Boston skyline

Boston: view of the Charles River and city skyline

I was recently invited to write a blog piece for ‘Harkive‘, a music/sociology data collection project run by Craig Hamilton at City University Birmingham. He conducts a survey for one day per year, collecting qualitative data about music listeners’ habits. The aim of Harkive is for people to “share the story of how, where and why they listen to music”. The blog entries are an attempt to add colour to the data, detailing the real-world situations in which we experience music. Here are some examples of previous entries. My contribution is a single ‘day in the life’ of music listening – in this case, my activities on 14th July 2015. I found the act of reflecting on a whole day’s listening (including inadvertent listening) to be a surprising experience – there’s a lot more music around us than I had ever really considered. If you’re interested in contributing to the project here’s the link.
14 July 2015
0750: In the car on the way to work – it’s only my second week in the new job (and my 10th day in the country) so I’m trying to figure out what my new favourite radio stations are while remembering to drive on the wrong side of the road. I start with WCRB 99.5 – the classical music station in the city. It came to my attention last week because one of the students of the Conservatory wrote the ‘sounder’ (what in the UK we’d call a station ident). So I’m listening for the sounder between tracks, but find myself getting engrossed in the playfulness of Rodrigo’s Concierto di Aranjuez (Harp). Lovely call and response lines between the harp and orchestra, and some of the joyful rising melodic lines and arpeggios feel like they could have been penned by Aaron Copland.

0810: Stationary traffic and I decide to explore US FM rock. And there’s a lot of it on the dial. (“90s to now”) is a good example, and I find myself nostalgically rocking out to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, while marvelling at how 1980s-sounding some of the production values appear now. Early 90s rock seemed so fresh and exciting at the time, probably because it contrasted so well with the soulless aceeed-rave 120 BPM Cubase music that previously dominated the UK charts. But oh how the production dates it to that era. Every year I’ve lived through has been characterised by a statement where people say (regarding both music and fashion) “there were so many set styles in the past – now, pretty much anything goes”. We even said this about the 80s hair gel period. I can remember a time when DX7 sounds seemed new and fresh – we thought they would be the future forever, but they were anathema to producers by the end of the 1980s. A film composer once told me that he never uses snare drums in his work because EQ, compression and reverb fashions change so fast that it freezes the composition in time.
0845: Parked, coffee shop, and KT Tunstall on the stereo. Proper old-school singer-songwriter material, even though they’re playing the big hit Suddenly I See. She’s a very important artist for me because this was the first gig I took my teenage daughter to (Colston Hall, Bristol, 2013) – and KT’s loop pedal work then (on both guitar and voice) was extraordinary. I’ve always been fascinated by loops in music, and by repetition/similarity generally; it is inspiring to watch such a confident and appealing performer use loops to engage the crowd and build arrangement texture (while nailing the barline loop-point every time with her left foot!).
0900-1735: Meetings, so hardly any music around, not least because school’s out right now. One of the paradoxes of an academic administrator role is that you’re appointed because of your scholarship and knowledge of the subject, which prepares you for a role where this knowledge is not needed most of the time. It’s the same with schoolteachers – some of them are strong enough teachers to be promoted to leadership roles where they don’t teach. But really I love administration – it’s a chance to make a big difference because the faculty (musicians, dancers, singers and theater practitioners) are all so motivated. One of the main jobs of the administrator is just to set up organisational systems so that everyone can give their best. I’m reading Robert Freeman’s The Crisis of Classical Music in America right now, which helpfully has a chapter dedicated to incoming Deans in US conservatories!
In the breaks between meetings it’s Apple Radio in the office – some instrumental 1950s jazz and a crooners channel. I’m road-testing the Apple Music three-month trial right now, and like many people I’m considering whether to cross-grade from Spotify Premium. I’m irritated (mainly with myself) that I don’t yet understand how the phone syncs my own Mac-based MP3 collection. I may have to read the manual, damn them.
At this time of year we have our summer schools or ‘extension programs’ so I hear fragments of Sondheim and some Beethoven piano drifting through (different) practice room windows as I walk to the car park, creating a strange but somehow evocative unintended real-time mashup. Lovely.
1725: Driving home through Boston and still exploring the airwaves. More FM rock, including, er, Boston, and some early-20th-century orchestral piece that I can’t identify on WCRB; it sounds oddly similar to Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen and I wonder if he used it as inspiration. That’s the problem with forensic musicology – you hear similarity everywhere. Temperature outside is around 85°F/29°C, but I have aircon and feel nothing. Englishmen detest a siesta.
1800: Home, and back to some client musicology work. This week I’m working on a TV show which features songs that are all parodies of existing hits. I’ve been asked to identify whether the melodies or lyrics are similar, working from draft MP3 recordings. One of the common requirements of a forensic musicologist is to separate similarities in the core compositions (i.e. melody, harmony and lyric, which are generally protected by copyright) from similarities in the production and arrangement (which are usually not protected in the same way). This one’s a relatively easy gig because the melodies are mostly very dissimilar, even though it’s clear from the production which track the composer is parodying. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, because UK and US law allows for ‘fair dealing’ whereby parody is exempt from some copyright restrictions. However, this TV show will be distributed worldwide so the composer still needs to stay the right side of actual plagiarism. So I spend a couple of hours listening to Katy Perry, Michael Jackson, The Lego Movie and Pharrell Williams. After which I feel strangely happy.
2025: James Taylor documentary on TV about the making of Before This World. There are some lovely new songs here, and JT has achieved enough respect/love/fame to be able to call on some notable musical guests, resulting in wonderfully restrained BVs by Sting and remarkably folky ‘cello by Yo-Yo Ma. James Taylor is a Bostonian, as I now am. For no justifiable or rational reason, this warms my heart.