by Donna Lowe ¦ February 15 2018
In pondering this blog post, I think I discovered something about my musical taste. I’m a big fan of a musical sub-genre that I’m not even sure I can label and that I think may be hard to describe. But I’m going to do my best, so bear with me.
First of all, you have to understand my ambivalence towards song lyrics. Unless I am working collaboratively with a vocalist on an art song or aria where attention to the lyrics is crucial to interpretation, I largely gloss over the words in a song. I couldn’t tell you what most popular music is about, because I’m more interested in things like a memorable melody, an unexpected chord change that breaks up a tired progression, or an unconventional instrumentation. Studying Western instrumental art music for years can shift a person’s focus away from text, I suppose.
But what I’ve just recently realized is that I do enjoy the use of words in music, but I like them in an unconventional way. What I want, though, is to hear text used more as a compositional tool and a way to rawly evoke emotion, rather than to explicitly convey meaning.
I warned you this was hard for me to describe. I should probably just provide some examples.
Ironically, this first clip doesn’t completely fit even the vague definition I’ve just provided, but it will hopefully help to explain how I first came to love whatever this music is. Imagine a teenager in rural Manitoba, lying perfectly still in bed because the headphone radio she is wearing is so huge and heavy that turning over is impossible, listening to late-night CBC Radio Two shows like Brave New Waves and Nightlines. That was 1980s me, first encountering the dry and otherworldly vocal delivery of Laurie Anderson on the track “Sharkey’s Day.” From the first cool-breeze bird calls to the scratchy distorted guitar intro, I was intrigued—even before a voice entered speaking the lyrics. What was going on here? Was this still a song? Was it musical poetry? This was completely different than any rap music I had heard, which at that time was my only reference point for spoken word in a musical context. Anderson’s multi-media performance art provoked strange dreams for a music- and literature-obsessed adolescent, but that curious teenager still knew she was starting to get hooked on…something.
Fast-forward a few years and I am in the middle of a music degree, working on a project for my electroacoustic music class. Of course I am drawn to using and manipulating voice samples, so I record a group of students playing board games in the student lounge and come up with a piece that was no doubt rudimentary in hindsight, but still very fun to produce. The idea of using text as a musical instrument—repeating words to create a rhythm, elongating vowels or eliminating them completely, making melodies out of spoken snippets—has stuck with me since that point, and my ears have always been tuned to artists or groups who seem to be doing this kind of thing regardless of genre, in a way that just feels right when I hear it.
One of those groups is the New York sound collage duo of guitarist/vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong, who recorded and performed between 1999-2012 under the name The Books. The Books and bands like them (Negativland, The Avalanches) produced music through meticulous compositional processes involving digital processing and editing of sampled field recordings and thrift store cassettes; loops of unconventional objects like filing cabinets used as percussion instruments, all coupled with live accompaniment. The result in The Books’ case is sometimes a wild ride, with voices swooping in and out to drop pseudo-motivational phrases and disembodied descriptions or exclamations, all to a folk-tinged cello and guitar accompaniment.
Listen to “It Never Changes to Stop” from their third album Lost & Safe to get a taste of this indefinable style:
Another group that combines spoken word samples in an arguably more accessible (or at least more mainstream) fashion is the UK trio Public Service Broadcasting. Embedding audio footage from instructional videos, archival footage, and public information films in a pop electronica context, Public Service Broadcasting produces everything from infectious tunes about the space race to introspective musings on the decline of the Welsh coal industry.
For an example of the former, just try to resist the upbeat groove (and the horn section) in the tune “Gagarin.” The video is pretty great, too.
In a more classical context, I was delighted to discover spoken word samples in the work of the minimalist Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, when a friend spontaneously sent me a CD of his piece IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, with the note “I think you’ll really like this.” Even set to music, the literal recitation of a technical manual may not appear to be something anyone would really like, but it turned out my friend was right. Jóhannsson’s heart-wrenching string arrangements alone would be enough to recommend this piece, but the addition of a voice methodically detailing the intricacies of computer maintenance above these lush strings and resonant bells produces a striking effect. Here is “Part 2 / IBM 1403 Printer”, the second movement from this five-movement work:
According to a review of the recording on Pitchforkmedia.com, Jóhannsson’s father worked as a maintenance engineer on the IBM 1401 computer, and this composition was an elegy not only for the object itself, but also for the senior Jóhannsson’s career in service to it. The piece may take on an even greater resonance now due to the younger Jóhannsson’s untimely death this past weekend, and the weight of meaning attached to the words spoken in IBM A User’s Manual—even if that meaning is indirect—points at unique and slightly melancholic nostalgia that I think is the element I crave from all of these voice-sampled selections.
To me these compositions and others like them sound somehow simultaneously spacious and intimate, whimsical and profound, mysterious and familiar, and music of this genre (whatever that is) exists in a liminal place of wonder and discovery that I can’t quantify, and that in truth I don’t particularly care to. It doesn’t matter to me what the words are in any of these pieces—what resonates is a pure knowledge that here, in this moment, humans are communicating, and that knowledge translates directly to the heart. Sometimes language can be a universal music.
pitchfork review: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/9583-ibm-1401-a-users-manual/