Album Autobiographies – Tue 21 April 2020

Moe Koffman and friends with his version of the Allegro from Bach’s Flute Sonata #2 in E-flat – some may know this as theme music to CBC Radio’s As it Happens program.

We of sufficient privilege in the wealthy west to be confined to our homes and Internet connections have turned resoundingly, if perhaps not exclusively, to social media for entertainment and edification during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the positive side of this sometimes mind-dulling and catastrophically time-consuming pursuit is a particularly interesting instance of sharing that has bubbled up among musicians and music-lovers alike, the 10 Albums 10 Days Challenge.

Though it appears to have had a recent upsurge the 10 Albums 10 Days Challenge is not new to COVID-tide, in fact it was well-established on Facebook at least a year ago. In it, those accepting the challenge post a record album of personal or professional significance (in my age-range these are mainly vinyl and CD) every day for 10 days, inviting a new person to take on the challenge themselves each day as well. One should always be wary of these vaguely pyramid-shaped serial information solicitations on Facebook, as they often are used to harvest information on our tastes, history, biases etc. for uses that range from the commercial to the more nefarious. But revealing our love and allegiance to mostly out-of-print albums we mostly already own seems safe enough – and to we music-types it is DARNED interesting.

Full disclosure: I have been invited to take the challenge several times, but have not yet picked up the gauntlet (although I have included a track above from one such soundtrack of my young musicianship, courtesy perhaps of my Dad, always intrigued by the whole sphere of Bach transcription, and my Mom, who quite loved to play this particular record over and over). I’m not resisting 10-10 on principle: I find myself busy these days, and somehow feel the selection merits some careful thought. On the contrary I find the prospect very interesting: the named choices amuse, intrigue and expand my understanding of whoever posted them. But since around the time I coined and adopted the term ‘metatheory’ to describe my habitual outlook, I try always to take to heart one of my favourite quotations:

“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for hidden meaning.”

– George Bernard Shaw

SO, what is inherent to this exercise? Back to basics – music, the purpose the challenge exists, and the force that has worked upon each one of us to create our experiences, our likes and dislikes, sometimes our political and social leanings and for artists, our muse.

Second, it relies on not just music, but recorded music, invented in the late 19th century and risen to formidable cultural force, identity-obsession and industrial cash-cow in the 20th. We are the first few generations to be able to take this challenge: it simply didn’t exist to help form our musical selves until just over a century ago, and unlike live music, it shows no sign of going away.

Another assumption in the 10-10 Challenge is the album itself, a concept that has become much murkier in the the newer era of streaming, downloading and playlists. It was full albums that we saved for and browsed through unheard in the record stores, that we tirelessly transferred to our Walkman tapes, that we played end-to-end repeatedly into scratched oblivion or… whatever other strange afterlife old CDs reached.

Another, especially in the case of vinyl: album art. 10-10 challengers post the sometimes beautiful, always memorable covers from the albums they cite. These visual markers were at least as much a part of the cultural commodity, to say nothing of a critical piece in the marketing/shopping puzzle of live stores as the only way to obtain the product.

Hand-in-hand with the idea of the album is a sometimes narrative, sometimes conceptual, sometimes stylistic, but always somehow uniting paradigm that made songs of an album belong together – and often in a carefully determined order of playing. This paradigm is far from disappeared from the industry culture of hit singles, format radio and online recommendations – but again, it has certainly retreated.

But here’s the most striking thing to me – the 10-10 Challenge is about ME; about the whole idea that the music we like and listen to somehow shapes us. This is intuitive enough in the case of those of us who actually play, sing, conduct, compose and generally encourage music-making – but it is undeniably also true in Challengers who claim no musical talent or activity. Some 10-10 Challengers insist there be no explanation or documentation of each choice – usually just the album cover to convey its thousand theoretical words to the interested viewer. But many other Challengers go into remarkable apologia of what precisely a given album did to form or influence them, or even share touching remembrances of periods or events in their lives that connect therewith by association. And always there is the undertow of gratitude at being nominated for the challenge, and the rewards of self-examination it brings.

I recently had the privilege of a conversation with a former student-turned colleague who recounted the story of a live performance he had attended that had deeply moved him: in his words it was “life changing.” No doubt he, and certainly I, also have pinnacle musical performances I have given as well as received – it makes me wonder what other 10-10 challenge concepts could flourish in the musical playground and crucible of the Web 2.0?


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