The nineties had some exciting music. I could say the same for right now, but the difference is today you can experience that excitement at almost zero cost. As I type this I’m listening to something on Spotify, a cut from a Philip Glass album released thirty years ago. Thanks to streaming music services, my cost-per-minute-of-enjoyment is just pennies.
Not so back then. And because of the steep cost of owning music CDs before Napster kicked off a music distribution revolution, and also because of a personal lack of friends into neo-classical music — and also because I was a pretty broke small business owner with a tiny music-buying budget — I went through the early nineties completely ignorant of Mr. Glass’s work.
Ignorant of him — until that night.
I was living in Milwaukee, trudging through a gentle, sloppy snowstorm, heading to an East Side grocery store. My Walkman was keeping me company, set to FM radio mode, and tuned into WMSE. You need to know that back then WMSE was a college radio station that was particularly … er … college radio.
This meant you were listening not only for the music and news, but for the gaffes of student volunteers learning as they went along. Chaos could break out at any moment.
This was New Music Night. Every college radio station back then received boxes of sample LPs they could play at will, without royalty. The young man spinning vinyl that night must have grabbed the Glass album and plopped it on the turntable knowing as little about the composer as I did.
The excerpt below was recorded in the mid-seventies, but in my memory the sound that night resembled this:
What followed was some of the most repetitive, profoundly annoying music I had ever heard. It was also casting some kind of a spell on me. I almost walked past my destination. Instead I stood outside, eager for what happened next.
I didn’t have to wait long. The young man stopped the song mid-drone. No needle-scratch, but just as abrupt.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
A new song — by a different artist — filled the silence.
Mind you, I had heard New Music Night cuts over the years that were real doozies. One example: a PIL “song” that sounded like a buzz saw over the screams of the band’s leader, Johnny Rotten. And yet this night was the first and last time I heard a song abruptly stopped, and an apology extended.
Now I’m listening to a Philip Glass cut that could easily have been what disturbed the snowy peace. How interesting that new music, like a new clothing fashion, soon becomes familiar and even welcome!
I hope, Dear reader, you too experience the pleasure of hearing with new ears the things that once confounded you. It’s a gift of our extremely flexible brains, an alchemy that can turn a lump of aural coal into a diamond.