January 30, 2009

Opening Pandora's Music Box

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Welcome back chicklets! I assume you are all enjoying the lovely Ithaca weather and the recommencement of death by Cornell University. I was going to start off this column with a list of complaints about how the weather sucks, going back to school sucks, being in Ithaca when I was supposed to be abroad this semester sucks, already being behind on work sucks and how my computer sucks. Just a right little bundle of joy, all laid down on paper for you to commiserate with. But I changed my mind. My attitude coming into this semester has been to make the best of it (weather’s cold — go snowboarding; stuck in Ithaca — make new friends; school’s tough — take fun classes) and I want this column, which is about music after all, and therefore joyful by definition, to reflect that.
So all I’m going to complain about is my computer, and in the end, I’m going to say it’s actually a blessing in disguise. To explain: my computer is old. It is slow. And though it has been very wonderful and faithful, it is rather undeniably making its steady way up to computer heaven. What this means, in terms of this column, is that I have not had access to one single megabyte of my 70 gigs of music in over a month. Yikes. My music is all saved on my external hard drive, you see, because my 18 gig computer (I told you it was old) is far from equipped to handle it all. My hard drive, in turn, has to be powered by both of the USB outlets on my computer because neither is powerful enough to run the external on its own. One of my USBs is broken. Hence my difficulties. Zero musica.
I have, as you can see, been forced to seek music elsewhere lately, and my three main sources have been Pandora.com (personalized online radio for those few of you still unfamiliar with this resource), the radio and, of course, live music. These three mediums are obviously all very different and utilizing them over break got me thinking about what it is that music does, what it makes us feel, what it should make us feel. Listening to Pandora, the radio and actual performers made for three very different experiences and made me want to get at what the essence of the musical experience really is. (Just a heads up — this is about to get a little esoteric.)
I ended up turning to some notes my dad, dean of the Ithaca College School of Music, had given me a while back on philosopher John Dewey’s concept of the ‘aesthetic experience.’ To quote my father (who was drawing from Dewey), an aesthetic experience is “a distinctly memorable, rewarding whole ‘experience’ in which we feel most alive and fulfilled through the active, satisfying engagement of all our human faculties (sensual, emotional and cognitive) that contribute to this integrated whole.”
Emotion is the keystone of an aesthetic appreciation of music. An aesthetic experience can really be any normal thing — according to Dewey, all everyday occurrences have aesthetic potential, but it mostly goes unrealized. The thing about music, as I understand it (and I’m really not sure I do), is that it actively seeks to evoke emotion. It is an intentional attempt at an aesthetic experience, realized when the emotion evoked combines the expressive act with memories and observations and molds them into a coherent whole.
With this in mind, regardless of the fact that it may be going straight over my head, I examined my three different listening experiences. The radio, which I basically use in the car, is, in my opinion, decidedly not an aesthetic experience, though this definitely has to do with the type of music coming over the waves. You see, in winter my family is one car short, because my mother’s Mustang convertible just cannot manage our very long, very steep, very treacherous driveway. So I was sharing a car with my mother and sister over winter break, and their radio choices tended to dominate. My mom likes Light 97, which plays ’90s music, and my sister likes anything in the Top 40. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” while catchy, does not evoke any response in me outside of wonder at its lyrical crap, and of course, a desire to party (read: dance) like it’s 1999.
Pandora was occasionally aesthetic for me. My favorite station was Hem Radio, a folksy-bluesy-indie mix that was often capable of completely transforming my emotion: happy to sad, sad to happy. It was always a very singular experience for me, because I tend to listen to Pandora on my own while I’m studying. Live music is totally different. It can be singular or it can be a group experience, in which the elevation of the human spirit, through aesthetic appreciation of music, is ultimately and immediately clear. It can also fall flat, of course, but for me emotion is almost always part of taking in a concert. I can’t say that I found it in T.I. at Slope Day, but The Decemberists last semester felt like a group experience in which the whole audience got behind the band and what they were trying to say. It’s what makes a great concert, and what makes great music.