Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff, book review: 20 new ways of navigating music

An instructive guide to opening one's mind and compiling a new kind of playlist

John Clarke
Thursday 03 March 2016 18:08 GMT
The art of listening: James Brown
The art of listening: James Brown (Getty Images)

Living in an age when as Ben Ratliff points out "we can hear nearly everything , almost whenever, often for free: most of the history of Western music and a lot of the rest," then perhaps it's time we listened in a new way. Ratliff, a New York Times music critic, attempts to make us do that here, in a "strategy of openness, and a spirit in which to hear things that may have been kept away from you" – and he succeeds brilliantly.

Out goes the idea of classifying music by time (the jazz age, the swing era, the beat boom), by region (Western classical, Americana, world music) or even by genre (jazz, pop, folk, metal). Instead, in 20 brief chapters he shows 20 new ways of navigating music, from "speed" to "virtuosity", from "loudness" to "density", and from "improvisation" to "exclusivity". Within these signposts he dissects performances that share this particular skill.

Thus "Quiet/silence/intimacy" links American composer Morton Feldman's "For Bunita Marcus" with Brazilian Joao Gilberto's "Falsa Baiana", soul singer Curtis Mayfield's "Mighty, Mighty (Spade and Whitey)" and the Modern Jazz Quartet's "Bluesology" in a YouTube-available playlist that opens your mind to "certain kinds of affinities between pieces of music".

Having those combined playlists would be useful enough, but it is Ratliff's words that also intrigue and inspire. His breadth of knowledge is impressive. Where else would you find an instruction from Shostakovich – "Play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom" – alongside this about the use of the single note: "The stubborn note is bossy; it takes you over. It puts you on notice… The difference between this and true repetition is that repetition puts a spell on you. The stubborn note takes a spell off you."

There is a fascinating chapter on how someone becomes "a cognitive shareholder in the music he hears" by trying to own it in what he terms "the completist-music-collector impulse". I have to admit to sharing some of this impulse, although perhaps even I would quail at the completists who comb the almost 2,200 recordings of Grateful Dead concerts to compare the 219 recorded live versions of their 26–minute opus "Dark Star", or the PhD student who is notating all the live recordings of the American band Phish using symbols, arrows, notes and flowchart symbols.

But perhaps Ratliff is best when analysing a distinct performance. Take his masterly dissection in the virtuoso chapter of a recording of the standard "Time After Time" by jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan on Sassy Swings the Tivoli album. "The first line ("Time after time") starts very late, thrillingly so, in a mild baby voice; the second line ("I tell myself that I'm") comes in exaggerated false Cockney, ending in a perfectly controlled and extended vibrato." Or here, discussing James Brown's "Ain't It Funky Now" – "From the first seconds you hear tension and contradiction. The rhythm guitarist Jimmy "Chank" Nolen strums a quiet, steady-lurking note making a wary ninth against the horns… everyone in the band, from the beginning, plays softly, entering like the team of burglars penetrating the jewellery shop in the Jules Dassin movie Rififi." How can that not send you scurrying off to YouTube?

In his introduction Ratliff says his book is about "listening for pleasure, and about listening to more". Or as the Doobie Brothers would have it, simply "Listen to the Music", but make sure you have his book close by when you do.

Allen Lane, £20. Order at £17 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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