46: A brief history of the sound of your room
Hello, I hope you’re really well.
Welcome to Border Crossing issue #46. Thank you for your company and your support, it is hugely appreciated.
This time, I get confused, thinking about the cultural erasure of room ambience and its contribution to a vanishing sense of place in artistic works. wtaf.
A quick plug: pn Tuesday 30th, 7:30pm, I’m on a panel at the Bright Green Debate, an online discussion show. It’s like Question Time without the gammon gantry. Come along if you’re interested in progressive politics and I’ll try not to be the dick in the room.
New research claims that, when humans started hunting whales, the whales learnt and adapted exceptionally fast, causing a steep drop in effectiveness. The report for the Royal Society suggests whales warned each-other, via sophisticated community learning.
The singer Kathryn Williams has written her first novel, The Ormering Tide, published by Wrecking Ball Press. I’m only part way through but it’s a beautiful, poetic treat.
The Channel 4 player has Carol Morley’s film Dreams Of A Life, a mesmerising 2011 docu-drama essay about a woman whose body lay undiscovered for three years.
Rich Wilson and Claire Mellier’s terrific analysis in New Internationalist, looking at the potential for citizens’ assemblies around the world.
We tried to watch the second sequel of teen romance film To All The Boys I Loved Before but quickly gave up, it was very annoying. But not before we’d spotted this glorious, unusual café in Seoul. At first we assumed it was a studio set: a whole café hand-drawn in black and white. Like the backgrounds from the 1980s Paddington television series. But I looked it up and it’s a real place, Cafe Yeonnam-Dong 223-14. Try an image search, or just check out this profile in Post magazine.
Donal Fallon writes in socialist magazine The Tribune on the influence the Paris Commune had on the Irish Easter Rising of 1916.
More scary potato analysis, this time in The Scotsman, about the rise of blight, via the impact of climate change.
Also (more cheerfully) apparently Martha Stewart’s secret for a great cinnamon roll is mashed potatoes. I haven’t tried it (I’ve never made cinnamon rolls) but it’s getting quite a bit of praise in the USA. The link is Lauren Edmonds writing for Insider.
A brief history of the sound of your room
I’m reading David Byrne’s book from 2012, How Music Works. Byrne is the former Talking Heads frontman, who has built a long, successful solo career, via high concept arty live shows and clever, often collaborative, one-off projects. He’s made films, scored dance pieces and worked with visual artists. He’s a Friend Of Eno. Most recently his American Utopia tour and film were wonderful works and widely lauded. I don’t know why I didn’t read the book when it first came out, since Byrne is someone whose journeyman career I wanted to model mine on. Perhaps I avoided it because it came at a moment when I could vividly see how badly I was failing in that respect.
Overall, I’d give How Music Works a solid 7/10. It’s not as great on the nuts and bolts of music as I’d hoped. The memoir bits do some namedropping but skirt around the gory details. But Byrne is fascinating on other aspects of live performance. He loves cosplay, visuals and choreography, he’s a good manager of detail, plus he’s unusually clear-sighted about the business side of an independent creative life. His closing arguments on the state of culture are terrific, translating far beyond the music world. Also, Byrne’s unusual willingness to include hard numbers when talking about his money-making is probably very useful reading for young artists of all types.
I suspect he may be a bit problematic (although it could just be his age). He claims self-diagnosed autism to explain shades of personal awkwardness but the book has a whiff of casual sexism (and to my mind his exceptional women collaborators — Twyla Tharp, St Vincent, others — get noticeably less space than the blokes). That said, Byrne is clear, interesting, often insightful.
One of his underlying points — a central thesis even — is something I’ve long agreed with anyway, so it’s fun to hear it from someone so respected; which is that the technologies and economic limitations (in the means of production) are a driving force that shapes our artistic creativity (and therefore our culture), not the other way around. For me, that’s an important distinction when thinking about artmaking, especially when eulogising the mythical Great Individual Artist.
“Content dictates form,” said Stephen Sondheim. And I agree. But the theatres are closed and Hamilton is a movie on Disney Plus. Really, technology dictates context, context instigates content and form comes after that.
Two weeks ago, someone called Illeana Douglas tweeted:
‘So many films featured a great staircase scene (The Heiress, Psycho, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Graduate) I mean we all have staircases, we all use staircases but somehow they stopped being a set piece in movies.’
Lots of people replied. There was a lovely thread of photos and gifs of staircases in old films. But also, in reply, someone called Erik Hinton wrote:
‘This observation really crystallizes a lot of my thoughts about why I find much of modern filmmaking kind of uncanny. It feels like space, in general, has been cut from movies and, instead, everything is a rhythmic procession of medium close-ups floating in time.’
This clanked into me, as I swiped lazily through images of sexy staircases in movie scenes. What it made me think about (which of course I tweeted at Erik and Illeana — replying unsolicited to strangers on the Internet, because that’s who we are now) was how the exact same thing might be occurring in music recording. The vanished use of naturalistic reverb in audio sound production could be described in precisely those terms, over roughly the same time period. And since then, soaking up David Byrne’s various proclamations on studio music as I walk around The Level in the early Spring sunshine, I keep scratching away at potential equivalents, right across our artistic spectrum; the eroding of a realistic, consistent, familiar sense of setting or location — the agreed stable ground — in favour of these fluid, abstracted iterations of Erik’s “medium close-ups floating in time” idea.
If the direction of travel and even the timescale of this seismic shimmering in recorded music reflects what Erik reckons has happened to filmmaking, maybe something profound — something long-term — is afoot in the arts?
“Oh yes!” replies Erik, “What a beautiful connection.”
But what am I talking about? What is this musical equivalent?
‘Reverb’ (from ‘reverberation’, obviously) is the audible sound of the space around the musical instrument. It is deeply and instinctively ‘felt’ by the listener, regardless of our technical knowledge or understanding of recording techniques, because we all hear it, constantly, out in the real world. We’ve heard it since we were born. You walk into a big hall, or up a canyon, and everything sounds different to, say, a small bathroom, or if you’re in a forest. This is a subconscious constant that fully frames our reality. We take it in our stride as an ineffable aspect of ‘place’. It is the gulls outside my rooftop window right this second, different to the gulls when we’re down the seafront, different to the gulls as we walk up a narrow street of terraced houses. Like everything else — including fucking gulls — all music exists within that framework (even when it is really a carefully constructed sonic illusion).
My neighbour starts drilling and I actively listen for reverb at the end — and there it is. She’s drilling a metal sheet of some kind, with a silvered ‘silver machine’ sheen that lasts for over a second after she stops. She’s whistling too.
‘Reverb’ is not quite the same thing as ‘echo’, by the way, since reverb is made up of many echoes all at once; wholly born of how quickly sound-waves bounce back off objects and hit our ears again and again, from all around, in the microseconds after we heard the original sound, direct from its source.
Perhaps you could call a reverb, ‘a palette of echoes’.
As well as being naturally captured by microphones, reverb can be artificially created and added to recordings, as a distinct effect. In the old days (the entire first half of the history of recorded sound, that is) ‘recording’ was just capturing on tape a bunch of musicians doing their thing in situ; performing as well as they could. Of course you’d hear the room itself, without noticing. You’d know — instantly and instinctively — if it was being performed in a big hall or a small studio. For the longest time, even sophisticated artificial reverbs existed to replace, refine and adjust that reality, to best benefit the music, within someone’s idea of ‘space’.
But then (relatively recently) it has shifted and we seem to have unhooked ourselves from the goal of capturing or improving reality, until reality got thrown off the bus altogether. Now, we’re heading into a second decade of multiple layerings of artificial, fully abstract and constantly shifting reverb sounds, instead of anything designed to replicate place. It’s lasted way longer than a fad. I think it is stretching beyond the mainstream mass market of pop beats, across specialist genres and disciplines, to include corners of music-making that would previously have wildly privileged ‘authenticity’, simply by sticking the players in that room and shouting ‘go!’
At the same time (to chaotically paraphrase one of David Byrne’s theses) almost all artmaking for the masses, almost all of the time, utilises the most modern technology available (affordable) and shapes itself around those parameters. As I said at the top, we don’t shape tech around art, we shape art around tech. More than we know.
The very concept of the ‘album’ was shaped around the emergence of the long player vinyl record, rotating at 33 revolutions per minute. Artistic normality curved itself around the amount of music that would fit on it. So, of course, as soon as technology existed to make and manipulate artificial reverbs, echos and delays, producers began to make radical, constant and intense creative use of them.
Back at the end of the 1920s, in early filmmaking, the birth of the era of sound didn’t suddenly make films better: it actually made many of them objectively worse for a time. Suddenly, nobody was shooting big vistas, or artsy long camera tracks, or huge crowds, or imaginative angles. Instead, everyone was shooting static melodrama scenes in small square rooms, with stood-still protagonists, where the dialogue could be most clearly captured. For a while, movies became rooms full of plant pots to hide microphones in. At the time, these films would’ve seemed incredibly exciting and innovative, because everyone was still getting their heads around the basic fact that words and lip movements were in sync. It must’ve been bonkers. Only decades later could we begin to re-assess if the films were actually any good.
In the recording of drums, there was a fad from the late 1970s into the 1980s, as sound processing developed to enable a new snare drum sound, whereby the drum would be ‘gated’, that is, all natural resonance from the drum, after the initial, very short, loud ‘crack’ of stick hitting drum-skin, would be automatically muted, on every hit. Then, artificial reverb was added to that crack, to give a producer control over the resulting sound in the mix and replace all natural ambience with a consciously chosen artificial one.
Whether you understand the technicalities of this waffle or not, I promise you’d instantly recognise the sound I’m describing: it quickly became dominant on expensive rock and pop records, remaining ubiquitous, whenever live drums were meant to sound ‘big’, before fading fast by the early 1990s (hello grunge and rave, with checked-shirt or dayglo authenticity). By the way, only a decade before the rise of gated snare, Simon and Garfunkel had taped ‘The Boxer’ and its enormous snare drum sound by physically suspending the drum and drummer over a lift shaft to capture that reverb naturally.
Anyway, gated snare in the 1980s was a fad, right? Just a short period of naff, over-produced sound. Except… fast-forward to much more recently, the early 2010s, and artists and producers everywhere are leaning back into that (now ‘classic’) drum sound. After breaking through as a forlorn acoustic songwriter in a log cabin, Bon Iver goes unexpectedly in that direction and is hugely acclaimed for innovative production, til he ends up working with Kanye. By 2014, super-producer Jack Antonoff is creating his string of global smash hit albums of song-based pop with superstars Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, others, all built on the old gated snare drum sound, spearheading its total resurgence. The music surrounding the snare drum isn’t pastiche or 1980s retro, though, it’s up-to-date and continuing to evolve.
Anyway, it’s not like real drums are still a thing. Sounds within recordings have more fluidity than ever. There’s a vastly greater degree of micro-manipulation of parts. Electronic and sampled drum sounds have almost entirely replaced ‘real’ drums (a person sitting in a room bashing a kit), including on tracks you’d casually assume featured ‘real drums’. Quantising (tidying up looseness of rhythm, so a song’s rhythmic parts exactly map to a precise tempo) and autotune (changing the pitch of moments of sound, so they are exactly in tune) are endemic — and as ubiquitous in heavy metal, indie and acoustic folk-pop as on chart tunes, hip hop or club bangers. Yes, I’m generalising but not half as much as you may think I am.
And the core thing we lose amidst these shenanigans is that singular notion of a presumed ‘setting’ or ‘place’ for the collection of songs (or piece of music) to exist inside. The mere idea that a blend of instruments and voices on a recording might all sit in one room — sharing reverberative coherence — is now unheard of, apart from those artists who do it self-consciously and reactively, as part of their act of going against the flow.
By the way, I’m not judging any of this: my current favourite music is not some obscure underground punk or indie genre; it is all electronica.
I now realise this shift also mirrors the vanishing of ‘place’ in young people’s first attempts at making music for themselves. In the olden days, kids would physically go to a school practice room; a friend’s garage; a borrowed scout hut, with a group of pals, set up some instruments and play them together. The resulting din was so viscerally exciting, a deep love for making music would kick into gear right there and, voila, it’s U2. But as you arrive in the 2010s, young people’s first goes at doing music are at home, alone, on a computer or phone, in the two-dimensional virtual space of audio sequencing software, stitching together layers of drum-loops and squelchy synth noises. Even if they’re obsessed with songwriting in the old fashioned way, they’ll home-tape their first acoustic songs without leaving the bedroom, add pretend drums and bass to it on the laptop, long before they’ll consider gathering a group of peers to attempt to achieve the same results.
I pick another discipline of popular arts. Thinking about it, I suspect this shift in music meshes — including in timescale — with significant changes over the past decade of television drama, coinciding with what everyone called ‘peak TV’. We’ve witnessed a noticeable move away from shows that stuck comfortably within their presumed ‘spaces’. It’s another earthquake. Multi-layered realities and perspectives; ‘dramedy’ and the embracing of morally flawed anti-heroes, multiple universes; Truman Show-style tricks; genre-switching, tone and code fluidity; techniques like breaking the fourth wall; all these and more have emerged and been rapidly normalised across genres and styles of television fiction, this past decade. I’m not saying they weren’t invented earlier. But again, it’s become a radical deconstructing of expectations of mainstream normality.
So it’s going to be everywhere, isn’t it?
Now I’ll obsessively look for patterns, spot it in everything, from social media, to fine art. But I have no way to accurately sense-check whether this is an imagined phenomenon, or a fresh, near-universal truth about how mainstream culture will reshape itself, going forward. Connections pop. Isn’t there something weirdly similar to what gated snare does, in those deep fake Tik Tok videos? I stare up at the ceiling and think, well, that’s the fabric of the matrix. Fuckadoo.
The thing that floats in time but no longer in space.
By the way, when we define ‘greatness’ in art, we’re always looking backwards in time, from a distance in the future where our understanding of the feeling of newness of the technologies used to make that art has been mostly lost. Or at least has changed very greatly. In a certain mood (right now!) I’d vehemently argue that one can only assess and understand the ‘greatness’ (or not) of a work of art, once the technological tools used to create it have become outdated enough that the kids just starting out can afford to use them too.
Today, very confused, trying to finish this off, I did a Twitter search for ‘staircase scene’. This was a mistake. A group of people are sharing short video clips from pornos (or just from their own private lives) of men having sex on staircases. It’s a thing, apparently.
You can’t remove the sense of place from everything.
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