Tag Archives: music and the body

Second Guessing

The drums on R.E.M.’s first album Murmur and its follow-up Reckoning sound completely different. I’ve listened to these albums on and off for twenty years, and I hadn’t paid attention to the drums until recently.

Here’s how it happened: I read J. Niimi’s book about Murmur, a delightful exploration of its recording, lyrics, and meanings. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened. Then I read Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever, a book that, among other things, has reminded me how much I haven’t been hearing in the recordings I have. Then I decided to read a bit about how Reckoning was recorded. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened.

And there’s a real difference: Murmur’s drums, recorded in a booth dedicated just to drums, are clean, distinct, a bit tinny–“disco,” according to one source I can’t find any more–and, to my ears, not really worth saying much about. But Reckoning‘s drums are rock-and-roll, strong, and intense. It sounds obvious to me now. I can’t unhear.

But here’s the thing: for years, I’ve always thought of those two records as having the same sound, more than any other R.E.M. records. They were twinsies, with what I’ve always thought of as similar, simple liner notes; similar, simple songs; similar, simple meanings.

How much of that judgment, though, came from my personal history with those two records–my first R.E.M. albums bought on CD, bought at the same time, shelved next to each other, and paired by me (not by them or by the sounds of their drums) as a sort of disc one and two of a double album?

Really, though, it’s more like this: there is indeed a double album effect going on here, but each album is a disc one and me, my body, and my memories are an always-present disc two.

***

Here’s Thomas Rickert: “ambience puts place, language, and body into coadaptive, vital, and buoyant interaction” (via).

Buoyant: it floats. I float. And I float because I’m enmeshed in something else that is denser than I am.

The spine of Reckoning: “File under water.”

***

I didn’t like R.E.M.’s first two albums all that much, at first. I wasn’t really their intended audience, either: I first heard them ten years after they were released, in 1992, when “Drive” from Automatic for the People (album #8) was on the radio stations I was starting to listen to. This was sixth grade, which I musically associate with Automatic, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and Arrested Development’s Three Years. . . . 

Autumn Lockwood told me that R.E.M.’s old stuff was better; she made me a tape of Document (album #5, still something that sounds little like Murmur and Reckoning) plus her favorite two songs from Lifes Rich Pageant (“Superman” and “Swan Swan H”).

I liked it. I slowly decided I should methodically own the whole back-catalog, so I joined and re-joined and re-joined Columbia House and BMG until I had most of their albums on tape and CD.

I remember so much about the look and feel of how that music was packaged: Autumn’s yellow tape sleeve with hand-written song titles; my white Automatic tape; Michael Stipe’s changing face: airbrushed inside Eponymous, wrinkled and wise inside Automatic; my tape of Green so faded from leaving it in cars.

In the context of my rediscovery of this band that everyone else had known for a decade, I always lumped Murmur and Reckoning together as kind of weird sounding, with something distasteful that I couldn’t place. Lifes Rich Pageant somehow sounded right to me, like the R.E.M. I knew singing songs I hadn’t had the privilege to know yet. The first two albums sounded like a different band; they were part of a context I didn’t know anything about (early 80s college rock); they were a swimming pool I had been too young to play in.

But here’s what I wonder: Murmur and Reckoning were my first R.E.M. albums on CD. Was this a band that, for me, was fundamentally tied to the medium of the cassette? Was it wrong, or impossible, for me to enjoy them any other way? And what does it mean that I chose to get their oldest records on the newest recording technologies, like watching a John Wayne movie on Blu-Ray, or watching recordings of old musicals on YouTube, or listening to digital versions of old cylinder recordings?

No, those parallels aren’t right. It was more like taking a river–the entire experience of standing with your feet in a rushing, cold, fresh-smelling river–and shoving the whole thing into a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, and then sipping from the bottle, and then saying that the river isn’t your favorite river of all the rivers.

***

Milner’s book describes a visit he had with Dr. John Diamond, a man convinced that listening to digital audio is physiologically hurting us:

He encouraged all of his patients, no matter what issues they were working through, to make music a regular part of their lives–listening to it, and, if possible, playing it themselves. But recently he had noticed that music did not seem to be doing some of them any good. In fact, it appeared to make their ailments worse. . . .

It didn’t take him long to figure out that many of his patients were listening to records manufactured from digital masters. Could that be the problem? When he could find them, Diamond substituted analog versions of the same songs or pieces–sometimes even by the same performer–and the music once again proved therapeutic.

(via)

***

I know I want to write about R.E.M. and how my memories affect how I’ve heard their music throughout the years.

So naturally, I go to the section on the canon of memory in my dissertation. The first sentence of that section makes me physically jump back a second, because I think it coincidentally mentions R.E.M., but it turns out I’m just seeing it wrong. The sentence actually reads, “When I hear the word memory, I think of computer memory, in terms of hard drive space and RAM.”

This makes me pause. I wasn’t thinking about a computer’s “memory” when I started this post. But as I write, I’m streaming a 1985 R.E.M. concert from Germany in another browser window, a concert I learned about when I tweeted a quote from an online article about the band:

These days, R.E.M. is wrapped into my digital memory just as much as they were ever wrapped into my body’s memory.

***

20th-century composer John Adams once told an interviewer this:

There is a ten-year-old boy (not a student) who comes over to my house every week or so and plays his music for me. He has a MIDI sequencer at home, and his pieces are all polished and notated with his print software. I don’t discourage him for doing that, but I also point out that there’s no substitute for having plain, awesome musical chops: having a great ear, being able to perform well on an instrument, and having a huge, encyclopedic knowledge of music. Composers should know everything.

(via)

***

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been listening to the early R.E.M. albums over and over, checking out the special editions from the library, streaming various shows, reading the lyrics on various websites.

And in a digital, analog, distant, embodied sort of way, I’ve taught myself to love these records. Really, really love them. Eventually, I know I’ll move on to the next records, paying attention to them all in this new way, with headphones and lyric sheets in front of me. But I’m not ready yet. I want more early R.E.M.

(And in the back of my mind: can you manufacture love? Can you manufacture a river?)

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Solidifying Sound

I like when conversations and reading material coincidentally collide–and when I get to share those coincidences in hyperlinky ways. To wit:

Early this morning, my buddy Steven tweeted this:

Steven's tweet

A couple others jumped in. Harley Ferris pointed out:

Harley's tweet

And the inestimable DocMara directed us to this video, by my kind-of-hero Vi Hart:

I responded with a vague recommendation that everyone read David Burrows’s Sound, Speech, and Music. I had this kind of thing in mind:

Seeing is like touching, hearing like being touched; except that the touch of sound does not stop at the skin. It seems to reach inside and to attenuate, along with the distinction in Field 1 between here and there, the biologically still more basic one between within and without. In this way sound can ease some of the tension that goes with the duality of the organic condition. (21)

So there’s all that: essentially, some sound-loving rhetoricians trying to figure out what the heck sound does, and how that relates to the solid world our bodies inhabit. Weird, when you start thinking about it, right? In some ways, this is heart of the CCCC panel that I’ll present on this March along with Kati Fargo and Steph Ceraso: the physical nature of sound as something our bodies experience, not just as an idea we theorize about.

Even weirder: two (perhaps competing) things I read later in the day that hint at the topic of sound solidified–if perhaps only tangentially. Both are from interviews in Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve’s Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, part of the Oral History of American Music endeavor.

First, composer Leo Ornstein made an intriguing claim that I’m still trying to wrap my head around:

And besides–now I’m saying something very, very important–one has to be particularly careful of one’s own style because it’s so easy to simply operate almost unconsciously within the style, forgetting altogether about the substance, substituting style for substance. . . . The trouble is it takes the most astute kind of person to be able to distinguish when the artist is operating on his style or when he is operating within substance. And an audience can easily flounder. (91)

Within the context, he’s criticizing composers who are “much more interested in experiment than they are in music,” saying that those are the ones interested in “style,” in composing as a solely intellectual activity as opposed to something that’s supposed to move an audience. Instead, he’d rather hear composers who are interested in “substance,” in having some sort of musical meaning that can be communicated to an audience. (At least that’s what I think he means; that last line about audiences who “flounder” makes me second-guess myself.)

Interesting metaphor though, right? Substance. I picture “style” music as like lasers and lights flashing through the air, unable to be grasped and moving so fast that you can’t make out what they’re doing there, how it all coheres. But I picture “substance” music as food-like, able to be chewed and swallowed and cooked again later to better understand the ingredients.

Second, I read these lines from experimental composer Edgard Varèse:

My aim has always been the liberation of sound; to throw open the whole world of sound to music. . . . When I was twenty I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my groping toward the music I sensed could exist: “the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.” [Quote from Josef Hoene Wronski] It was new and exciting and to me, the first perfectly intelligible conception of music. It was probably what first started me thinking of music as spatial–as moving bodies of sound in space, a conception I gradually developed and made my own. (102-03)

Here again was the idea of sound as having substance, though in a very different way than Ornstein meant. Instead, Varèse is frustrated with the rules of music that Western concert music has followed for so long, and he sees an answer to that in reconceiving the basic metaphors we use to discuss musical form at all. Instead of music being recursive, or structured like an oration (in the Baroque period), or grown organically (in the Romantic period), music to Varèse is a physical thing hurtling through the air at you, like a pillar of cloud, or of fire.

Not that I have to, but I reconcile these kind of views (really, a very old debate) the way Andy Hamilton, a philosopher, does in Aesthetics and Music: he’s comfortable saying, essentially, there’s sound-based art over here, and there’s music over there, and they’re both awesome, but it’s okay for them to be different. Music, to Hamilton, has to deal with “tonal organization” created with some degree of will: “…with limited exceptions, tones not produced by human intentional action do not count as music” (49). Our pal Varèse would see that as limiting.

Side note: after reading about Varèse, I decided to listen to whatever came up of his on Spotify (a program I’ve written about before, and which I can give you an invitation to if you need it) while writing this post, beginning with “Arcana.” I expected heavy-handed, grating, noise-music–but at least in that track, what I got was something that sounded an awful lot like the score to the original Star Trek (this kind of stuff). Bizarre. Much nicer is the piano music of Ornstein I’ve got going now instead.

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