I recently had an interesting conversation with my 19 year old daughter. We shot the breeze, eventually arriving at one of our favorite shared topics- music.

She’d been to the Governor’s Ball festival in New York City and described some of the highlights- including a performance by Kanye West. According to her, he was very entertaining. She characterized his performance as “good”.

She talked about some of the other artists she’d seen and the music she was currently listening to. She really liked it; in her words, it was all really “good”.

Not exactly raves, but these days, if something is considered “good”, it’s right about the top of the musical food chain.

We spoke further and she referred to one artist in particular as being really “different” and in a class by herself (although she never used the word “good” to describe her). My interest was piqued and I wanted to know, how, exactly did she feel this artist stands out from all the other music she listens to?

When you hear this artist’s music (I asked my daughter), do you feel as if your perception is being altered? Do you think, Oh my God, this is incredible- what is happening to me? Do you get goosebumps and other weird sensations all over your body? Does it feel like (and, by asking, I wasn’t fishing/didn’t want to know whether or not my daughter has direct experience of this- which potentially makes it a loaded question) you’re on drugs?

When she answered no to all the above (emphatically so regarding being on drugs), I asked her if she’d ever had that kind of experience with anything- music or otherwise. To which, she also responded no.

Right then, I had a profound realization. My daughter, who I consider to be highly intelligent and aware, has never had the complete experience- the full mind/body/emotion experience of what a truly amazing piece of art or music can do to the human consciousness. This is a direct contrast to how I spent my youth, wherein, my consciousness was being altered on a regular basis simply by listening to music that was completely inspired, original and expressive.

This intensely profound way of experiencing music (and all forms of art) embedded itself in me from the time I was very young and continues to the present moment. It’s the one way I can definitively know how the music I hear is affecting me emotionally. Or not.

Having never known this, I feel as if my daughter is being deprived of something extremely valuable and essential to the experience of being human. And, if she’s being deprived of this, I figure that most other people are being similarly deprived.

The reason I feel she- and others- are being deprived is that, presently, there are virtually no artists who can be bothered to make a recording that actually has real expressive power or meaning. Instead of making bold, personal statements, everyone appears to be hiding- either behind a genre or a facade.

And it’s interesting when I attempt to describe this magical, mystical experience of encountering music to my daughter. It’s so utterly foreign to her- kind of like trying to describe a Van Gogh to someone who has been blind all of her life. I wish there was some way she could know this beyond the feeble explanations I’ve given her.

Having lived through five decades of popular music and now watching the emotional impact of music gradually wither and die, I can see how, with the bar dropping progressively lower, people have proportionally reduced expectations. Besides, how can you desire, want or expect to receive that which you have never known?

At best, I can do a very, very poor job of explaining what happens when you hear music that has a powerful emotional impact.

The experience of listening to music- when that music is truly amazing- is so intense that you literally feel like your world is being turned upside down- as if you’re on some kind of mind-altering drug. In this case, it is always a profoundly and utterly transformational experience. You may feel as if up is down and down is up- nothing remains as it was before and everything will somehow always be different afterward.

If the music you listen to is not having some kind of tangible effect on your person (and this is not the same as feeling like your viscera is being mangled because you listen music at 140+ dB)- if you don’t feel as if your perspective has been altered even in some small way; that you’ve either been exposed to something that resonates with you completely, a perspective you’ve never even imagined, or a combination of the two- one of two things is happening. Either you’re not paying attention, or the music you’re listening to is not great and never will be.

You may be absolutely devastated, emotionally confounded and upended by this experience. In an instant, you may be completely transformed on every possible level- life’s meaning and your life’s purpose suddenly illuminated in front of you, plain as day.

You may also not find it revelatory at all- the effect may be barely perceptible- perhaps nothing more than an awareness that what you are listening to simply feels “right”. However, this will always contrast against listening to music that has no emotional resonance and was made by people who are not deeply invested in their work.

You deserve to have this experience. I wish fervently with all my heart that, if you haven’t had it yet- you someday will- even if it only happens one time in your life. It’s something you’d never know about if it never happened to you, but without it, you are truly missing something valuable and magical. It’s as close to connecting with God, a higher self, whatever you choose to call it, as a person can ever get.

Let’s frame what’s missing from a different perspective. Human beings are responsible for some remarkable- almost superhuman feats of art, engineering and expression- many of them having been achieved long before machines or computers existed to add ease to our lives.

One of the greatest achievements in recorded history which combines all of these elements- and more- is St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. The product of no less than 7 different architects (2 of whom being Michelangelo and Gianlorenzo Bernini), it is one of the most recognizable and important edifices in the world, as well as in Christendom. Its construction was begun in 1506 and ended over a century later in 1626.

When you enter this building, you are immediately struck by several things. First, is the enormity and vastness of the structure itself. Second, is the quantity of remarkable and recognizable works of art throughout the building. Third, is the overwhelming presence of something which could be considered- even by the most unreligious of people- as Divinity.

Then, it suddenly hits you that this massive amalgamation of so many different disciplines may well have been inspired by devotion to some unseen faith, power or god, but it was the result of Herculean effort on the part of human beings.

Human beings no different than you or I, thought this place up and built it. As they have thought up and built every last speck of the civilization we inhabit. As well as all those which have come before.

The people who built St Peter’s were so dedicated to their faith, so prodigiously gifted as artists, they literally allowed that faith to possess and consume them and offered their gifts up to Divinity as the means to express their devotion. Their faith was the inspiration to build this enormous temple to their God, fill it to the brim with remarkable works of art and to allow absolutely nothing to impede them in the process. This was literally their means of speaking with their God and demonstrating their love and piety to Him.

It would be all too simple to explain away the staggering undertaking of these artists by stating that they were commissioned and paid by the Catholic Church. While that may be true, they aren’t exactly known for maintaining fabulous lifestyles- whereas, today, people achieve a great deal less and are compensated with far more.

Imagine that a large part of your existence (if not all of it) revolved around an ideal and your unshakeable service to it. Imagine being so completely devoted, so completely committed to a singular expression of that ideal, you literally gave your entire life to it. Imagine being so completely committed to this singular expression that, even though you put your entire being into creating it, it didn’t matter to you in the least that you wouldn’t live to witness its completion.

Think you have the faith (in yourself, anyone or anything else) to be that committed? Think you have the desire- the inspiration? Think you have the audacity- the balls? Think you know anyone else who does?

Fine. So you think you’re ready to build your own St Peter’s Basilica (or its equivalent in the medium of your choice). Are you prepared to sweat it out and forebear- no matter what happens?

What horror will it take to upend your unshakeable conviction? What could terrify you so deeply that you abandon your absurd dreams in an instant, and run home to the safety and security of your parents?

Or, can you face all those horrors and become greater still through such massive adversity?

Keep in mind, I’m simply referring to commitment and not even addressing the degree of talent a person needs just to be the right vehicle for that commitment….

And this is the kind of commitment a person requires in order to be great. From that greatness, (combined with an almost unfair quantity of natural talent) comes great art. Absolutely nothing less matters- absolutely nothing less is acceptable.

It’s strange- almost futile- to try and relate the concept of an experience- something, that if it never happened to you, you’d never know existed. It’s just as strange to try and relate the concept of an alien state of mind if this, too, cannot be conceived of without it being an innate part of your being.

But I have to try and relate them to you- somehow. Because, they are what we’re missing.

8 responses to “WHAT WE’RE MISSING”

  1. Hey Michael, thanks for your blog.
    Please help me to understand the difference hearing a song that is a real piece of art and a song that is just a cool idea.
    There are songs that really get my attention at first listen, I enjoy them quite a lot. But after days, weeks sometimes months the feeling for the song disappears and what remains of the song is just the feeling I had in the moment of the first listen.
    There are songs instead that I should play 5 times to get them, after 6 I’m in love and after 7 its just part of me. What those songs leave behind is incredible.
    Even if I don’t understand the lyrics and I don’t know what the singer is crying about.

    For example I just got into Jeff Buckley’s Grace, maybe a bit too late, now everything else playing today sounds shit in comparison. Even bands I used to adore when I was 10, like Muse.

    My questions are, am I the only one that needs so much time before actually getting the artistic value of a song?

    Did it ever happen the same thing to you?

    Thanks for your time,

    ps. I think exactly the same for movies.

  2. Alex-

    You have a few questions here- some of which you have answered for yourself.

    What’s great is, you have your own criteria for judging music- therefore, trying to impart my criteria relative to you is more or less, useless. What I think about music doesn’t have to mean anything to you- especially if you have your own deep feelings and can identify what they are. 

    It’s wonderful that you are making your own comparisons, noticing how music makes you feel and how you feel about music. You are thinking for yourself. This is the way it’s supposed to be.

    You described two different ways pieces of music affect you. That is really exciting and a real gift. It’s what music is meant to do- get you to feel something or notice something about yourself.

    My definition of a song that is a piece of art is one which affects you emotionally and unavoidably. When you hear it, you experience feelings, sensations- whatever- sometimes pleasant, sometimes so awful you don’t want to return to them again. A song that is a work of art is like an acid trip or a mirror that exposes you to your subconscious via someone else’s expression. A piece of music like this should- at least on first listen- be able to maintain your attention through most of its duration. 

    My definition of a song which is little more than a cool idea is one which you can appreciate but which isn’t able to maintain your attention for its full duration. You will notice something about it- or even a few elements- which are interesting, engaging, even fascinating. However, you will begin to notice that the entire piece of music hinges around these central ideas and nothing else seems to happen- the song doesn’t go anywhere else or develop. It’s as if the creators had a good start point, but didn’t feel like going any further and expanding on it. To me, a song with a good start point which doesn’t develop at the right moment, gets tedious quickly.

    I’m glad Jeff Buckley’s record affected you so strongly. Just goes to show that when you hear something superior after listening to rubbish for a long time, nothing less than superior will do afterward. There is nothing odd about that. It says a lot about context and yes, I have experienced many of the things you described. 

    I wouldn’t say that you need so much time to get the artistic value of a piece of music- you simply need the amount of time that works specifically for you. I think this is how everyone is wired.

  3. There’s just no feeling in today’s (mainstream) music. I don’t know why people would rather listen to music that just “has a good beat,” or “I just listen to what the radio tells me to.” I had a friend complain about a song I was playing because “you can’t dance to it.” Whatever that means. The feeling of getting goosebumps while listening to an incredible song is one of the greatest things that you can experience.

    Sort of off topic, but what do you think about dynamic range? I find it has a huge effect on the feeling of music, and of course the sound quality of a song. I’ve noticed that some albums that you have produced have pretty bad dynamic range, including The Verve Pipe’s self-titled album and Nobody’s Daughter by Hole. Did you have any part in the dynamic range of these albums, or was it the mastering engineer, the artist, or the label? It’s unfortunate because the music industry is really screwing itself in this respect.

  4. Willie-

    I agree with you about missing the goosebumps. These are multiple problems which need addressing. Speaking of which, when you use the term “dynamic range”, I assume you mean stereo compression placed across a mix buss and/or used to process a finished mix when it’s being mastered.

    I have 2 answers to your question, assuming I understand you correctly. First, I feel the usage of stereo compression applied to a master recording at any stage of the recording process, when used solely as a means to make the recording appear “louder” is excessive and pointless. On a few occasions, I’ve had issues with mix and mastering engineers who gratuitously used compression in this manner without even considering what the source recording was, simply because this method has become “industry standard”.

    On the other hand, stereo buss compression, when used with consideration for the source material, can be very useful and add a nice tonal element. Apart from suppressing transients, compression used in this manner can help “glue” together textural elements in a mix which sounded more disparate without it. It’s important to consider that engineers have been using stereo (even mono) mix buss compression for many decades and it has only become a problem recently with the advent of so-called “loudness wars”.

    For me, the program material being recorded is the deciding factor in whether buss compression should be used and then, how much. That said, I don’t like to suppress instrument transients or lose the character of individual instruments in order to tighten the dynamic range of a mix. For this reason, I tend to use mix buss compression sparingly, if at all.

    I wasn’t directly involved in mixing or mastering the recordings you referenced, if that answers your question regarding their dynamic range.

  5. The last time I was truly moved by an album was Mastodon’s “Crack the Skye.” It had a pretty profound impact on me as a music listener and just life in general. It was the first album of theirs that I had bought and it was unlike anything I’d heard from them. I was going through some personal things at the time, and the album is about as personal as you can get, so it just clicked instantly for me. The album, if you don’t know, is a huge concept record full of crazy metaphors and weird stories, but it’s essentially a tribute to the drummer’s sister who committed suicide when they were teens. There’s so much more to it than I’m describing, but the point is, with what I was going through at the time and what the record was about just made sense for me. Not that my situation was anything close to theirs, but it definitely helped me out of the dark that I was in. Music is all about interpretation anyway right?

  6. Thanks for the reply. I am referring to the loudness wars. It’s such a shame because artists are doing themselves a disservice by mastering great music with such poor dynamic range. I’m not going to buy music lacking dynamic range, so it’s their loss.

  7. Can you be more specific about the content of your article? After reading it, I still have some doubts. Hope you can help me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *