In praise of difficult listening

A couple weeks ago, I found myself sitting at home alone on a Saturday. Hungry for some, um, company, I decided to pop into Changes in Wallingford—not my gay bar of choice, but I was bored and it's right around the corner from my apartment. Settling down with my beer, I was confronted by a dozen TVs glowing with the shiny mugs and taut tummies of the usual TRL suspects: 'N Sync, Britney, Destiny's Child. Everybody in the joint was having fun, so I tried to grin and bear it. But with each passing video, I felt more self-conscious because I'd seen and heard all these selections a million times before. They offered no distractions. When I realized that the only guy in the place that struck my fancy—a tough-looking character who I fantasized harbored a deep, abiding love for the Pixies—was singing along with "What a Girl Wants," I split.

The week that followed was rough, even by biblical standards. Monday, there was another round of layoffs at my job; Tuesday, revelers celebrated Mardi Gras by beating the crap out of their fellow man; and Wednesday, my office pitched like a carnival ride in the throes of a 6.8 earthquake. Yet as the fabric of civilization was being shredded into confetti and the order of the day seemed to be blatant escapism, I found myself listening to an increasingly complex selection of albums: The stripped-down techno of B. Fleischmann's A Choir of Empty Beds; Him's echo-drenched 5/6 in dub; the campfire cutups (in the William S. Burroughs sense, not Catskills comedy) of A Fistful of Knuckles by People Like Us.

Why was my ear drawn to what Laurie Anderson once called "difficult listening" in this troubled time? Because only challenging records seemed capable of jostling my brain and breaking the fierce grip of my psyche on such worrying notions as "Am I going to die tomorrow?" and "Which will leave me homeless first, natural disaster or the recession?" Thus liberated, I could look at my circumstances from new and unexpected perspectives. By literally expanding my consciousness during a period of crisis, these albums gave me hope.

Above all others, I kept returning to the works of pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane, wife and collaborator of jazz innovator John Coltrane. At first, it was 1970's Journey in Satchidananda, with its mix of Indian tamboura drones, tiny bells, and Coltrane's harp—a timbre which summons up childhood memories of ballets, Fantasia, and that "turn the page" chime for storybooks—in which I sought solace. "I hope this album will be a form of meditation and spiritual awakening for those who listen with their inner ear," wrote Coltrane in her original liner notes. No complaints from this customer, Alice.

But then I found myself turning to the 1998 reissue of 1968's A Monastic Trio, an album I'd previously neglected. While once Pharoah Sanders' saxophone and bass clarinet squalls and Coltrane's complex piano sonorities had made my head hurt, now they drew me in. What my ear and heart began to intuitively understand, a 1968 interview with Coltrane—conducted a year after her husband's death—confirmed: "John showed me how to play fully," she told writer Pauline Rivelli. "In other words, he'd teach me not to stay in one spot and play in one chord pattern. 'Branch out, open up, play your instrument. You have a whole left register—use it. You have an upper register—use it. Play your instrument entirely.'

"John not only taught me to explore, but to play thoroughly and completely," she continued. "You have got to stress the freedom of music to really branch out and be universal. It was a higher concept John had. It was higher than this world's."

As we grow older and demands on our time multiply, it becomes more and more difficult to devote the hours required to unlock the secrets of a complex album, book, or any work of art. Yet it is imperative to do so, if only occasionally. J. Lo and Shaggy can make us forget our troubles for three minutes, but they aren't helping us solve them. "Difficult listening" is not senseless masochism or mental masturbation; it's an exercise in exploring our mental and spiritual "instruments," and one that brings us closer to a true universal consciousness. It pushes all of us—regardless of race, beliefs, or sexuality—toward that higher plane to which Alice and John Coltrane aspired, affording a vantage point from which perhaps we can alleviate some of the earthly woes that plague us all. A little less Limp Bizkit on the airwaves probably won't affect the sort of cosmic shift necessary for me to find a husband, but it just might help us weather the seemingly inevitable hardships looming on our shared horizon.

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