«NG SO R U U T N P D CA k k at z HOW T EC ar H m N O O L IC G Y S MU HA SC HANGED UNIVERSITY OF CALIFOR NIA PRESS BERKELEY LOS ANGELES LONDON ...»
My view is that in order to recreate that sense of danger you have to make the listener into the performer. The listener has to take an active part in the experience in fundamentally diﬀerent ways than in live performance, and in order to do this I think that it’s necessary to compose elements into the music that are non-linear, sometimes random, sometimes noisy and not discursive in the ways that a lot of traditional music is. I want the music to challenge the listener anew on each hearing, so that identical sounds will end up sounding diﬀerent depending on the performance the listener creates in his own mind and ear.6 In Notjustmoreidlechatter there is no performer in the traditional sense.
So the performer’s task—to create a fresh interpretation of a work with each performance—is split between composer and listener. The composer imbues the work with the unpredictability of a live performance, while the listener assumes the executant’s interpretive duties. In fact, for Lansky it is the listener who truly deﬁnes the music: “The essence of the music,” he argues, “doesn’t lie as much in its details as in the act of trying to understand them.”7 If we compare Lansky’s response to repeatability with that of the recording performer, we see a fascinating inversion. I suggested in chapter 1 (see p. 25) that recording artists transform performances into works by creating unchanging texts that transcend the temporal vicissitudes of the concert. Lansky has done exactly the opposite: he has composed a work with the qualities of a performance.
As its title suggests, there is more to the work than chaotic chatter, which alone might well drive listeners to distraction. Just as Lansky seeks a balance between familiarity and strangeness, he also leavens complexity with simplicity. Anchoring the swiftly moving surface voices are what Lansky refers to as background singers. Where the former move randomly in complicated rhythms guided by no perceivable system of tonality, the latter M U S I C I N 1s A N D 0 s do the opposite. These voices sing slowly in simple harmonies on vowel sounds, meandering in stepwise motion within a diatonic scale. Although they do not follow the traditional rules of tonal voice-leading, their deliberate and predictable movement provides structure to the piece. A broader organizing principle also helps unify the work. The chatter voices chart a gradual path from lesser to greater intelligibility and back again, providing a kind of arch form to the work. At the midpoint of the piece, the background voices fade while the chattering becomes more prominent and distinct. Lansky seems to be rewarding careful listeners; for example, I hear “dream” and “a long way” (4:23–4:24), both of which are in the source text. (Then again, I would swear that I hear certain words and phrases that are not in the source text, so at any point in the piece it is impossible to know whether I hear what I think I hear.) After this section of relative clarity, the distinctness of the text diminishes as the chattering recedes into the background. After nearly eight minutes, the piece slowly fades from one’s consciousness, the voices dying away inarticulate, to paraphrase Jane Eyre’s description of her own voice disappearing in a dream.
Notjustmoreidlechatter wonderfully demonstrates the musical and aesthetic potential of digital technologies. Like an alchemist, Lansky transforms the ordinary into the precious, where a spoken word becomes a superhuman chorus. But this is no black magic—it is virtuosic handicraft developed from an understanding of both computer software and human perception. If Lansky exploits the possibilities of the technology to the fullest, he also confronts its limitations. The 1s and 0s of Notjustmoreidlechatter will not change no matter how many times we hear the piece. But he uses those same ﬁxed digits to create the illusion of spontaneity, and makes us squint our ears in an attempt to hear more. The piece also raises questions about the deﬁnition of music. How does mere sound become music? Can we pinpoint the transformation? Or is the transformation in the listener, achieved when something is heard as music? Lansky does not answer these questions, but he does suggest (as John Cage had done before, but with very diﬀerent sonic results) that the line between noise and music is far from clear, if such a line exists at all.
Paul Lansky hopes that listeners will not dwell on the technology with which he creates his music. “Music succeeds when its machinery is less interesting than its tunes.”8 His stance is understandable, for he certainly 144 M U S I C I N 1s A N D 0 s would not want the medium to overshadow the message. While I do not agree with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message, a rich understanding can come of investigating both. Although the world of Notjustmoreidlechatter springs from the imagination of the composer, it is the technology that renders it audible.
F R O M “ TA K E Y O ’ P R A I S E ” T O “ P R A I S E Y O U ”
The recording opens with a piano playing an eight-bar introduction in a
gospel style. We can imagine the pianist sitting at a battered upright, vamping an introduction for a nervous amateur singer. Oblivious to the proceedings, some members of the audience continue their neighborly chitchat. The singer then enters tentatively:
We’ve come a long, long way together, Through the hard times and the good.
I have to celebrate you baby, I have to praise you like I should.
At the end of the phrase something very strange happens, disrupting our mental image of the proceedings. The singer starts to stutter unnaturally on the word should, as a complement of percussion instruments and then an electric bass thicken the texture. The woman holds the note for ten, twenty, thirty seconds. A synthesized drum joins in, pounding out quarter, then eighth, then sixteenth, then thirty-second notes before the texture erupts into an up-tempo dance.
The minute and twenty seconds of music I just described opens “Praise You” (Track 11 on the accompanying CD), the 1998 electronic dance music hit by Norman Cook, better known in his native Britain and throughout the world as Fatboy Slim. At the core of “Praise You,” however, is another song, representing a diﬀerent era and genre. The voice we hear belongs to Camille Yarbrough and was recorded in 1975 as the opening of her soul/funk song “Take Yo’ Praise” (Track 12).9 Through the technology of digital sampling, Cook has at once decontextualized and recontextualized Yarbrough’s voice, giving it new sounds, functions, and meanings. What M U S I C I N 1s A N D 0 s makes this case study fascinating, however, is that the relationship between these two songs simultaneously conﬁrms and confounds our expectations of digital sampling, and in the process raises some of the complex aesthetic and ethical issues arising from this new form of musical borrowing.
Cook samples only the ﬁrst twenty seconds of “Take Yo’ Praise,” which consist of Yarbrough’s unaccompanied singing—nothing more. This comes as a surprise to most listeners, who assume that the opening of “Praise You” is an unretouched aural snapshot of an actual performance.
It was Cook, then, who added the piano and the background voices; he even manipulated the crackling sound of the LP from which he sampled the piano, making it more prominent. (He also altered Yarbrough’s singing, increasing the tempo and ﬂattening the melodic contour.) Cook demonstrates his mastery of the sampler here, providing a sense of wholeness to this olio. He does this not only through the harmonization of the vocal line, but with noise. The background chatter oﬀers a sense of occasion, of liveness, and of place; the foreground crackling oﬀers a sense of time, evoking the unspeciﬁed past of the vinyl age. The latter can now be produced digitally and is aptly known as the phonograph eﬀect. A phonograph eﬀect indeed, for it is a palpable manifestation of recording’s inﬂuence. This noise, real or digitally simulated, is now ﬁrmly part of our modern sonic vocabulary, and can be powerfully evocative to listeners. It was long deemed an unwanted addition to the phonographic experience by both the industry and listeners, but ironically became a valued and meaningful sound when digital technology ﬁnally eliminated it. In the age of noiseless digital recordings, this sonic patina prompts nostalgia, transporting listeners to days gone by (whether of their own or some generalized past), an eﬀect Cook exploits in “Praise You.” In the original, Yarbrough’s line “I have to praise you like I should” leads to the entrance of a sublimely funky electric bass line, with guitar and percussion ﬁlling in the accompaniment. As the song continues through several more verses, text and tone become increasingly passionate and erotic before subsiding into a postcoital coda. Cook, however, takes another path.
The music following the opening sixteen measures, when Yarbrough’s voice starts to skip, seems rather unimaginative, even inept. The vocal stutter suggests a failed attempt to create a superhuman fermata; the synthesized sound of the throbbing drum is clearly foreign to the rest of the musical 146 M U S I C I N 1s A N D 0 s texture; and the successive doubling of the pulse is a dance music cliché.
Yet whatever else he is, Cook is not inept. He is actually playing a sly joke on us, for his intentionally ham-ﬁsted sampling convinces us all the more of the “authenticity” and “naturalness” of the opening, which, as we now know, is neither. Cook himself admits that the vocal stutter was “a gag, a way of saying, ‘Look, I sampled this.’”10 With this heavy-handedness he thus makes his presence known; the man behind the curtain has revealed himself. Of course, he was there from the start. Attentive listening reveals that the ﬁrst four seconds of “Praise You” are looped, so that the two measures in the piano, the fragment of conversation, even the pattern of pops and clicks are repeated in exactly the same form. His portrait of an artist as a young woman is clearly a construct.
The introduction now over, Cook proceeds to use the twenty seconds of Yarbrough’s singing, and various parts of it, through the rest of the ﬁveminute song. The entire sample is heard only three times. All other appearances of Yarbrough’s voice come from the last line, “I have to praise you like I should.” Cook does not further alter the sample; rather, variation in the music comes from the accompaniment, which changes throughout the piece. Although this is dance music, which requires repetition and a steady beat, it has a subtlety that rewards close listening. Cook himself might argue to the contrary, however. According to him, with dance music, and his music by extension, “There’s nothing to sit and listen to. It’s the soundtrack of your nights out rather than anything that’s supposed to be heard or discussed at home at great length.”11 Yet notice the male voice singing along to the bass in nonsense syllables at 0:57, the faint vocal echoes accompanying “I have to praise you” starting at 1:57, the human beat-box rhythm at 2:11, and the variety of glissandos, cymbal hits, and robotic chirps that pepper the texture. Most of these can only be heard with careful attention and headphones—that is, at home, rather than at the club.
If Cook adds a good deal musically, he also strips much away from the original. Camille Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise” oﬀers a complex message, one absent in “Praise You.” Yarbrough’s is a multifaceted love song, one woman’s moving and sensual tribute to the man in her life. As the composer reveals, the lyrics are autobiographical: “I wanted the brother with whom I was attached to know that... he had contributed a lot to my growth.”12 The song has broader implications as well. Yarbrough wrote M U S I C I N 1s A N D 0 s “Take Yo’ Praise” during the civil rights movement, in which she, an African American woman, was deeply involved. “I had decided to give it a double meaning,” she explains. “It was also directed at all people of African ancestry... who had at that time been in the front lines of the battle to turn racism around.” The opening line—“We’ve come a long, long way together”—refers, then, to her people, not just her man. In Cook’s hands, however, both the personal and political meanings of the original evaporate. In fact, after so much sheer repetition, it’s unclear whether these words mean much beyond what the timbre and rhythms of Yarbrough’s voice communicate musically. In a survey of informal reviews of “Praise You” posted on the Internet I found very few that even mentioned the lyrics.
Of those that did, most were dismissive. “I can’t really say the lyrics are deep, because they’re not,” one reviewer noted. He summed up the song in this way: “I think one of my friends described ‘Praise You’ best when she said it felt like one of those songs you cruise around town with all your friends listening to and doing fun, crazy stuﬀ. And if you know that feeling, you know what ‘Praise You’ feels like. It’s just a fun song.”13 While it might be tempting to dismiss this assessment as superﬁcial, it is important to remember that Cook omits the vast majority of the text, repeating just a few words over and again. No wonder fans of the song have had little to say about its lyrics.
One could also argue that through his sampling Cook digitally neuters Yarbrough. On ﬁrst hearing, many people think that the singer is a man or are unsure of the gender.14 Cook changes Yarbrough’s voice in such a way that it is less nuanced than the original, and the lack of timbral clues makes it possible to hear it as a tenor or alto. (Interestingly, Cook points out that the quality of Yarbrough’s sampled voice was an unintended consequence of time-stretching, at the time a relatively new and rather unreﬁned technique used to change the tempo of a recording without aﬀecting its pitch.