Hums and Hisses

So I got this CD in the mail three days ago— forget its name, from some record company or publicist in Philadelphia— it's sitting in the other room; I'm using the ignorance-as-insight approach to this review, so I won't go and get it— with no explanation or promo materials accompanying it, no musicians that I recognized. I put it on, thinking, at the start, as I'm hearing an electronic pulse, or some pulse, "Oh, electronic dance." I'd just been listening to Hardknox and Moby, so that's why I was primed to hear it as "electronic dance." Then— I'm writing this from memory, I think this was my thought process— I decided that I was hearing a combination of "found" sounds (i.e., the guys taped some sounds and decided to use them) and what I call "electronic gizmo" sounds, which perhaps isn't such an accurate name, in that such sounds don't get their character by originating from special gizmos but merely— I think— by being borderline or unintended noises produced by standard gizmos: e.g., hum, hiss, buzz, flutter, whine, screech.

A tangential thought, which I'll try to bring around: back 40, 60, 70, 80, 100 years ago, when sound recording was growing up, engineers were realizing that there was no way the tape could capture what the ear heard, so the task became not just to record a sound but to make one— this is true even back when the basic tools were only microphones, space, and walls. The task is to put on tape a vocal sound that you like or an instrumental sound that you like whether or not it corresponds to how the voice and instrument sound anywhere else. But along the way, something interesting has happened. Some sounds are electric— that is, they sound electric or electronic, they signify "electric" or "electronic." I mean, although the whole thing is electric— all of recording and most live performance pass through electrical impulses— only some sounds register as electric to the ear. And paradoxically these are the sounds that arise when the electronic device doesn't function as originally intended. E.g., the electric guitar is quintessentially electric not when the electric amplifier merely amplifies the guitar but when it distorts the guitar sound or produces feedback screech. And "techno" dance music seems most electronic and technological and futuristic when it sounds like the future sounded back when the future was new— back 50 or 70 years ago, back before the devices worked very well, back when loudspeakers sounded tinny and you heard extra crackle and pop. Or back in '50s­'60s sci-fi films, when computers had to blink and beep when they were trying to think, and robots spoke in weird mechanical tones, as if the future had no idea how to give these machines rich voices.

Inserted in spots on one track of my mystery CD are some distant indecipherable talking and barely hearable "orchestral" music that are perhaps meant to sound like they're coming through a radio— or that may actually have come through a radio. And the reason I think of a radio is that the voices are embedded far in the distance, which my ear interprets as "bad reception." If the "reception" had been good, I wouldn't have heard "radio," just voices and orchestra. Even if they had come through a radio.

Cevin Key pets his skinny puppy.
photo: Ted Soqui
Cevin Key pets his skinny puppy.



Anyway, this CD hit me at first as "electronic dance" because the musicmakers seemed to be trying as hard as they could not to make it sound handmade. But then I decided— realizing that the beats and noises weren't always coalescing into a steady groove— that what I was hearing was as much "improv" as "dance." Now, improv and electronic dance music aren't usually taken to be contiguous genres. But what I'm hearing in common is a tendency to use a lot of sounds from the side, as it were— the sputters and hisses and hums and so forth that make me think "techno" also seem analogous to, say, a sax player who is constantly playing above and below the normal range of his instrument to get squeaks and buzzes and breath sounds and squawks— techniques not just to produce interesting noise and expand the palette, but to give up some control over the sound, to give oneself surprise and variation.

This CD— not necessarily "dance," since the music doesn't always form a constant groove (though I can dance to it) and not "improv" since, as far as I can tell, it was not improvised but constructed with forethought and a prepared direction, and most likely afterthought and overdubs too— this music works for me in the way that my favorite genres— disco, rock— do, as something insistent enough for me to keep going with; this despite its absence of standard overall melody (you get shards), singer, and stated-here-we-are-all-the-time groove, and despite the fact that I have to pay a kind of linear keep-my-mind-on-it attention that I normally associate with jazz and classical. Which is why I don't listen to those too much.

Thoughts upon having really listened to the CD (spacEcakE by platEAU):

1. On many of the songs the pulse— the dance beat— is maintained all the way through; but, on some of these, counterbeats intrude, not to augment the main beat, but to disrupt and discombobulate it. The rhythms want to go groovin' but want to unsettle the groove as well.

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