture that I’ve become slightly more crotchety since I’ve reached the age of whatever my current age is, you’d be partially right. Though I do enjoy going to loud music concerts once in a while, I’ve come to despise the ritual of shouting, “WHAT?!”, “HEY!!”, or “WHAT DO YOU HAVE ON TAP?!” in nearly every attempt at conversation in these venues. It’s not necessarily that the music is TOO LOUD; the music is exactly as LOUD as it’s supposed to be. Part of the aesthetic of LOUD music is that it is supposed to be LOUD enough to close off all other aural avenues and offer only one path towards the stage and hopefully a memorable experience. This is a good thing. We, the audience, demand a LOUD presence on our stage and in our earbuds because it shuts down distraction and allows us to appreciate the full girth of the audio spectrum plumbing our listening orifices. This is wonderful – yet I can’t help but wish there was a space for a conversation to be had.
This desire for LOUD extends to all styles of western music. This desire is present everywhere from the types of instruments musicians play to how we process our music for consumption. It began with stringed instruments switched from gut strings to wound metal. Eventually, we started plugging them into amplifiers as loud as a jet engine. Contemporary recording practices in all styles of music also began employing tricks to be MORE LOUD. If you load a recently recorded waveform for pretty much any piece of music of any style into some kind of audio software and look at the LOUDEST point in the music you will find a nearly perfect box where someone chopped off the audio peaks. By removing the few errant peaks at this loud passage, that are essentially a millisecond in duration, you’re able to uniformly bring the whole recording up in volume.
Classical music has many baffling concert rituals. Notably among them is the one wherein the audience has a tacit agreement to not make any noise while the music is playing so as to better appreciate it for what it is. And, like with LOUD music, that’s a good thing! The point is not to shut down communication but to offer a unique space to give music the full breadth of our attention – just for a few hours – before we shuffle back to a world of diverse and constant stimuli. I am very hot and cold when it comes to the classical music listening experience. On one hand, I love that we have a space to allow music to be the main focus but I despise that this comes at the cost of behaving like human beings. It doesn’t feel natural to hold back my praise for the performance until the end of four movements. I sometimes yearn to have the courage to be more like the scientist who was famously ejected from a concert hall for trying to crowd surf through Handel’s Messiah.
I love that at a jazz concert, if someone plays something you like, you can whoop and clap your approval. It feels natural. It feels organic. It feels human. However, serious jazz listening also goes the way of classical music in that the ritual begins to take over the human experience: you play the head, you solo, clapping only happens after solos, and then you play the head again. This is a bit disappointing to me when it seems so obvious that the music is so obviously at its best when it’s adventurous, wild, and dangerous. But again, I realize that for what we sacrifice in our experience we also gain a lot. I am thankful that I have a space to go to that is so listening focused yet I somehow crave compromise.
I started listening to jazz when I was in music school but I started getting into swing music in a big way about four or five years ago through the local swing dance scene. Swing dancing hooked me big time. This was a way of appreciating the concert experience in a way that I had not experienced before. I had always sort of danced but this style of dance was offering a unique framework for the improvisation to be a communal improvisatory project between two people instead of the solitary one I’d experienced up to this point. This mirrors the philosophy of the playing as well. Improvisation exists in all styles of music all around the world but relatively few have a paradigm of an improvising collective. In Jazz, you aren’t just playing a solo to be the star – you’re listening to everybody else in the band and trying to go somewhere together. In the dance, instead of being the star of your own dance epic, you’re also interacting with another human being with a personality, preferences, and flailing limbs.
I brought with me to these swing dances my concert hall listening experiences. I found that when I had danced myself to exhaustion I could be reinvigorated by taking a break and simply listening to what somebody was playing; having a hall of people swinging the daylights out of each other is very motivating for an improviser and you can hear it in their playing. I’ve picked out some surprisingly touching moments coming from the horns on those stages. I also found that if I wanted to I could have a conversation with my peers without having to shout over the bedlam in the hall. The music is LOUD enough for what it needs to be. This resulted in me still having the use of my vocal chords the next day and will probably save my hearing for my forthcoming old age. At these concerts I am free to dance madly, shout obscenely, listen intently, or ignore completely. I still go to the symphony and the opera. And my heart still belongs to the halls I flailed around in when I had a mohawk and wore spikes on my jacket. But I am thankful to have also discovered a space that meets my needs with such elegant simplicity. Swing it!