The Record Producer as Architect (Preliminary)

by Dave Mandl, Brooklyn Psychogeographical Association


"Everyone will live in his own 'cathedral,' so to speak. There will be rooms more conducive to dreams than any drug, and houses where one cannot help but love. Others will be irresistibly alluring to travelers . . .

"We know that a modern building could be constructed which would have no resemblance to a medieval castle but which could preserve and enhance the Castle poetic power . . .

"The districts of this city could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life: Bizarre Quarter--Happy Quarter (specially reserved for habitation)--Noble and Tragic Quarter (for good children)--Historical Quarter (museums, schools)--Useful Quarter (hospitals, tool shops)--Sinister Quarter, etc. . . .

"The principal activity of the inhabitants will be the CONTINUOUS DÉRIVE. The changing of landscapes from one hour to the next will result in complete disorientation . . . "

--Ivan Chtcheglov, "Formulary for a New Urbanism," October 1953

The modern sound recording is an art form in its own right, fundamentally different from mere musical "compositions" written on paper or performed live from scores. The recording studio gives producers access to a sonic palette infinitely larger than the simple sets of notes available to previous generations of composers and musicians. Sound recordings are not composed but rather constructed piecemeal on tape or computer disk in the studio, a process that not only makes possible previously unimaginable techniques (such as split-second edits and "illogical" juxtapositions of instruments) but also places equal importance on ingredients like reverb and other non-notatable or environmental elements. The best pieces of studio work--even ones that are at bottom simple pop songs--are one-of-a-kind assemblages of sounds and "treatments" (including specific echo, reverb, and equalization settings, miking techniques, placement of instruments and sounds in the stereo spectrum, and other intangible subtleties of "shading") that are constructed largely by trial and error, and felt, rather than written on paper. These often have as much in common with works of visual art as they do with traditional music compositions, a fact that has led many modern composers, producers, and "sound artists" to liken themselves to painters.

A better metaphor might be architects. Nearly any piece of music--live or recorded--may evoke images of certain specific times or places, or induce particular states of mind, but a recording that takes full advantage of the studio's time- and ambience-manipulating tools can actually create a virtual space for the listener, with its own size, shape, (apparent) lighting, atmosphere, and aura. This space may be of a familiar type--a castle, a forest, a busy street in Morocco, a courtyard during an afternoon sunshower in April--or of a type that is completely unknown in the real world--say, a three-foot-by-three-foot-by-three-foot room built from tissue paper, or a space with constantly shifting echoic and resonance properties, or one where sounds decay in ways that violate the laws of terrestrial physics. The characteristics of the space are shaped by a number of factors: choice of instruments, juxtapositions of instruments, incorporation of environmental or "unmusical" sounds, equalization settings, echo and reverb settings, stereo placement and "panning," radical alteration of instruments' tonal properties, etc.

A sound recording can be used by the listener to either create a virtual space or enhance an existing (real) one. Recordings can therefore be used to create aural dérives or accompany physical ones. They can be combined in different ways (carefully planned or by chance), either with real architectural and geographical sites or among themselves. The moods or states of mind thus created may be ones difficult or impossible to bring about with purely physical spaces, or they may simply intensify or modify the auras of physical spaces. Similarly, individual recordings may seem (subjectively) to "work best" in certain places, at certain times of day, during certain seasons, under certain lighting or atmospheric conditions, etc. Experiment and see which combinations give the most pleasing results.

Some suggested recordings:

African Head Charge: Environmental Studies
This Heat: This Heat
Wire: Chairs Missing
Brian Eno: Another Green World
Faust: The Faust Tapes
Various Artists: Guitarrorists
Third Ear Band: Third Ear Band
Arthur Russell: World of Echo
Andy Partridge: Take Away/The Lure of Salvage
King Crimson: Larks' Tongues in Aspic
Biota: Bellowing Room
Steve Moore: A Quiet Gathering
Jocelyn Robert: Stat Live Moniteur
Pink Floyd: Ummagumma, sides three and four
The Momes: Spiralling
Glenn Branca: The Ascension
Future Sound of London: Lifeforms
Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin 4
Jon Rose: Violin Music for Supermarkets

[Previously published in "New Observations"]


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