Showing posts with label Noise. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Noise. Show all posts

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Pop Aphorisms XIII

It has been four years since my last list of pop aphorisms. I thought it was high time for another.

1. The discovery of the teen idol was to pop music what the discovery of the star system was to Hollywood.

2. Brill Building composers are to the Sixties teenager what filmmaker John Hughes is to the Eighties teenager.

3. Improvisation is the name for privileging performance over composition, while pretension may be understood as the name for uninspired improvisation. No drum solo ever heard on a rock album must be considered as improvisation.

4. The rock drum solo is simply a form of Modernist bluster.

5. "Noise" must be understood as simply another category of taste.

6. If fans of rock music hadn't routinely violated the dictum, "don't judge a book by its cover," records in cut-out bins never would have been purchased.

7. Rock culture's most pernicious myth: initial failure is a sign of greatness.

8. One unanticipated consequence of the Beatles' success was the Sixties garage band, while an unanticipated consequence of the garage band was the groupie.

9. Rock critics' greatest theoretical challenge: how to explain why the worst records they've ever heard have perhaps ten or fifteen wonderful minutes, while the best records they've ever heard have perhaps ten or fifteen wonderful minutes.

10. Rock critics' second greatest theoretical challenge: how to distinguish between the music of fans trying to be artists from the music of artists trying to be fans.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Ring Modulator

For well over a century, music composers have allied themselves with engineers. For an example, consider German engineer Harald Bode, whose groundbreaking work in electronic sound modification was inspired, in whole or part, by the innovations of songwriter and guitarist Les Paul. Bode observed:

Les Paul . . . stimulated many innovators, and due to his success encouraged them to work in the field of new sound effects. His influence in many areas is felt to this day. The author [Bode himself] was so impressed by his work that he later developed a sound modification system consisting of a number of electronic modules, assigned to two separate outputs through a multiple-head tape loop device. These modules also included a ring modulator.

Note that Bode indicates he was interested in the development of sound modification by means of a device with several modules, research which would later influence both Robert Moog and Don Buchla in their development of the modular synthesizer. Bode did not invent the ring modulator, however, which was a device developed for applications in single-sideband (SSB) modulation. (SSB modulation was used early on with long distance telephone lines as part of a technique known as “frequency-division multiplexing” which allowed several voice channels to be sent along a single circuit.) Back then, though, in the early 1930s when long distance telephone service was being developed, it wasn't known as a ring modulator:

The ring modulator was at the time [ca. 1959-60] relatively little known sound modification device, mainly used in single-sideband communication systems. The main reason was that up to the mid- or late 1950s it was known as a switching circuit, which would have sounded too harsh to be usable for sound modification. It was only after ring modulators were built with diodes, which operate in the square law region of their transfer function (as was the case with certain germanium diodes), that they started to perform as four-quadrant multipliers and became musically interesting.

In technical terms, a ring modulator (named as such because the electronic circuit is shaped like a ring) is an analog sound modification system that takes two inputs, one a signal and the other a carrier frequency, and produces a single output. The signal is normally a wave form produced by the output from a microphone (e.g., a voice), while the carrier signal is normally a sine wave. The function of the ring modulator is to produce the sum and difference frequencies of the signal and carrier. In layman's terms, a ring modulator produces a spectrum of noise, or what Karlheinz Stockhausen, here, refers to as “colored noise.”

It was probably electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s use of the ring modulator that inspired an entire generation of rock musicians. Stockhausen’s Mixture (1964), for example, was written for a ring modulated symphony orchestra. In this electronic composition, the orchestra is divided into five groups (wind, brass, two groups of strings, percussion) and individually mic’ed, each group fed to a separate ring modulator. Stockhausen’s next work using the ring modulator was Mikrophonie II (1965; 14:52), composed “for choir, Hammond organ and ring modulators.” In the liner notes to the Columbia Masterworks LP containing Mikrophonie I and Mikrophonie II (MS7355), the composer wrote:

Mikrophonie II offered the possibilities, as does purely electronic music, to compose with a scale of sounds ranging from natural to synthetic, from familiar (nameable) to unfamiliar (unnamable) ones. The ‘what’ (the material) is not separable from the ‘how’ (the forming). I would never have composed as I did, had the ‘what’ of this process not had very specific characteristics which lead to a specific ‘how.’ For example, when one uses ring modulation, one must compose particular kinds of structures - simple superimpositions, many tones of long duration, not-too-rapidly moving layers - since ring modulators create dense symmetrical spectra from simple material, and this can easily lead to an overweight of noise or a stereotyped coloring of the sounds. . . . the transformation of the choral sound in Mikrophonie II has many gradations, that often untransformed layers are found mixed with more or less transformed layer, and that there is a transition from natural to synthetic sound, and vice versa.

Hence, for Stockhausen, live performance was a form of engineering, a process by which sounds were made, not “captured.” Although the ring modulator is often associated with the synthetic voice of the Daleks in the long-running Dr. Who television series (in which the ring modulator, in other words, is used to simulate the synthesized voice of the robot, the simulation of a simulation) there have been some memorable uses of the device by rock musicians following Stockhausen’s rule regarding the inseparability of the what from the how.

Sonic Samples Of The Ring Modulator:
Jeff Beck - With The Jan Hammer Group Live (1977)
Billy Cobham - “Snoopy's Search/Red Baron” Spectrum (1973)
Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead) - “That’s It For the Other One” Anthem of the Sun (1968)
Jan Hammer (The Mahavishnu Orchestra) - “Vital Transformation” The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) - “Paranoid” Paranoid (1970)
Jon Lord (Deep Purple) - Machine Head (1972)
Gordon Marron (The United States of America) - “The Garden of Earthly Delights” The United States of America (1968)
Bob Mothersbaugh (Devo) - “Too Much Paranoias” Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
Bob Mothersbaugh (Devo) - “Mechanical Man (Booji Boy Version)” Mechanical Man EP (1978)
Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath) - “Planet Caravan” Paranoid (1970)

Monday, October 5, 2009


The German inventor Emile Berliner patented the Gramophone in 1887. Unlike Thomas Edison, Berliner eschewed recording onto cylinders, and instead started recording onto flat disks—records. These early records were made of glass, later zinc, and eventually plastic, onto which sound information was etched into a spiral groove. The (figurative) arm of the gramophone (pictured), the playback device, contained a needle that “read” the sound vibrations in the grooves, transmitting this information to the speaker, which amplified the sounds. Berliner founded The Gramophone Company in order to manufacture both records and the technology to play them, Gramophones. Significantly, in 1908 Berliner began using Francis Barraud’s painting His Master’s Voice as his company’s logo, an image familiar to anyone who owns a few older RCA records. (The inventor eventually sold the licensing rights to his patent for the Gramophone and method of making records to the Victor Talking Machine Company, which in turn became RCA-Victor.)

I’ve always assumed that Berliner chose this now famous image as his logo in homage to Argos, Odysseus’ faithful dog. If you remember, in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca in the twentieth year of his absence, disguised as a beggar. Nonetheless, that remorselessly old, dying dog, which manages to keep warm only by lying on a composting manure pile, manages to recognize his master, Odysseus, when he speaks—by his master’s voice. Despite Odysseus’ disguise, despite the long absence, the keen ears of Argos can recognize his true master by the authenticating sound of his voice. Presumably, Berliner chose Berraud’s painting in order to suggest the crystal clarity of sounds etched on his records, that his records captured authentic sound.

Berliner was a very smart and clever man, and he chose to record popular singers of the day—Enrico Caruso, for instance—to help advertise his records and the Gramophone. But as Friedrich Kittler has argued, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford UP, 1999), from around 1880 on, composers of music have been “allied with engineers” (24). After this date, he writes, “The undermining of articulateness becomes the order of the day” (24). As a consequence of sound recording, noise itself became an object of scientific research, and the previous conceptions that governed musical theory became antiquated.

The phonograph does not hear as do ears that have been trained immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic events as such. Articulateness becomes a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise. (23)

He’s right, of course: recording is a process by which sounds are made, not “captured.” It’s a form of engineering. Consider the sort of composers considered significant and important since 1887: Schoenberg, for instance, Ives, Varèse (all born in the nineteenth century), and Stockhausen (born 1928). The latter’s Kontakte owes as much to electrical engineers as it does to the redefinition of music theory that occurred when sounds (and music) became understood as sonic vibrations. I don’t think contemporary musicians who also happen to be music theorists, such as Brian Eno and Chris Cutler, would dispute Kittler’s characterization of the recording of music as an “acoustic event,” nor dispute the idea that articulateness (of voice) is “a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise.” Such is the impact of technology on our idea of (popular) music.

Some Acoustic Events:
The Beach Boys, Caroline, No [album version]
The Beatles, Revolution 9
The Doors, Horse Latitudes
Electric Light Orchestra, Telephone Line
Brian Eno, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks [album]
King Crimson, 21st Century Schizoid Man
Pink Floyd, Money
Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music [album]
The Residents, Eskimo
The Shangri-Las, Leader of the Pack
Frank Zappa, Lumpy Gravy [album]

Monday, May 4, 2009


My previous post on the role of stuttering in music reminded me of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) and his “primitive” sonata (sound poem), the Ursonate. The “Ur” principle (“early” or “primitive”) contributed to Schwitters’ creation of the Ursonate, a soundform from which the sonata might have come. Brian Eno includes a portion of one of Schwitters’ sound poems in “Kurt’s Rejoinder,” found on Before and After Science (1977). Eno’s interest in the Ursonate later influenced the Talking Heads during their Fear of Music (1979) period; Schwitters’ influence can be heard on that album’s opening track, “I Zimbra.”

Some Additional Recordings:
Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act
Raoul Hausmann, Poèmes phonétiques (EP) (Paris 1958)
Kurt Schwitters, Ursonate (1922-32) (Wergo, pictured)
Cecil Taylor, Chinampas (Leo Records)
VA, Futurism & Dada Reviewed (Sub Rosa)

Friday, May 1, 2009


One of the reasons The Who’s “My Generation” is so memorable is, of course, because of Roger Daltrey’s distinctive delivery—his stuttering: “Why don’t you all f-f-f-fade away!” I’ve read a few accounts as to why he stutters, one version averring the song began as a “talking blues” number without the stutter, but having been inspired by John Lee Hooker’s “Stuttering Blues” (1953), Pete Townshend was compelled to include it. A competing version is based on Daltrey’s claim that his stuttering came about as the result of his having failed to learn the lyrics prior to rehearsing it, and hence the stuttering was a consequence of his inability to read the lyrics on the lyric sheet correctly—in other words, the stuttering was a “happy accident.” Whatever the reason—now a part of rock legend—the stuttering is significant, and I suspect it is connected to the issue of “noise” in rock music that I’ve written about previously.

Most certainly “My Generation” wasn’t the first popular song featuring stuttering. “K-K-K-Katy,” a song featuring a stutter that was a huge hit during the First World War, was performed by Billy Murray, the most popular singer in America prior to Al Jolson. A few years later, in 1922, Murray recorded “You Tell Her, I Stutter,” about a young man who desperately wants to propose marriage, but because he stutters, he asks his sweetheart’s brother to do the proposing for him. Blues musician John Lee Hooker stuttered, the motive behind his recording of “Stuttering Blues.” Stuttering or stammering is commonly understood as a speech disorder in which speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds or syllables, and involuntary silent pauses—blocks—during which the stutterer is unable to make any sound at all. While stuttering in the popular imagination is associated with the involuntary repetition of sounds (as in “My Generation”), it is also characterized by long, involuntary pauses and the prolongation of certain sounds. Joseph Sheehan, a speech pathologist, compares stuttering to an iceberg—referred to here as the “iceberg theory”—with the manifest or phenomenal features of stuttering (speech) the part above the waterline, with the larger mass of negative emotions associated with stuttering remaining hidden:

. . . the majority of the behaviour associated it [stuttering] lies beneath the surface. What lies above the surface are the visible symptoms of stuttering: blocked speech, repetition of syllables, disjointed speech, facial grimaces, blushing, visible tension in the face and neck, etc. However, Sheehan sees the greater problem with the effects of stuttering that other people cannot see: this includes shame, embarrassment (in addition to that embarrassment which is physically visible), guilt, avoidance of situations, substitution of words and other tricks, etc. There can be some argument about what exactly these covert symptoms are, and they tend to vary from person to person, but it is quite evident that such behavioural symptoms do exist and they contribute significantly to the overall problem of stuttering.

Herman Melville’s Billy Budd stuttered and stammered, primarily when he was placed under stress, but he didn’t repeat syllables so much as suffer from blocked speech: in the face of gross injustice, he was mute. I think Ken Kesey had Billy Budd in mind when he created his character of Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who exhibited the same behavior when faced with injustice and flagrant misuse of power (Nurse Ratched). In these instances involuntary silence is metaphorically associated with the slave, as in Hegel’s asymmetrical power relationship represented by his famous master-slave dialectic.

What is interesting, however, is the fact that many of the individuals who stutter or stammer do not do so while singing—the aforementioned John Lee Hooker comes to mind, as does country singer Mel Tillis. At least one popular musician who stuttered as a child, Carly Simon, used musical rhythm to help overcome her disability (listen to her fascinating discussion here), explaining her love of music. Hence, while it would seem the predictable regularity that is characteristic of music helps certain individuals use a rhythmic pattern in order to help overcome their stuttering, popular music does just the opposite, (re)inscribing stuttering into the song itself, meaning that its use is an affectation, a form of artifice—a code. In “My Generation,” the stuttering is used as a coded substitution, signaling that the singer really means “fuck off” rather than “fade away,” the former usage proscribed by the apparatus of state censorship. In contrast, in George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” since the song is rather shamelessly lifted from Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man,” the repetition of “b-b-b-b-bad” seems linked to the way Diddley emphasizes the “m” in the spelling of M-A-N by prolonging its sound, a code for masculine prowess.

I find this topic a subject for further research, particularly the use of stuttering in rock music, so I’m not in a position to present a fully formulated theory yet. And there’s at least one web site devoted to stuttering songs, revealing an interest in the connection between stuttering and popular music that long precedes my own.

Just A Few Of The Songs Featuring Stuttering and Stammering:
Bachman-Turner Overdrive – You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet
The Beastie Boys – Ch-Check It Out
David Bowie – Changes
Elton John – Bennie And The Jets
Guns N’ Roses – Welcome to the Jungle
The Knack – My Sharona
Huey Lewis and The News – The Heart of Rock and Roll
Bob Seger – Katmandu
George Thorogood and the Destroyers – Bad to the Bone
The Who – My Generation

Monday, March 30, 2009

“This Record Was Made To Be Played Loud”

Trivia question: What was the first album in the history of rock to include the disclaimer, “This Record Was Made To Be Played Loud”? I cannot provide a definitive answer to that question, but in my (limited) experience, it was an album by Mountain, titled Climbing!, released in March 1970 (which includes the band’s biggest and perhaps best known hit, “Mississippi Queen”). Of course, loudness is not noisiness, but at the time that album was released, the terms were often used interchangeably, and the injunction to play the record loud was meant to suggest that if the listener would play the record at a high volume, it would sonically recreate, as closely as possible, the live concert experience.

Loudness has to do with volume level; noise typically refers to disagreeable sounds (which may be loud) rather than to music. Early on, “noise” (and “noisy”) was a pejorative term applied to rock, which meant that [fill in the blank] was not music at all. Hence the word “noise,” as Jacques Attali has pointed out (Noise: The Political Economy of Music, 1985), is really a category of taste. I remember hearing the word “noise” quite a bit in 1964, the year the Beatles were introduced to America. For those Americans born before the war who grew up listening to jazz and swing, what the Beatles played was not music but noise, which, translated, meant that the music challenged what were presumed to be clearly defined notions of good and bad taste.

Hence, while there is such a thing as noise, noise-as-noise, in rock music, because it is a product of culture and technology, noise is never noise, but rather noise-as-code. Even so-called “feedback,” which might be considered as an accident or a form of error, can be considered noise-as-code: because of the theatrics of the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix and The Who, by the late 1960s rock concerts often concluded with guitarists leaving their instruments on the stage in order to generate self-sustaining feedback while the audience left. At the very least, this practice challenged conventional notions of taste. Yet because “change is inscribed in noise” according to Attali, it also, obviously, represented rebellion, but perhaps more importantly a new, perhaps “revolutionary,” order outside the hegemonic norm (the “mainstream”). Feedback, in other words, was not noise; it was ideology.

Noise-as-code pre-dated Elvis, but he was certainly aware of its existence. By the late 1960s, noise-as-code could be deployed both as an individual statement as well as a critique of cultural violence and chaos, and there is perhaps no better illustration of noise-as-code in the history of rock than Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in August 1969. That the performance was understood to be an ideological statement was revealed by the cultural debate that occurred almost immediately after the release of the film WOODSTOCK in March 1970 (coincidentally, at about the same time as Mountain’s Climbing!). As is typical of much public discourse, the issue quickly became polarized: was his rendition of the national anthem an anti-war statement, or a statement on the divisiveness that characterized America in 1969? Idealism or disillusionment? In retrospect, the moment was so significant that subsequent developments of noise-as-code, as exemplified by movements such as “industrial music,” “electro-industrial,” and “industrial rock,” can be understood as mere gloss on this historic moment.

Update: 31 March 2009 9:02 a.m. CDT: Ian W. Hill wrote in (see comments) and indicated that the first rock album to carry the disclaimer was Let It Bleed, by The Rolling Stones, released November 1969, which contained the injunction to “play it loud” on the inner sleeve (as well as a note to play side one first). Thank you very much, Ian, for writing in and supplying the information. I forgot that the Stones album contained the injunction; for some reason I remembered the Mountain album instead. Given that the albums were released just a few months apart, I suspect we now know not only the first album to contain the disclaimer, but the second as well.