National Day of Listening


Over the din of Black Friday, it could, somewhat ironically, be possible to miss that today is also apparently the National Day of Listening. I always love a new “National – Day,” so I thought I’d forgo transcribing any retail adventures here, and instead would share a cool listening experience that I recently had.

I’ve been working on the first album that I’ll release under my own name – it’s a big honking recitation of stories from the past, going as far back as I can remember and coming all the way up to the present.  It’s going to be called “The Exited Door.”  I’ve (somehow) managed to bring together just about everybody in the bay area (and beyond) that I know – jazz and rock musicians, as well as students, co-faculty, and even non-musician friends, and eek some sort of contribution out of each of them. It’s been really, really cool, and I’m lucky to know so many great musicians.

In addition to all those humans, I thought it would be appropriate to get a contribution from the city of San Francisco itself – the album has 13 tracks, so I figured it would be funny to make the 13th track a recording of Funston Ave out in the Richmond.  Geddit?  ‘Cause there is no 13th avenue, we call it “Funston.”  Ha ha ha oh man I kill myself.

Anyhow, for a long time, while working with an entirely self-created demo mock-up of the record, I used a recording that I’d made of Masonic Ave (it’s a lot closer to my day-to-day than Funston) – it totally sufficed, and managed to give me the vibe I was going for, the better to envision how the album would flow after it was complete.

Only a few people have copies of the demos I made – my folks are two of those people.  Recently, when telling my dad that I had to find some time to actually go out and record the real Funston Ave, he was appalled to hear that I had inserted Masonic as a stand-in.  He’s a dad, and thinks of the demos I sent as an actual album I made just for him, so I guess on some level he felt hoodwinked.  Heh.  Anyhow, it was a funny thought; he referred to it as “tantamount to lip-synching,” and I realized, that’s just what it was!

“Well,” I said, “the demo’s got fake drums, and fake bass, it might as well have fake Funston.”  He couldn’t argue with me there.

So, as I entered the final phase of recording (the record is now about 95% complete, save mastering and duplication), it was time to take the City Carshare out to Funston and get a proper recording.  I knew just the spot I wanted to hit, but wasn’t sure what kind of sounds I would get.

Once more, with feeling!
Once more, with feeling!

I’d actually kind of gotten used to the sounds of Masonic on the demo, and anyone who lives in SF will tell you that Masonic is without a doubt a lot louder than Funston, particularly the area that I recorded, right at the busy intersection at Haight and Masonic.  I headed out to the spot, parked the car, put my laptop on the hood, and started recording.

It’s always fascinating working behind the board, opening up your ears and trying to really hear what it is you’re currently getting down.  I’m getting better at it, but am still far from good – I spend so much time in the studio trying to hear the forest for the trees that when it’s time to really focus on an individual tree (say, a vocal take in the midst of the entire arrangement), I can lose the specifics and focus too much on the big picture.  In the end, this usually doesn’t matter much, but occasionally it’ll result in my absent-mindedly recording a mistake and not catching it, or getting a funky signal (see this week’s bad poetry), realizing only too late that I need to do the takes over again.

What was interesting was how, once I got the tape rolling out on Funston, the same feeling came over me – I found myself listening, listening, straining to listen, and after a couple of minutes of recording, I was drowning in sound. I’d notice how a big truck drove by, and how that sounded really nice, and then the birds in the tree nearby would start up, providing a tasty contrast, then some hydraulic brakes would squeak from over on Park Presidio.  Another minute more, and I stopped the recording and thought about it a bit.

“Hmm… that was pretty good, but there wasn’t much stuff in close proximity.  It was mostly over on Park Presidio, and kind of distant sounding… though the juxtaposition of the birds and the traffic is nice, I could probably get that in a second take…” and then, there I was, doing a second take of a street.

The second take was way better – I got a landscaping truck that drove by on Funston (not on Park Presidio), AND a bicyclist, and the birds were really at it, stronger than ever.  Another few minutes of recording and I had my better take.

The man has a giant brain
Serious chops.

The experience reminded me of Santiago Quintans, one of the best music teachers I had during my time at the Univeristy of Miami. He was a graduate guitar student from Spain, and my time with him was brief –  he coached a small group that I was in my sophomore year – but his lessons have stuck with me just as stubbornly as those of my department heads.  He gave me, among other things, the term “Death Ballad,” (after a particularly heinous run-through of some real book ballad), and drove home the idea of thinking of harmony in broad swaths over several bars, rather than thinking beat-to-beat.

Santi was also into some really cool extra-musical exercises; one thing he talked about doing was trying to listen to two books-on-tape simultaneously, one in each ear, to get better at hearing two things at once.  A jazz musician, he said, must always be listening to the ensemble as well as to himself, and is required to employ great aural dexterity if he is to truly be present in the music.  At one point, he inspired me to wear a blindfold for 24 hours, being led around to my classes by my friends, just to see how it affected the way I heard the world.

One of the most interesting things he advised, however, was also the simplest – just listening.  Go outside, he said, and sit on a bench somewhere, away from people.  Close your eyes.  Then, listen.  Try to identify a single sound, then another one.  Let them stack on top of one another and observe how they fit together.  Keep your eyes closed. Keep your focus, try to hear more things.  Keep listening, and noticing, and listening, and noticing, until you just FREAK OUT at the amount of things you’re hearing, everyday things that our mind normally phases out so that we can keep a grip on the world.

It sounded really cool, and I was in that “I’m 21 and I’m really into stuff like this” phase, so I did it, and, as advertised, it kind of totally blew my mind.  At the time it was more of a study in perception for me – how we filter out so much of what is around us in order to remain in control, and how if we can learn to turn off our filters, the world is revealed to be a place of incredibly rich, deep stimulation (unmanageably so, in fact).

Sitting out on Funston, hearing the street like it was a singer, praising its second take and feeling glad that I waited to see what else it had to offer, I was reminded of Santi, and of the joy of simply listening.

So, today, on our National Day of Listening, when you’re out and about, possibly hunting for bargains, give it a shot – sit down somewhere, close your eyes, and start to notice all of the things that you were missing.  You’ll see.  Or, rather, you’ll hear.