Here’s something to try. Call it a game, or an experiment, or a project — it’s interesting and fun no matter how you describe it. You need two players, each with a passion for listening to music, reasonably broad tastes, and a completely different selection of albums.
To begin, send your partner a track from your personal music collection, having agreed beforehand on a protocol for how to do so. Don’t trouble yourself with thoughts of copyright, because this is private correspondence and nobody cares. It’s almost optimised to lead to extra sales.
Your partner should listen to the song you selected (I use the word “song” to avoid the formality of overusing “track”, not to imply that all the tracks should have lyrics) and after careful reflection, send you back a song that, in their opinion, resonates with the one they received. By resonance I mean a subjective sense that the two songs fit together somehow — that they have something in common which unites them — so that a transition from one to the other feels as smooth as possible. It has to be defined intuitively rather than mechanically.
In turn, you should send back a song that resonates with the one you received, and so on, back and forth, until you’ve sent each other six tracks each. That’s enough for a twelve-track album, and a satisfying length for a game.
Some advice: Occasionally a specific song may come to mind straight away, but usually you’ll have to hunt for a bit. Try starting with an album that might provide a match, and listen to a few seconds of each track to refresh your memory. Aim for a track that resembles its predecessor in multiple respects, but if you can’t find a good match, do the best you can. In my experience you can always find something that will fit, even if it’s a song you don’t normally pay attention to because it’s overshadowed by other tracks on the same album.
Different people relate to music differently, and you must accept your partner’s subjective opinion of what resonates with what.
I recently played this with a friend, Dan, and below I’ll describe in detail how this particular experiment went. Dan’s choices will appear in magenta and mine in orange so they stand out. I’ll include commentary, but in most cases won’t spell out what the tracks have in common — the reader is welcome try and identify these as an exercise.
Dan picked the first song. Rather than send tracks (or even links), he opted to confine himself to songs I could find on Youtube and let me search for them. His opening play was Birima by Youssou N’Dour [video].
My method for sending songs was to upload them to Box and send links by email (I deleted each track after Dan acknowledged its receipt). In answer to Dan’s first play I chose Iamagit by Telek. Here’s a thirty-second sample, and here’s a really bad video in which a couple of Russian boys mime rather pathetically to a recording (also, the first few beats are missing). The similarity between the song title — a word in one of the languages of Papua New Guinea — and the English phrase “I am a git” rather amuses me. You may sometimes see the song referred to as Lamagit (due to an ambiguous font on the album), but Iamagit is correct.
Dan struggled to find a match, and after a few days decided to let his subconscious do the work and simply choose the first song that came into his head. He picked Mr Wendal by Arrested Development [video]. This is a very different song from Iamagit, and I struggled to see any similarity. Dan, in retrospect, thinks it was a bad choice too. Eventually I realised the connection must lie in the metre: Iamagit goes something like /x/x x/// on the bass in bars without lyrics, while Mr Wendal goes /x/x x//x on the drums through the whole song.
In reply, I chose On The Edge by Oysterband. Here’s a thirty-second sample, but the only videos I can find are from an inferior live performance that really will not do (it leaves out half of the instruments). Dan says that of all my choices, this is the only one where he struggles to see the connection to its predecessor, but here are some thoughts. First, occasional use of a rather tinkly-sounding guitar or other instrument adds texture to both songs. Second, I don’t listen to hiphop-style songs with lyrics spoken rather than sung, but On The Edge provides some approximation in that there are often several consecutive syllables at the same pitch, and many syllables between pauses. Third, both songs contain a lot of very harsh sounds plus a strong beat, and fourth, both have lyrics about social inequality. Together I think these qualities combine to make it a reasonable match.
Dan responded with Have You Ever Seen The Rain by Creedence Clearwater Revival [video], commenting that he’d settled on the strategy of choosing the first song that comes to mind. This is, of course, by far the most well-known song in our exchange. As a match, I felt it was mediocre — it didn’t clash with On The Edge (as Mr Wendal did with Iamagit), but nothing about it seemed particularly connected, either. The main link I can see is that both songs have a downward-tending riff between parts.
My next choice was Ubeyneihem by Meir Banai [video], a Hebrew song about being content in both urban and rural environments. The chorus (according to my sources), translates as: “And in between them, and in between them, I go and then come back. I have in me some of one and some of the other; I have some of both.” Just for your interest.
Dan then selected King Without A Crown by Matisyahu [video], which has nothing in common with Ubeyneihem except that one is sung in Hebrew and the other has lyrics with Jewish themes. Moreover, Dan wouldn’t have even known that Ubeyneihem was in Hebrew if I hadn’t mentioned it. Talking about this after the game was over, he wrote: “I think up until this point, I was approaching this as a bit of game rather building an album. And it was as much about introducing new songs and bands to each other. And from this point of view a cultural link between two songs is just as valid as a musical link. Even though the cultural link in this example is pretty skin deep too. Thus from this song onwards, when I started to think about the musical connections a bit more carefully, I think the album becomes a lot more coherent.”
In my view it is a game, but one in which the challenge lies in finding the best match you can from your own collection of music. If played well, a coherent album emerges as a side effect (in which a listener can experience the stepwise evolution from each song to the next).
Now entering the second half, I picked Tine Lasta by Kíla [video]. (Note: some of the Youtube videos I’m linking to contain someone else’s — e.g. the uploader’s — theme tune added to the beginning and/or end of the track, and just to warn you, this one is particularly obnoxious. Ignore it.) This was Dan’s favourite of all the tracks I shared, and Kíla by far his favourite artist; despite being Irish himself he had not previously heard of them.
Dan’s next selection was Me Gustas Tu by Manu Chao [video]. By this point he was, as indicated earlier, putting more thought into his choices.
I then chose Aguas Claras by Surkuy. I can’t find a video or sample of Surkuy’s version, but here is someone else’s cover of the same song, which I assume is traditional.
Dan’s final pick was Hora Zero by Rodrigo y Gabriela [video].
We’d agreed to exchange six tracks each, and now it was now my turn to pick the final song. I had wanted to avoid including more than one track by the same artist, but the only match that felt right to me was Ríl A Do by Kíla [video]. At least it’s from a different album.
Our post-experiment discussion covered topics like which connections were least obvious, what we thought of each other’s songs in their own right, whether we were content with the variety covered, and so on. Regarding the variety, my only caveat was that we’d exchanged nothing that was carried more by the melody than by the beat, since Dan tended to choose songs with a very strong beat which I had to match. It can be interesting to observe how different people relate to music, and Dan clearly pays more attention to the drumbeat of a song than I do (an observation he confirmed).
It’s a fun exercise to try, and for friends reading this blog post, I am definitely open to doing a musical relay with you at some point. Not in the immediate future — I need a breather — but let me know if you’re interested in doing so at some point.
I also welcome comments of all sorts, as ever. Feel free to add any perspective you have, from a whimsical reply to something I mentioned in passing to a thoughtful analysis of our playlist.
Update: I played this again with @fuddlemark on Twitter in September 2013. My choices were: (2) An Tiománai by Kíla; (4) Nervous Doll Dancing by Nervous Doll Dancing (clip); (6) She’s Moved On by Oysterband (clip); (8) Sweet Comeraghs performed by Karan Casey (this isn’t actually in my music collection; I only know it from Youtube); (10) C’hoant Dimein performed by Cecile Corbel; (12) Night Ride Across the Caucasus by Loreena McKennitt. I’ll let the reader speculate on what Mark’s intervening choices might have been, but this was track #5.