too much typing—since 2003


sincerity expressed by metal wires held in tension

Over Thanksgiving we drove to visit some friends in Columbus, Ohio. As I mentioned before, car trips, especially longish ones, make excellent opportunities to listen to music. I'm too distractible to focus intensely on music alone for too long in my daily life, but somehow driving is just enough other activity to allow the rest of my concentration to rest on the music without my getting restless.

Among the new and old stuff we listened to was the most recent Sam Phillips album Fan Dance. When this came out a couple of years ago, I remember a critical consensus that it was a "return" to Phillips' "folk" roots. Whatever - I never have checked out Phillips' explicitly Christian recordings under the name Leslie Phillips, and the first two Sam Phillips albums are very much under a Beatles spell: I guess the critical logic is that a woman who sometimes plays acoustic guitar absolutely must have folk roots. The most annoying aspect of that consensus was those critics who, by contrast, derided the "inappropriate" and "overproduced" nature of her previous record, 1996's Omnipop. Now, at the time, I ranked that record very highly indeed - one of my best of that year - and even though the filler-esque quality of one or two tracks is more evident to me now, the caliber of the rest of the songs is what allowed me to overlook the filler in the first place. So I suppose my objections to criticisms of Omnipop might be personal - except that they're also, and too typically, flimsy and lazy. (Details here.)

I'm not sure who decided that it's more "natural" or "organic" for a singer to be accompanied by acoustic guitar, bass, and drums than by marimba, bass clarinet, and congas: the latter combination is surely less common, but if natural or organic imply acoustic rather than electronic instruments, well, there you go. It's also true that unless you're listening to one of those recorded-direct-to-acetate-master LPs that enjoyed a brief audiophile vogue a few decades ago, the music you hear is electronic regardless of whether the instruments themselves incorporate electronics.

That may seem a technical point - but every step of the recording process, from choice and placement of microphone to EQing to mixing, colors the sound of the instrument and voice, and most of that coloration is essentially electronic in nature. We're so used to listening to such recorded effects that we let the most absurd and outrageous alterations to "organic" acoustic space pass us by in silence. Put on a typical recording - go ahead, find one featuring primarily voice, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Find an uptempo track. The acoustic guitar might well be as loud as the drums: is that "natural"? And where are we, physically, in relation to those drums (never mind the other instruments)? Are the different components of the kit spread across the stereo image? Are we supposed to imagine ourselves "naturally" so close to the drums that we can hear the spatial distinction between the position of the snare and the hi-hat - yet without any one component of the kit (to which we're "closest") dominating the sound? Or let's add a piano to the mix: is that acoustic guitar really as loud as the piano?

The point, of course, is that we're so used to particular kinds of unnatural, inorganic sound manipulation that they sound natural to our ears. But at a certain level, describing any kind of music in such terms is an absurdity. A piano is a tremendously complex machine: people have to train for years to be able to properly tune one. We think of a synthesizer as a machine, as a product of technology - it is - but forget that, with the exception of the human voice, every instrument is an instance of mechanical technology. And that voice: sure, it comes from a body, and if we're in the same room with a singer, and she's casually singing without a microphone, it's hard to think about technology being involved...but technique surely is, and not just on the level of singing the right notes with the right phrasing. Our notion of a "natural," untrained but melodic voice is completely culturally bound (i.e., socially manufactured): just listen to some other culture's notion of what a natural voice is, or even better, compare its notion of a trained, musical voice with ours.

True, one can use the recording studio to make an ensemble sound as if it's playing acoustically in your living room - but the resemblance of the results to acoustic sounds in air by no means erases the technological know-how and equipment that went into rendering that acoustical space. To return to Sam Phillips' Fan Dance, one of the irritating aspects of "back to basics" descriptions is that such writers clearly didn't actually listen to the recording. They may have heard it, but they show no evidence of having listened to it. Even when the album's songs are arranged primarily for common, acoustic instruments, they're seldom recorded naturalistically: instead, instruments tend to have odd little acoustical spaces to themselves, or the balance among them is shifted from the expected (the cello-heavy string parts on "Wasting My Time," for example).

Of course, none of the above denies the cultural associations we have with certain musical arrangements: if you want to connote sincerity and directness, voice and acoustic guitar will cement that association with far more people than an arrangement for flanged tuba, seven electric guitars, and backwards glockenspiel will. But that can change: again consider the piano, what an unwieldy, complicated, expensive machine it is, and yet over time it became associated with a kind of emotionally transparent intimacy.

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