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tom moody

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One should always be leery when scientists attempt arts criticism. The New York Times is not leery--it eats it up, witness all the stories about fractal analysis of Pollock paintings. Yesterday it ran an article about Daniel Levitin, a big time pop music producer who pulled out of the game in the early '80s and became an acoustic scientist. Check out this line of argument:

The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”

“Nobody else’s piano sounds quite like that,” he said, referring to Mr. John. “Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”

Dr. Levitin dragged me over to a lab computer to show me what he was talking about. “Listen to this,” he said, and played an MP3. It was pretty awful: a poorly recorded, nasal-sounding British band performing, for some reason, a Spanish-themed ballad.

Dr. Levitin grinned. “That,” he said, “is the original demo tape of the Beatles. It was rejected by every record company. And you can see why. To you and me it sounds terrible. But George Martin heard this and thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can imagine a multibillion-dollar industry built on this.’

“Now that’s musical genius.”
I believe it was the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein who had the industry visions based on the boys' looks, pop hook writing ability, stage energy and the like. After their breakthrough to larger fame Pete Townshend was still calling the production of their tracks "flippin' lousy" (the '60s TV interview where he says that is one of the funnier moments in The Kids Are Alright). As for being able to recognize a piano note from "Benny and Jets," who would want to? After the popular musical creativity of groups such the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Doors, "Benny" was pure retrograde fluff. Levitin's idea that musical fame is based on timbre (or the continuity thereof from song to song) is the kind of cynicism that supposedly drove him out of the music biz years ago. As for the success of Elton John, that can be attributed to marketing and the burnout of '60s music rather than "timbre" (as long as we're being cynical).

Happy New Year.

- tom moody 1-02-2007 3:18 am [link]