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5 matchs for timbre:
In the comments to the previous post where I was complaining about the emphasis on timbre (musical sound or texture) in a recent New York Times story, p.d. reminds me that changes in timbre are the creative engine behind, like, all my favorite music (techno, hiphop, and so forth). He tells a great story about "Berry Gordy making the engineers build a radio transmitter and everyone heading out into the car to check how the motown test masters sounded...and remix, re-eq, recut, and test, etc...for the whole day because he knew if it didn't sound 'right' on the radio it wouldn't sell." p.d. points out how many current hiphop hits have built on such sonic refinements, from Motown right up through '90s drum and bass experiments, turning them into main attraction.
All true, but I don't think the sound scientist I was hectoring, Daniel Levitin, was talking about artists who consciously base their music on equalization or synth textures, a la the Detroit techno guys. He means monster hits, which I maintain rely as much on the marketing of personality and yes, old fashioned musical hooks. A good case in point was Cher's "Believe," to which the Times devoted an anatomy-of-a-chart-topper story several years ago. It was quite funny: Cher came off as the grumpy CEO of her corporate musical enterprise, complaining at development meetings to the teams that had various parts of the song parceled out to them. Seems they had the verses in the pipeline for six years but the chorus was eluding them (or maybe the reverse). She admonished one team to "go out and get more pain in their lives" to develop an effective hook. Someone had some weak lines and tried them with the vocoder and the rest is musical history. So, yes, timbre put the song over the top but the hit also resulted from nuts and bolts Tin Pan Alley songwriting. The acoustic scientist Levitin has discovered an interesting fact about current music but is announcing it as a principle. And no offense to anyone in a lab about the dig in the last post--my point is mainly that art is its own kind of rocket science but journalists love to dumb it down by reducing it to something quantifiable.
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.”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).
“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.”
Happy New Year.
Some thoughts on the amorphous middle ground between between the hissing, honking, and chittering of academic electronic music and the clicks, stabs, and skronks of its club-based variants.
Princeton professor and computer music pioneer Paul Lansky helped lay the groundwork for the economically thriving business of digital sound manipulation, which now includes the time stretching, spectral analysis, morphing techniques being routinely plied at software synthesizer companies like Steinberg and Native Instruments, as further hacked and jacked on thousands of home computer workstations. Lansky's essay The Importance of Being Digital could be a blueprint, or manifesto, for scenesters currently laboring in the trenches. Drawing on his own experience making music with mainframe computers in the '70s, Lansky presents the case for digital production with a theoretical heft usually lacking in chatboard discussions, which are mostly concerned with technical problem-solving: especially compelling is his consideration, based on film theory, of where sound is "located" and the fictions we accept as listeners. Lansky also shines in the studio: hear, for example, his "Night Traffic," 1990 (scroll down for excerpt), which digitally adds pitch and timbre information to the sounds of cars barreling hither and thither on a four lane highway, creating original, listenable music that is both powerful and oddly poignant. Lansky's gravitas and command of the Western tonal pallette puts this closer to the symphonic tradition than any one-off formal experiment.
For a "pop" mirror to Lansky's essay, consider the following review from amazon.com. The topic is the CD Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center 1961-1973. A reviewer obviously steeped in that electronic music that evolved out of the club scene--now a kind of parallel universe to the academic camp that is arguably just as vital (see previous posts on the music at Reaktions.com)--yells back across the wormhole to musicians of Lansky's generation who worked with Wollensak tape recorders and refrigerator-sized computers. The review merits sociological attention for the language accommodations the writer makes to explain the academy's music to his own tribe (or I should say, "our own")--mostly cheeky apologies but some deft rock-crit turns of phrase. Lansky, for his part, has made overtures to the popsters from his side of the wormhole, name-checking Autechre and Radiohead (the latter of whom sampled him).
OK, first off, these folks are writing art music, not pop. In fact, they're the folks who brought you "Who Cares If You Listen?" So it's their job not to sound dated, quaint, or collectible, even 30 years (and thousands of Dr. Sample units) later. How well did they do?Some additional thoughts here.
Well, the effect on a dance music-drenched listener like me is kinda like sensory deprivation but more fun. The reptile in my hindbrain hears the electronic tones and expects prominent beat, lots of repetition, and a climactic hook or two. When it fails to get what it expects it zones out, and lets me concentrate on more abstruse things like musical structure, drama, emotion, you know, all the edifying stuff.
All the tracks (sorry, compositions) have that Columbia-Princeton "sound" - sort of a silky, bubbly deluge of myriads of hand-spliced tape snippets and oscillator calibrations. You get the feeling there's a lot of complexity behind the scenes. Despite risk of extra-musical contamination, it's hard to resist looking in the back of the book to find out how they made these pieces.
My favorites follow, your mileage may vary. Charles Dodge's "The Earth's Magnetic Field" features geomagnetic data converted to pitches and sent through a comb filter (a.k.a. flanger with LFO turned off - think Skysaw). "Cortez" by Ingram Marshall is one of those "see how far you can get with one sample" exercises, in this case the syllable "Oh". I like the way things suddenly sweep into focus when the context is revealed. "Out Of Into" by Bulent Arel and Daria Semegen is the soundtrack to an animation, full of fun melodic lines and evocative, dancing timbres. Even my inner reptile liked it.
--John R. Hodgkinson
Jason Uechi's interview with Lansky from '95 (revived in response to this post--cool!) here.
"Everyone Fights, No One Quits" [mp3 removed]
The beat is simple but has a strong forward drive--it's one of the first times I've actually liked the bitcrusher-type effect. The "main melody" is the Oki Computer 2, which I am finally starting to understand the guts of. It is a purely digital instrument that for its oscillator uses a up to 16 optional waveforms--as a cursor moves horizontally through them, each morphs into the sound of the one adjacent to it. Moving the slider rapidly back and forth results in interesting timbres. These are further shaped by a sequencer, envelope generators, and LFOs--all of which can also modulate the cursor position. Contrasting with the Oki in this piece are analog sounds that are heavily LFO'd and appear to wax and wane randomly.
In his book on rave culture, Generation E, Simon Reynolds bemoans the inadequacy of rock criticism to describe/interpret dance music: "The materials with which the techno auteur works--timbre/texture, rhythm, and space--are precisely the elements that rock criticism ignores in favor of meaning, which is extracted almost exclusively from close study of lyrics and persona. Rock critics use techniques borrowed from literary criticism or sociology to interpret rock in terms of the singer's biography/neurosis or the music's social relevance. Devoid of text, dance music and ambient are better understood through metaphors from the visual arts: 'the soundscape,' 'aural decor,' 'a soundtrack for an imaginary movie,' 'audio-sculpture.'"
If only visual arts criticism were concerned with talking intelligently about "timbre/texture, rhythm, and space"! Unfortunately art critics do the same thing with art that Reynolds says rock critics do with dance music: they ignore the perceptual phenomena and start hunting for texts. If they're not up to the job of supplying verbal equivalents for visual experience (and most of them aren't), they're likely to dismiss the art as vapid eye candy. Gradually artists, too, give up, and begin to make work with "text," either imbedded in the piece so critics can "discover" it, or overtly expressed so that it can be parroted in reviews. A sign of the mass resignation of artists to curatorial/critical preferences is the December Artforum cover, which shows thumbnails of the "Best of 2001." It is telling that out of fifteen images, the cover features only one painting (by Luc Tuymans) and one sculpture/installation (by Thomas Hirschhorn) and the rest of it's basically photography.
Writers feel more comfortable talking about photography because it's a storytelling medium, as well as the language of "the media." Yet some of the most interesting artworks being made are closer to electronic dance music--abstract, evocative experiences that one could spend days coming up with metaphors to describe. (Examples are some of the digital paintings discussed elsewhere this log; the logic even extends to more traditional abstract painting by Albert Oehlen, Carl Ostendarp, and Sarah Morris--all of whom have excellent shows up in Manhattan right now.) This isn't "stupid" work--if anything it's smarter because of the convolutions it goes through to defeat precise description. But that's its Catch-22; the better it succeeds in rendering the viewer speechless, the less likely it is to find an intelligent critical advocate.