Saturday, December 20, 2008

On an Island: The Solitary Listener

 Legendary Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour released his first solo album in 20 years, fittingly titled On an Island. In a recent Q&A in Billboard magazine, a quote is highlighted that sounded very "Roarkian":

I don't owe people anything. If people would like to come to my concerts I'd love them to come. And if they like the music that I make, I love that too. But I do not make music for other people. I make it to please myself.

I've wondered in the past about my own musical future and how much it did or didn't hinge on an audience. In the rock music field, success is measured by units sold and seats filled. But when I quit the live scene for recording, my music became a personal exploration, virtually therapeutic. And paradoxically, the solo musician is not that uncommon. But what about the solitary listener?

 In his book Music and the Mind, Anthony Storr writes that the solitary listener is a relatively recent phenomenon. Like the idea that civilization is the advancement towards privacy, music has gone from a tool of organizing emotions in unison (the "universal language") to a intense personal experience. 

A large part of rise of the solitary listener is the advent of recording technology. From the Victroloa to the iPod, one can control the selection and tone of the music independent of the world around him. Storr asks the question, “Has music’s function changed because it is no longer necessarily shared? Or does the possibility of experiencing music in solitude simply clarify and underline its effects upon the individual listener?”

Some social theorists have argued against the solitary listener, with claims that Walkmans, iPods, etc. have alienated us, contributing to an atomistic society and breaking the so-called "social contract." But this suggests a false dichotomy, long debunked by now, that technology will tear us apart as a society.It is amusing, then, to see mp3 player commercials such as one for Sony where a group of teens solve a beach's "no noise" after dusk policy by syncing up their portable music players, uniting the party by choice through the power of headphones.

But although it may be true that "no man is an island," group unity is not required to justify the portable music device. The greatest benefits of solitary listening are on the individual level. “Music began as a way of enhancing and coordinating group feelings. Today, it is often a means of recovering personal feelings from which we have become alienated.” Solitary listening gives one the privacy to experience a range of emotions without holding back, to experience his true self in it's fullest, at a chosen pace and time. It gives one a personal soundtrack to the drama of life. It's no coincidence, then, that theocratic dictatorships and other enemies of freedom, dating back to Plato, have forbidden unauthorized music, and that religions have attempted to control musical expression and forbidden dances. This makes devices such as the iPod not merely a technological marvel, but a symbol of freedom. 

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