“It’s a sequence of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth. The rhythm is usually straight 8th-notes, but it may start on the downbeat or on the upbeat in different songs. A singer usually belts these notes with an ‘Oh’ phoneme, often in a ‘Wa-oh-wa-oh’ pattern. And it is in so many pop songs it’s criminal…The Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe.”
“But taste is not only about flavor. The word taste is derived from the Latin word taxare: to touch, to value, to judge. Its culinary meaning was secondary, overlaid. More broadly, taste also came to indicate a preference, and eventually a value judgment. The style of food preferred by European nobility began to change because spices were no longer in good taste…To understand that all good cooking is equal is to understand that all people are equal. We can change how we value flavor, by becoming aware of the roots of our biases, and by reaching beyond them.”
“We are good at walking and running, and we are happy lying down when we sleep. It is the in-between position that is the problem. This is true even if we sit on the ground—as attested by the variety of pads, bolsters, armrests, and cushions used by floor-sitting cultures. It is even truer when we choose to sit on a chair. Every chair represents a struggle to resolve the conflict between gravity and the human anatomy. Sitting up is always a challenge.”
“Timbre, more than any other parameter, appears to constitute the nature of sound itself…It is the very vibratory essence that puts the world of sound in motion and reminds us, as individuals, that we are alive, sentient and experiencing. As the essence of individual sonic events, timbre speaks to the nexus of experience that ultimately constitutes us all as individuals. The texture, the grain, the tactile quality of sound brings the world into us and reminds us of the social relatedness of humanity.”
-John Shepherd, in Music and Society, p. 158.
If you can access it somewhere online, listen to Clark’s “Cryogenic.”
This piece tells you all you need to know about timbre. It’s a string section sound–sort of, but maybe not, not exactly. It’s as if the strings were fed through a chain of effects to alter their identity just enough to make them recognizable yet different. There’s a (tape?) wobble to them, an aged patina like that provided by an overlayed Instagram filter. And there’s a degraded quality to the wobble–cracks in its sound veneer, a wabi-sabi quality. And the wobbling, cracking sound floats on a liquid reverbed resonance that provides a sense of deep stereo space. And don’t forget those chords–ever so faintly Satie-esque, but without the Gymnopédie-piano sound to anchor them. With this aged, maybe, maybe-not string sound, the chords seem vaster than they are.
What can you learn from this? The piece tells you that timbre is a conjuring force in music, placing you in the midst of a suggested imaginary that weaves its enchantment in direct proportion to how much the imaginary differs from the reality of the sounds you already know. Where is this place that Clark is timbre-painting? A cave? A frozen landscape? A half-reconstructed memory? How is it that timbre can describe and say so much?
“I had to bust up the silence.” – Drake, “One Dance” (2016)
That Drake song is playing again—it’s always playing when I’m at the gym. Do I like it? I’m not sure. Does that matter? Nope. But I’m already humming it.
The kick drum is so prominent, so artificial in its bass contours, in its sub wobble, the way it seems jump out to fill the whole room even though the speaker on the ceiling is so small. It’s a super drum: I’ve never heard a real, acoustic drum sound like this. Maybe the sample is four drums into one? Or maybe it’s about the mix: How did they mix this song? What magical compressor-expander did they put on everything to make the sound spectrum so tall, so exaggeratedly long from its low frequencies to its highs? Music invites so many questions.
“One Dance” features the vocals of Kyla, a British house music singer. Actually, her vocal is a sample from her own 2008 song, “Do You Mind.” (See video below.) At times she sounds slightly out of tune and is left that way–it conveys being susceptible or vulnerable or not quite in control. Her sound is sampled because it sounds flirty, as if she’s interested in being here with Drake in this new context. Anyway, Kyla has such a tiny role on this song—all she gets to say, a few times, is Baby, I like your style. Meanwhile Drake is enthusiastically describing the scene at the club where he is having one last dance while talking, talking, talking—Grips on your waist/front way, back way/you know that I don’t play—while we can imagine Kyla smiling a polite frozen smile (who is this guy?) waiting for her chance to say her five words again when her interlocutor finally shuts up. The vocal conversation, such as it is, isn’t balanced, is it?
I try a few dips and keep listening. “Once Dance” has a tempo of about 104 beats per minute and a dancehall-esque beat. The tempo and easy syncopation give it a global appeal—it’s not too fast, but it does hum along, pleasantly. (The song hit number one in numerous countries.) Drake sings/melo-raps so softly within such a limited melodic range that it conjures him humming in the backseat of a car. I imagine the car is air-conditioned and the singer is on his way to the airport to go to a gig. Even better: he’s singing along to this very song which is playing on the car radio at this very moment, creating this interesting double-vocal effect that catches the attention of his driver who glances back through the rear-view mirror, smiling. This scenario comes to mind because there’s little else in “One Dance” to grab hold of as I listen while sitting on a weight machine, contemplating my next moves of resistance. Well, there’s those short little sampled piano stabs with their vintage slap-back echo glued to create a little fleeing resonance in the song. Everything else is so dry and up front.
What do we do with music like this when we encounter it, so dry and up front, over and over in public places? Can we use it, harnessing whatever power it might have? And if so, how do we do that? Can we imagine ourselves within its narrative? (No.) Is it a mini-movie in sound? (Sort of!) Are our memories surreptitiously attaching themselves to the song’s contours right this very moment, to be later unleashed years down the road, long after the song has outlived its relevance but not its circulation? (Oh I remember that song, you’ll say, remembering almost nothing to go along with it, surprised that your sense of recognition could float free of specific meanings like that.) Sometimes it’s worth thinking about such things when you have no choice as to the music you’re exposed to—like right now at the gym where I’m listening despite myself.
Today’s lesson then: every tiny moment of musical action can be exploded through analysis, leaps of association, and sometimes, insight.
“It’s a strange notion, this: digitisation has become so comprehensive and penetrating it is now able to express the fundamental categories within which we perceive reality itself–but of course this is merely an image, like any other.”
• An article about sound collecting.
“Everyone should listen more. But they should just start with what they’ve got. I’ve traveled a lot, but still the most awesome sound I’ve ever heard—the most beautiful, the most rich, the most musical—is the blackbirds in my garden.”
“This experiential music is the one I can speak about with certainty.”
– Sarah Bakewell, At The Existentialist Cafe, p. 41.
“If I want to tell you about a heart-rending piece of music, phenomenology enables me to describe it as a moving piece of music, rather than as a set of string vibrations and mathematical note relationships on which I have pinned a personal emotion. Melancholy music is melancholy; a sweet air is a sweet air; these descriptions are fundamental to what music is. Indeed, we do talk about music phenomenologically all the time. Even if I describe a sequence of notes as going ‘up’ or ‘down’, this has less to do with what the sound waves are doing (which is becoming more or less frequent, and longer or shorter) than with how the music plays out in my mind. I hear the notes climbing up an invisible ladder. I almost physically rise in my chair as I listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’; my very soul takes flight. That’s not just me: it is what the music is” (42).
“A new study finds that toddlers have trouble learning words when there’s too much background noise…’It’s not that everything needs to be in quiet, but that at least some of the day the children should have an opportunity to hear language where there aren’t lots of other sounds in the background,’ such as TVs, radios, loud toys, or media devices.”
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