Sunday, June 16, 2013

An exciting email, and a reflection on musique concrète in everyday life

As you might imagine (or perhaps have even done) I regularly get messages from Dockstader fans all around the world. I'm always thrilled when I get these messages and I feel privileged to be so closely associated with Tod. It's a pleasure to interact with fellow Dockstaderians, and to share your praise with him. His music was so overlooked for so long that he's constantly surprised by the fact that people really enjoy his work now. Last week I received a particularly surprising and interesting email from a Dockstader fan: a gentleman by the name of Pete Townshend.



Turns out that when Pete was working on the music that would become TOMMY, he used a chunk of Tod's music in his demos as a way to say "I want to do something like this here." By the time the album was released, those bits had been re-written so Tod's music didn't appear on the album, but now over forty years later, Townshend is working on a deluxe boxed set of TOMMY and wants to include the demos "as is." He went searching for Tod in order to properly credit him and to make sure that he was properly paid, and in the process found this blog. If by the time you're reading this the album is already out, then perhaps you've found this website by way of The Who, in which case, welcome. I recommend watching this video if you haven't yet.

Pete had his engineer send me an mp3 of the demo in question, but added this caveat: "It might attract attention, and then disappoint serious scholars of musique concrète. There is a lot of my noise going on at the same time." This got me thinking, as I am prone to do, about the role musique concrète has played in popular culture almost since it's invention. 

The Classical Avant-Garde often finds itself re-packaged and either sold to, or foisted upon an unsuspecting public. Play atonal music for most people and the common response will be "Sounds like film music," because as we all know dissonance = scary monster. Electronic sounds surround us every day. Would-be dubsteppers should be forced to listen to Stockhausen, Subotnick, Oliveros, Dockstader, et al... and hopefully realize that that music should be the foundation upon which they build, not some guy in a mouse mask. But musique concrète has crept into the mainstream in more subtle ways.

The classic example I use when explaining what the term means is to tell people that Revolution #9 from The Beatles White Album is essentially musique concrète. The technique is often associated with "found sounds" used in either "musical" or abstract ways. But I feel the definition can be even broader than that since the term translates as "fixed music." Under this idea, I would argue that the majority of recorded popular music can be considered "musique concrète."

To stick with the Beatles comparisons for a moment, the entire second half of their output were studio constructs, never intended to be played live. Slicing, splicing, layering, etc.. created these works. So much of today's music is "assembled" in the studio using digital versions of the same techniques. This is why it was so easy for someone like Dockstader to quickly adapt to digital editing, the basic principles are all the same. And of course, one of musique concrète's most basic techniques, speeding up a sound, is familiar to anyone who has ever heard the Chipmunks.

Even if we stick to a more "traditional" definition of "found sounds" we can still hear the influence of this style all around us. Sampling is directly linked to the idea that sounds carry meaning, and those meanings can help inform a new piece of work. Whether you're building a song using the sound of trains or snippets of James Brown, the listener will respond based on their experiences with the original source material. Early Hip-Hop, Plunderphonics, and today's mash-up culture all exploit these associations to build layers of meaning into their works.

But the area that we hear musique concrète these days that I find the most surprising is in commercials. Nearly every KitKat commercial that I can remember from the last decade has been made by using pitched breaking sounds to re-create their familiar theme song. Pringles did quite a bit of literal "popping" in the recent past. And now there's a high-end faucet commercial that uses musique concrète. I wonder if this means that I've somehow become a target demographic?

So if Pete is concerned about what the "serious scholars" think about "some reverse guitar and swannee whistle nonsense (he) cooked up," then I'd suggest the scholars look elsewhere. Personally, I'd rather celebrate the hidden influence that Tod had on a Rock & Roll classic than worry about the "purity" of an art form that is now being used to sell candy bars, potato chips, and fancy kitchen ware.