A few months ago, my friend Ruari and I went to see a band. This band are called Sunn O))) (named after the amplifier brand) and they, musicians Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, have pioneered not only a particular sort of music, but arguably a way of listening to music. Their music has many names, but essentially, Sunn O))) are all about slow-listening, and are a slow band.
If you're around my age (27) when you think about how technology has advanced in the last 10 years, the first signs of it began with how you listened to music. What started as a Walkman playing tapes became a portable CD player, a mini-disc player, and then the first digital music players (thank you Apple). Fast forward a few years and we have effectively negated the need for any other music player, as you can devour as much as you like from your laptop and phone providing you have an internet connection; streaming, downloading, and even pirating album after album. And like with Netflix, Kindles and everything else, the more availability there is, the less attention we pay to the things we watch or listen to.
I’m guilty of it – I remember having Spotify and adding and album, pushing play, catching a glimpse of the ‘you might also like’ list trolling through and adding another album, pushing play, and on it went. As soon as I was aware of this, I cancelled my subscription (okay fine I now have it again but it’s the lesson here that’s important).
I’ve always been an ‘album guy’ (it’s a lame phrase) and can remember to this day sitting in a year 9 art lesson, with my Sony CD player Walkman, spinning Razorblade Romance by HIM over and over and over. I used to buy an album and it would stay in the Walkman for a good week, sometimes more. Also practically the blazer pockets would only hold the CD player on one side and one CD case on the other. And the thing is I know these albums. I really know them. I know every nuance, every note, pause, vocal slur, feedback dim, everything, because I listened to it over time. It wasn’t a rushed process. It was done purely for the pleasure of it, but I was only able to do this one album at a time because of the limitations of the technology at the time.
The way we listen to music now is fuelled by the speedy business of streaming services. Which has the most content, artists doing specific sessions, etc. Not that there’s anything inherently bad about this (the Slow Movement is all about the balance of tempos) but I think it can change the engagement we have with music. A friend once said to me he loves Spotify because you don’t need to listen to whole albums, because there’s so many duff tracks on them. Obviously in some cases this is true, but actually some of my favourite songs have come through with work. With a deeper listen. With a reflective listen. With a silent listen, quieting everything around you in order to listen.
...let’s take it back to Sunn O))). Me and my mate went to see them at the Southbank Centre.
This band are mental.
There are two guitarists (and a variety of guest vocalists), all wearing robes, standing in front of monolithic, henge-like stacks of amps, and who play a continuous drone (individual songs are not a thing here) between 5 and 10 beats per minute.
The average pop/rock song is 120 beats per minute.
They play at a violently loud volume, and fill the air with so much smoke, as an audience member you are basically vaping.
The result was an hour and forty minutes of…..something intense, unsettling, and not really pleasant. Its so loud it vibrates all of you. The notes are played so slowly you’re able to hear their initial strike, the build and swell of the note in the amps, projecting outwards and washing over you. In fact, the only way I can really describe it properly is like laying on a beach, as the waves washes over you at the tideline. Only if the beach was made of jagged broken glass and the waves were the weight of concrete.
But the point of all this was we all sat there (it was a seated gig and bloody hell I'm glad it was) and really listened.
You could do nothing but.
The lack of melody, drums and anything else and the incredible focus on individual notes created a sort of strange trance. Where you were forced to look for the nuances in the sound.
It was bizarre.
And maybe profound.
But I was glad when it was over.
Reflecting on it now, I think it was a really important gig, not only because of the obvious thought behind it (see here) but also the fact that it created a slow space for the audience, that was deep, introspective and reflective.
Arguably most live music used to have some of these characteristics, or at least fall somewhere on the spectrum. I remember a time (and I’m only 27) when live music used to be the perfect escapism and you were able to lose yourself in what was going on, both sonically and visually.
But technology and a different mindset has changed this. Based on 3 of the most recent gigs I’ve been two, there have been probably 30-50% of the audience either on their phones periodically or talking. But not the odd bit of chat here and there, oh no.
As if the music was there to be background to their instagram feed rather than anything else.
It’s a sad reflection on attention and people’s engagement with art, and is undoubtedly food for another blog post, but the really interesting thing is that it was impossible for people to do this at the Sunn 0))) concert. They deliberately created the space where you wouldn't be able to be distracted. And the vision of this is very ‘slow’.
It’s interesting and important I think to highlight not only listening habits and how frantically we consume media, but also the artists challenging this - or at least creating an antithesis. I know I’ve caught myself 'flitting' when it comes to media - it’s as though the quantity of it means that you don’t need to deeply engage with it because you can just move on to something else - but I think it’s not a good thing to be unaware of it.
Slow is all about giving everything the appropriate time, and it's the same here. Media, and music is sometimes fast, easy listening and can be enjoyed on a superficial level. But remember it is also angular, difficult, introspective, thoughtful and slow. And at the end of the day, just like everything, it’s always the things you have to work harder at that mean the most.