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It Doesn't Sound Quite Right (Somewhat Nostalgic)
- Katharine Norman

In K. Norman, Sounding Art, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004, ISBN 0-7546-0426-8.


(don't go changing)

Sound recordings entice varying degrees of associative retrospection, whether it's the immediate backward-engineering of listening to effect and cause (that's a door), the 'positioning' of a recording of a place (that's a street market), or the frisson provoked by a Carpenters' hit (that's so seventies). Some of our associations with sound are individual to us, and some are going to be more generally perceived by most people in one or other social or economic grouping.

If you know the melody, feel free to hum along (hey, I haven't heard this one for a while...) and off we'll go together, wallowing in the feelings of nostalgia; happiness and sadness, regret, and perhaps a trace of longing. It's yesterday once more (sha-la-la, la-la...).

Probably, our nostalgic response to mainstream pop hits is one of our least individual, and most ordinary, responses to sound. Besides specific personal associations (essentially memories stirred up by listening to a blast from the past) there is the simple 'gratification' of recognising something familiar. We might not like - or have ever liked - that darned song, but we recognise its appeal. Nostalgia is a pleasurable sensation, one that softens us up, and wallowing in it is a self-indulgent immersion that's easily exploited - currently, on UK TV, by a glut of cheap compilation programmes and recordings - I love the 70s, I love the 80s and even (in 2001 for goodness' sake!), I love the 90s.

But 'love' is not really the issue, although it can be a useful four-letter word to keep emotion at a tongue-in-cheek remove (don't you just love that kind of insincerity?). We love to love, but perhaps we no longer love to dance to those golden oldies - we're happy listening in from the sidelines, a little more leery this time around. Thankfully, I no longer encounter Donny Osmond's hits with the same squealing mindset as my pre-pubescent self, but if I inadvertently come across his adolescent tones, my listening is in some part a remembered cover version of my previous response. Unfortunately.

Now, don't go underestimating the lure of the past. The thing with nostalgia is that part of us wants to go back (we don't feel nostalgic for bad times). But going back is bound to disappoint - hey, they've pulled down the cinema! Nostalgia has to be an unfulfilled desire. And even if there's no getting away from its schmaltzy appeal, you can use that to advantage. And every appropriation steals a little power. (I think I heard something a bit like that before).

    In nostalgia... ... we have the illusion of "seeing ourselves seeing," of seeing the gaze itself.
    (Zizek, p. 114)

The 'gaze' is a concept appropriated from Lacanian psychoanalysis by film theory, which then pursued the gaze as a gendered dynamic - the crux being the implicit assumption of a film spectator's identification with the male protagonist of traditional film, whose voyeuristic 'male gaze' views the passive female 'object'. (This is to make a cursory summary of a large area. In any case the 'male gaze' is certainly not the only way to look at life: see Paglia (web ref. to Salon article) for a vociferously alternative view). Nostalgia lets us take a good look at ourselves, to catch ourselves having another peek. It can show us just how far we've travelled on life's long journey (it feeds off saccharine sentiments like this - but of course you know those sepia snapshots on greeting cards are faked?). Maybe that tantalising 'illusion of "seeing ourselves seeing"' that Zizek describes can extend to listening too. So perhaps I'll just borrow it for a while.

Or should I? The language of visual culture doesn't necessarily throw much light on sound - a sonic gesture described in visual terms appropriates a voice that may be struck dumb in the process. Too often the vocabulary of one discourse doesn't travel well when applied to another, or in fact becomes a different thing altogether. Perhaps it even restricts our understanding of sound to speak - and think - of pink, white and grey noise (since when did digital sound processing come with a kiddy paint palette, and who chose that decor?). On a grander scale, when one ideology tries to speak through the methods of another, there's always the danger that neither side will understand a word of it or, worse, that both will think, wrongly, that they know what the other is saying. At worst, this kind of cross-synthesis of ideas is a lazy appropriation of someone else's toys. (Academic writing on electroacoustic music regularly borrows terminology from phenomenology and information science, yet sometimes this predilection seems to arise out of some desire to slap on 'scientific' credence, rather than an urge to hack out new routes.) But, on a good day, the cross-disciplinary sharing of ideas can be illuminating, and can really sing (as a light goes on with an audible 'ping').

In landing these sidelong glances at golden oldies, nostalgia and cross-synthesized ideas (plus a couple of jabs elsewhere for old time's sake), I'm meandering towards an encounter with a song.

Polemic over? Oh no, polemic just beginning - but in other words:

    Statistical: Edit, filter and resynthesize a 'politically regressive' pop standard so that the end result presents a restructuring of the original sound source while triggering an overtly nostalgic desire for that source.
    Rationale: "I Love You Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel, was chosen for its general ability to evoke a pleasant sense of nostalgia, as well as for its historical lack of appeal as an 'anti-Feminist' anthem against concepts of change. A resistance to social change may be fuelled more by a fear of unfamiliarity than any conspiratorial malice of cultural consensus that things are 'fine as they are.' Similarly, direct action groups must typically develop discourses primarily in response to their oppositions' fears of cultural loss (the threat of lower material and/or ethical qualities of life) rather than simply engaging 'positive' desires for social and/or personal betterment. In order for resistance to resign itself to change, resistors must find some semblance of their current objectives within new communal initiatives. Therefore, the long term impact of social change seems to involve transformations which engage nostalgia, rather than radical historical breaches of context which may result in repressed desires that erupt in conservative backlashes. The difficulty lies in adapting deconstructive discourses which evoke a sense of nostalgia sufficient to establish familiarity without overwhelming the resulting scenario with a desire for the past.
    (Terre Thaemlitz, liner notes for Resistance to Change)

If 'don't' is the negative rallying cry of the arch-conservative - keeping the status quo -'change' is the positive shift from one state to another. And nostalgia is one way to rub those two up against each other. Terre Thaemlitz is someone who has chosen to try and make that friction sound. The text above is the written component of his work, Resistance to Change. These words are the explanation of both how and why, and the sonic component of resistance to change is created by the means he describes (in four short sections each using Joel's hit as one of their source materials).

The sonic element is the result of the interaction of a computer-spoken activist text and a popular song (as an 'anti-Feminist' anthem in Thaemlitz' interpretation, the song is the polar opposite of any desire for change). The four short sections to the work present the results of the cross-synthesis of these two sources in different ways - most explicitly in the vocal resynthesis of the first section, 'Commentary', and the presentation of the residual sounds that are generally discarded in vocal resynthesis, in the second, 'Resistance'. The written notes for each section refer elliptically to both the techniques used to create the sound and the ideas that these sounds become representative of. Because this is a piece where sound manipulation techniques, and specifically digital ones, enable the realisation of Thaemlitz' intent: the processes that create the music themselves become allegorical of the call for social change (and the way to achieve it) expressed by a Marxist text.

To speak of 'colouring' a sound by filtering it is to employ an analogy to explain the way we perceive the audible result, whereas filtering considered as restructuring refers more directly to the means of achieving a formal change. Morphological descriptions serve analysis of electroacoustic music quite well (e.g. Smalley 1986), perhaps since these ideas centre on form and structure rather than specific properties picked up by sensory perception, such as colour or texture. Cross-synthesis - when the shape of one sound is used to filter the profile of another, provides a result where the way in which form has changed can be deduced: the appeal of hearing the sound of speech cross-synthesized with the sound of water is that we comprehend the nature of the restructuring through some kind of 'before' and 'after' comparison. The nature of the change that has taken place is audible (it can be conjectured from aural clues). Our appreciation of the change relies on the fact that there is something familiar about this strange new object.

I want to labour this point because I think Thaemlitz achieves something that is still quite extraordinary, and that is to create a truly digital work (as distinct from a work merely realised through digital media). The techniques of digital signal processing themselves become symbols. And because these symbols are dynamic (both the process and perception of cross-synthesis occupy time) they can participate in an aurally realised allegory that is itself temporal, and that is a very interesting kind of music.

    The difficulty, or I guess I should say challenge, is to reconcile the literalness of written text with what might typically be ambiguously-defined abstract electroacoustic audio. I never want my texts or graphics to be simply reiterations of the audio... I want each component... ... to contribute somewhat different discourses around a common theme.
    (Thaemlitz online interview with Christopher Strunz)

The appropriation of a MOR hit is only the most overt of his borrowings. Other borrowings - or rather re-directings - are appropriated from our listening; the nostalgia we feel towards the familiar song, the active deciphering to explain the dynamics of sonic processes (rather than sonic objects, so many coloured balls...), and the way we'll always listen out for some sense of progression. The last section's fragmentary re-mixing of a significant phrase from the song, with words continually cut off mid flow, frozen harmony, and no sense of going anywhere, leaves you almost crying out for change.

Resistance to Change as a purely sonic experience is incomplete - the first thing to do on listening is look at the liner notes to see what it's 'about' - but it is not merely a sonic illustration of a written text, or a setting of a spoken one. The sound does not depict, its role is richer than that, because it pulls us towards a different relationship with the words. We go back and forth between abstract sonic processes and linear text. But this is not an electroacoustic work that plays with the sonic content of the voice as an appealing, abstracted source, because the meaning of the words (not the voice) is hugely significant. Yet neither is it a setting of a text - since the written text is not interpreted by sound. Sound is just one stage in this work's discussion.

Perhaps resistance to change make a covert change in its definition of music. Music here is a reading of ideas, a composed, sequential 'out loud' exploration of thinking. Perhaps this is music as listen-able prose. It sounds like a good read.