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Archive for September, 2007

Sounding Associations

The bulk of the material in Chapter 3: Sound as Form in Zak’s Poetics of Rock discusses what he has determined as being the five broad categories that “represent all of the sound phenomena found on records.” These being (1) musical performance, (2) timbre, (3) echo, (4) ambience, and finally (5) texture. Each of these, Zak breaks down into various components and explains their functions and the methods that can be used to manipulate them. Collectively, these categories become the “elements woven together to form the textual tapestry” or as Jerry Wexler says, the sound that “leaps off the record and goes into your ear (48-49).” The chapter closes with Zak finally getting to what he was implying all along -that analysis of rock tracks ought to be directed at the five elements that he outlines. He asserts that by doing so, we will learn the most about and increase our appreciation of the recordists’ compositional concerns and processes and “the wealth of the meaning that the sounds hold (96).”

What troubles me is that many of Zak’s interpretations of specific uses of echo, timbre, ambience, etc. are informed by lyrical content and/or his preconceived associations with the music he is describing. For instance, in the opening of the chapter, Zak describes Hendrix’s reworking of Bobby D’s “All Along the Watchtower” supposedly in terms of its sound, but before any of Zak’s description of the sounds he gives us his take on the lyrics and Hendrix’s intentions:

“If the two approaching riders in the song’s lyrics represent uncertainty, if the wind and wildcat represent danger, if the businessmen are the world’s agents of betrayal, and claustrophobic confusion threatens to undermine the will of the protagonist, in this version of the song he [Hendrix] is willing to pit his musical power against it all (48).”

Romantic huh? Keep this in mind as Zak further explores a couple of his categories in relation to the song. Concerning ambience, Zak contends that among the many ambient images in Hendrix’s recorded version, the wood block stands out immediately; casting a “prominent shadow into the depths of the track, a sonic allusion to the ‘cold distance’ from which the two mysterious riders approach (49).” No doubt the wood block stands out, but would Zak have ascribed the same meaning to it had his interpretation of the lyrics not informed him of a possibility? I think not. In another example concerning ambience and echo, Zak writes that they “play on our sonic consciousness like impressionistic reflection of the song’s lyrics. The echoes that trail behind their sources as they move across the stereo space resonate with the swirling confusion and untamed defiance of the song’s protagonist (49).” Again, we see Zak ascribing meaning to the echo and ambience in relation to the lyrical content. Hypothetically, if the words of “All Along the Watchtower,” had been changed to ones that were phonetically similar, would Zak’s analysis of the echoes still have them resonating with “swirling confusion?” Would the wood block’s ambience still allude to the mysterious riders approach from the “cold distance?” I would say no. Ultimately, it seems that Zak’s informal analysis of some of his categories of the sound-form in “Watchtower” were contingent on his reading of the lyrics. In this sense, Sound as Text Painting seems more appropriate than Sound as Form. I might venture to say that individual reaction and interpretation of lyrical content limits the validity and possible usefulness of Zak’s method of analysis as it may be impossible to separate the connotative meanings of words and lyrics from the their phonetic characteristics and interpretive nature.

It is evident that Zak’s descriptions of sounds take him only as far as his individual associations will allow. Concerning timbre, on pages 68-69 Zak describes the sounds of U2’s “Zoo Station” from Achtung Baby. After a brief description of some of the sounds in the opening, Zak contends that the sounds point to the “highly processed, mechanized sound of the techno/industrial genre.” Fine. I can buy that. Then Zak presses further in saying that the “sonic allusion is to a futuristic, machine-ruled world -an image quite at odds with the passionate humanism that U2 had been known for.” Ok. Well, maybe. Further, “At the first vocal entrance in the introduction…the murky industrial sounds give way to the relative clarity of the soaring natural voice. This is the Bono that we know.” Negative. This is the Bono you know Zak. Moving forward again, after a further analysis of the timbre of the vocals, I think Zak’s most telling line comes at the end of this paragraph where he writes, “…makes a historical statement about the band’s evolving identity. The sense I get is of U2 alternately looking backward and forward within the same track.” Hmmm. If I had never heard U2 and knew nothing of their past and present history would I have the same reactions by analyzing of the timbres on the track? I would certainly not. Would other people? Don’t know.

The point of all this is not to propose that Zak’s analyses of the sound-form in certain instances are wrong or right. It is simply to point out some of the limitations in using sound-form as a means of learning the most about the recordists’ compositional concerns and processes and “the wealth of the meaning that the sounds hold.” I would contend that the biggest limitation to using recorded sound analysis is that individuals hear sounds in so many different ways and their associations with them limit the amount of information that could possibly be inferred from analysis based purely on sound. I’m not sure if this would ever even be possible in rock because of its web-like backdrop. Zak even states himself, “Whatever the degree and nature of the connection, interpreting its meaning is a personal matter for the listener (186).” I would say that a sound-form analysis works on individual bases, but I don’t see it as having the ability to yield any unified conclusions as to how recorded rock makes listeners return to a track again and again and again…

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Arrgh, how irritating!

Last week I clearly remember hearing a piece on NPR (my lovely wife corroborates this, btw) that reported on recent neurological research into the ways that music lights up the motor center of the brain, and now I can’t find it. The researchers were particularly impressed with the fact that it’s hard to not tap your foot along to music (true, but sort of makes you say “duh”).

I’ve been reading an essay by Richard Middleton (p.104) in which he argues for a gestural metalanguage for doing music analysis, and reflecting on how it relates to this nice bit of brain science. More than the actual physical reaction to music, I’ve been thinking about how I imagine movement when I hear music. I also dig it that this points to a nice way of getting past the mind/body dualism.

Anyway, if anyone out there has a ref. for the actual bit of research I heard about on NPR, I’d love a citation–simple searches have not yet turned it up.

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Following up on Bryan’s post on Beefheart, which I largely agree with. I think you have to also look at this (Cptn Beefheart in the 1970s–sorry about the irritating british guys setting up the video):

I don’t know what to think about it–is it the consumate joke, the big swindle, or does that crazy look in his eye make it something else? Incidentally, it’s quite interesting to check out the comments thread on youtube–there is no consensus on this; rather, it seems polarizing, probably because of how it plays out with regard to artifice and authenticity.

I would throw in the Shaggs here as well.

I mean, I LOVED the Shaggs in college, and I still have a fondness for them. But not really a fondness that I indulge by listening to their albums; it’s more a fondness that I indulge by thinking about them, remembering the songs, and smiling. What’s not to love–“Rich people want what the poor people got; skinny people want what the fat people got.” But the pleasure is the feeling that you are listening to something without artifice. I also loved a Madison-area street musician named Art Paul, and who sung songs like “My Cat Was Taking a Bath” and “Pink Pants” (“Tell all your uncles and all your aunts/You ain’t never lived till you’ve worn pink pants”).

People think of this music as having child-like qualities (the Shaggs, especially, but in general, music that seems to come out of some savant-like space), and I think we do because we often think of mentally compromised people as child-like (not that I know the psychological status of ANY of these artists, only that their music projects something like crazyness). I don’t have a good analysis of this, except to say that I played the Shaggs for my 10-year-old son the other day and he hated it. Somehow the fact that the “childish” appeals only to adults intrigues me.

UPDATE

Just now, after picking my kids up for school I was re-watching the Art Paul video, and my six-year-old said, “That’s not funny,” and walked off. I asked her what she thought of the Shaggs. That also received her derision, and to my surprise, the question, “how is that funny?” Needless to say, she did not care for “Upon the My Oh My” either.

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During our seminar over the past few weeks, it has been suggested that authenticity plays a role in why listeners identify with particular musical artists. Increasingly, the word seems to have no fixed meaning when it comes to rock music. One listener’s definition of the authentic artist may be totally different from another. While this seems to be essentially problematic, it actually opens up a different notion: is there actually one type of authenticity at work in rock music, or are there several? If we accept that there are several types of authenticity that people use to qualify artists, we can then stop fixating on finding one actual definition for authenticity and shift the conversation to what finding out what kind of authenticity is being displayed by a particular artist.

Two weeks ago, Professor Solis posed the rather simple question: “Why Beefheart?” Indeed, what is it about Captain Beefheart that appeals to listeners and critics? Surely it’s something besides the pure enjoyment of his music. I grant that someone may reply to this post and say “I love the music of Captain Beefheart because it moves me on an extraordinarily deep level and that’s the only reason.” This statement would be totally valid, but I venture to say that in the majority of cases, there is something else at work here in relation to why a listener would be drawn to Captain Beefheart. This something else is a type of authenticity I’ll refer to as the genuine article.

Here I’ll turn to Christgau: “Zappa’s distance from his audience is a calculated means of bullying it into respectful cash-on-the-line attention. Beefheart really doesn’t give a shit. Zappa plays the avant-gardist and Beefheart is the real thing. He does perform, but for once performance and self expression are almost identical: his detachment is in some sense pure and even innocent, and at the same time he is arrogant as only the pure heart can be arrogant.” (from Any Old Way You Choose It) In other words, both Zappa and Beefheart are weird, but Zappa is being weird. Beefheart is weird. Thus Zappa is a poser and Beefheart is the authentic artist, worthy of reverence and whatever else. To Christgau, it would seem that if Beefheart were playing music in his living room, he would be playing it exactly the way he was on stage that evening. There is no seperation between Beefheart the person and Beefheart the performer, and he is thus the genuine article.

So how does Christgau (and countless others I presume) know that Beefheart isn’t simply acting the part? Here’s where I’ll draw a parallel to another artist who exhibits similar qualities, Daniel Johnston. (If you haven’t experienced him, rent the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston.) On stage, both Beefheart and Johnston are weird, but there’s something about their persona that projects more…they’re almost like idiot savants, and they clearly don’t just play that on stage. Because of this quality, it would seem that they are immune from posturing, from record companies, from the corruption of big time rock, and they are in fact genuine artists.

It is this “purity” that draws people to Beefheart and Johnston. I don’t deny that their music speaks to people, but it’s the feeling of authenticity that creates a substantial part of their lure. Because of their idiot savant like nature, they project the image of the genuine article, and thus serve as an example of authenticity that many listeners look for in their artists.

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Some of the recent reading assignments (Keightley and and I think Grossman too) follow the decline of single sales and the rise of LP sales in the 1960s, suggesting the trend represents the growing “seriousness” of rock fans.  When I read that, I started thinking about my favorite albums, like Wyclef Jean’s “The Carnival,” Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and of course Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”  I was thinking about recent albums though, and aside from soundtracks, I don’t think I’ve bought an album for several months at least.  I mainly get my music now as single tracks, downloaded from iTunes and Rhapsody. 

 I wonder what effect digital distribution is having on singles sales and the concept of the album.  This past August, Billboard revamped its Hot 100 so that it includes singles purchased/downloaded from the internet and they’ve gotten some amazing statistics on single track purchases.  In Billboard.com’s magazine, Geoff Mayfield writes:  “SoundScan placed the number of digital tracks sold in 2005 at 352.6 million, almost triple the prior year’s volume. Track sales grew by 65%, to 582 million, in 2006. Year to date in 2007, digital song downloads stand at 462.1 million through the year’s first 29 weeks, up 48% over the same period last year” (Billboard magazine, 2007-08-04).  I realize that some of these tracks were probably purchased as an album, but in my experience I usually just buy one or two tracks that I like from a certain album – which is why I love getting songs online!  I don’t know what all of this means, except that marketing of and notions of albums and singles have probably changed quite a bit in the past few years. 

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Tenori-on and Hang Drum

I don’t know if this blog is the place to post something like this, but I think the Tenori-on is so cool I just had to share it with you all.   It is a new light/sound interface developed in part by Yamaha.  Check it out here:

 http://www.global.yamaha.com/tenori-on/

The demo video is amazing, as are the six modes listed on the “features” page.

While I’m plugging new noise-makers, if you haven’t heard/seen a hang yet, they are also amazing, yet totally acoustic.  It is like a cross between a pan and a hand drum.  You can see it here:

http://www.hang-music.com/

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Madonna, Redux

So I was in the cafe this afternoon after teaching my rock class, and “Like a Virgin” was playing on the radio. I was singing along with the verse, before the first chorus, and nodding my head and grinning up a storm. Go figure. It made me think of my dear friend Lynn (Lynndi Lauper in her professional life as a conceptual artist), and how much I love seeing her perform; and it made me think about what an excellent backing track the song has. And it made me think about the comments various people left on the post about “what if the music sucks,” and the idea that suckiness is so totally context-dependent.

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