Hums and Hisses

Cevin Key pets his skinny puppy.
photo: Ted Soqui

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.

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.

2. At times the beat gives way altogether to great swaths of moodiness. Nonetheless, I would consider this a dance record, though maybe only some of the tracks would be welcome on dance floors other than my own. One of the musicians, Phil Western, has been a DJ, so he for sure knows more about dance floors than I do.

3. Probably more of these sounds than I'd realized are created by instruments played through filters and devices rather than by programming and tape manipulation (though there's a lot of that too). This album still sounds fundamentally composed and programmed rather than improvised, not that I can necessarily tell the difference. And not that this makes a difference.

4. I'd managed to put out of my memory altogether the sheets of moodiness that frequently descend on this music, probably because I'm not a big fan of mood music. I definitely prefer the groovefests on here to the moodfests. E.g., a moody synth that reminds me of records that are meant to remind me of the seashore. Not to say that I have anything against the seashore, just against records that remind me of it— though the moods here are "darker" than that suggests (not in all cases gloomier, just darker: i.e., serious and more dissonant); also, I'm tending to think that "mood" is bad and gizmo squirts and hums are "good," moodiness is sap and gizmos are grit. But without the bad mood (so to speak) the gizmos might just be ongoing boring effects. Gizmos need this dusky niceness to have something to be hard and noisy against. Perhaps.

My usage of the term mood music seems pretty damn arbitrary, doesn't it? For instance, there's a cut that's edgy and irritating, and which I like, therefore, far more than the mood piece that precedes it. But in ordinary conversation, edginess and irritation would be considered moods, as would excitement and so forth. Just not in mood music.

And the official word here would be ambient, as used in a review of spacEcakE I found on the Web (otherwise I wouldn't have thought of it, I swear). Actually I don't think that "ambient" is appropriate. This music doesn't come out and easily envelop you— or, it doesn't easily envelop me. There's a movement to the sounds, the way the tones progress each into the next, and if you're not attentive to the progression you miss too much of the story of the music. (And maybe for people who are easily enveloped by this music, their attention comes easily to the progressions, too.)

5. There is a singer on here, though she's only on a couple of tracks, and she's there for mood too, not for melody or focus.

6. Phil Western and cEvin Key (the capitalized E is his doing not mine), who are the core of platEAU, play together in Download, and before that Key was in Skinny Puppy, which makes this music "industrial" by association if not by sound, maybe. Anyway, I'm glad I didn't know this when I first listened; not because I really endorse ignorance and naïveté as a way to approach music (not to know a music's antecedents and environment is a good way not to hear what matters in it), but because I had such a prejudice against Skinny Puppy that I'd probably have heard spacEcakE in a twisted and wrong way. I'd typed Skinny Puppy right off as pretentious dolts who thought ugliness in itself was interesting and transgressive, that it was profoundly evocative of the doom of life. I avoided the band, and so what I've just written about them says nothing about their music, which I hardly know at all, just about my prejudices.

But in any event, maybe some of the sounds that Key and Western enjoy making remind them of the clank of machinery. And reverting to an earlier theme, I'll point out that the clank— the noise of industrial machines— is extraneous to their function, and so, once again, music that mimics that noise is mimicking unintended side effects.

7. The most important word in the previous paragraph is enjoy. This is a fun record (for me)— fun not as in "bright and poppy" but more like "chemistry experiments that you can do in the home when Mommy's not looking."  

Metropolis Records, P.O. Box 54307, Philadelphia, PA 19105;

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