Musical Context

The other day, I was driving home, listening to my KUTX colleague Ryan Wen. He hit an inspired segue, the kind that all DJs slobber over: Can’s Vitamin C” into Black Star’s Definition.” Jaki Liebezeit’s kick pedal sounded like distant artillery strikes, setting up the percussive explosion from Talib Kweli and Mos Def. Pure bliss.

I’ve heard each of these songs dozens of times, but never back-to-back. The segue created a new pathway in my brain, and now these songs are tethered together in a wholly unique way. How can these songs suddenly sound so new to my ears, simply by existing next to each other?

For most of my adult life, there’s been a lot of talk about the death of the album and the death of radio, and even right now a possible death of the concert is floating around. But each of these mediums provide something so crucial to music: context. Like us humans, songs seem to fit best in a network of mutuality, where they play off of and enhance the other songs around it. For me, a good song can work well on its own, but it’s taken to some higher realm when slotted next to something that brings out its best qualities or throws off some different kind of light.

Songs are not objects or products because they aren’t static. They change over time and space. Hearing Vitamin C” on a beautifully sunny winter day in the car with my daughter is different from when I first discovered it or played it on my own radio show. It’s different every time I hear it, which means, depending on the context, its possibilities are limitless.

We crave not just context, but meaningful context, where there’s a human heart and story and sense behind the meaning. An algorithm can only hit this randomly. It could be programmed to pick this same segue because the two songs are rhythmically linked, but that’s a shallow approximation of the artistic impulse. Ryan played these songs back-to-back because he heard something new in them together, and I heard it new with him, and we both leave the moment with something new in that friction. That’s an amazing thing, and these songs rule, and we should be putting songs in new contexts more often.

February 13, 2023