Hearing between the spaces

One unmistakable sign of my impending old-fartdom is that I am increasingly annoyed by popular music. I just find much of it mindless and disposable, and worst of all, the artist has become nothing more than another synthesizer in the mix. Between the relentless use of auto-tune (there are even auto-tune apps for smart phones now), the prevalence of overcompressed, too-hot mixing and the use of producers who stomp all over everything, modern music doesn’t have any space left for actual musicians. To me, it seems less like music and more like computer programming (actually, now that I think about it, there’s more art in computer programming).

That’s why I smiled when I read this article in The New York Times this week. It’s filled with great quotes, particularly from Roseanne Cash. I admire this quote in particular:

“I like restraint. I like expression that’s framed in restraint, that gives a certain dignity to it. I don’t like this kind of yelping, where everybody’s a victim and everything’s all out there. To me there’s a bottom line that there is a life lived in back of the instrument, and I want to hear what that life is.”

That is a hard lesson for many musicians, particularly musicians who are either over-reliant on a producer or who are technically skilled and can really kill on the keyboard or the fretboard.

Mindless speed is a musical trap — I think it’s the key reason why jazz became niche music, for example. It’s hard to communicate something meaningful if you are yammering all of the time. Imagine! If every phrase! Ended! With an exclamation point! Soon those exclamation points would have no impact, and music that is all about sheer technical proficiency falls into the same trap rather quickly.

It’s the spaces that move me. It’s the notes that flutter a little, even off-key for a eighth note or so, that grab my soul. It’s the notes that aren’t played that often have the most meaning. And those realities are worth remembering.


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