From The Archives: Answering Machine Music

by Thomas Brett

About eight years ago, I composed three electronic music pieces, This Would Be The Time, Have You Any Thoughts?, and All About Affect. The pieces are built around the sampled sounds of voice recordings left on my answering machine. (Do you remember answering machines?)  There is nothing new in this: French radio engineer Pierre Schaeffer explored the idea of making music from recorded environmental sounds over sixty years ago with his musique concrète and musicians have been sampling the voice for decades.

This Would Be The Time. The first piece takes its title from words spoken in a message left by my friend Fred. Fred–who loves to talk (to people and answering machines)–left a message that sounded, to my ears, like an aphorism of ambiguous and circular meaning, thus carrying with it slightly eerie overtones. This is what he said:

“This would be the time, if there were a time, this would be that time.”

I found his delivery quite musical–full of dramatic pauses, emphasized words, and somehow imbued with a weighty sense of dread.

I built a mid-tempo funk groove around the sample. Okay, not funk exactly: more a cartoon imagining of Herbie Hancock playing jazz-funk on a Wurlitzer electric piano circa the 1973/Headhunters era. Besides the “funky” keyboards, there are drums, guitar, strings, some electronic blip sounds, and horns.  The sounds are all sampled presets and played by me on a keyboard. I arranged This Would Be Time by copying the vocal sample numerous times and placing it within the groove. Had I been more adventurous, knowing, and ambitious at the time, I might have transformed Fred’s voice by transposing it or severely processing it somehow. But my interest was elsewhere. All I did to the voice was add reverb.

It’s only at the very end of the piece that the full message Fred left on my answering machine reveals itself:

“This would be the time, if there were a time, this would be that time that we would speak, were you there, or calling in for your messages precisely now to call me, virtually at this moment.  Ah . . . that is, if all is right in the world, this would be the time.  So: to be continued.”

Have You Any Thoughts?  The title of this piece also comes from a message Fred left on my answering machine.  But this time, Fred’s voice is joined by the voices of three friends (Todd, Elias, and Njoroge) and mom. In all, there are five vocal samples in the piece. A bit of background: At the time that everyone left their messages, I had some ambient electronic music I had composed as the greeting on my answering machine. The music for Have You Any Thoughts is not this ambient music but rather a soundtrack to the various reactions it elicited among friends and family.

Have You Any Thoughts? is a humorous piece, in part because what the sampled voices are saying is so polarized. Here, mom waxes on and on about how she enjoyed listening to the music, while Njoroge is just irritated by the sound (“I hate your f***ing answering machine”), Todd is deeply amused, triggering his own fits of laughter (“I was going to say something about the elevator music, but then I realized that it might be one of your compositions”), Elias hears it as an encouraging sign (“I think it’s good that you have music on your answering machine.  It means you’re getting cocky”), while Fred wonders aloud into the aether (“Thoughts, Tom?  Thoughts?  Have you any thoughts?”) The piece pits the voices against one another, each making their case for the significance or annoyance of my answering machine music. Underneath these voices I scored another mid-tempo, faux funk piece.  The music sounds square and it creates the sense that this is the music the voices are responding to.

All About Affect.  This piece is built around another sample of Fred’s voice but is sparser in its orchestration. And unlike the other pieces, All About Affect uses the voice sample as the main melody, doubling it with a bass, and later, with horns. The instrumentation also includes a zither, percussion, and piano.  The piece has a lot of space in it, takes its time to develop, and then diminishes to a close.

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These answering machine pieces are in some ways less about the music per se, and more about highlighting or framing what I think are three important ideas expressed in the track titles.  This Would Be The Time is about the fleetingness of time and how a small window of time can appear and then be gone. The voice on this piece represents a presence meeting an absence–a missed opportunity for conversation. Have You Any Thoughts? cuts to the chase and asks us if we have anything interesting, anything substantive, on our minds at this very moment.  Don’t mind the hype (“I’m just breathless . . .”) or the naysayers (“I was going to comment on the elevator music . . .”)–the real issues are: Can you concentrate?  Can you do it right now?  Have you any thoughts?  (Cue to R. Buckminster Fuller: “I always say to myself: What is the most important thing we can think about at this extraordinary moment?”) Finally, All About Affect is a reminder that, in music at least, the most important thing is whether or not a piece makes us feel something, whether or not it affects us in some way, whether or not it has affect. Moving outwards from music, other experiences–telling a story, making a joke, delivering a flavor–have a better chance of shaping us too if they can also make us feel something.  Affect is a vehicle for ideas and also a very real thing in itself.

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