Soulseeking
No Action



it is 12:44 am and I am seriously considering quitting my day job. “Seriously considering” is a misnomer—unless something very drastic happens very soon (and I don't expect it to), I will be quitting my job a good nine months or so before my contract is up, and exploring the exciting and frightening world of un(der)employment. I am quitting my job for the same reason that I don't really listen to music these days: Graduate school. Well, that and the fact that my job has shifted under me until I wish they would just hire a keen-eyed young business grad who knows what language they're speaking and cares, to boot, but still: Maybe I could try to adjust if not for this millstone of a thesis. But at least work is something I can voluntarily get rid of; I couldn't do that with music if I wanted to.

This thesis, both the brute physical fact of the number of pages I need to produce and the actual subject matter (I'm in Philosophy), has circumscribed nearly all of the listening routines I had built up in the past years of writing for Stylus. The piles of CDs that have slowly colonized one half of my bedroom have spread to the kitchen table, much of it unheard—it's like there's a mine and every Saturday I go down to the coal face and dig away for a couple of hours. I'm working on Edmund Husserl's student Roman Ingarden and his ontology of the work of art, primarily the musical work of art. People ask me what my thesis is about and as soon as I get thirty seconds in, eyes begin to glaze... you want to know why grad students hang out together? Because we eat, breathe, sleep, and shit this stuff, and we desperately need to associate with others who are willing to occasionally let us rant about topics that 98% of the population find about as compelling as similes regarding the drying of paint.

The thing you want to avoid, as someone who writes about music for anything other than their day job, is burnout. It's something I've seen pretty much every long-running Stylus writer grapple with (Nick Southall, and I say this with sincere affection, pretty much loses his shit on a yearly basis), and my worst problem was occasionally thinking I was succumbing for good this time. No. Oh, no. When every listen to a record—good listens, where you can't be doing something else like re-writing paragraphs in your essay or delving into The Work of Music and the Problem of Its Identity—fills you with intense guilt, you pretty much stop listening to music; I’ve got reverse burnout, where I’m so eager to get back into my writing routine that I can almost taste it. It’s made worse in my case due to the fact that my advisor is going to be teaching in Chile circa mid-summer, so we’ve decided that rather than be done by December I should be defending my thesis, still in a very germinal stage, in late June… And the pressure I feel to avoid “wasting time” I could be working on music isn’t something I want to fight too hard against: Everyone's thesis is a tough slog, and the last thing I want to get out of it is an association of music with displeasure. I just have to wait until my time isn’t quite so fiercely contested.

Not that there aren't any records you can listen to while working on a thesis; but if they're old favorites they don't usually constitute critical work (On Second Thought and Seconds have been godsends on this front—these days my leisure listening only avoids feelings of remorse if I can feel basically useful), and if they're new the only ones that really get listened to are ones that can be backgrounded while your brain does academic work. Don't get me started on reading for pleasure, which I haven't really done since, oh, last September? There is a very limited sense in which all this has been nice; I've certainly gotten out of the routine, essential to the critic, of giving time to stuff I don't really like, which means those particular batteries are recharged and I'm incredibly eager to get back to full time Stylus duties once I can set Ingarden aside. But even as I follow Stylus and other sources with interest and enthusiasm, the fact is that right now I’m not really a music fan, not the way I was last year and the year before that and so on. Distance has been forcibly imposed between my habit and I, and the results have been illuminating.

The most reassuring has been that I still love music, and miss it deeply. Ever since catching Alan Zweig’s pretty terrifying documentary Vinyl (recommended for anyone who wants to see how collecting music can basically ruin your life) I’ve had occasional fears that whatever it is that started me seriously listening is long gone, that my CD collection is a dead thing that persists and grows because of a collector’s impulse rather than a lover’s. Being unable to listen to a good chunk of what I have and being forcibly enjoined from getting much more (due to a full-to-bursting hard drive and my future, probable unemployed status) has reinforced for me in the kind of visceral way I’ve been craving that I adore this stuff, and I can’t wait to get back to it. Is that actually a more healthy impulse? Possibly not, but unlike the pure collector’s drive it’s one I can live with right now.

More than that, though, this semi-sabbatical (I’m still keeping my hand in as much as I can) has reinforced the fact that I love writing about music. As with many of the big decisions in life, it’s kind of scarily hard in retrospect to remember the decision or reasons that led me to apply to Stylus (let alone the student newspaper here at my University) in the first place, and without that kind of burning initial sense of purpose sometimes in the intervening years I’ve had moments where again I’ve wondered if this whole promo/listening/writing/deadline treadmill wasn’t one I ran on due to sheer inertia. I am delighted to report that it isn’t. It’s not about feedback (and god knows I get at least as much negative as positive); something in me just misses sitting down with a record I’ve never heard of before and listening intently until I unearth what I want to say about it. It’s not so much the result as the process that I miss. There’s something to be said for leaving the things we love relatively unexamined as well (I know I’m not the only Stylus writer who has burned themselves out on a particular record or song while writing on it), but there’s something about the process of trying to understand an album well enough to write 400+ words on it that is incredibly fulfilling.

The other result I find interesting is how this incredibly limited listening and the amount of stress juggling TAing, grad school, and a day job has caused has affected what I listen to. There hasn’t been any sort of seismic shift in the sort of thing I enjoy, of course, but if I hadn’t been so busy would I have listened to the MONO & world’s end girlfriend record I love so often? It’s not that it’s bunch of background music—the ends of parts three and five at least are most emphatically not—but this wordless, fairly slow paced music was easiest to take at first when I was working on something else. It’s strong enough I would have liked it even if I’d had all the free time in the world, but without the kind of listening I’ve been doing in the last third of last year it might not have reached #3 on my year end list. And that makes me wonder how much higher, for example, Mountains’ debut would have gotten on my 2005 ballot (#14) under different conditions (although it didn’t seem to hurt Eluvium at #3). I’m pretty interested in the way that these kinds of subjective, contingent, utterly personal factors effect what music we like and how and when, and I’m more than a little curious as the actual thesis writing bit grinds into high gear how that will affect my musical diet.

Even this article musing about the effect of grad school succumbs to the same pressures—I’ve been eking it out around an academic paper on Joy Division’s Closer and hauntology, reading for the thesis, and the tattered remnants of a once-rich social life. I’m only in my MA (although I’m also experiencing a lot more time pressure than those lucky, lucky PhD students), but the all-consuming focus required of a process designed to have us prove we’re smart enough to be academics has already swallowed much of the rest of my life whole. I’ve mused going back and trying to force these thoughts into a more consonant shape, but that would feel almost dishonest; this is what happens to some of us when we go into academia, and all you can do is hang on to your record collection for dear life and swear to yourself you’ll take at least a year off before thinking about applying for a PhD program.


By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2007-02-28
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