From The Hard Drive: Backing Up Old Voices

by Thomas Brett

This is supposed to be a funny post.

As I was dutifully backing up and copying thousands of old files from a dusty desktop computer on New Year’s (I’m preparing to bury the computer in my closet—which, by the way, is starting to resemble one of those small cars out of which an implausible number of clowns are packed in), I came across an MP3 that made me laugh. The piece is called “Have You Any Thoughts.”  It’s part of a trio of compositions I wrote ten years ago based on voice messages left on my answering machine.

Does anyone remember answering machines?  The little plastic box kind that sat next to your phone?

“Have You Any Thoughts” features the talking voices of a few different folks who encountered music I had recorded onto my answering machine as a greeting message.  (I was trying to be cool.) I thought the music was okay–it was an excerpt from some electronic thing I had been working on–but the callers had varying opinions. This just goes to show how one set of sounds can inspire wildly different reactions in different listeners. It may also say something about the kinds of friends I keep.

There are a few humorous things about his piece. The voices are extracted from their initial contexts (the answering machine), their judgements–good, bad, or indifferent–revealed, sampled, and repeated. The voices are fun to listen to because each one captures a different kind of humor: unintentional humor, vicious humor, deadpan/dry humor, sarcastic humor, and plain strange, out-there humor. Each voice is sure of itself, sure of its perspective and what it’s saying, so juxtaposing all of the voices together heightens the overall humor quotient. The music I wrote around these voices is humorous too: you could call it cheesy, faux funk. All the parts–the piano, the organ, the drums, the horns, the twangy guitar–were played on a MIDI keyboard using generic preset sounds.

By the way, one of the voices on “Have You Any Thoughts”—the voice that asks, “Thoughts, have you any thoughts?” and then breaks out into spirited solfege singing—is that of my friend Fred, a teacher and ney player in Boston. To Fred’s credit, he’s figured out a way to use this music (as well as two other compositions of mine) as pedagogical tools in the college classroom to inspire discussions on voice, affect, humor, and other topics that only someone like Fred can conjure, taksim-like, out of thin air.

Here is the piece:

You can read more about the Answering Machine pieces here.

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