Luke Fieweger: My Quarantine Playlist is Letting Me Down
The beginning of this pandemic-induced break felt like getting a new book: all potential and only an abstract sense of its duration. The Seattle Symphony, like the rest of the world, would have to take an at least six-week-long hiatus. Naively, I was kind of stoked. For the first few days, when stores hadn’t yet been shuttered and when giddiness hadn’t yet been swallowed up by anxiety, I made lists of all the things I could do, watch, and listen to with my weeks off. I had the time to stroll along the bay to see my therapist — luxury on luxury. I walked slowly as I listened to Sibelius symphonies. The sun poured into his office and we talked about honesty. I passed by Benaroya Hall on my way back and noticed trees by the artist’s entrance that were blooming with small white buds. The weather suggested things were about to get better, not worse.
I played music constantly at first: walking to Sibelius, cooking to Phoebe Bridgers, staring at Instagram with Prince in the background. I revisited old favorites and explored new musical territory. After a few days of near-constant listening, the selection on Spotify and YouTube started to feel oppressively boundless — a ruthlessly expanding universe. It was like I couldn’t remember what I liked to listen to. I began to get so sick of having to choose songs for the queue, sick of having music chosen for me by some know-it-all algorithm, sick of my earbuds prying my ears open, and sick of having to deal with my shitty bluetooth speaker. Nothing felt right; everything felt arbitrary and devoid of context.
One day, as I was driving up my embarrassingly high screen time in silence, I scrolled past a picture I had taken of an empty Benaroya Hall back when it was safe to be there. I fantasized about filled seats, the little rush that comes when the lights dim, and music taking over the hall. I wanted to attend a concert, get one of those silly Seattle Symphony-branded sippy cups of wine, share an experience with other goddamn people outside of my goddamn apartment.
In college I brought a friend to see a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall. They had never been to any kind of classical music performance whatsoever. I decided that, if they were to continue to be friends with me, that simply wouldn’t do. I got to see a lot of BSO concerts basically for free, so I forget the program on that particular evening, but I do remember quite well getting to observe my friend’s first exposure to this completely foreign world.
Symphony Hall is a remarkably straightforward building, with hardly any lobby to speak of. We arrived barely on time, so we rushed though the narrow hallway at the entrance and to our seats at the back of the hall. The rectangular auditorium is a long room with a simple, mostly beige stage, a vast sea of seats on the floor beneath it, and two balconies way at the back of the hall that wrap around the sides. The space is so large and wide open that if you’re sitting in the front row of the first balcony you can barely make out facial features of the musicians on stage. Aside from the occasional touches of decadence — oh, you know, like giant hanging crystal chandeliers, tons of red velvet, eerily lit neo-classical sculptures, and just a huge-ass gilded proscenium with “Beethoven” inscribed at its crown — it’s a surprisingly modest home for the wealthiest orchestra in America.
I suppose that relative modesty was lost on my first-timer friend, who spent the moments before the concert began gawking at the surroundings. Like someone who has brought a lover home to family for the first time, I spent the concert always attentive, from the corner of my eye, to their reactions to the evening. I could tell which pieces bored them causing them to squirm, and which sections of the orchestra most often caught their attention freezing them rapt in their seat. With this classical music virgin by my side, I felt a haughty responsibility to show them the ropes. I demonstrated when to clap and when not to clap, how to casually glare at someone near you making too much noise, how to dress to advertise that you were aware of the etiquette but refused its conformist bourgeois grip on you. All music comes with a space, and all spaces come with their own social norms. I observed my friend navigate these norms for the first time, gaining a renewed and deeper awareness of them myself.
I highly doubt I converted my friend to the Big-Ass-Gold-Beethoven worshipping fellowship of classical music lovers that evening, but that’s alright. I’ve learned that you can’t force classical music on someone, that they have to come to it on their own. It takes time and repeated exposure. It has to seep down into you, until you have a relationship with the music and you can no longer imagine a time when you didn’t have it in your life.
None of my family members is a musician, or even listens to classical music, so I’m guess something of an anomaly (or dork, my family might joke). I first became interested in classical music in high school through the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras. Through youth orchestra, I gradually developed something like an alter ego: during the week I would go to school and talk to friends about the indie rock that everyone was torrenting illegally or seeing live, but on the weekend I would go see my secret other family to rehearse Stravinsky or Mahler and talk about our idols in the Chicago Symphony. The different kinds of music I listened to corresponded to different groups of people, different worlds.
Maybe this is just a consequence of a solitude-induced existential crisis, but lately I can’t stop wondering how someone’s taste in music develops. Trends in genre seem obvious, attributable to life experiences — like youth orchestra — and demographic circumstances like geography, class, race, generation, and all of the other standard things capable of dividing us. This is probably an oversimplification, but I’m not so interested in larger categories. What I really wonder about are the finer divisions in preference. Why one artist but not another? Why one particular album or song, but not the rest of that artist’s work?
As cynical as it may be, I tend to think that we make decisions about taste in order to communicate something about ourselves to our peers. Essentially, we only care about what we listen to — or, for that matter, watch, or wear, or read — because of what these things convey about us. Whatever we think we like about a piece of music is actually, at its root, just an attempt to prove our intellectual or emotional intelligence, or show our allegiance to some imagined group of likeminded fans.
This stance is admittedly a little depressing, maybe almost sociopathic. But even if music preference is no more than a social calculation, that doesn’t necessarily diminish music’s capacity to move listeners. In fact, maybe it’s that shared social currency that enables those feelings in the first place.
I personally have benefitted greatly from the social currency that my taste in classical music has engendered. For instance, one night in high school I found myself hunched over my own toilet throwing up and crying while incoherently discussing with my best orchestra friend the sublimely unexpected second climax at the end of the “Nimrod” variation. (To this day Elgar reminds me of my floundering adolescence.) That piece, with some help from cheap liquor, facilitated what I’m sure felt at the time like an epiphany. This may be an extreme, if somewhat moronic example of music’s catalytic effect on emotion, but without my friend’s and my shared appreciation for Elgar, none of those drunken feelings could have been felt.
But what if you’re not sprawled out in a bathroom with a friend? What about the numerous reasons we turn privately to music: consolation, focus, a dance break, background noise, just a little dose of pleasure? Referring to music as simply a tool for pack formation doesn’t take these reasons into account. Generalizing that music preference is always motivated by others’ perceptions seems disingenuous, or at least incomplete. Plus, if you’re listening alone how can music even function as social currency?
As I’m sure is the case with many of us, I’ve had a lot of alone time recently. Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. Every time I try to pick something to listen to, I’m driven back on myself — why am I choosing this, and for whom? At first it was crippling. Now, after many weeks alone, contemplating how music relates me to others is soothing. It’s like a little glimmer of hope that someday I might connect with someone over a moment in a Mahler symphony, or maybe even my guiltiest of pleasures, that surprisingly catchy Paris Hilton song.
Music, even in quarantine, is always an exercise in communion. Its power derives from its ability to act as an emotional shorthand. It allows us access to our inner lives in shared terms, enabling us to connect over emotional experiences which aren’t as easily shared in other ways. Whether you’re alone in an apartment or part of a stadium-sized audience, music promises a deliverance from a fundamental, incurable loneliness. The deliverance never comes, making it that much more necessary.
There’s an irony to music’s communal essence. In order to listen to music, to really truly listen and to build an understanding of a structure of sounds over time and to receive its message, you must withdraw from your surroundings. It requires a deep focus which any socializing might disrupt.
The experience of live music therefore presents a kind of paradox. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in an orchestra concert — classical music especially requests a silence so total it can feel oppressive — and felt the tension between the urge to listen to the music and the urge to share my thoughts to whomever is there with me. Music creates a social space and then within that social space it demands solitude.
The modes by which we most commonly access music today tend to accentuate the solitude inherent in listening. Earbuds, for instance, are a perfect contemporary symbol for dissociation. The rise of streaming services that make music available anytime, anywhere, has allowed for the social spaces surrounding music to shift over to the virtual realm. Virtual social spaces certainly have value, but they’re comparatively textureless. Music online can glide through your life without ever really sticking.
I suppose a classical musician coming out as a luddite shouldn’t come as a great shock — to me, the 1600s were the glory days. However, I am admittedly a willing consumer in the new media landscape; I can’t deny how convenient the streaming apps are. But during this quarantine period of heightened online-ness, I’m feeling the disconnection between music and life acutely. People always have and always will lament the new technology that severs the relationship between artist and audience. But I’m beginning to lament the severing of the relationship of the audience to itself. The communion of music, already abstract, has online become more and more imaginary.
I worry about what this pandemic will do to the demand for live music. I wonder if other people also feel like they’re running out of steam when it comes to maintaining a relationship to music during this time. I hope we collectively come to realize the importance of music’s social origins, reaffirming a desire for collective in-person experiences. But I fear that this global shut down, which was only made possible by the virtual realm’s far reach into our lives, might strengthen that realm’s grip on us. Without the primacy of a social space, music’s promise of deliverance from loneliness loses its credibility.
All the commercials these days are saying things like “now more than ever” or “in these unprecedented times” or “we’re alone, but together.” That last one is so corny it nauseates me. What I really crave, now more than ever, in these unprecedented times, is a community brought together by a helpless infatuation with music. I want to be surrounded by people who know that listening to music can unite us without our ever needing to interact. I want to be together again in a concert hall — together but always alone.