Many years ago I attended a party hosted by The Absolute Sound’s founder, Harry Pearson, at his Seacliff abode. It was a great party – good food, great conversations, and later in the evening, live musical entertainment. But one thing that you find at most parties was missing here – background music. The only sounds during the party were those sounds made by live humans while having a good time.
At some point in the evening I asked Harry why none of his systems were playing. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he held music in much too high respect to relegate it to the background. When music was playing Harry felt it deserved his full attention. No, Harry was not into music as soundtrack for life.
Given that almost every public space seems to have some form of background music playing and many folks under the age of 30 never leave home without earphones firmly in place, the concept that music should have our full attention seems like something from a prior century, quaint, but not even worthy of serious consideration. But perhaps something fundamental is lost when we don’t give music the space to work its magic on us.
I listen to a lot of music through headphones, so I know that headphone listening can be just as involving and transformational as loudspeakers, but for it to get through requires more attention and focus than is possible when music is competing with street theater or text on your notebook for attention. I’m not a big fan of headphones while doing anything skill-intensive, such as operating a bicycle or motor vehicle on city streets. I also don’t think using headphones to “drown out” what’s going on around you is a good long-term physical or emotional survival scheme,
Where I’m going with this is simple. I think that HP had a good point in insisting that recorded music be treated with a certain level of respect and attention. If treated like air or water – as something that is always around and just part of the environment, music loses some of its magic. And magic is really what music is all about.