I’ve been thinking lately about music as a conversation. For me, that tends to take place internally. When I listen to music by myself, it can often feel like a dialogue between song and self. It usually happens suddenly, spontaneously: I’ll hear a precisely penned lyric or an exuberant musical phrase, like the guitar run on Bon Iver’s “Brackett, WI,” and it feels as though someone has flashed a mirror up to my existence in order to expel a bit of truth. Music has often been a way of outlining something that exists beyond definition.
Landing upon those shapes—most usually feelings or experiences that first live beyond the construction of language—is a powerful moment. “Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination,” bell hooks writes in All About Love. “Whatever we cannot imagine cannot come into being.” In this case, I can imagine it because I already feel it, but I’m often unclear about what it is exactly. Music clarifies all that.
Recently, though, I’ve been marveling at the beauty of music as a conversation between two people—something I’ve enjoyed in certain friendships or relationships, but haven’t experienced in a long time. (Trading songs with someone can be such a potent exchange.) The night I hung out with my ex-boyfriend of nearly a decade ago, we ended up back at his place playing songs for one another. His ear has grown attuned to the New Orleans scene, which always brims with distinctive and idiosyncratic sounds, whereas I’ve picked up a few favorites from my time in North Carolina and the wider listening I do as part of my work. Our selections spiraled and soon it was 2 a.m. “We should create a playlist,” he ventured.
Back in Toronto, I began adding to it: a few songs I’d had on repeat lately, but nothing more autobiographical or meaningful than that. He returned a few selections in kind and hearing his choices spurred something. Songs I hadn’t thought of in ages arose from the ether and begged to join the larger discourse that was forming.
From there, our conversation exploded. I felt like a magpie, going about my week gathering tracks I liked, tracks that spoke to me, tracks that reflected something I’d been feeling, tracks that reminded me of him, and then appending them to this nest-of-sorts. Time would pass, and I’d open the playlist to find my gifts returned in kind, little gems that burst wide my listening.
There was the utter joy of New Orleans’ psychedelic, alt-country musician Chicken Milk’s “Two Shirtless Dads,” and the expansive, growling-synths of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Cue,” and the swaying, sun-drenched interpretation of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” from Marcia Griffiths. Our playlist knew no bounds. The variety felt like the most fragrant bouquet of spring flowers—all color and texture.
Since arriving in Toronto, before this shared playlist came to fruition, my listening had quieted appreciably. For a while there, I’d stopped exploring new music altogether. I wasn’t sure what was going on, only that it was happening, and I felt no draw to stop it. When I did listen to music, which felt like a dwindling amount of time, I gravitated to the same few tracks before I’d hang up my headphones and go do something else. The spark seemed all but extinguished.
But spending time with the songs he offered ignited something, kindling ideas about what to add and lending a kind of burbling energy to the day as I set about exploring the possibilities. Once I started listening with this new frame in mind, I couldn’t stop. Perhaps I’d just grown tired of talking to myself—the past year has involved a heightened amount of that—and been craving, unconsciously, the chance to engage with someone whose unique tastes unlatched the door to pathways unknown. Thanks to his musical taste and his particular ear, it’s the most invigorating conversation I’ve had in some time. God, how I’ve missed exchanging ideas and thoughts and moments via song.
Later this summer, I’m traveling up to Nipissing—my beloved lake four hours north of Toronto. I’ve planned it to be another solo venture, but I’m already imagining soundtracking at least a portion of my time there with our playlist. I can envision sitting beside the water as the sun sets (a phenomenon that doesn’t start until nearly 10 p.m. and consistently delivers the most vivid hues) and sinking into the hours of music we’ve compiled. Even if our overall chatter has quieted by then, or stilled completely, I hope the list feels like an echo of what it was like to identify musically with another. I hope it sets a promise of finding that one day again.