Shuffle Along

One of my favorite Aldous Huxley essays is “Music at Night,” from his occasionally deranged but mostly illuminating 1931 collection of the same name. Only recently, however, did a parenthetical phrase leap from its moorings to command special interest. Huxley is writing of a starry, fragrant, moonless evening—a good night for music. And, thanks to relatively new technology, music is at hand: “in a box, shut up, like one of those bottled djinns in the Arabian Nights.” Huxley works “the necessary mechanical magic,” and “by some miraculously appropriate coincidence (for I had selected the record in the dark, without knowing what music the machine would play),” a movement from Missa Solemnis soon floods the sky.

I had never given much thought to his casually noted method of selecting music, “in the dark,” presuming it a habit formed in consequence of Huxley’s wretched eyesight. Yet it now occurs to me that this may be the first documented account of “shuffle play.” Admittedly, only one side of a 78 has been shuffled. Still, the idea applies. Like the shuffle djinn in iPods and CD trays, Huxley has robotically reached into the available discs in his collection and retrieved, without intent or prejudice, Beethoven. Had chance favored, say, a Liszt rhapsody, he might not have been moved to wonder at the “blessedness” of “accidents or providences,” gone to sleep early and never written his essay.

Feigning blindness has been part of my reviewing MO for years. To avoid bias and presumption, I close my eyes, reach into the pile of un-played offerings, select five discs, discard the cases and fumble my way to the stereo, doing my best not to peek as I place them in the tray; or, more efficiently, I ask an assistant to load the changer. Rarely is the shuffle option used, and then only when I’ve deliberately chosen discs for pleasure. Yet my old ritual isn’t what made me look anew at Huxley’s providential night music. It was, rather, infatuation with my first iPod, an appliance for which I anticipated little use (walking the streets with earphones is not my thing), until my persistent daughter recently gave me one and showed me how to program it.

Latecomer or not, I love my green iPod mini. I’m also very fond of my turntable, which does a better job of reproducing music, but I don’t love it. A turntable or a CD changer is just a machine until you feed it a disc. My iPod, which at this moment times out at 1,012 selections, ranging in duration from a few seconds (the false take of Charlie Parker’s “Koko”) to 50 minutes (a Cecil Taylor concert performance), is a satellite of me—an extract from my musical universe, my canon. As I only make wholesale changes to it when I travel, the content remains about 75-percent stable. The “library” holds a few hundred records to which I always return, plus tracks that are relevant to current projects, and others with which I am presently transfixed, or previously overlooked, or think new and promising—recordings that, in any case, I want along for the ride.

The iPod has changed the way I listen to music on two counts. First, I make ample use of shuffle play and have developed an obsessive-compulsive (even superstitious) moral code requiring me to listen to whatever the djinn chooses. He never misses, and his intervention has generated many small revelations. As a child growing up with Top-40 radio, I rejected pop music partly because of the fake shuffle play practiced by disc jockeys motivated by financial considerations. iPods kill the middleman: The station is yours, the serendipity limited to your own canon. Second, I’m using earphones more frequently than at any time since college. I had forgotten the intimacy that is a corollary of such antisocial behavior. Timbres, textures and other details hover into range, rediscovered and revalued. Part of the price of living in a high-rise is that you adjust volume to accommodate neighbors. The iPod serves as an expedient—OK, addictive—antidote to responsible volume levels.

It also completes a circle, encouraging close listening—a rarity in the development of audio hardware. Advances in high fidelity that allow us to hear musical details are often presented in contexts that erode the concentration necessary to appreciate them. The intense and, if you prefer, fortuitous listening encouraged by the iPod replicates the now-ancient experience of choosing a 78-rpm record and attending it repeatedly until every measure is fully absorbed, a custom that intervening steps in musical technology have effectively countered. In addition to obsessive concentration, the 78 (and previously, the cylinder) also encouraged an open-minded curiosity about each disc, because the idea of mechanically reproduced music was novel, and music itself, though invariably characterized as good and bad or high and low, had not yet been discriminated as cool and lame.

Radio helped end the novelty. Microgroove preserved and generated longer works, but also grouped shorter ones, attenuating attention, though not to any great degree—the length of an LP was shorter than a set of live music and well within the bounds of the traditional attention span. Stereo extended the preference for albums over singles, while limiting the listener’s mobility: You were expected to sit equidistant between two speakers. Idiot diversions like the philistine 8-track and pretentious quadraphony cheapened the experience of listening by promoting the snake oils of, respectively, simplicity and exclusivity. Yet no device did more to turn music into wallpaper than the compact disc, with its numbing 75-minute programs. The CD effect is felt everywhere, not least in jazz criticism, where the chorus-counting devotion to specificity and nuance that formerly enlivened the field has been supplanted by generalizations—attitude instead of precision.

It’s no accident that compact discs, digitalization, boxed reissues of complete works, MTV and a flu-like plague of ADD converged, leaving the once-proud recording industry reduced to steerage class in multinationals that regard art as a three-letter word for declining dividends. Yet the iPod, which has been decried as a fashion accessory for adolescents who can’t sit still for an entire album (small wonder when the album is typically an uneven collage of good, bad and listless), fills me with optimism. It makes a virtue of chance and a vice of indifference. As an inducement to think large by thinking small, it reduces albums to tracks, tracks to choruses, choruses to notes: Genius always resides in the notes. With plastic antennae plugged into your skull, it is virtually impossible not to concentrate on the telltale details of music in the night.

Originally published in May 2007

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