My Month In Sound: September 2023
A monthly roundup of discoveries, oddities, songs, and sounds.
Susan Rogers (with Ogi Ogas) // This Is What It Sounds Like
Currently reading this book by Prince’s longtime recording engineer and now a neuroscientist. Some thoughts:
*In analog recording, sound waves sink into the storage medium (i.e., tape) the same way light waves saturate the emulsion of film stock. Rogers points out how drum cymbals smoothly “decay into the whisper of tape hiss or the soft chaos of background noise.” In digital recording—where the sound wave is actually sampled and reconstructed in a non-linear pattern, and where tape hiss is not present—“cymbals abruptly plunge into a blank void of nothingness.” I’m an analog/digital agnostic—I like the strengths of both mediums. Yet this feels quasi-spiritual (and perhaps this is why analog fetishists can be so fevered and dogmatic). In analog recording, sound is social. It’s in conversation with all of the sounds around it and can’t truly be separated from the background hiss because it’s physically embedded in the tape. In digital recording, sound is individualized. Each sound is discrete from all of the surrounding sounds, floating, ghost-like. It’s like looking back at the earth and seeing it suspended in all that impossible blackness. This also helps explain why mixing analog sources can be easier than digital because the sound waves are naturally unified to begin with.
It used to be that performance was the paramount thing in recording: getting a truthful picture of what the band or artist sounds like playing in a room. In modern recording, it’s the idea that’s most important. On modern records, you don’t necessarily imagine the band or artist performing the song in a space. And yet, with all of this sonic freedom, why are so many musical ideas right now so…ho-hum? Why are melodies and song structures still so middle-of-the road, or rooted in winking at past recordings? This leads to the next idea…_
*Rogers writes how calling up autobiographical memories in our heads leads to nostalgic feelings, which actually give us “relief from loneliness.” Years ago, I read Simon Reynolds’ polemic Retromania, about how current music, culture, and fashion was abnormally obsessed with the recent past. His theory pointed to the internet: this vast technology that allows all of us to time travel as a daily existence. But after reading Rogers, the theory is expanded: our addiction to nostalgia is relief from loneliness. The internet has made us all lonelier, and it’s subtly reflected in cultural stagnation. Makes me want to read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Kristen Radtke’s Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, two books that I think speak to this.
*On modern recordings, singers’ breaths are often edited out. This art form that is so intrinsically based on breathing is ashamed of the sound of its own breath. Another fitting metaphor/cultural indicator.
*Rogers writes that when she worked with Prince, she witnessed the sackfuls of fan mail he’d receive. She shares the same realization I had a few years ago: the sheer commitment and artistry it’d take to be a fan in pre-digital times. “Today, a fan might take a few seconds to tweet an artist or post a comment on their Facebook page. But back then, every piece of fan mail represented a major commitment. A fan had to track down Prince’s address (no easy feat before the internet); find paper, an envelope, and a stamp; write out her sentiments by hand (starting all over if there were any mistakes); decorate the envelope to help its chances of getting noticed; and physically drop the letter in a mailbox—all without any guarantee that anyone, much less Prince, would ever read it. Someone would put in that much effort only if they felt an unquenchable need to express their feeling of connection to Prince’s music…The authors [of the fan mail] weren’t asking Prince for anything. They just wanted to say that they identified with him—that his words spoke to them and for them.”
Last year, I watched Judd Apatow’s George Carlin documentary, and one of the most striking images was the fan mail Carlin received: handwritten, decorated, collaged, emotional works of art and connection. This is the true legacy and poverty of social media. It removes the unique, personalized element through its “frictionless” design (in the social media world, humans are “frictional” and need to be corrected/avoided/smoothed over). Yes, it took “work” to write fan mail in the pre-digital days, but that work wasn’t valueless. It was the whole damn point! And why else are we put here on this planet if not to make meaning from our lives? To put in that work is a pure human expression of living.
I listened to a few episodes of this podcast when it first came out, but I stopped out of professional and creative jealousy. It’s an idea I wish I’d come up with! And as a songwriter/producer, it was hard not to compare/despair about my own work in relation to the exploded songs.
But my friend Austin Kleon recently recommended this episode to me since we were talking about Jock Jams (there’s a brief mention of how Jock Jams influenced some of the rhythms on “Take Me Out”). Alex Kapranos, the band’s lead singer and co-songwriter, reveals the strange mélange of inspirations that went into creating the song: Jock Jams, a pre-programmed “bluegrass” melody on a midi keyboard, the WWII sniper film Enemy At The Gates, and the music of Howlin’ Wolf. I never would’ve guessed about the Howlin’ Wolf connection, but Kapranos talks about the call-and-response between Wolf’s vocals and Hubert Sumlin’s guitar on songs like “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline).” You can totally hear that now in “Take Me Out,” the divebombing guitar mimicking the melody line. Good songwriters steal, great songwriters steal from a lot of disparate sources.
The song is also a bizarre smashing together of two structural ideas that the band couldn’t rectify: should it be played fast or slow? Why not both? It starts with all the verses up front, played quickly, then slows down and plays all the choruses and bridges. What an extraordinary song.
It also got me excited again about Howlin’ Wolf and his band. Sumlin was an idiosyncratic guitarist who always sounded off: offkey, offtempo, offkilter. The band follows suit, like on “No Place To Go.” It’s hard to find the downbeat because the drummer is playing the kick only on the four: one-two-three-FOUR. The rest of the instruments are playing these short, repetitive chunks that all interlock in this oddly mechanized way, with accents on the one and four. And yet, the song grooves. I wonder if there was a Chicago connection here, a bluesy way to point at the industrialized rhythms of the city. Thirty years later, house music came out of Chicago, and I’m hearing a primal version of it on this song.
Tirzah // “Promises”
New music to me, from this English singer and songwriter. I was in a particularly long musical rut this month, just wanting some new sound or expression I’ve never heard before. Tirzah delivers. She works with Mica Levi, known for her warped music as Micachu. This entire album uses the same drum beat and these spooky, faraway piano chords. It’s really weird, but really soulful and aching.
Driving home, listening to 102.3 FM, a pop station in Austin. An ad comes on for the station’s big ACL Fest ticket giveaway, featuring a woman’s voice doing that commercial radio “sexy voice” thing: “ACL Fest is back, and it’s in Austin’s backyard—Ziker Park.”
I doubled over laughing. It’s Zilker Park. I mean, if all of your employees live in New York or L.A., at least make sure you know how to spell and say the venue you’re giving away tickets to.