The 9 second rule v. the slow burn (4-minute read)

When an aspiring singer and the 19-year-old daughter of a musician friend of mine mentioned that she had never spent a penny on music in her entire life, I stopped what I was doing to listen. She quickly followed with the remark that she rarely listens to any song for more than 9 seconds unless its “really really good”. Her remark released a murmuration. I considered 9 seconds. Is it really possible to recognise a song and pass judgement on it in just 9 seconds?

TZ 20140314 122 1 Gwendolyn Masin by Zoltan Tuba cropped Gwendolyn Masin
Photo: Zoltán Tuba

I can tell Amy Winehouse from Ella Fitzgerald, just as I know something is being performed by Renée Fleming and not Maria Callas. Recognising their voices does not yet walk the path of appreciation, though. It just means that they each have voices that are as unique as a fingerprint. But, what about experiencing music just as we experience a painting? One must give art time to effervesce in our presence, right? Was my friend's daughter an indicator of how music (and art, for that matter) is generally consumed in this era of scroll-happy, instant-gratification? Does anyone remember the satisfaction of a slow burn?

I would be apprehensive of calling something great within 9 seconds of discovering it. But, maybe I’ve been burned by a past where I formed opinions on first impressions far too quickly, only to realise I would end up eating every word. For example: Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” — did not like it at first, couldn’t understand what my friends heard in it, but they insisted on playing it a second time, a third time. Now, decades after it came out, it remains one of my all-time favourite moments in music. Or, Ani DiFranco. Pfft…so many lyrics! I had to pay attention, and pay attention I did – years later I’m still a huge fan. Paganini – not my favourite composer by a long shot. But, William Kappel playing Rachmaninov’s Theme on Paganini? I could listen many times over, which makes me realise that I really shouldn’t underestimate Paganini. There must be a good reason others don’t…

Y and GM Headphones Gwendolyn Masin

I associate some of my earliest memories with music, and in these memories, the music took its time with me and I with it. There I am sitting on the floor in our family's living room, rocking back and forth to Stravinsky’s “Firebird” as it plays on my father’s LP system for entire afternoons. Or, sitting in the stalls of the Concertgebouw with my elder brother. He and I and a tiny teddy bear, placed precariously on the red velvet of the railing, are listening to my parents’ orchestra rehearsing a Brahms Symphony. The fullness of the music resounds around the hall. The sweeping lines of the score rush past as the morning rehearsal persists. I am sitting in Cape Town’s Baxter Theater, now a little older, listening to Bruckner. I never understood Bruckner. I just remember covering my ears every time the man at the back grabbed cymbals in preparation for the next crashing chord. The hall was very full – the concert lasted for hours.

All those memories pass by me. The value I give them is primarily an emotional one. Years later, I find myself showing my 15-month old son music by Stravinsky, and I feel myself becoming as excited as a child when the finale of “The Firebird” kicks in. I observe his face and body – his eyes widening, his feet stamping down on the floor as he moves to the music. I realise that he is transfixed for more than a quarter of an hour. I am amazed by his ability to focus. Or, is the music so mesmerising that if one has no concept of time, much like a toddler, the idea of focusing attention is instinctive and easy to tap into?

I am as much a culprit of the “quick, free fix” as anyone else. But, I would venture to say that there is not a musician alive, myself included, who thinks that earbuds or a laptop’s speakers are superior to the sound quality of a record players' speakers — and, don’t get me started with the sound of live music in a concert hall. Yet, most consumers are happy to listen to everything on YouTube and a laptop. Often, when showing my son music, I show none of the ardent fervour I had when I was studying music. I spent hours comparing one recording to another. In the case of the Stravinsky, I just balance my boy on my arm and type “fire bird” into YouTube. My laziness is rewarded with an abundance of recordings. Instant. Yet, none give me that same feeling I remember having as a child. But, why not? The music is the same, why does it not invoke the same effect in me?

Perhaps it’s a bit like that bottle of wine you drank in Bologna, that tasted exquisite on that balmy summer evening. It was so good that you bought a bottle and brought it back to your home. You opened it a week later. But, it didn't taste the same. What changed?

Well, everything — the environment, the temperature and humidity, the food that you were eating, the mood, the time of day — the whole of the ritual you performed as you enjoyed each sip. A change as small as the salt used to boil water for pasta will change the way our senses experience the taste.

I decide to abide by a simple rule of thumb: children mimic – so be a good example.

We have just moved our apartment. Our life is in boxes. My son observes his mother as she moves one box to the next, splitting open the tape that runs along each one to see what is inside. Eventually I get to our LP collection. My near-obsessive need for order amongst my belongings paid off: organised according to composer, I get to “S” and pull The Firebird Suite out of it’s cover. My son is in my arms. We go to the LP player and I slowly drop the needle onto the grooves in the vinyl. There is ritual here.

The room fills with sound.

Finally, my fix. Not quick. Not instant. More like slow, home-cooking, with all the sensuous pleasure that goes with it. How fortunate are we that great art cannot be measured in 9 seconds — all the better to savour it.

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