Listen: On Music, Sound and Us by Michel Faber review – bum notes
Pay attention! Nowadays, there is a constant emphasis on the act of listening, how to listen effectively, and why it holds significance. Various forms of listening such as active listening, deep listening, and the art of listening are being taught by individuals who claim to have the ability to enhance one’s listening skills for a price, sometimes a steep one. They encourage you to listen to your instincts, your breath, and to those who are often overlooked. Listening is not just a form of self-care, but it also encompasses ethics, social involvement, and imaginative restitution. However, in many cases, listening is just talk rather than action; it is a promise made by politicians to their constituents and CEOs to their employees when faced with rebellion.
Listening is a passion of novelist and short-story writer Michel Faber. In his house, he reveals, there’s a whole room devoted to cassettes, vinyl, archived MP3s; when he goes round to other people’s homes he often squats down to peer at his hosts’ CD collections. An early novella, The Courage Consort (2002), followed an experimental vocal ensemble on a concert tour of Belgium, and featured riffs on auditorium acoustics, allusions to composers such as Cathy Berberian and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and outbursts from the group leader in which he complained: “I didn’t cast my boat out on the dangerous sea of a cappella music to sing Obla-di, Obla-da to a crowd of funny philistines in funny hats.”
Listen, Faber declares early on, “is the book I’ve wanted to write all my life”. Reading it, he believes, “will change the way you listen”. Other publications on music exist, but they’re not as deep or as truthful as his own. This is because they’re designed to “help you bond more securely with the artists or genres you’re already bonded with, making you feel part of a clique of the enlightened”. Even worse, many music books “are a glorified display of the stuff the author owns”. Their writers give the impression that “failing to appreciate an important musical deity is a cause for shame”.
Is this statement accurate? Faber does not provide many illustrations. He is more at ease with declarations than reasoning. What truly occurs when we listen to music? It has no connection to the actual sounds themselves. Biography holds greater significance: “The way you were brought up, the challenges you faced, the voice you were given or denied, the people you have encountered or avoided.” Biology also plays a role: “The brain that sits in your skull, shaped like a cauliflower but as soft as jelly, responsive to any stimulus.” This is a thought-provoking comparison rather than an original revelation; several authors in recent times – including Susan Rogers and Daniel Levitin – have utilized cognitive neuroscience to demystify sound.
Faber praises his readers for being open-minded and not easily offended, comparing them to daring travelers. In one section, he discusses his tinnitus and how it made him more aware of his body’s natural processes. He even compares himself to roadkill and the contents of his spaghetti marinara. He also discusses how unborn babies are exposed to intense sounds in the womb, similar to experimental electronic music. Babies can have strong reactions to new sounds, such as hearing a specific song while eating. However, as the book continues, it loses its cohesion and becomes a jumble of disconnected thoughts and complaints. Faber also touches on the impact of acoustics on music and the misconception that vinyl contains more information than other formats. He questions the relevance of music critics and references modern society, hipster culture, and the importance placed on fashion and appearance over art and culture. His description of the Royal Festival Hall could potentially win an award for bad writing if such an award existed for nonfiction, with its comparison of a musical climax to a post-orgasmic sensation.
Faber is often compared to a combination of Oswald Spengler and Rick from The Young Ones. He asserts that those who read his books are part of an exclusive group, superior to those who are content with reading magazines like Take a Break or What’s on TV. He frequently refers to the average person’s taste, the shallow music that most people seem to enjoy, and a working-class family from Barnsley. According to him, the masses do not appreciate being challenged or made uncomfortable. He questions why Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, released in 1959, is so widely beloved and suggests that most people only own it because they feel they should have at least one jazz album in their collection.
Faber has a strong interest in experimental artists such as Diamanda Galás, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Coil. These musicians create challenging and complex music that is not easily accessible. Faber does not attribute his interest to biological or personal factors. Instead, he describes himself as an “aesthete” and values sound for its own sake. He could have followed in the footsteps of Kate Molleson in her book Sound Within Sound: A History of Radical Twentieth Century Composers (2022) and attempted to explain the innovative music he enjoys. However, he chooses to criticize Observer readers for falsely claiming to be fans of Nick Drake before his music was featured in a Volkswagen advertisement. In another chapter, he talks about why British audiences only listen to English-language pop and condescendingly assumes that his readers are not familiar with Jacques Brel’s music.
The most cringeworthy part is a section discussing polls for the best albums, where the author realizes that all four members of the Beatles and the Beach Boys are white, as is he. He acknowledges that there may be a demographic group who feels even more excluded from these discussions – people who are not white. In an effort to address this issue, he speaks to a few people of color, including a culture management coach who was born in the same year that Revolver and Pet Sounds were released. He asks for their opinions on Revolver’s high placement on Mojo lists, the fact that “Sloop John B” is based on a Bahamian folk song, and Peter Gabriel’s role in founding Womad. Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone recently faced criticism for promoting an all-white, all-male rock pantheon in his book The Masters. However, even that is seen as better than Faber’s clumsy attempt at “inclusivity”.
Faber discusses the challenges he encountered while condensing his manuscript to a suitable length for publication. There are indications of other, more fulfilling books within it. One of these is suggested by his use of phrases like “my neurodivergent brain” and brings to mind Jonty Claypole’s excellent book Words Fail Us: In Defence of Disfluency, which delves into how artists can integrate their “disabilities” into their artistic endeavors in innovative ways.
One example is when Faber goes to public libraries and care homes to observe sessions where individuals with dementia or limited mobility use music to tap into dormant parts of themselves. During one of these sessions, a woman becomes emotional and tears up when her husband plays Spandau Ballet’s “True” on an iPod. It’s a touching moment that Faber observes with empathy, until he feels the need to express his dislike for the band and the song, calling it “empty and smug.” However, this criticism should really be aimed at the program itself.