My friend Brant Rumble showed me his iPod the other day. Brant, who edits books on popular culture for a New York publisher, has just introduced 11,000 songs -- two-thirds of his CD collection -- into iPodian jaws.
The iPod, for the less than hip, looks like a cigarette case with earphones hanging out of it. It's meant mainly, I suppose, for listening while walking around or sitting in the subway or pounding a treadmill in the gym. Brant tells me there have been complaints about the iPod's battery power to go along with the good reports. He also says competitors are hot on its heels with what they think is something better. I could no more recommend the iPod than I could one kind of jet engine over another.
As I write and you read, Brant is probably walking through Rockefeller Plaza with Waterloo Sunset in his ears, but I can't help fantasizing about Brant the Wagnerian, with 180 complete versions of Parsifal held warmly in his hand. Or Brant the Mozartean, with maybe 1,600 symphonies and room left over for an overture or two. Haydn wrote a lot of music, and though I haven't done the arithmetic, I bet that Brant's iPod could swallow the Haydn corpus whole with never a belch.
The best way to deal with abstract ideas of such enormousness is to visualize them in a concrete way. Imagine, for instance, the conductor Herbert von Karajan reduced to the size of an ionized particle.
With effort, I resist ingratitude and acknowledge the convenience of having 45 recordings of Wagner's Ring cycle at my fingertips: A luxury comparable to having one's dry cleaning picked up and delivered. No one in Wagner's lifetime ever made him come to them.
To the beard-strokers and hand-wringers busy divining the future of opera houses and concert halls, the iPod brings news: Some good, some not. Who could complain about this avalanche of music? But who can cope with it? Brant is very organized and curious, but he admits to the pressures of such super-richness. He feels obliged to listen for all he's worth. He doesn't deny that he may not be listening as well as he once did.
If you can listen to everything, you may end up hearing nothing. I sometimes wish half of Brant's iPod were filled with blank spaces. Music cannot begin or end without silence in front and behind. Unending music is not music.
And is it all too easy? Any music critic will tell you that the eager anticipation of new recordings fades with their unsolicited, almost daily flow into the office. Would knowing a little less actually make us smarter, or at least hungrier?
I do wonder if spiritual muscle tone is being softened. Maybe we who walked 10 miles in driving snow to our one-room school-houses learned more. On the other hand, maybe all that walking made us too tired to learn much. Medieval poets and accountants had phenomenal memories because, not being educated to write, they had no choice.
In Brant's aesthetic, music makes walking around more pleasant, like a good pair of shoes. Music as something useful is an idea that Paul Hindemith and other 20th-century composers disillusioned by the overblown Romantic mystique of music pursued, but with limited impact. The elevator-music industry paid heed and made a fortune.
When Brant isn't allowing his iPod to roam at will, he is arranging sets of songs according to where he is and what he is doing. Going to Las Vegas means upbeat and excited; coming back, he wants something soothing, maybe to heal the wounds of loss.