On Timbre: Clark’s “Cryogenic”


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“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?

Read an interview with the musician here.

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