Ambient Moods: Close Listening, or Listen Closely to Me / Alexandra Kingston-Reese

Part I: Ambient Moods

Partway through Chris Kraus’s second novel Aliens and Anorexia (2000), the narrator feels the effect of music’s terrible beauty. She is in the car one “rainy afternoon” in “early November” when “Bach’s Partita for Cello in B minor, performed by Ute Uge, came on the radio. I pulled over to the shoulder of Springs Fireplace Road and wept. My skin became so porous that the tremor of the cello crept into my body like an Alien.”1 A strange, visceral description, it carries somatic intensity that is particular to the experience of listening. The narrator’s persistent feelings of “hopeless[ness]” lead here to an unsentimental yet distinctively sublime revelation; she is moved to tears precisely because the cello resonates with overwhelming internal, ineffable states, capturing the capacity for music to elicit “despair’s maudlin ecstasy.”

Nevertheless, after this moment of sublime contemplation and emotional collapse, the narrator continues on her journey unaffected. While literary aesthetic experiences are often resistant to or anxious about sublimity, Kraus’s narrator embodies Martin Donougho’s observation that “the sublime has by now come to form part of the furniture of our common world.”2 Distracted flitting along the surface of things transforms momentarily into true attention. This mode of attention is marked by (often sudden) intensification of feeling, where somatic and emotional undercurrents come sharply into focus, but only briefly.

The ambient potential within music forms one of the cornerstones of Jeffrey T. Nealon’s I’m Not Like Everybody Else: Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and American Popular Music. “Popular music no longer offers individuals meaning,” Nealon argues, “but functions as a kind of mood-altering machine, an alternative series of flows on the sea of 24/7 attention capitalism.”3 For Nealon, the ubiquity of popular music in particular signals both its importance and “cultural impact” in the past few decades. Pop music is more significant “than museum art or literature, because [it] is so enmeshed within the functionality of everyday life.”4 But if we were to look beyond this specific argument about popular music, to include all the music that follows us around each and every day (which, of course, isn’t limited to pop music, but includes classical, jazz, etc.), we would find a similar effect. Such “ubiquitous musics,” to draw on Anahid Kassabian’s phrasing, work to produce aural moodscapes that directly affect how the listener feels and affectively direct what the feeling individual listens to.5 So while Kraus’s narrator is suddenly yanked from her thoughts by the affective power of a single track simply because she has the radio on in the background in the first place, others actively choose what music accompanies them because of the emotional responses engendered by that listening: from those of us who repeat songs endlessly (as Jennifer Egan does: “if a song is putting me in the right mood, I’ll often just repeat it the whole way home”) to those who use music to accompany every daily activity in order to produce a personal soundtrack to their lives.

Both examples capture the concerted “shift from discipline to biopower” in the field of music that Nealon focuses on. “Once the music is essentially ubiquitous,” he writes, “taste (which for Bourdieu implies scarcity and rigid hierarchy) gives way to curation in a world where almost everybody likes most genres, and the music functions as a personal soundtrack for living (for example, high-energy dance music for the gym, low-energy emo for after midnight), as opposed to its disciplinary function within a series of public positionings—‘Fuck you, I’m a punk rocker.’”6 Paul Beatty’s frenetic comma-laden prose in his 2015 novel The Sellout captures precisely how music can operate as a tool for tracking the pace of everyday life: “At stoplights Daddy would stick his arm out of the window, bent at the elbow, hand toward the ground, palm facing the rear. ‘People eat the shit you shovel them!’ he’d shout over the radio music, somehow shifting, steering, turning on the blinker, making the hand signal, a left turn, singing along to Ella Fitzgerald, and reading the L.A. Times bestseller all at the same time.”7 For the soundtrack-producing individual and the casual radio listener, “[m]usic becomes less something to be consumed or interpreted, something that either positively or negatively offers meaning to our lives. Rather, music becomes more something that is used by dividuals and other collective actors to create various ’scapes in our individual and social lives—the sleep scape, the gym scape, the study scape, the commute scape, the romance scape, the political rally scape, the shopping scape.”8

But while these ’scapes are often experienced as subject-specific (as in, created by individual tastes for that same individual’s specific activities, experiences, and feelings), the web-connected technologies that allow ubiquitous listening, like Spotify, Apple music, and other streaming services, have become platforms that offer their own curated moods. Importantly, these are fabricated moods produced by “a nonindividual, not simply human, distributed subjectivity” that “takes place across a network of music media.”9 This non-human subjectivity feeds me playlists that promise to bust my stress or inspire me to “walk like the badass I am”—or simply capture in music the winter weather outside. Such ubiquity signals how listeners have been shifted away from the kind of “dense aural attention”10 we saw with Kraus’s narrator (a mode that “offers group or individual meaning or identity through excorporative distinction”) to “something that allows us to make our way through distributed fields of fluid subjectivity, surfing the modulations of late-late capitalist life, deploying just the right kind and levels of attention, focus, and distraction.”11 But just as ubiquitous listening, glanced at through a cynical eye, could tip into mass anonymity, particularly through the curation of machine-generated moodscapes, music still has the capacity to engender a belligerently individual experience of selfhood. In an age of distraction, close listening—as a political as well as an aesthetic experience—has become the domain of the contemporary American novel. From writers like Teju Cole, who elevates the technology of the Spotify playlist to art form, documenting the aural moodscapes of “The History of Jetlag” and “27 Roads” inspired by Robert Adams’s photographic ode to the road—to the swathe of contemporary novels that feature character-listeners who experience sublime moments of the self, to the novels that echo musical form in novel form, there persists a “cultural authenticity discourse” that “has migrated from its home turf of popular music discourse and practice to become something like the logic of the whole in the American present.”12


Part II: Close Listening

Listening to music in recent novels reflects this configuration of music with identity, working to map out the authentic emotional experience. We only need to turn to the orgasmic experience of music producer Bennie Salazar in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010). As he listens to the Stop/Go sisters in their basement recording studio, his physical and affective reaction to the music is transformative: “Oh, the raw, almost threadbare sound of their voices mixed with the clash of instruments—these sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgement or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body, whose shivering, bursting reply made him dizzy.”13 Together with his assistant’s perfume or lotion “that smelled like apricots” and aided by the gold flakes he sprinkles into his coffee “as an aphrodisiac,” the music gets under his skin with Bennie experiencing “his first erection in months.”14 Bennie’s excitement is palpable in the rhythmic descriptions of how the music makes him feel physically. Unexpected lyrical observations, either set in elongated sentences as above or evocative metaphors, build momentum until suddenly punctuated with exclamations. So that at first “a sensation of pleasure filled his whole torso the way a snowflake fills up a sky. Jesus, he felt good”; he then “experienced a bump of anticipation; something was going to happen here. He knew it. Felt it pricking his arms and chest”; and finally, “He felt the music in his mouth, his ears, his ribs—or was that his own pulse? He was on fire!”.15

Beyond Bennie’s intensely somatic response, the structure of Egan’s novel is even inspired by music. “It’s a thing that happens in parts,” Egan remarked in one interview, “and the parts are all totally different from each other and yet they combine—it’s a concept album! It’s Quadrophenia! I was a crazy Who fan when I was a kid, and Quadrophenia and Tommy are direct antecedents to this book.” The penultimate chapter takes the form of a PowerPoint slide show; a playful nod to pauses in rock music. (These include the “1.5 seconds of total silence, from 2.38–to 2.395” in “Bernadette” by the Four Tops, or the 2-second-long pause “coming 2:23 into a 3:19-minute-long song”—“Foxey Lady” by Jimi Hendrix, if you’re wondering). Just as Bennie Salazar enthuses that “[h]earing the music get made, that was the thing”, the novel aims to capture the affective magic of something being made.16

Teju Cole’s writing embodies this ontological agitation with more anxiety than Egan’s. Self-consciously aware prose is rarely the kind of profound mood-altering substance music can, Cole has questioned how “a novelist [can?]sit down and write something… that can equal Brahms four,” or something that can “take you to all sorts of places emotionally and just feel complete, without you having to worry about a plot, because the spaces they take you are psychological.”17 Nevertheless, the structure of Open City was conceived of in musical metaphor: ending with “a three vicious thwacks of the hammer, and then a soft exit to strings.”18 Music also becomes a mode through which the novel translates the ineffable states of the narrator’s “mental landscape.”19 Early in the novel, Julius describes his habit of listening only to European classical radio stations, whose “programming always met [his] evening mood with great exactness.”20 Although “[m]uch of this music was familiar,” Julius notes, “[t]here were also rare moments of astonishment, like the first time I heard, on a station broadcasting from Hamburg, a bewitching piece for orchestra and alto solo by Shchedrin (or perhaps it was Ysaÿe) which, to this day, I have been unable to identify.” Listening to recorded music while reading, as Julius does—“[s]ometimes, I even spoke the words in the books out loud to myself… my voice mingl[ing] with the murmur of the French, German, or Dutch radio announcements, or with the thin texture of the violin strings of the orchestras”—is not a complete musical experience in which the music is the only subject of one’s attention. For the Julius we see in these two instances, familiar music is experienced as an accompaniment to other activities, while new music renews the desire to engage with music as an art form on its own terms.

Later in the novel, Julius hears a piece over the speakers in a Tower Records store (slogan, “No Music, No Life”) that he “immediately recognized: the opening movement of Mahler’s late symphony Das Lied von der Erde.”21 Upon hearing this symphony, Julius is initially distracted—“[r]ecord shops, I felt, should be silent spaces; there, more than anywhere else, the mind needed to be clear”—but he “finally beg[an] to acclimatize to the music playing overhead and… enter[ed] the strange hues of its world.”22  Julius describes the rapid progression of his experience of this music as happening “subliminally”: “before long,” it enfolded him “in a private darkness.”23 Although it was music he was familiar with, it was only “[o]n hearing Christa Ludwig’s voice, in the second movement, a song about the loneliness of autumn,” that he “recognized the recording as the famous one conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964.” Here, the familiarity of the music does not dull his experience but rather renews his connection to the work:

With that awareness came another: that all I had to do was bide my time, and wait for the emotional core of the work, which Mahler had put in the final movement of the symphony. I sat on one of the hard benches near the listening stations, and sank into reverie, and followed Mahler through drunkenness, longing, bombast, youth (with its fading), and beauty (with its fading). Then came the final movement, “Der Abschied,” the Farewell, and Mahler, where he would ordinarily indicate the tempo, had marked it schwer, difficult. The birdsong and beauty, the complaints and high-jinks of the preceding movements, had all been supplanted by a different mood, a stronger, surer mood. It was as though the lights had, without warning, come blazing into my eyes.24

For Julius, listening to this work in a public space nevertheless tempers his experience: “[i]t simply wasn’t possible to enter the music fully.” Despite subsequently leaving for home, however, the music does not fade and disappear; Der Abschied instead “follow[s]” him, “playing through with such presence that it was as though” he was still listening to it; his memory becoming “overwhelmed” by its melodic figures. Now imagined music, Der Abschied is retained solely in Julius’s mind, transforming his perception of his “activities for the entirety of the following day”. Indeed, “[t]here was some new intensity in even the most ordinary things all around the hospital… as if the precision of the orchestral texture had been transferred to the world of visible things, and every detail had somehow become significant.”25 The “gleam on the glass doors” of the hospital, the “stacks of patients’ files in the psychiatry department,” acquire renewed interest through the lens of art, “somehow seem[ing] a part of that intricate musical world.”26

Readers will remember, too, that Open City culminates with an experience of intense sublimity following a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in New York. This sublimity does not vanish with familiarity caused by ubiquity either: “how bewildering it is the first time you hear it, and how logical and sensible it is by the fifth or sixth or seventh listening.”27It develops from “something that is complex but then absolutely resolves into becoming part of your own inner logic,” connecting things so that “the weave of existence is tight.” For Cole, Mahler’s is “music that consoles,” and that operates on a level of “complexity and completeness” that allows for a collective experience.

But if novels like A Visit from the Goon Squad and Open City show us how music can produce the ambience of mood in subjective experience, and assert this occurs on an authentic level, they don’t go so far as to claim that these experiences of music solidify something imperative about the self. In Beatty’s The Sellout, self-definition through music abounds: “Kanye West has announced, ‘I am rap!’ Jay-Z thinks he’s Picasso.”28 But the ironic, mocking tone of passages such as this undercuts the surface claim that music holds the key to selfhood. In another passage, while the narrator observes a woman from across the street, the novel overtly proclaims music equals xyz about something’s identity, even is identity—but again tone undercuts intention:

They’re the hands of a poet, one of those natural-haired, brass-bangled teacher-poets whose elegiac verse compares everything to jazz. Childbirth is like jazz. Muhammad Ali is like jazz. Philadelphia is like jazz. Jazz is like jazz. Everything is like jazz except for me. To her I’m like a remixed Anglo-Saxon appropriation of black music. I’m Pat Boone in blackface singing a watered-down version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” I’m every note of non punk British rock’n’roll plucked and strummed since the Beatles hit that mind-reverberating chord that opens “A Hard Day’s Night.” But what about Bobby “What You Won’t Do For Love” Caldwell, Gerry Mulligan, Third Bass, and Janis Joplin? I want to shout back at her. What about Eric Clapton? Wait, I take that back. Fuck Eric Clapton.29

Here, jazz is at once all-encompassing (it is ‘everything’) and exclusionary (‘except for me’). Working against a novelistic tradition that appropriates jazz as a tool for social inclusion, it matters that the first-person voice experiences it as the opposite. While music, as Nealon argues, “constitutes one such powerful social tool, as a template for understanding how biopolitical subjectivity has emerged, how it works in the present, or how it might work differently in the future,” it doesn’t do so in a way that “primarily provides meaning or an identity for any given subject.”30 Instead, it “is today an operating system for everyday life, rather than a template for understanding who we are deep down, really or authentically.”31


Part III: Listen Closely to Me

Spoiler: “[t]here is no real you.”32 Nealon’s slim volume holds many brilliant zingers, but none that cut through so expertly as this. He goes on to soften his assertion somewhat by explaining that “the real you is undergoing constant modification: this is neither a liberating nor a constraining realization, but it names the terrain where we live at present. Considering that biopolitical fact, any given subject today doesn’t need an authentic identity to inhabit, but a soundtrack for becoming.”33 Novels of the kind I’ve discussed also refute that authentic identity is attainable, let alone a real thing able to be attained, but they also go further to act as soundtracks to becoming. In the first instance, this occurs on the level of voice. The modes of subjectivity to which they give texture (Bernie Salazar, Julius, Beatty’s unnamed narrator) all play with the complexities and ambiguities of being. Secondly, and with greater implications for artistic practice, this occurs on the level of form. Egan and Cole’s novels were imagined in response to the structure and feel of music, but so too were many others. Valeria Luiselli imagined the formula of her 2016 novel, The Story of My Teeth, as “Dickens + MP3 ¸ Balzac + JPEG”—an equation that captures the mash-up of the novel form with technologies of image and sound to account for the non-linear way feeling and form are joined together.34 It may seem surprising to claim that the novel’s authentic form resembles something like the feel of music, but writers like Egan, Cole, Luiselli, and many others speak about the craft of the novel in precisely these terms. So as writers ask us to listen closely, the refrain of to what I’m becoming is never far behind.


  1. Chris Kraus, Aliens and Anorexia (Semiotexte, 2000), 22.
  2. Martin Donougho, “Stages of the Sublime in North America”, MLN 115.5 (2000), 909.
  3. Jeffrey T. Nealon, I’m Not Like Everybody Else: Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and American Popular Music, U of Nebraska P, 2018, x.
  4. Nealon, 4-5.
  5. Anahid Kassabian’s Ubiquitous Listening (U of California P, 2013), xxi.
  6. Nealon, 79.
  7. Paul Beatty, The Sellout (FSG, 2015), 55.
  8. Nealon, 110.
  9. Kassabian, 111.
  10. Nealon, 110.
  11. Nealon, 111.
  12. Nealon, 8.
  13. Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010), 31.
  14. Egan, 31; 5; 31.
  15. Egan, 30; 31; 31.
  16. Egan, 30.
  17. Teju Cole, “The Consummate Mahlerian,” Radio Open Source (24 April 2014), http://radioopensource.org/teju-cole-the-consummate-mahlerian/.
  18. Cole, “Palimpsest City.”
  19. Teju Cole, Open City (Faber, 2011), 19.
  20. Cole, 4.
  21. Cole, 16.
  22. Cole, 16.
  23. Cole, 16-17.
  24. Cole, 17.
  25. Cole, 17-18.
  26. Cole, 18.
  27. Cole, “The Consummate Mahlerian.”
  28. Beatty, 262.
  29. Beatty, 16.
  30. Nealon, 71.
  31. Nealon, 71.
  32. Nealon, 71.
  33. Nealon, 71.
  34. Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth, trans. Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2016), 181.