Measuring Distance in Music

A couple of weeks ago I went to a bar in Parkdale for a friend’s birthday. I rode my bike, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the length of time it took between pressing play in the Beaches and locking my bike in the west end was exactly the length of the album I was listening to (The National’s Boxer, highly recommended).

Since I moved to Toronto (official resident as of January 2010) I’ve been very aware of distance in the city. I love walking. I’ve been doing it for years. I spent four years in Montreal, and a 40 minute walk to campus in -30˚ + wind chill was always more appealing than cramming into a crowded transit vehicle and giving up control of my mobility. Yet, for some reason, I’ve always felt that Toronto is a city that discourages walking. It could be that I spend too much time with people who have enough disposable income to waste it on cabs; it could be that the “city of neighbourhoods” mentality increases the psychological distance between places, thereby decreasing your desire to walk. Either way, I’ve often felt that getting somewhere on your own steam in Toronto is considered vastly inferior to transit (and, when transit fails you, cabs).

When I started riding my bike (Douglas: he’s amazing) my sense of distance became intrinsically linked to an awareness of time, as both a unit of measurement and a perceptual experience. In the mornings, I save a good 15 minutes commuting down Queen East on Douglas rather than on the 501. The value of the bike is vastly increased when you measure the commute in minutes rather than metres. And, when you evaluate the trip in relation to my mental state, it’s not only shorter but better as well. I enjoy being in control of my movement, and I like moving. It’s not just the fact that transit requires me to sit still for an hour. It’s that I’m obligated and expected to do it that annoys me when I know I’m capable of getting somewhere my own way (and who likes being told what to do?). In the case of travelling, it’s the state of not being in control of your circumstances that is so frustrating.

Of course, we find ways to take control of unpleasant but necessary experiences like commuting all the time, and there are a lot of strategies at work to make them enjoyable. We can thank iPod/mp3 player culture for being a big part of that (with a necessary shout out to the Disc and Walk men that came first…I had a teal Walkman when I was a kid. That Puff Daddy song from the Godzilla soundtrack featuring Jimmy Page got a lot of play on it).

On the night of my friend’s birthday, the fact that “length of album” coincidentally equalled “length of pedaling” got me thinking about the ways that we experience distance and time, what other units of measurement could be factored into the equation, and how these other units might change our experience. Consider what new ideas could be communicated, for instance, if the answer to “How far away is it?” was “It’s about the length of Boxer” as opposed to “11.7 kilometres” or “43 minutes, 27 seconds.” Consider also how the reply might affect your decision to leave the house on a cold night in late November (Answer: “It’s one of your favourite albums” vs Answer: “It’s a long freaking way on a bike at night”).

Marshall McLuhan wrote about time (specifically, clocks) and numbers in Understanding Media. Clocks, he argued, order life in standardized units of seconds, minutes and hours. “Processed in this uniform way,” he writes, “time is separated from the rhythms of human experience…Time measured not by the uniqueness of private experience but by abstract uniform units gradually pervades all sense life…Not only work, but also eating and sleeping, came to accommodate themselves to the clock rather than to organic needs.” Transit cities are driven by clocks. The fact that Toronto is the business capital of Canada only adds to the sense of perpetual scheduling in adult life. The frustrating experience of commuting is merely a microcosmic representation of a much greater frustration, wherein the schedule becomes an obligation rather than a choice.

That time is measured in numbers, and indeed, that measurements by definition involve figures, is important to the distinction between “11.7 kilometres” and “length of an album” in our example. McLuhan understands numbers to be tactile – as media, an extension of our sense of touch – with iconic power (iconic, in this case, meaning “an inclusive compressed image” that is readily understood). As such, numbers are a pervasive element of Western communication: “Take 36-24-36. Numbers cannot become more sensuously tactile than when mumbled as the magic formula for the female figure while the haptic hand sweeps the air.” His point can be made without silly sexual innuendos (although that’s all the fun of reading McLuhan): I understand what 11 kilometres feels like, and I can feel it differently whether we’re talking about a bike ride, a streetcar ride, a walk or a run. Similarly, I know what 43 minutes on the streetcar feels like on a cold night, versus on a bike or on foot, whereas the subjective adjective “long” when describing the ride means very little. Borrowing another of McLuhan’s examples, I understand the statement differently when a newspaper reports “Cyclist John Jameson Collides with Bus” in contrast to “Cyclist John Jameson, 12, Collides with Bus.” Just think for a moment about the word “figure” and you’ll see the inherently physical quality of numbers.

Using music as a unit of measurement changes the numbers game. As my good friend Crystal argued in a thesis about music in composite films, music has the power to annihilate space and time. Further, as art that we can carry around in our ear(bud)s, music not only adds a layer of emotion and meaning to a situation, but gives you the option to choose what those emotions or meanings might be. The entertainment value of portable music (and, I would argue, its therapeutic power in providing a sense of control and purpose) is made pretty clear when you count the number of headphones you see on a streetcar during rush hour.

Music can be used to measure all kinds of distance and, by extension, annihilate that distance. A song can mean the difference between the present moment and a fond memory, or the distance between two people continents apart.

I’m definitely of the opinion that our headphones should come off once in a while so that we experience the sonic space of an urban setting. That said, I really like the idea that I can claim that space and making it my own. Although my headphones eliminate a level of connectivity with my environment (and a level of realism, to be honest: I’m not an epic person, even if my music sometimes is), portable music creates a new type of connection by adding a layer of aesthetic and emotional richness to a space and to an experience. You can layer yourself onto an environment, you can control an otherwise imposing or oppressive reality, you can give a setting or a situation emotional value they might not otherwise have.

Measured in music, distance and time start to have a human meaning that transcends the “uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern” produced by McLuhan’s clocks, or by Toronto’s vastness.

On the topic of numbers, measurement, distance and music, I can’t help but end on the brilliance of Metric, whose band name I appreciate so much more after writing this. Parkdale, a track off their first recorded album, is only too appropriate to the (rather convoluted) point I’m trying to make:

“I should be living, giving my mind a chance to rewind and playback beautiful music.”

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