over on the pureambient music group on facebook, we’ve been talking about the different ways that different people perceive a piece of music. (by the way, please feel free to drop by and join in the conversation – everyone is welcome!). obviously, every single human being “hears” a particular song in a “different way” – but to me, it’s fascinating to try and understand what those “different ways” are, and if I am hearing a song in a particular way, can I break that pattern and “hear” it in a completely different “way”?
I don’t know, I think I can. when I actually think about it, the way I listen to most music is strangely analytical. instead of hearing it as a “whole composition”, I usually break it down mentally into it’s component parts. so if I were listening to king crimson, circa 1974, I would think, when I hear the electric piano playing a distorted power chord during a live performance, “oh, that’s david cross” and I would be, momentarily, focussed on what david is doing in the piece in question.
invariably, a moment later, john wetton would pull off some amazing, sinuous, powerful bass run – and then, I am just hearing john, really – sure, I can still hear bill’s snare drum popping on the 3, or whatever it is he’s up to, but during this section of the song – it’s all about what john is doing. and probably, I am at least mentally, if not physically, playing air bass along, trying to figure out what notes are in that incredible bass run – and probably failing 🙂
so I might listen to that song, and be in “wetton” mode, and pretty much pay attention to the bass, the bass, and … the bass. on another day though, it might be all about what fripp is doing on the song – maybe he’s done something unusual, played a part in an odd way (compared to the studio version) or he might do some tapping (he does this more often than you would think) or some kind of impossible slide/hammer/whip round that I cannot get my head around…so that same song, is now heard in a totally fripp-centric way.
or – on yet another day, I might be in “bruford” mode, and while I can hear the rest of the band, I am listening to that tightly tuned snare pop, I am waiting to guess where the downbeat will fall in this particular measure (hint: not where you think it will!) and I am hearing the track “drum-centric”.
and – a normal person (i.e., not a musician!) would listen to this same song, and hear…a band playing, a song, not the individual parts, just the entire composition, as a holistic and organic whole. after years of analysing songs, of focussing sharply on one player’s part, it’s become very, very difficult for me to just “hear a song” or “hear a band” as a whole entity, I have to really work at it to not focus on one element, and, it gets more difficult every year.
so for example, if I want to hear king crimson live from1974, let’s say I decide to put on “usa” – I know what will happen, I will be irresistibly drawn to “asbury park” immediately, because the drums in asbury park – well, if you like crimson, you already know about this drum part – it’s all about bill, and i’d say that when I listen to that song, it’s initially to hear what bill does. that is…until wetton and fripp enter the fray. then – my attention shifts – bill is still there – but now, john and robert are there too, and it’s hard to say which one of the three is the most amazing – not to downplay david’s role in the song, I actually love what david does on the piano here, but the problem is – john and robert are so fracking amazing on this song. so I am torn – who do I listen to? who do I focus on? that razor sharp guitar, that is suddenly blazing out 128th notes that are so brittle and sharp and they just fly atop that thunderous, murderously powerful bass line – to me, asbury park may be the single most powerful live performance by these four men that there is – although i’d have to think about that – I can’t immediately think of any other that blows me away quite like this one – especially in the first two or three minutes of the song – the power and the glory, wetton and fripp – and, underpinned by a snare drum that is snapping so hard it sounds like the drum head is in imminent danger of being split into a thousand fragments with each driving, smacking sound…
so some songs defeat my ability to focus on one element, and asbury park is one of those – maybe then, I am listening to that song in an almost normal way – almost as a whole – but not quite, because while I may not be focussing on a single element throughout the piece, I am probably shifting back and forth between the main players, maybe even every few seconds! maybe that says that I have a problem with my attention, I don’t know – either I am great at dividing my attention between various elements, or, I am unable to focus and keep attention on one attribute – fantastic !! 🙂
seriously though, I do find it interesting, the way people “hear” music, and as we were saying over on the pureambient music group on facebook, different people hear different influences in your own music, and that can be very revealing – when I get input from people, and they say “this reminds me of…bill nelson’s ambient work, “crimsworth”” or “this song reminds me of eno” then that interests me, I want to understand what it is about that song that brings that reaction – so I then go back and listen again as “see”, or “hear” rather, if I can “hear” what they are talking about. it’s very strange that other people can hear the influence of artists that you admire in your work that you were not conscious of. that always gets me, because when I listen again, I have that eureka moment, “oh…i see – yes, that bit does sound like eno, it really does” – which I might never have been aware of had someone not pointed it out.
that’s actually very valuable to me, for one thing, I don’t ever really want to plagiarise or create works that are too derivative, that sound “too much” like artist a or b. that’s a tall order, because there are only so many chord progressions, so many melodies, so many harmonies, available – they’ve almost all been tried, performed or recorded over the centuries – so it’s really more down to other factors – performance, tones, ambience – that help make even an ordinary chord progression work well and sound unique to you.
tone and atmosphere are extremely important to me in the writing process – a piano, with no effects on it, is one thing, but a piano in a subtle, beautiful reverberant room – suddenly, the sound of the instrument starts to influence the song, and the notes, the chord progressions, the music itself become less important, and the atmosphere, which alters the standard tone of the instrument, and the timbre / atmosphere combination, create a mood that is somehow beyond the actual tune itself. the problem that this creates though is that I tend to want to hear that atmosphere or tone or timbre while I am recording – which is at odds to the accepted practice of recording “dry” and adding all effects post-production – oh well – sometimes, to get a particular result, you have to ignore what is “right” and go with what sounds right…
there are ways around this, and I am able now to record dry and play back with atmosphere added so it’s not so much of an issue now, but it used to be that I would just put the effect on while I was recording – because I couldn’t really play the piece “dry” – particularly, let’s say, if it was a loop recording of energy bow guitars – because the reverb or echo or phase shifting or chorus or flanger or delay was integral to the composition – and there are still times when I record guitar that is heavily effected – because I simply can’t play the piece live and then “add the effect later” – I just can’t play it without hearing the effect already there!
I am learning to, but sometimes…I might just do it “wrong” to make it “right” 🙂