The Sonic Spell: Six Components Of Musical Enchantment

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enchantment—the state of being under a spell

“Technical processes…are construed magically so that, by enchanting us, they make the products of these technical processes seem enchanted vessels of magical power.”
– Alfred Gell,
“The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology”
in Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics (1992), p. 46

For a while I’ve been rather obsessed with, or at least consciously committed to, the idea of enchantment in music, trying to figure out what creates it for me and how I might reliably generate it in my work. But enchantment is a moving target. There’s as many kinds of musical enchantment as there are musics, and one persons’s sonic spell is another’s enuit or annoyance. Still, I persist trying to unpack how the enchantment idea plays out generally in the musics that I return to over and over because they feel so good.

Inspired by the late anthropologist Alfred Gell, who wrote groundbreaking articles on enchantment (notes on which I re-read every now and then), I’ve been thinking about music production as a technical process whose products we interpret as enchanted vessels of magical power. Come to think of it, I never understood when an artist cited inspiration as being more pivotal to their process than experimentation and iteration, and when they won’t not admit that art-making is essentially a technical process, or at least a craft. As with so many things in the world we want to learn more about, we can just look at what artists do to figure out how they work: most of them do an awful lot of trying things out, and then some of that trying they later deem the product of inspiration. Still, enchantment is a tangible thing that you can feel, not unlike the realness of physical beauty’s symmetries and proportions or the realness of someone’s sense of humor. Not only is enchantment tangible, it may the X factor that determines whether or not a music has any life to it.

I distill musical enchantment into a few key components, musical examples of which you can fill in for yourself.

Ambiguity. I love ambiguity, obliqueness, and certain kinds of uncertainty. I like it when the music is ambiguous as to what it’s trying to say and how it’s saying it. I like it when its forms and movements and shifts aren’t so obvious. I like it when it asks you to bring something to the what does it mean? party.

Surprise. I like it when the music surprises me through a sudden shift, unusual chord (what comes before and after the chord changes everything), or deceptive rhythm. I like it when I thought the music was doing one thing, only to find that it’s now doing something else. As I wonder how did that happen? the music weaves its enchantment.

Reassuring Stasis. I like it when music stays put for a while and enjoys being what it is, without need to “go” somewhere. I like music that explores the state it’s in. Stasis, of course, can easily slip into oh-my-god-this-is-sooo-b-o-r-i-n-g music, so this component of enchantment benefits from being tempered by other qualities, such as ambiguity or surprise.

Kinetic Action. I like it when the music moves and sparkles with rhythmic life, when it dances around on its own energies, when it’s syncopated, hocketting, call and responsing, filling in its beat holes, when what you thought was the downbeat is actually the upbeat. The timeless textbook for this kind of action is the traditional polyrhythmic drumming traditions from West Africa. These traditions figured out long ago how to make rhythm sparkle, and the concepts embodied in their musics are still teaching the rest of the world’s musics how to move.  

Timbral Depth. I like it when the music has striking contrasts of timbre. Sure, a voice and acoustic guitar duet makes a decent contrast, but there’s so many more timbres available, especially to one working with digital music tools. Music with rich contrasts immediately has a sense of depth and depth is enchanting. This reminds me of that classic musician’s compliment: Her playing is so deep, man.

Less Is More. I like it when the music does a lot with a little—when it conjures enchantment through the barest of materials to create ambiguity, surprise, reassuring stasis, kinetic action, and timbral depth. Doing a lot with a little requires a careful thinking through of one’s compositional materials and figuring out how to derive maximum musicality from a minimal of means. Following Gell in his discussion on enchantment, the essential alchemy of making art “is to make what is not out of what is, and to make what is out of what is not” (53).

 

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With A Subway Musician

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Subway Musician: People rarely pay attention when I’m playing music.

Tom: Oh, okay, I guess we’ve already begun our conversation!

SM: Everyone is always rushing by and no one has time for music.

T: I would love to hear more about that.
But first, thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

SM: No problem.

T: What instrument do you play? 

SM: I play hammer dulcimer.

T: Nice. What kind of music do you make?

SM: I guess you could call it improvised modal music. I
kind of make it up as so go along and my style is a work in progress.

T: Modal–meaning you stick to one scale at a time?

SM: Yeah, because of how the instrument is laid out, tuning-wise.

T: I like dulcimers because they’re a combination of a drum and a melodic instrument. Best of both worlds.

SM: For sure.

T: How do your pieces work?

SM: Usually my hands find a rhythm that they like and then melodies and themes come out of that.

T: Like you’re drumming on the strings?

SM: Exactly. It can take me a while to get something going,
but once I do it takes on a life of its own.
I’ll go for like ten minutes at a time, sometimes longer.

T: Nice.
So let’s return to why you think people don’t pay attention.
Is it because of the style of your music?

SM: It could be, but I think there’s something else going on.

T: Like what?

SM: Well first of all, almost everyone wears headphones now. 

T: (Fidgeting with ear buds.) Right, right.
So they don’t even hear you.

SM: Yeah. 

T: What about those who do hear you?

SM: Sometimes they listen for a bit, but it’s hard to get a read on them.
Sometimes I feel like they’re wondering why I’m even playing in the first place.
Like they’re curious about the spectacle of live music.

T: That’s an interesting way to describe music performance.
I hadn’t thought about it that way. 

SM: Yeah.
It’s like I’m interrupting their everyday lives—
sort of breaking down some imaginary wall that exists between us.
And that makes most people uncomfortable.

T: That’s an even more interesting idea about music. Tell me more.

SM: Well, I have this theory that even although almost everyone is too busy to actually listen,
they need me—they need music—to interrupt their routine lives.

T: Hmm.

SM: They’re desperate for a real acoustic musical interaction,
right this very moment, as they hurry by.
I’m game to try to hold up my end of the bargain,
but most people aren’t into it.

T: Who are the exceptions?

SM: Sometimes very young kids or crazy-looking adults. 

T: Oh?

SM: They get it.
They get music because they’re uninhibited and the sounds get through to them.
The sounds penetrate the walls they don’t have around them
because they haven’t been socialized like that.
They smile at my rhythms and melodies.
They dance to my drumming.
And they get that the music really takes off when they participate with it. 

Tom: Wow. Well put.

SM: You know what the best part is?

Tom: What?

SM: That moment when the parent drags the kid away,
as if saying, come on, enough of this nonsense.
Or when I see others judging the crazy-looking adults for how they’re responding.
You can just feel the crushing weight of a collective lack of responsiveness setting in.

Tom: What do you do when you see this happening? Do you stop playing?

SM: No! I play louder and smile because I got all the confirmation I need.
Music is magical.
Music is awesome.

Tom: That it is! Thanks again for talking with me.

SM: Anytime.

(More Ventrilo-Dialogues here.)

On Musical Perspective, Depth, And Enchantment In A Mix

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While I’m not a visual listener (and definitely not a synesthetic one), I do think about mixes as a landscape that unfolds over time, as you, the listener, ride through it on your the vehicle (bicycle, scooter, car) that is your hearing, your perception, your taste. You notice so many things as the landscape wizzes by. In the foreground, the lines on the pavement and the small trees that line road are a blur of activity. In the distance, rolling hills and forests pass more slowly. And far on the horizon motionless mountains meet the still sky. The whole scene is bathed in sunlight, but it’s late in the day and there are a few scattered clouds about, so the light is changing slowly but subtly, bright over here but casting shadows there. When you look around you from the perspective of your moving self through the landscape that is the music, you notice various musical things happening on different timescales. Each rate of happening here provides you with a perspective on what is happening over there. Taken together, the passing road, rolling hills, motionless sky, and play of light create a sense of ever-changing depth in the visual mix you experience as you move through it.

With this image of the mix as a landscape in mind, your most impactful production technique is to exercise as much control as possible on as many sound qualities that you can perceive in the mix as it unfolds over time. The goal is not control for control’s sake, but control for the sake of creating enchantment. Enchantment in a mix can happen in many ways, but its most essential form is a mix that conjures that sense of 3D depth you experienced in the landscape as you moved through it. At minimum you need to create a perspective whereby some sounds are up front and some at the back, some in the center and some off to the sides, some sounding quite clear and present while others more indistinct and faded. A surprising amount of this perspective can be created simply through careful adjustments to the volume, EQ, and panning of parts so that they inhabit the stereo field that is the space between the Left and Right sides of the speakers (or those little earbuds you may be wearing right now). 

You can make more subtle adjustments to the mix’s perspective through more elaborate means. In general, “bright” sounds are sounds with a lot of high frequency content and percussive onsets (e.g. a high bell sound). These sounds tend to sound both thinner and physically closer to the listener. “Dull” sounds are sounds with more low frequency content and less pronounced onsets (e.g. a low pad sound). These sounds tend to sound thicker and further away from the listener. Most (though not all) mixes have some combination of such bright/thin and dull/warm sounds to “fill out” the sonic frequency spectrum in a pleasing way. Your subtle adjustments can play with the typical sound profiles of sounds so that they morph and appear to take on new identities and spatial locations in the mix. 

In addition to a sound’s timbre, its inherent pulsations further shapes our sense of the mix’s perceived depth. Consider a simple (if maybe dated) example of a rock band, whose drummer plays a 4/4 rhythm with backbeats on 2 and four, and subdivides the quarter note pulses with 8th note hits on the hi hat. The band’s bass player fills in the beats with the same 8th note thrumming, while the guitar player doubles the time feel with 16th note strums. On top of this, the singer sings long phrases with quarter, half note, and whole note rhythms. All of the musicians take their rhythmic cues from one another, fitting in their parts so that everything subdivides everything else, or at least syncs up somehow. It all makes for a pleasing composite musical textures because the band has at least three different rates of pulsation going on. Their song has some pulsational depth—even before we consider the chords, the melodies, the lyrics, and so on. But an even more interesting example of pulsation is the electronic music producer whose music moves well beyond such syncing relationships so that the music’s multiple parts relate to a common pulse (or not) in elaborate and ever-changing ways. This is achieved by using sequences or loops of different lengths, or through effects that impart oscillation to otherwise static sounds. If done well, these multiple rates of pulsation sound less like a locked clock and more like a flowing landscape, less like a marching band and more like a field of hocketting crickets making “interesting rhythms of astonishing complexity” (David Rothenberg, Bug Music, p. 76).

Finally, in addition to adjusting timbres and pulsations, the producer can use effects such as reverb, delay (echo), and compression to shape how we hear a sound’s presence and its distance from us. Any element in the mix can sound bone dry or drenched wet in reverb, or buoyant and weightless through delay. It can sound heavy and flat, or, when compressed just so, energized to the point that it sounds like it’s ripping apart the speaker cones (or those earbuds you’re wearing). So: using even the most conventional of sound-shaping tools, the producer has many ways to shape the music into a landscape we might like to move through to experience its depths and its enchantments.