Thursday, August 07, 2008

What sounds good?

Here's a biggie: Ever since the Edisonian reproduction of recorded music began, terms such as "realism" and "High Fidelity" really haven't cut it. Not really.

Like art of any kind (we know what we like when we see it) our tastes are established early on, added to perhaps by passive or active learning and further understanding of the very complex languages they arrive in to our ears or eyes.

I'm going to make this easy: We all have a favorite album, CD, vinyl, or perhaps wax cylinder. It's the one you have listened to more than once, probably many times, and thought "wow, this sounds really good". Visceral, sumptuous, hard, soft, dynamic, melodic, rhythmic, timbre-rich - whatever you like - it's unbelievably fantastic, and you are sure of it.

Think about what you like. At the core, usually (unless you are a sound effects album collector as I am) is an idea, an aesthetic, a groove, something tuneful or tuneless that gets you going.

But there's more: The bass, the treble, the attack, the spatial cues, how it drives like a racecar or a rocket through your ear brain combo, and how your own local equipment, albiet limited, may handle it. It makes you fly. You know what I mean.

And the meaning - Literal? Abstract? Nostalgic? The playing? Great songwriting? Something else? Is it the art at the center that could still be great if it did not sound "so good", or is it the art that sounds so good? It depends, doesn't it. I can think of "bad" recordings that are the found objects of art predicted by Marcel Duchamp in movie trailers and TV jingles, I can think of Motown greats that sound nearly as good on a 7 transistor Panapet. Would I change them? Maybe.

Think of one or two and get back to me. Think of why, and describe it. You tell me yours and I'll tell you mine. I'm listening to it now. You probably guessed that already.

Link to "Theme from a Summer Place" Picked by Larry in comments below. This was an important song and incorporated a strong postwar theme with a mild contemporary doo wop. It seems to accommodate Cage's theories of "music as furniture" which today is true, as music's ubiquity is virtually complete. A pretty tune that wafted from many kitchen radios in its day, equally at home in a restaurant, or a commercial, or an airport. Hats off to Larry for coming up with this example that to me almost seems like the precise halfway point between classical and ambient. Because it was such a success and popular Muzak theme, it might be discounted. I was astonished at the many YouTube slideshows people have put together to Percy Faith's famous performance of Max Steiner's piece, and it is important that despite its mid century modernism, its humanity is intact. I wonder what will be thought of this in another 50 years and will it have a different meaning? I will
have to find a good vinyl example (should be easy!) and really give it a listen. The above link sounds almost a whole note flat vs the filmed Percy Faith link above - anyone know if this is a technical artifact or intentional? The key makes quite a difference I think.

In any case, Weather Report's Sportin Life (1984) seems to me to be a penultimate recording with everything in it that is good.
The vinyl version NOT the CD. Of course with the likes of Zawinul and Shorter, you could hardly ask for better performers. But that's just part of it that you simply must hear by placing needle on plastic and let it spin. I know of no other recording with such great dynamics and sound in general and it it immediately obvious that this is so when hearing it. Astonishing in fact. Weather Report are well known but chances are you have never heard this record. I encourage you to get the TT lubed up and a new stylus, and go find this gem. This album was completely panned by the critics who could not get over the fact that Weather Report strayed from "traditional" fusion into a world beat. WAY before its time (1984 was a long time ago) and strongly related to several of the hooks and themes later seen and used by P5 and Cornelius.


LarryK said...

"Theme from a Summer Place", stops me in my tracks every time no matter what it is played on. Don't know why, maybe it's because my mother left me. :-)

SkyThing said...

Hi Larry,

So in this case, it's about nostalgia? Context? And certainly a luxurious sound.

Interesting choice.

LarryK said...

Well it's true, she did leave me but I was being facitious on that, but possibly a time, place or an event in my life is connected with this track. On the other hand, there are pieces of music that upon the very first listen can make you does that happen?

A friend of mine said a piece from
the opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni did this to him recently, and he wasn't particularly an opera fan..

The first listen of "Whiter Shade Of Pale" didn't make me cry but it certainly caught me in it's trap as it did millions of people.

Bob Crowley said...

There have been threads over on GS about the song that really hits you in the gut with many interesting replies. Perhaps we need to be a little different: Focus on a production that is fantastic from an overall sense (including emotional) of what sounds good. In other words, the character of the sound itself. It could be argued that the two are inseparable.