What I learned from The Dominican Sisters of Ann Arbor

In August the Dominican Sisters of Ann Arbor released their first album: Mater Euchariste. Having lived in Ann Arbor for several years, I was happy to see NPR give it a detailed review. Most notable in NPR’s interview was the description of the Sisters’ relationship with music:

The 110 women who live inside the red-brick nunnery in the lush green countryside north of Ann Arbor love to sing. They sing these chants and hymns during morning, noon and evening prayers. And when they’re cooking dinner, they’re liable to break into The Sound of Music or Oklahoma.

Later, one of the Sisters is quoted:

“Honestly, I don’t listen to very much music, and most of us don’t listen to very much music that’s recorded. Almost all of the music that we encounter on a day-to-day basis is music we make ourselves,”

Hearing this quote I couldn’t help but think about other conversations with professional musicians who have admitted very sparse music listening habits. Even among friends who have careers as semi-professional musicians, I find an inverse correlation between participation in music and the consumption of musical recordings. At first I found this very hard to explain. More and more, I feel it embodies something more fundamental about how we relate to our music.

It would be easy to attribute avid musicians’ lack of interest in recordings to the candy-chef effect (where professionals involved in creating something generally lose their taste for it). But anyone who knows a serious musician will have a hard time buying this explanation. The same musician who prefers to spend his two-hour plane ride in silence will, nonetheless, take an entire weekend to run a pro-bono workshop. The same musician who doesn’t own an iPod will, nevertheless, spend hours learning an instrument ancillary to his profession. The ambivalence of musicians to recorded music is better explained by the development of an appreciation for music that can no longer be satisfied by being a passive listener. When a person creates music as part of his daily life, he understands his relationship with music as being that of a creator or critic, and less that of a passive listener. A musician has a relationship with music that is entirely active.

But historically, humanity has always had this active relationship with music. We can see this clearly in extreme examples such as the Medieval cloister where each member’s existence is driven by songs sung in prayer. But even in secular communities right up until modern times, people encountered music only in contexts where listening implied participation. It may have been through prayer, dance, singing, or by actively being a discerning audience (as in opera or symphony), but to encounter music prior to the 20th century meant engaging with that music. The link between listening and participation was cut with the advent of musical recordings, and may have been severed with the advent of the mp3. My relationship with my iPod couldn’t be more passive. Usually, I don’t even choose which song will be played, I just hit shuffle. My sole input in the process of listening to mp3s is deciding whether to keep the current song or switch to the next song randomly selected.


Even the experience of actively buying and owning music is no longer a large part of contemporary music culture. For those old enough to remember, going to a used record store and purchasing a CD provided a great deal of fun. Since CDs were relatively expensive, there was a strange charm in shopping for one, knowing that the decision to purchase a certain band’s album would define one’s very finite music collection. There was romance in the imperfection, knowing that each of the albums in one’s collection was a risk: there were disappointments and diamonds in the rough. But all in all, an album collection was fundamentally personal.

Nostalgia for musical ownership is probably the driving force behind the recent fad of collecting vinyl records. It certainly is for me. Regardless of what any of us Vinyl junkies say about fidelity and the way Vinyls “sound”, I buy Vinyls for two experiences: the process of looking through the racks at records stores and wondering if this record deserves a place in my collection; and that moment when a dropped needle hits the vinyl surface with an amplified *thud* confirming I have made the decision to play that record.

Needless to say, there is no similar moment of decision when playing a song on an iPod. The digital music exists in an ocean of mp3s and is played (in most circumstances) randomly. I purchase mp3s individually and almost immediately when I hear a catchy tune, and I rarely concern myself with the band or genre to which they belong. The cost of any individual mp3 is never enough to force me to limit my purchases to songs from some set of artists or styles. There is no longer a sense that I even have a collection of albums, just a number of tunes that I enjoy or have enjoyed listening to.

But we are already well on the way to an even more radically detached listening culture with the introduction of predictive analytics into music processing and selection. Starting with Pandora and later Spotify, iTunes-Genius, and Songza, the next generation of music distribution systems is transitioning from the digital to the predictive. Now in place of a digital library constructed from individual decisions, systems are being built to feed users a pre-selected playlist constructed with data-mining algorithms and machine learning interfaces. I am an avid Pandora fan myself, and must admit there is nothing more efficient for background music than putting on a radio station pre-tuned to one’s musical tastes. But, the usefulness of these services aside, the new predictive approach to music constitutes the removal of any direct participation by a listener in his listening experience. The user does not choose anything beyond providing a binary input, the rest of the playlist selection is controlled by the algorithm. The user is treated not as a participant but as a dataset.mindmachine

Of course using binary inputs from the user as a data set is only the first step. Soon, I am sure, our phones will have an app able to scan our brains and play a song for us that an algorithm has pre-determined we will want. Perhaps, in the final iteration, each note and beat of a song will be created and remixed by an algorithm to perfectly satisfy our brains before we even know we have the desire for music. But while the creation of machine designed songs pre-fit for our brains may be the apex of consumer satisfaction, the art of music will be completely transformed into a solipsistic loop, having as little to do with actual music as masturbation has to do with sex.

But I don’t think mere consumer satisfaction is what humanity wants from music. We don’t want music to be reduced to a product of consumption or an experience perfectly calibrated to our whims. We want to live music; we want to hear music as something outside of ourselves; we want to interact with music as we do with a friend or struggle with music as we do with a lover. Music is not really music unless it shapes us at the same time that we shape it. When we participate in music by composing or singing or playing or even listening and being challenged by it, we are sharing in music at a much deeper level than consumption; we are allowing the music to become part of the fabric of our lives.

Again I think back to the Dominican Sisters of Mary, living day in and day out with the music that shapes and defines their relationship with God and I am reminded of the name of Israel as “The one who struggles with God”. These women have let music shape them in their daily struggles and it has become for them their conduit to the divine. The Sisters live their music and, therefore, understand the holy reality of music on a truer and deeper level than any of us moderns with our iPhones and Terra-byte mp3 collections.

Certainly, we can’t all live the way the Dominican Sisters do; we lack the time, we lack the devotion, we lack the means. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to understand that our modern relationship with music is an impoverishment. When we cannot live the divine, we participate; when we cannot participate, we try to own it; and when we can no longer even attempt ownership, we mine and consume what remains.Through all of these degradations, however, we are losing sight of what was originally sought. My hope is that, in the middle of this boom of music consumption, we feel called to participate in music as much as we feel called to listen to it. We can see hints in the lives of others more dedicated of what music can really offer a human life; we just need the courage to pursue it for ourselves.


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