Listen closely: these tunes were made for walkin'

Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler regularly composed on the hoof. Erik Satie and Benjamin Britten too. "It helps to be moving," Bob Dylan affirmed in a rare insight into his process, possibly also alluding to the distractions that must dog a stationary target of his stature.
By · 15 Jun 2013
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15 Jun 2013
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Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler regularly composed on the hoof. Erik Satie and Benjamin Britten too. "It helps to be moving," Bob Dylan affirmed in a rare insight into his process, possibly also alluding to the distractions that must dog a stationary target of his stature.

The idea of "receiving" tunes from somewhere beyond the echoes of familiar walls and instruments is common to the point of cliche among songwriters. As someone who tunes in to such people for a living, I've become a big believer in trotting off to meet them halfway.

There's a creek behind my house that meanders through lonely bush for six or seven songs before the first major road suggests turning back. But with a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones, I can take the underpass to eternity if there's a box set to review. Good job? Depends on the music. Intense and undivided attention to lousy art can drain your sense of worth and will to live as mercilessly as the most evil desk job. But at the very least, I'm exercising my body. And my dog.

An Ohio State University study determined in 2002 that people walk 24 per cent further when listening to music. And they were lung disease patients. Oxygenating the blood and brain aided respiration and decreased depression all round, but most markedly in the music group.

File that under obvious, maybe. Fresh air and endorphins might even make that new compilation from The Voice people palatable. Sorry, can't offer a critical perspective on that one. My dog ate my copy.

Self-help guru Julia Cameron, author of the best-selling creative thinking manual The Artist's Way, has a more mystical rationale for considering walking one of the three most important acts in the process of artistic communion.

When you walk, she says, "you're alone with your higher power. The minute you step out on a walk it's as if you're saying to the higher power, 'OK, I'm ready to listen now'."

Replace "higher power" with the latest albums by Mavis Staples, Steve Earle or the National and I'm with Julia. Getting alone with the power is the key. Desk-bound, with an inbox full of links to new album downloads and an ever-expanding wall of unopened CDs, I'm ready to listen to any number of things and commune with none.

Focused and exclusive attention to an album in its entirety is an increasingly rare contract, of course. A recent Nielsen survey in the US surprised nobody when YouTube emerged as the modern teenager's most popular source of music. It's the one place you're guaranteed to hear/see Daft Punk's new song the second it's released and, oh hey, there's that new track and woof! What is Beyonce wearing? And so on, in 30-second grabs until tea time.

We click because we can. Most music fans have bought without question the notion that more choice enhances our quality of listening, as if fingertip access to random scenes from a million films is better than watching one good one from beginning to end. With our Spotify and Rdio and playlists, we've successfully usurped the higher power of the artist. Cut the crap, Pink Floyd. We're making the statements now.

Physically walking away from that navel-gazing delusion, out the door and down the hill and out of wi-fi range, is the only way of conferring the benefit of the doubt that is the least a work of art deserves. As the sky opens, the air literally clears between David Bowie and me. Like Beethoven and Bob Dylan before me, I'm on a clear channel with potential greatness.

Besides, dude, a piece of music is a journey. It comes in movements and passages and peaks and plateaus and bridges not completely unlike the ones crossing the creek behind my house. Music shuffles and waltzes and stomps like only feet can. Actually, it was feet that taught it how, so maybe there's something primal about getting in step with the stuff rather than locking it up between the ears and brain.

They're trying to stop us, you know. The companies that own the music and control its release dates are giving it to critics these days in "streams": non-downloadable files that demand we stay cloistered and connected for security reasons. Dire warnings about "watermarked" and "traceable" material are sent to keep us under house arrest.

But the Village People were right about one thing. You can't stop the music. Nobody can stop the music. A septuagenarian friend showed me how to record streaming audio direct to my hard drive using readily available shareware.

Within an hour of reading the riot act on the latest embargoed music link, I'm out the door with the higher power on my iPhone, watermarks and all, and giving the company's property a much more fair and focused hearing than I would while checking my emails and surfing for something better.

Sadly, 24 years after the advent of the Walkman, I don't know how long this album reviewing jaunt will last. Readers will have noticed that they're getting shorter every year, apparently in lock step with the interests of the YouTube generation.

Weirdly though, my daily walk still takes the full 40 to 60 minutes. In spite of all the stats and rhetoric about the death of the album, I'm yet to come across a recording artist who isn't making one and I'm yet to open a mailbox that isn't groaning with them.

Having bought my first Walkman in 1979, I was stepping out to meet these people halfway a long time before anybody started paying me to get there. I believe I'll keep doing it long after they stop.

Michael Dwyer is a music critic for The Age.
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