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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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