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A Conversation with Jazz Critic Ben Ratliff

Author of the book "Every Song Ever"

Ben Ratliff

In his new book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty (FSG), veteran New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff offers a series of essays that conjure new ways to absorb and think about music during a time when seemingly all the world’s recordings are a stream away. Traversing a strikingly wide range of genres and eras, Ratliff urges music fans to bridge their listening via big-picture concepts like repetition, speed, emotion and virtuosity. Here he answers a few questions about the purposes, practices, virtues and vices of close music listening.

When is a wealth of listening options too great? How can engaging with recorded music in the age of the cloud be dangerous?

There’s no such thing as too many listening options; it’s a gift, what we’ve got now. There are only new ways to approach all that music, so that we can weigh it and navigate it and see what it has to teach us.

Is having the enthusiasm to listen to a very wide range of music a kind of gift? A virtue? A sign of intelligence or patience?

You know how all those gospel songs say, “It’s already done”? I think that most people already have the enthusiasm to listen to a wide range of music and maybe even the gift. Listening to music just long enough to think, “This has something to do with me,” gives you a certain kind of intelligence, and we’ve been trained to listen widely for quite a while. Hear a modern gospel record and you’ll hear bits of funk, EDM, Sam Cooke and country. Listen to NPR and you’ll hear minimalism or bebop in the station breaks. And jazz, understood in the long view, might have started this tendency 100 years ago: It’s the best jumping-off place to start listening to almost anything.

Does being able to hear a world of music free of charge cheapen the experience? Is our listening experience more meaningful if we’ve plunked down $14 for a CD?

I wouldn’t say it cheapens the experience per se to hear music for free. But there is a certain kind of binge-listening that can come from listening for free-you know, you might listen with one ear and then cross it off your list forever-and that’s not very close listening.

How does listening to everything from new music to extreme metal to pop-R&B help us to hear acoustic jazz anew?

Listening to jazz in particular is very much about absorption in the sound of the instruments and sensitivity to small, particular things. I think that regularly listening to a wide range of music-and by that I mean a wide range of languages and sensibilities-helps keep you attuned, and helps you to look for the things you value most. That could be anything: a certain kind of tempo in the music, or density, or fluency, or hesitation.

To what degree should we force ourselves to listen to something before we can honestly say we don’t like it?

That’s a good question. My argument in this book is that comfort zones are to be fought against, and because of the Internet and recommendation engines they’re only becoming deeper and cozier. So we have to assert our own ability to listen beyond our self-imposed boundaries. But nobody likes everything. I don’t want to like everything. I think it’s good to listen to something long enough that it ceases to be alien to us-to feel that we will recognize it later, and that we can associate it with something else we know.

Regarding the listening habits of musicians: Is it possible that listening across barriers of idiom, culture and history can weaken musical traditions?

Musicians who are serious about a certain tradition are going to spend serious time exploring that tradition as musicians, no matter what they do as listeners. It’s indisputable that tradition and focus has strengthened bebop or flamenco or samba. At the same time, few people live in a single musical culture anymore.

How does the modest sound quality of MP3s and streaming services affect the way we hear and respond to music? Can we judge music with integrity if we’re listening to compressed audio files through inexpensive earbuds?

Yes, I think we can listen to MP3s through earbuds with authenticity, and authenticity is integrity. What’s lost if we do that? Comfort and patience and a certain kind of luxury. Which helps you listen longer, I think. But that luxury is not necessary for anyone to love music and be an engaged listener.

Home page image of Ben Ratliff by Kate Fox Reynolds.

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Originally Published