Easy listening

When I was about eleven years old, my mother gave me her old radio. I think it wasn’t a transistor radio but a really old tubes radio. I’m almost sure about it because I remember peeping into its electronic innards from the many ventilation holes on its large chest. Actually, I begun listening to pop music even before that. I clearly remember how I was astonished to realize that pop songs were played by radio stations many times, not just once, and how consequently my friends’ older sister knew the lyrics by heart. At that age I hadn’t yet any independent access to music. If I desired to listen to certain music, I had to ask my parents to put the vinyl LP on the record player for me, sit by the mono speaker (we were quite a backward family, technologically wise) and listen.

The new radio thing was great. That is, I had been listening to the radio since age four or so, but never to pop music. My favorite radio program was at two in the afternoon, while my mother was taking a nap. There was one funny aspect to it, something I discovered only after one of IBA’s (Israeli Broadcast Authority) stations had invited me as young pianist, for an interview. When I entered the studio I realized that it was my most cherished radio show as a kindergarten kid! All my past radio-heroes were there: “this is Nilli who’s speaking to you” and “this is Tamar who’s talking to you”. That immediately flashed back to something I had completely forgotten until that moment: I used to wonder about the volume mechanism. I already knew that no tiny people reside in the radio box, and awkwardly enough I knew of the existence of the microphone. My imaginative mind had made up the rest: one of my heroes, the host of the show, or a story teller, would be sitting on a chair in front of a microphone. The chair was attached and sliding on a rail, and when I, the innocent listener, was turning the volume knob down, the chair would move backwards on the rail, and the narrator would get farther from the microphone and vise versa. That made sense. But there was a considerable flaw in that theory: I knew that other kids were listening to that same program. What, then, happens if they all start playing with the knobs, and “Nilli who’s talking to you” would whizz frenetically on her rail? And do every kid affect the volume of the others? All this was too much for my tech capacities.

In the summer after fourth grade I was sent to a day summer camp. I hated most of it, but at 10AM we were divided to activities groups. I can’t remember what was my designated activity, but I do remember distinctively that I used to go and watch the girls dance. It wasn’t just because of the girls. They had a sort of a pop dance choreography to Boney M’s rendition of Sunny and I was spellbound by the harmonic progression*. Aside from gems like Sunny, it was a well known fact at that time that ABBA is the highest peak of music, ever. Listening to their songs at another friend’s house was sheer bliss.
Anyway, only when I was 10 years old did the IBA invent the ‘light music’ station, and I was absolutely hooked to it. Like my friend’s sister I started memorizing lyrics and I waited hours on end, wishing for my favorite song to be played. That’s why the Hit Parade was no less than sacrosanct. Last week’s songs were listed in the news-paper so I used to purchase the most heinous tabloid just for that purpose. At first it was just that, but soon after I begun devouring gluttonously the rest of the yellow stuff in that toilet-news-paper. However, my point is that I was waiting impatiently all week to hear some very specific songs.

At about 12 years old I managed to convince my parents that our mono record player and the miserable assortment of transistor radios at home could hardly signify proper modernism. My parents couldn’t care less, but I guess they’ve sensed that my own self esteem (with further social implications) are at stake, and my father consented to buy a stereo set. That was a huge novelty: it was a heavy Japanese integrated set of a record player, tape cassette and radio. The possibilities were unheard of: you could actually record songs from the Hit Parade, keep them on a cassette (we had one or two of these) and listen to it almost anytime I wanted. This was science fiction, and it improved my musical and social life tremendously.
A year or so later, I went with my mom to the record store, to buy my first own LP, the Billy Joel album 52nd Street. I could (and I did) listen to it perpetually. The lyrics were inside the large cover, along with photos and such, everything was at hand.

Let me stop here and first, thank you for your patience. You do have some better things to do and I sincerely appreciate your attention thus far. The rest is commonly well known: more records, attending live concerts, the Walkman, the compact disc, hard drive recording, mp3, sharing softwares and the epitome of accessibility: Youtube. Had I such inconceivable apparatus of conjuration in the 70’s, life were different.

But not necessarily better.

Nothing is sweeter than finding a lost thing. And finding a long lost song – lost for, say, seven days of awaiting for that certain chord progression of Sunny – not only satiated a burning lust, but also enhanced its emotional essence. I would hear it, but only once (well, actually many times, on each refrain or chorus) and then, if unlucky, I’d have to wait another week. Thus, my motivation to unravel and decipher musical phenomena such as ABBA’s harmonies and voicings was immense. The mere hunger for the occurrence was an unrivaled incentive for musical activity. I’m not even mentioning the later, marvelous instance of playing in a band.

The abundance and extreme accessibility of music turn many of my younger students into numb technocrats. They lack the curiosity and seldom are they animated by musical phenomena precisely because they are bombarded with it, among an excess of other kinds of stimuli. On the other hand, just because of this showering profusion, the effect of diversion may sometimes possess more power. A heavy metal fan, who can easily spend 24 hours of his entire life absorbing all possible specimen of that genre, may sometimes be astounded by a simple recording (or video, for that matter) of Joni Mitchel, accompanied only by a piano. But even that is problematic, as I observe others and myself become such “renaissance” musicians, nurtured with so many styles and cultures, that diversity itself becomes a monotony.

When obtaining recorded music, I find myself almost unconsciously constricting my musical diet to bare necessities of my work and studies. The rare exceptions are usually for nostalgic reasons or some musts that can’t be overlooked. I can’t even think of myself carrying an Ipod or any other such multi-schwigabyte storage device. Choosing is one difficult thing, and novelties and surprises are still a most welcome element in my musical world.

* To whom it may be of interest, Sunny‘s harmonic progression is: Im V13/VI VIMaj7 IIm11 (yes, a delicious modal interchange) V7. This 1976 exuberant production had everything: a fat disco 4-4 bass drum, horn section, at least three modulations up a half step and even a string section solo!

  1. #1 by Naomi on December 5, 2010 - 7:28 am

    Dear Ittai,

    What a beautiful writing, it is funny, sensitive and give an insight to your childhood.
    I Remember this song from that same age and I was among those girls that enjoyed dancing to it.
    keep writing it is so good to hear your bright mind.

    • #2 by Ittai on December 5, 2010 - 8:51 am

      Thanks dear,

      Have you been in that same summer camp? It was in the Tzipori center, on Herzl mountain.

  2. #3 by Yoni on December 5, 2010 - 12:23 pm

    Hey Ittai, great posting.
    You should also write how the station changing knob used to work. If I remember correctly, you had a scientific explanation for that too.

    Regarding the chord progression – I don’t understand the V13/VI. Isn’t it a III9 ?


    • #4 by Ittai on December 5, 2010 - 12:43 pm

      Oh really?… Can’t remember that

      The V7/VI is a more functional definition as it refers to the chord’s action as a dominant of VI. Technically, you’re right.

  3. #5 by Carla on December 5, 2010 - 4:02 pm

    When choice was limited, people took responsability for their choices. When so much is easily at reach, it is taken for granted.Your personal story might raise awareness. Thanks

  4. #6 by Yuval N. on December 7, 2010 - 9:11 am

    A very interesting observation, thanks for posting.

    Greater accessibility via better technology indeed sometime backfires, and not only in music. I see it, for example, in publishing, especially of math textbooks. Books from the sixties (and even earlier) are usually beautifully typeset, with very few typos. Today, when sophisticated typesetting software is within reach for everybody, even the best publishing houses sometime do a sloppy job, or even leave the entire process for the authors, often with embarrassing results.

    What do you think of today’s home recording studios, compared to the giant, professional studios of past decades?

    I also didn’t get the second chord of “Sunny.” Did you mean by V13/VI that it’s the dominant (with 13) of the VI? If so, this is the first time I see this type of notation; I used to read X/Y as “chord X with bass Y”.

    • #7 by Ittai on December 7, 2010 - 12:52 pm

      The accessibility of home studios has many advantages. However, as you probably noticed, every nose-dripping (sorry for the literary translation from Hebrew) beginner publishes his new crop with great ease. This often leads to misleading results: the sound’s great, the effects are dazzling, but the basic content may be poor. There are many instances where a slow, even a tedious process restrains that, and forces a more profound insight.
      Regarding the chord: yes, it is the dominant chord of VI, with 13 (and 7) added to it. When dealing with analysis and using Roman letters instead of chords, it is quite a common practice, but mostly – and naturally so – in didactic or analytic context.

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