On The Ambiguous Appeal Of The Musically Worn


As I produce a track I’m constantly looking for ways alter its sounds so that they’re damaged and unclear, and some of my favorite effects processing plug-ins are those that destroy or roughen what is pristine and soft to make it more textured and fascinating to listen to. An analogy of the radio dial comes to mind. You may remember back in the day twisting the knob to move between different stations. As you left the precise frequency range of one station, the clarity of the music would be replaced by a lonely mix of white noise, hiss, and static as you searched for the next in-range station along the frequency spectrum. I used to make cassette recordings of my radio dial-twisting movements when I was a teenager. I loved finding those precise locations where the signals of not one but two different stations overlapped and I could hear two broadcasts at once—sort of like a DJ’s mixing two different records. On a few occasions I hit upon interesting juxtapositions—where say, a New Age guitar chord would mix with a voice or a jazz trio in just the right way. I recorded these accidents and when I played them back to listen to, it was the liminal, performative moment of hearing one sound disappear into or layer with another that I considered my composing contribution. Even though I didn’t create the cool juxtaposition, I was surely the first person to encounter it in just this way. It was the ambiguity of the two radio stations mixing together that sounded fascinating, and my noticing that ambiguity helped me understand composing music as an activity extending beyond organizing notes.

Back to plug-ins: I like software that destroys, distorts, or heavily saturates sounds to create an ambiguity that is similar to what I heard when I twisted the dial between radio stations. Ambiguity is fascinating in that it requires the listener to piece together what is partially cracked or broken or in some way unclear—in other words, to “resolve” the sound back into coherence. In communications theory terms, we would speak of the balance of signal (information) and noise (interference) within a specified bandwidth. Too much clear signal and the music is boring, but too much noise and the music is obfuscation and incoherent. Negotiating signal and noise is what that old game of Telephone was all about too, right?     

Another analogy: imagine hearing a I-V-I chord progression, but instead of the second I chord you hear something a little off, tonally speaking. Your ears are expecting that reliable I chord and so almost fills it in, while the actual sound you hear is stubbornly and ambiguously something else (for instance, maybe it’s a I chord decorated with dissonances). Here, the music is asking you to help make its sense and I love that. Of course, extreme ambiguity—like a wall of noise—is often frustrating to listen to because there will never be a clear interpretative way through the thicket. Speaking for myself, I want a challenge, but not an impossible task. The Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, which I’ve talked about elsewhere, comes to mind. Wabi means rustic simplicity, while sabi means beauty that comes with age and is visible through an object’s patina and wear. With software, a producer can add layers of ambiguity to sounds that sound and feel similar to how time and the elements age an object in a pleasing way.