The Relentless Pursuit of Tone: Timbre in Popular Music.
Goldsmiths, University of London (UK)
As I write, anniversary celebrations of the Apollo 11 lunar mission are in full swing, Brian Eno reissues are flying off the shelves, and it seems that musicology may at long last be experiencing a similar breakthrough with timbre: an object with a comparable pull on the imagination and one which, like the moon, is simultaneously an unavoidable physical reality and a void for the projection of our earthly desires. The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in academic engagement with timbre, with problems of ontology, function, representation, and affective and conceptual signification receiving an airing (e.g. Van Elferen 2017; Wallmark et al. 2018; Lavengood 2019; Dolan and Rehding Forthcoming). The publication of The Relentless Pursuit of Tone marks a pivotal point by turning our attention to timbre in popular music, in whose aesthetics it plays a decisive, but until now, under-theorised role.
The book’s fifteen chapters put to rest any notion of timbre’s ineffability, showcasing—through sections on Genre, Voice, Instrument and Production—a glorious variety of analytical and representational techniques with which to capture its slippery essence. The usual spectrograms are joined by Jocelyn Neal’s phonetic descriptions of country guitar “twang” and Griffin Woodworth’s echomimetic representation of filter envelopes in funk. Nina Sun Eidscheim’s deconstructionist reading of the persistent “disidentification” (153) of Jimmy Scott’s voice and Jonathan Howland’s topical archaeology of “luxe pop” are joined by material histories of studio technologies from Jan Butler, and embodied ecological theories of timbre cognition by Simon Zagorski-Thomas. It is clear that a dominant methodology has not yet been established, and this emerging field is all the better for it.
It is fitting that the first chapter is given to Cornelia Fales, whose identification of the paradox of timbre in a landmark article (2002) continues to animate both her contribution and the collection as a whole. The paradox is multifaceted, stemming from the incommensurability of the acoustic world, where sound is produced according to rational and quantifiable laws, and the phenomenal world, where timbre is (not as rationally or measurably) “perceptualized”, a perception which “differs most radically” from the acoustic features that provoke it (24). This same tension—between material reality and its mental representation—is at the heart of the timbre versus tone debate outlined in the editors’ introduction, where tone is defined as a “complex quasi-object shaped by cultural networks” and timbre as the “dispassionate” scientific object providing the real “physical and perceptual correlates” to tone (9-10).
The book’s explicit aim is to bridge this gap by “illuminating how the materiality of sound can structure cultural practice” (12), but a latent distrust of the cultural pole is evident throughout, compensated for by detailed descriptions of sound production and psychoacoustic processes, coupled with genuine surprise and delight when a homology between acoustic and phenomenal worlds is identified. These descriptions—ranging from Melinda Latour’s dissection of Carlos Santana’s transcendental sustain to Woodworth’s unpacking of the transistorised oscillators that powered funk musicians’ subversive use of synthesisers—are hugely valuable, and it is heartening to see such thorough engagement with the technicalities of popular music’s sonic construction. However, as Jonathan Sterne has observed, “technologies of listening . . . emerge out of techniques of listening” (2003, 92; original emphases), suggesting that we should not abandon trust in our ears and minds entirely, but instead use them to probe how cultural practices in turn structure the materiality of sound. Simon Frith makes a similar point in his afterword (368), and in the end, the timbre/tone (and its attendant real/cultural) dualism boils down to the ultimate philosophical chicken-and-egg of where “reality” really resides—a debate too expansive both for this review and the text it is reviewing.
Whilst every chapter in this rich volume warrants detailed discussion, two essays from Fales and Robert Fink, which deal with timbre in electronic dance music and bass cultures respectively, are of particular interest to Dancecult’s readership. In “Hearing Timbre: Perceptual Learning Among Early Bay Area Ravers”, Fales analyses the scene-specific discursive attempts by users of the SFRaves listserv to understand timbre, citing EDM’s timbral “nonspecificity” or sourcelessness as enabling rare feats of “perceptual learning” (25, 24). She argues that it is EDM’s disconnect from the acoustic sources of the natural world, coupled with the dissociative effects of MDMA (a frequent topic of conversation on SFRaves), which allows listeners to learn to hear timbre not implicitly, as a monitor and proxy for the sound source, but explicitly and in itself, attending only to its immanent qualities. Furthermore, Fales suggests that this nonspecificity also operates at the conceptual level, because whilst many of the posts she analyses share a narrative arc of “before . . . perceptual inadequacy and . . . after” (35), the affordances of timbre, even when tacitly grasped by listeners, remain largely affective and sub-linguistic.
In “Below 100Hz. Toward A Musicology of Bass Culture”, Fink critiques the acoustically “unsound” (112) theorisations of the affective power of sub-bass and bass culture, as formulated by Steve Goodman (2010) and Julian Henriques (2011), which he argues have idealised bass sounds into occupying “fetish object” status (89). In order to put bass in its place, Fink details subwoofer design, the transduction of low frequency waves through space, and the aural and haptic sensation of those waves by human perceivers, systematically debunking any notion of the exceptional power, force and physicality of bass. He concludes that the “power” of deep bass is “our intuitive perception of how difficult it is to hear these frequencies at all”, and so bass culture can only be understood “as culture” because the “sound” around which it is centred “is a timbre of no timbre” (112).
I fundamentally agree with Fink that it is the liminality of bass that gives it its symbolic power, but, as an avid bass-head myself, I have spent enough nights having my bones rattled by sound systems ranging from Aba Shanti-I to Digital Mystikz to know that there is a matereal basis to bass culture beyond subwoofers, and beyond the idealising projections of listeners. As Fales observes in her conclusion, despite the difficulties of hearing timbre at all, human propensity for perceptual learning, and the “astronomical decibel levels” of a rave context “where the parameters of timbre and rhythm predominate” mean that there is “very little that is truly cognitively impenetrable” (39). Producers and DJs help us along in that respect, by isolating and EQing bass solos and drops so that our attention is turned more fully to the bass, making the almost-inaudible engulf the sensorium. Fink’s main gripe appears to be with Goodman’s florid, CCRU-inspired discursive formulation of bass as malevolent weapon or force, and this chapter is a useful antidote to that narrative. At times, however, in his dismissal of the audible and sensible reality of bass, it seems Fink falls prey to the inverse of the same “acoustic fundamentalism” (112) of which he accuses his adversaries.
Nevertheless, “Below 100Hz” is exemplary in its attention to the material conditions and technical specificities of tone production, and this represents one of the great strengths of The Relentless Pursuit as a whole: in addition to its thorough explorations of the cultural and perceptual dimensions of timbre, the book contains a treasure trove of sophisticated discussions of sound technology whilst managing to avoid the lacklustre didacticism of much other gear literature. In “The Sound of Evil”, Zachary Wallmark considers in fine-grained detail the detuning, overdriving and distortion of guitar and vocal timbres in death metal, whose noisiness and difficulty he links to sacrificial violence and its overcoming by fans and producers. Steve Waksman looks at the ill-fated guitar synthesiser, which resolved initial stumbling blocks of translating guitarists’ idiosyncratic pitch control and attack types into information analogue circuitry and, later, MIDI could process. Its failure, he argues, resulted from the “Faustian bargain” (271) struck by its adopters, who traded the kudos of virtuosic guitar rock and jazz for an enhanced but for all purposes “sourceless” sonic palette.
Jan Butler and Paul Théberge consider studio technologies aside from specific instruments, the former looking at the changing status of liveness as a site of rock authenticity in the age of the studio album, and the latter at reverb’s trajectory from a consolidator of space to special effect, where the once-stable relationship between acoustic, musical and listening spaces has become contingent and separable. Touching on similar themes, Albin Zak sketches a cultural history of the recording industry in mid-century America, then undergoing waves of democratisation as emerging youth markets overtook DJs and studio professionals as arbiters of musical value. Zak’s chapter also highlights another thread running through The Relentless Pursuit; namely, popular music’s irrepressible zeal for turning one group’s sonic off-cuts—in Zak’s case lo-fi production values and untrained vocal and instrumental technique—into another group’s aesthetic ideal. This transformation undergirds Catherine Provenzano’s investigation into Auto-Tune’s redistribution of musical labour and its rationalisation along racial and class lines. It also serves as the backbone for Mark Samples’ chapter on the voice of Tom Waits, whose “damaged” and imperfect timbre cemented Waits’ artistic authenticity, and was eventually granted a legally protected status of its own.
Zagorski-Thomas’ “The Spectromorphology of Recorded Music” serves as an appropriate closing chapter for this expertly curated collection, outlining a robust methodology that takes on both timbre and tone, and their interrelation. He borrows from James Gibson’s ecological theory of perception, and neuroscientific theories of embodied cognition and cross-domain mapping, relating these to Denis Smalley’s work on gestural surrogacy to explore how ostensibly sourceless recorded sounds generate schematic “sonic cartoons” that suggest a sourced, embodied provenance. The sources these cartoons specify in the perceiving mind, however, are not concrete, real-world objects but instead take the form of “experiential affective structures” (348). Zagorski-Thomas applies these theories to analyse perceptions of fullness, fidelity and moving through space in “acoustic pop” and electronica, arguing that timbre perception is “based on our embodied experience and the metaphorical connections we can make between that primary 'lived-in’ experience and our secondary experience of the world around us” (359). As such, while the distance between actual and perceived source can remain vast, they share a core structural affinity which gives perceptions a coherence and consistency with the external world which, in turn, enables listeners to act on, react to, and make sense of, their physical environment.
This brings us back to—and perhaps offers a way out of—Fales’ paradox and the dialectic between the real and the perceptual which drives The Relentless Pursuit. As the first of its kind, the book leaves plenty of openings for emerging timbre researchers to sink their teeth into and develop. For EDM scholars, the ideas presented this book offer a potential way out of the music-analytical stalemate that has dogged our subfield since its inception, by showcasing approaches that enable us to engage more directly with the “matter” (i.e. the sounds and technologies) of electronic dance music. At the same time, each chapter is incredibly well structured and easy to navigate which, along with the book’s companion website and the sheer depth and diversity of the topics covered, makes it an indispensable pedagogical tool for advanced undergraduates and above. In short, The Relentless Pursuit it is a timely collection that deserves to be read widely, and in full, by popular music scholars and tone-chasers of all stripes alike.
Dolan, Emily, and Alexander Rehding, eds. Forthcoming. The Oxford Handbook of Timbre. New York: Oxford University Press. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190637224.001.0001>.
Fales, Cornelia. 2002. "The Paradox of Timbre". Ethnomusicology 46 (1): 56–95. <http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/852808>.
Goodman, Steve. 2010. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Henriques, Julian. 2011. Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing. New York: Continuum.
Kane, Brian. 2014. Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lavengood, Megan. 2019. "What Makes It Sound ’80s?: The Yamaha DX7 Electric Piano Sound". Journal of Popular Music Studies 31 (3): 73–94. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/jpms.2019.313009>.
Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press.
Van Elferen, Isabella. 2017. "Agency, Aporia, Approaches: How Does Musicology Solve a Problem Like Timbre?". Contemporary Music Review 36 (6): 483–87. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07494467.2017.1452685>.
Wallmark, Zachary, Marco Iacoboni, Choi Deblieck, and Roger Kendall. 2018."Embodied Listening and Timbre: Perceptual, Acoustical, and Neural Correlates". Music Perception 35 (3): 332–63. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/mp.2018.35.3.332>.
 Clubs like London’s fabric, for example, have bespoke “bodysonic” wooden dancefloors with bass transducers placed underneath, so that clubbers “feel” the low-end frequencies through their feet.