The Purpose of Music?

Way back when, I met this maenad woman at Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village and told her I was an artist. She told me she was an art collector and invited me to her loft to see her collection. While she was showing me an impressive assortment of African and contemporary art, she was dropping names: William Burroughs, Bob Marley, John Cage, etc. Hmmm . . . really? I spoke up. "Oh, I love John Cage. What was he like?"

She told me that Cage picked her up one day to go to an art party in the Hamptons. When they arrived, he said he needed her help putting batteries in a box full of transistor radios. As they walked to the party, he instructed her to tune the radios to any stations she could find, but between stations would be okay too. He began placing them under cars, behind bushes, and in mailboxes by the road. Once inside, they put one behind the toilet, and another under a pillow in the bedroom.

Remembering that story made me wonder what effect this unconventional composer was hoping to have on his unsuspecting audience. Likewise, what did revolutionary artists like the Beatles, Charlie Parker, and Igor Stravinsky hope to accomplish with their creations? My brain began to tumble. Unexpectedly, I realized I had never asked myself that really big question: What is the purpose of music?

Last Saturday, that question came racing back at me. I went to the WFMU Record Fair specifically to buy a copy of Rutherford Chang's album The White Album, based on his art installation We Buy White Albums. The place was crammed with collectors pushing and bumping, spending hundreds on obscure punk zines and prog-rock LPs. As I wound my way to Chang's booth, one record stopped me in my tracks: a near-mint, white-label, mono promo pressing of Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love—for $5000. Two weeks earlier, a Tommy Johnson 78 on Paramount had gone for $37,000. I had to wonder—what are people doing with these things?

Typically, audiophiles like me collect records, listen to music, and build extraordinary audio systems—all to demonstrate to our comrades and ourselves what we believe is important. I remember exactly why I started buying records. Of course I loved music, but I also wanted to be loved, and to belong to a larger group of more fabulous beings. To win affection, I needed to show people that I shared their tastes and attitudes. More than anything else I've accomplished, the ritual of playing recorded music has created and sustained my social, emotional, and intellectual lives. Therefore, I am compelled to ask myself, when I play recordings for friends, What effect am I hoping to have on them?

The Cage story impressed me because, when I spin discs for an audience I know, I try to work a similarly provocative strategy—to surprise the unsuspecting, to soften the most jaded, and to parlay a shared musical experience into something significant and memorable. By simply lowering the tonearm, offering music as a gift, I compel my guests to listen. With a soft smile, I ask, Is this not beautiful and wonderful? Are you not grateful we are friends? Won't you please invite me to your house and tease me with your own musical discoveries?

The main purpose of music in my life has been to illuminate a set of values that I, the artists whose records I play, and my listeners all share and cherish in ourselves. Music shows us our cultural identity. Music sorts us out and separates the Dionysian from the Apollonian. Musical genres are the fences we build to keep the maenads safe and the barbarians out.

Pick your favorite music—bebop, hip-hop, the blues. Each speaks to its fans about shared conditions of the soul. When music is deeply felt, the artist is simply reminding us that we are not alone. Musical genres are signifiers of tribal identity. When Leonard Cohen sings about "Suzanne," he is singing about my desires and dreams as well as his own. This is where music's real beauty lies. I believe that beauty is our most fundamental need and our primary survival tool. Why? Because form, style, and taste draw us together and force us to communicate. As new guests arrived at that art party in the Hamptons, all they could talk about was the surprise, the invention, the beauty of John Cage's creation.

Composing original music and playing it for others is surely among the greatest talents a human being can possess. Regrettably, I have never had that ability—but by the age of 12 I had realized that I possess a talent for finding records, and playing them in ways that would amaze my friends. With that ability, I transformed myself from a lonely, nerdy pre-teen with a squeaky voice and pipestem arms into a swaggering, deep-voiced 16-year-old. That talent got me a job at a Chess Records outlet. That flair became my calling card in the realms of girls, rat rods, audio, and construction. It pulled me through art school. It caused me to study engineering. It made me new friends and kept me connected to the old ones.

I suspect that you and I share this talent. I imagine we both read Stereophile, collect recordings, and build hi-fis because, even if we don't realize it, we want to be a bit like John Cage—to be loved and admired for our work. Like artists, we want to create surprising and memorable musical happenings. Like archeologists, we want to unearth what is hidden in the pits and grooves and share our discoveries with others. I believe that playing recorded music—whether along the road, in the concert hall, or in our listening rooms—is a noble Arcadian pursuit that elevates our minds and lets us mingle with the ancient gods—especially if the discs are in VG+ condition or better!—Herb Reichert

michaelavorgna's picture

It's always a pleasure to see (read) Herb on hi-fi.

deckeda's picture

Thank you Herb. I greatly appreciate your recognition and support of this shared experience. Buying and listening to recorded music has a purpose far beyond our personal enjoyment. It's who I am and I want you to know what I know. Here, let me play something for you ...

There's a tempation to get caught up in the collecting aspect of what we do, but taking the time to expose our collections forces us to expose our values as we lift up our listeners. It truly is a noble endeavour and an honor to be able to share with others.

Metalhead's picture

Very well done piece Herb.  Excellent and fun read.

Listen On!!!!!!!!!!!

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

And just to prove that variety is the spice of life, I no longer share my music with others. It's too personal.  Of course I've tried, but in my experience it can become an exercise in taste imposition; no matter how sweetly done, it's kinda tacky.  

I find the deepest sharing is between me and the composer, via the performers.  Thus, I listen to music as a break from social interaction.  

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Because I'm no longer "young", I'm not that easily impressed anymore.  One of the few things that still impresses is great music.  So after another day of exposure to personal and media shilling for various political/commercial/philosophical POV's, it's such a relief to sit down and listen to the proven wisdom of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart et al.

boulderskies's picture

Remind me not to go over to this guy's house. I'd probably never get out of there, what with hearing all about him. Dude, people enjoy music in different ways, most of the time in ways they come up with, not you.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...for making my point.

deckeda's picture

... was that you merely weren't a decent D.J. :)

My interpretation of the behavior is less "Hey! You've got to hear this!" and more "This is something I like right now ..."

Truth is, I'm acutely aware of my limitations there as well. If the "muse" so to speak isn't there, I'd rather keep it turned off than play music just becaue it seems I should be playing music when people are around.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...there's background music for cooking, driving, partying, etc. and then there's music for more exclusive listening.  Not all music has enough in it to qualify for the second category.  The second category has so much stuff in it that it's best to just listen to the composer/performer's message.  (That's what we're supposed do in the concert hall, as opposed to the club.)

That second category of music can bore or offend people who won't admit the artist is smarter than they are.  

For me, it's enough of a challenge to understand everything a great artist is trying to say, without the distraction of talking about it with a fellow listener. After all, what the hell can I add to what Bach, Coltrane etc. have already said?

And on that note...

Doctor Fine's picture

I share your observations that truly deep listening is intensely personal and not likely to translate into a shared moment.   As a substitute It is great fun to have a drinking party of friends over and play boogie disco dance music and see if they can resist jumping out of their seats to demonstrate being moved and in the moment.

But serious listening is so dependant on mood and hunger that not all appetites can be satiated no matter how sincere the stereo buff is in the attempt to entertain.

I sometimes share deep music with the wife by playing it while she reads the Sunday Times.  If she puts down the paper and exclaims "WHO is that?  Turn it UP!!!" then I know i have caught someone at the right moment for that particular musical voyage.

Otherwise I simply play early JB, perhaps some 70s R and B dance-a-thon stuff and let it be all about guilty pleasures.

EVERYONE likes guilty pleasures.

Regadude's picture

I hate to say it Doc Fine, but for once, I agree with you! This is a great post. Your best! You actually get it. Cut back on being condescending, stop saying that people need a 30000$ system to reproduce music, limit your personal anecdotes and posts to 1500 words, and maybe you will get more thumbs up. 

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...and speaking of guilty pleasures: