Way back in 1995 when I turned 16, I got my driver’s license and first car: a doo-doo-brown hand-me-down 1982 Audi 5000, inching toward decrepitude and shared with my older brother. With a new outlet for restlessness and few friends, I began spending nights driving all over Nashville. Occasionally I’d hit up the local used-music store; more often I’d roam the city aimlessly.
One of my first acts as driver was to get my brother’s expensive car stereo stolen by leaving the doors unlocked and the windows down. After that, music came out of a portable CD player sitting in the passenger seat hooked up to plastic speakers duct-taped to the dashboard. It was enough for me, and soon driving and listening to music became inseparable habits. I kept a 100-disc booklet underneath the seat, then two, then three. My entire library. I loved listening to music while driving (still do—it’s the best way to hear things) and wanted all options available.
My Discman did not allow for looped play: it shut off at the end of its run, awaiting further instructions. The tedious method of changing discs—reach under seat for booklet, select next disc, pop open player, replace disc, stash booklet back under seat—was incompatible with active driving and meant that the last song on any given album would be followed by quite a bit of silence. Well—I don’t mean “silence” exactly, but rather ambient noises most of us take for granted: the diseased humming of my car and, in the summer, the rush of wind through open windows.
Pre-car, I listened exclusively through a boombox on top of my bedroom dresser. Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, They Might Be Giants, Prince, P-Funk, some jazz, some classical. Nerd stuff. I would lay on my bed for hours, taking all comers, and as the last song on each album ended, the proceeding silence would fill the room. At some point that silence became very heavy. Listening was an escape to me, an introduction to an entirely different world, but matter how much I wished to stay in that world, I would always end up deposited back in my room. Silence was an implacable underscore to that displacement. The atmosphere was almost unbearably sad in those blank moments. The music is over; it’s all used up. The band has gone home without you. The moments you enjoyed are not coming back, and all that’s left to do is think about what came before. At best, euphoria gave way to melancholic reflection (THE MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT ARE STANDING STILL ON STAGE AND STARING AT ME); at worst, the final song was infused with anticipatory dread, giving way to negative space I could never hope to fill. Sometimes I would push back immediately and put on another album; other times I would continue staring into the void, disturbed and struggling to comprehend.
As bedroom listening gave way to driver’s-seat listening, my surroundings began to take a more active role in the overall experience, and the void was filled: post-album silence was replaced by the aforementioned ambient noise. A lot of the time that noise was louder than the music I was trying to hear. Just as that earlier silence reflected back upon the stuff that came before it, eventually I accepted that noise: first as a necessary evil, then as an integral part of the listening experience. Before too long it became as much of an instrument in the song as any other. One of my favorite driving albums as a teenager was the double-disc Uncle Meat by the Mothers of Invention. The last song on the first CD is “Cruising for Burgers”—appropriately enough a highly sarcastic take on the very activity I was undertaking. If I let that first disc play through to the end, and after the band shut their mouths the next several minutes were filled with car noises and rushing wind, in my mind I was still listening to “Cruising for Burgers”. Why not? The medium one utilizes as a listener of music, and the setting in which one listens, has great effect on the overall experience of listening. This is not a novel concept. With specific regard to medium, vinyl records wind up in an infinite locked groove; tape cassettes click end over end in their decks. (MP3 players, if you let them, will go on making noise forever.) If you listen to a record, it is entirely appropriate to associate your experience with the sound of the stylus finally seeking out and locking into that groove. What’s stopping you, then, from taking it a step further? Why not extend the length of the track the artist has given you to include those sounds? Maybe it’s not what was intended, but again, you have already changed the texture of the song by the very act of listening to it in the first place, by your choice of medium and setting and through the thought processes with which you interpret what you hear. So why not?
Like I said, this concept is way older than I am. Musique concrete—a process of composition using non-musical sounds—is as old as the twentieth century. Hip-hoppers have been doing this sort of thing since the genre’s inception. (Two examples I can think of offhand are the opening emergency sirens in “In the Hood” by the Wu-Tang Clan, and the dripping/pouring water in “Booga Bandit Bitch” by Just-Ice, from 2001 and 1987 respectively.) Non-musical elements like tape hiss and shitty recording methods are often taken as signifiers of authenticity. At the time I didn’t really know this; I was just an over-thinking kid. Regardless, this incidental aspect of my listening process grew into a major part of my musical philosophy, and these days literally everything I hear is fodder for musical organization. Wind, traffic, pieces of overheard conversation. Field recordings. Sounds of nature. The world is singing to us every day. We can try to drown it with our own voices and that’s fine; we can do our best to shut it out and that’s fine too. I choose to be open to it and do my best to sing with it.
by Mark Sanders