Sonic Conditioning

I cannot recall whether this has been a topic of consideration previously, but this idea is something that is an inescapable element of everyday life. Being exposed to an innumerable amount of sounds on a daily basis, it makes sense that the repetition of certain noises are going to imprint themselves within in our minds in unique ways. Establishing connections between events and sounds is in no way even remotely original, but that does not take away from how prevalent and fascinating it is. One of the most prominent examples that comes to mind is the experiment done with Pavlov’s Dog. Through classical conditioning, he was able to have the dog salivate at the sound of a bell ringing when it expected the stimulus of food. This is a family common example of this type of response, but it reminds me too much of a sonic connection I share with the ringing not of a bell, but of an alarm. Like most, I set an alarm on my phone to wake me up in the morning and on many occasions to remind me to tend to something I might have forgotten. Every time, I use the same loud, clamoring patterned ring that startles me even when I am expecting it. It has gotten to the point where no matter what occasion the alarm is redirecting my conscious to, a wave of overwhelming panic washed over me for one moment and I am terrified. I have been conditioned to recognize and process this tone only in negative circumstances. It means I have to wake up and go to class or wake up from a nap and continue the endless amounts of homework or remember that I have some burden hanging over my head that immediately needs to be dealt with. Even though I loathe this ring more than anything in my daily life, I cannot simply change my ringtone. It causes an acute, minor heart attack, but it has conditioned me to recognize a sense of urgency and quickly adopt the new primary task. I have overtime learned to react and shift my focus with much more haste and certainty because I constantly experience the same sheer momentary terror each time it goes off. I have been conditioned to act accordingly and even when I hear it out of context on someone else’s phone, it causes my body to shiver and I search deeper within my mind to pull out any information I may be forgetting to utilize. Sound without us even considering it, can latch itself onto a memory or imprint itself onto an event as a conditioning mechanism. Although the emotions it evokes can be both horrifying and soothing, the purpose it serves has  considerable value.

Sounds of the Backcountry

This weekend, my roommate and I had to complete our last backpacking trip for Davidson Outdoors’ Trip Leader Training course.  As I was falling asleep, it occurred to me how much noise humans cut themselves off from by living inside of buildings.  While I think of the backcountry as being a much more peaceful place than the front country, it still comes with its own set of unique noises.  It occurred to me how unnatural it must be to fall asleep in the silence that people have come to expect when going to bed, and I wonder if this is a phenomenon that started when humans moved from sleeping out in the elements to sleeping inside of shelters that are more soundproofed from the outside world.

One of the noises that was most noticeable to me as I was falling asleep was the sound of the wind moving softly through the trees.  It was a pretty calm and warm night, so I was actually really surprised to hear wind because I hadn’t noticed the wind as we were setting up our tent.  This made me wonder if the idea of stillness is actually an illusion.  Certainly, the noises of the night gave an impression of anything but stillness.  There was a richness to the nighttime soundscape that I had never actually consciously thought about or noticed, and it made me wonder exactly how much connection with the outside world humans as a species have lost by moving indoors.  The idea of falling asleep in relative silence has become sort of expected by most people (although it occurs to me that people living in big cities probably disagree with this.  Being from the outskirts of a very small town, I have always expected relative silence around bedtime), but it occurs to me that falling asleep in silence is actually a relatively unnatural and recent phenomenon.

Similarly, waking up in the backcountry is so much easier for me than it is in the front country.  At a certain point in the morning, the change in soundscape becomes tangible, as all of the diurnal animals come out and begin to make noise.  The morning noise of birds calling in the woods is so much louder and noticeable in the woods than it is in an urban setting.  While birds do call in urban settings, those bird calls make up a much smaller part of the overall soundscape than they do in the backcountry.  In the woods, the morning bird calls seem to become their own presence, and almost seem to make up the soundscape.  There is no separating the bird calls from the rest of the soundscape of the woods in the morning in springtime.  This is very different from the front country where the sound of birds is never loud enough to actually wake me up.  In the backcountry, the bird calls served as a signal for me to get up and begin preparing for the rest of the day.

Spending time in the backcountry and concentrating on the noises that I heard there made me really think about how isolating it is for humans to live in small enclosed spaces that cut them off from the outside soundscape.  I wonder how much more productive I would be able to be if, instead of living inside, I moved outside and became more in tune with the natural environment around me.

Movie Sound(tracks)

With our course wrapping up this week, I noticed that one aspect of sound that we did not focus on much is movie scores. It surprises me that this topic has never come up, because movie soundtracks (to me, at least) hold the power to elicit audience emotional responses during a film. I think people too often marginalize the importance of the soundtrack to a movie.

I took a film study class the last term of my senior year, and three of the films we studied are great examples of soundtrack-driven movies: “The Third Man” (1949), “Almost Famous” (2000), and “The Great Gatsby” (2013). Each of these films showcase a soundtrack functioning in a different way.

For instance, “The Third Man” is a 1949 film noir drama starring Orson Welles. Its soundtrack is almost exclusively comprised of “The Third Man Theme,” a two minute song composed for the film, which is played repeatedly throughout the movie. Interestingly enough, the song was recorded on a zither, a stringed instrument which produces a light, twangy sound. I am posting a copy of the song below, which I found began to drive me crazy before the film was half over (It started to remind me of the background music from Spongebob.) I also found it very strange that this serious movie had such a light and nonchalant soundtrack playing almost constantly (Play it about fifty times and you will get the idea more clearly.)

The second movie that has, in my opinion, an amazing soundtrack, is “Almost Famous.” This movie is about a young journalist who goes on the road with a band during the 1970’s, and its 70’s-filled soundtrack won a Grammy in 2001. This tour bus scene (which I am posting below) in which Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays remains one of my favorite musical movie scenes of all time. The music finds a way to capture the experience and nostalgia of the film in a way that ordinary dialogue could never do (the scene makes more sense in the context of the movie.) This film serves as a great example of the importance of movie soundtracks, which serve as an element to supplement other movie sounds.

The final soundtrack I would like to talk about is that from Baz Luhrmann’s recent remake of “The Great Gatsby.” This soundtrack was a controversial one, because Luhrmann chose to set a 1920’s movie to 2010’s music. I was initially unsure of how I felt about this decision, until I saw the movie and an interview in which Luhrmann discussed the reasoning behind his musical choices. In the interview, he explained that the music was chosen so that today’s audiences might experience the same emotions that the characters at the time would have. For instance, instead of playing a 1920’s party song, which would not inspire much excitement from the audience, Luhrmann selected an upbeat, modern song, which would help us relate to what partygoers in the 1920s would have felt. A great example of this is Gatsby’s huge party scene, in which Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” serves as background music. I am also posting a link to the scene with Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” because it is one of my favorite scenes in the film and I think it perfectly embodies the movie’s theme of Gatsby’s eternal love for Daisy, which is not necessarily reciprocated to him.

 

I think these films and their soundtracks help to show that the sounds that can affect an audience the most are not necessarily written into a movie’s script; rather, movies use the power of sound in music to evoke emotion from the audience and convey important themes of the films.

 

Starbound

Though infrequently, I sometimes choose to listen to music as I work. More often than not, this ends up being the music of the soundtrack to an indie Mac/PC game called Starbound. (It’s still in beta, but it’s a real gem. Watch a trailer if you ever happen to have time.) The game itself centers around the exploration of an infinite number of massive procedurally-generated worlds, and I find that the orchestral music does an amazing job of evoking the vast expanse of space while creating a warm sense of wonder and awe. Go ahead and listen to some of the following track as you read – it quotes the game’s main theme, which I’ll also link to at the bottom of the post. You should definitely listen to the second one too, but not while you’re reading – it’s more involved.

Why does most of the music lend itself to being good work music for me? I suppose it’s partially because all of it is instrumental (though vocals, probably synthesized, play a small harmonic part in at least a couple songs) and a lot of it progresses slowly. Overall, many of the pieces have subtle melodies. This is surely in part because the composer created the music with the intention of it being background music, unlike modern instrumental music or classical music – complex music that tends to distract me and make me almost unwillingly focus on its harmonies.

Strangely, in spite of how relaxing they are, the songs don’t immediately put me to sleep when I’m working, though they surely would if I was instead lying in bed. Also, they don’t usually cause my thoughts to run off on tangents about the game itself. Instead, they serve to calm my mind and help me to concentrate on the matters at hand. I tend to listen to the soundtrack mostly when I am doing math or computer science homework, both of which I find that I can do on autopilot, unlike more mentally involved pursuits such as reading. The entire soundtrack also happens to be either 4 or 6 hours long depending on whether or not one counts songs that are coded into the game but not actually implemented, meaning I always have plenty enough material to listen to. The individual songs can be repetitive but never in such a way that they become grating.

 

The game’s beautiful main theme which is frequently quoted in its other songs (including the one above):

 

 

Nique la Police

While watching the French film La Haine for a class in which we examine the role that cities play in literature and films, I was overwhelmed by the similarities between the film and Rose’s piece that we read near the beginning of the semester. The film follows three young men of racial or religious minority groups who live in the banlieues (ghettos) of Paris. The film focuses on the police brutality that is common to these areas of Paris that are almost exclusively immigrant inhabited. Following a run in with the police, two of the men ride in a car with an officer who tells the young men that the police are there to protect the people. Hubert, a man of North African descent, then asks the officer, “Who protects us from you?” I understood this line to be a reference to the KRS song discussed in Rose’s article, and to verify my suspicion, I crosschecked the release dates of the song and the film: the song was released in 1989, and the film in 1995. This deeply resonated with me because if there was a connection from the director to KRS, this would mean that the message of that song was able to cross international borders and resonate with a broader audience than I had originally understood.

The scene that I felt to be the most relevant to this class is a scene depicting a young man with a sound system overlooking the streets of the banlieues. This scene, which I’ve attached to this post, shows the man preparing a turntable with two vinyls, and then djing with an enormous speaker pointing out of an open window. The first song heard is “Nique la Police” (Fuck the Police) by Cut Killer. The original version of the song was performed by Suprême NTM, and is hailed as a prominent anti-police song of the 1990’s. The song opens with the rough English translation of: “This is the police. Identity check. Your papers: typical procedure that you have to get use to.” As the music continues to play, the scene pans out to the courtyard that the DJ overlooks, as if to indicate that this sentiment echoes throughout the entire area. The song then begins to play alongside “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien,” one of the most famous songs by one of the most famous French singers, Edith Piaf. The title of the song, “No, I don’t regret anything” indicates that the notion many people in these neighborhoods have of hating the police and engaging in violence against them is upheld and not something that the people or ashamed of or regret. Though we applied Rose’s article to American popular culture, I find it interesting that this connection between music and political sentiments can be applied all over the world.

Lyrics

I think we all have agreed that music can entice some sort of emotional reaction and that reduced listening often associated with music does not equal listening void of meaning.  My question is, to what extent does lyrical poetry enhance or take away from a musical composition. Also, although lyrics are part of our semantic interpretation of music, are individuals that listen to music actually semantically understanding the words or are they really just listening to everything in the reduced way that music seems to be interpreted.  I did a little research into this topic and what I found is that, in reality, every individual listens to music in a different way.  Some individuals have favorite songs that they really don’t even know all the words to, others can recite song after song without a problem.  In my opinion, the lyrical work is just as important as the musical piece.  Just like the composition of the song, the lyrical poetry is an art form.  And with the two working side by side, the purpose of the piece is enhanced.  Artists without well written lyrics, just don’t have the same weight to there songs that well written poetry brings.  I also found that often an individual can know all the words to a song but still not be thinking about what the words actually mean.  For example a song can have an upbeat tempo but a really dark message that people don’t catch the emotion to because they aren’t actively listening to the lyrics.  I think it is interesting that one can listen to words of a song and know what every word is but still fail to see the meaning behind the words because they are focused on the dynamics of the song and understanding the emotional content that way.  An example of this is Outkast’s song “Hey Ya”.

The song is an upbeat and catchy which masks the underlying message of the lyrics overlooked.  In reality, although Andre 3000 may ask you to “shake it like a polaroid picture” the message behind the song is about a broken relationship with a woman.  So it is really an artistic choice that individuals often use to mask heavy emotions with “happy sounding” music.  And this choice works because people often don’t really think about the lyrics but the lyrical content is often the hardest part of a song to make work for a lot of reasons.  Another example of this is the song “White Winter Hymnal” by The Fleet Foxes.  The artist states that he wanted to create a song that people would hum along to but the lyrics offer a sort of vague darkness that was also a purposeful artistic choice.

So in my opinion, it is important to recognize the lyrics of songs as an important piece of the artwork.

Rainy Days

The past week has been ridiculously rainy.  The old adage, “April showers bring May flowers” has been trying to prove itself with a vengeance.  People have been bundling themselves into their raincoats and covering themselves with umbrellas, and all of the inch-worms have been drowned out of their trees and reduced to slopping across brick walkways where they are unceremoniously crushed by the traffic of students on their way to class.

Being a native of the Pacific Northwest, I find rain and all of its accoutrements a rather pleasant reminder of home.  I love the way the air smells right before and right after a rainstorm, and I am also guilty of channeling my inner five year old and splashing through all of the puddles I find on my way to class (there is one particular one behind Belk that has grown so large I think it has graduated from ‘puddle’ status, and moved on to ‘pond’ status).

I am particularly fond of listening to the rain.  As I’m falling asleep, the sound of rain beating on the roof and window brings back memories of nights spent playing board games in front of the fire while it poured outside.  Falling rain provides great background noise for productive studying, and it serves as a constant reminder that since it’s so nasty outside, there is no valid excuse for not getting work done.  Even the sound of water dripping from leaves onto the ground after the rain has already stopped brings back memories of searching for salamanders with my father in the Redwoods in Northern California.

On the piano right now I am learning a piece by Maurice Ravel called Jeux D’eau, or Water Games.  Salvatore Sciarrino wrote a shortened parody version of the piece that has the tune of Singing in the Rain juxtaposed on top of the opening melody of Ravel’s Jeux D’eau.  Here is a video of the parody version below:

 

Noise Overdose

Since I chose to do my ethnographic study on base libs, I’ve been thinking a lot about the volume of an environment and how that affects the people in it. I have been observing in a place of near silence and I’ve been able to see how that can affect the people in it, but what about places that are the opposite of that? Places that are so loud that the noises all mix together and it’s just one huge sound? I found an article from a few years ago in The New York Times about the sound levels in New York city and how crazy it has gotten. The article said, “The New York Times measure noise levels at 37 restaurants, bars, stores and gyms across the city and found levels that experts said bordered on dangerous at one-third of them.” New York is becoming louder and louder and it’s becoming a problem for those who live and work there. One waitress that they interviewed said that she got headaches all the time and had to take medicine to control it. These headaches are a result of working multiple hours in an environment above levels that a person is allowed to be subjected to for long periods of time.

Later in the article, it began discussing about the reasons for these loud environments. Apparently, research has shown that people tend to drink more and chew faster when the music is loud and fast, which comes in handy when you are trying to get people in and out of a busy restaurant. Unfortunately, this loud and fast music is forced upon the staff in the meantime. “Repeated exposure to loud noise often damages hearing and has been linked to higher levels of stress, hypertension, and heart disease”, which is exactly what the people who work at these places are going to have to deal with. Even though there are regulations in place, many work places aren’t inspected.

Not only are restaurants and bars using noise to affect their customers, but so are clothing stores. Ever walked into an Abercrombie & Fitch and experienced the abrasive music mixed with the overwhelming perfumes? They do that on purpose. They turn the store into a “club like” atmosphere to draw in young teens and keep out the older clientele so that the store can keep its image. It’s truly ridiculous that a place would be so dedicated to keeping older people out that they would raise the noise decibels to levels that could seriously harm the people who work for them. Personally, I will never go into a place like A&F because I hate how loud it is. Maybe I’m just a weird young person who thinks like a grandma sometimes, but come on, it’s soooo loud in there. I feel bad for the people who work there and I’ll probably never try to get a job at a loud place like that. I don’t know how they do it.

If anyone is interested in reading the full article, here is the link. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/nyregion/in-new-york-city-indoor-noise-goes-unabated.html

Rights to Creative Expression in the Live Atmosphere

Last Monday, I finally had the joy of seeing the shoegaze powerhouse known as Whirr perform. Lately, they’ve been including some sort of industrial massive haunted house caliber efficient fog machines to their show, and was able to fill the Neighborhood Theatre with a fog as thick as pea soup* (*see Scooby Doo episode where they eat fog), to the point where the fire alarm was set off, the venue was evacuated and, yes, the fire department made a special guest appearance pushing the show back about an hour and a half while they had to air the venue out. For me, I loved every minute of it, almost to the point where if the show got cancelled, I couldn’t be mad, one moment I’m listening to their soundcheck while playing a70s arcade shooting game, the next the venue is evacuated because of Whirr. People unfamiliar with Whirr’s uncaring attitude, up’d and left the show as the fire trucks pulled up, but I’d have to say a majority of the crowd stayed and wanted Whirr to at least mildly re-fog the venue. Alas, the owners did not allow this, but Whirr pressed on and played mind-blowingly loud and incredible show. Moving on to the next day they continued on with fogging the Atlanta venue, The Drunken Unicorn, apparently the most brutally thick one yet to the point, where the bartenders couldn’t take orders or do anything, leading to the promoters sending immature and ridiculous Facebook messages about them being blacklisted from the Unicorn for doing something so inconsiderate, to Whirr’s response of being limited by them the entire night when it came to sound check, they couldn’t be as loud as their tour rider said they would, while they still performed fog and all (my friends there said it was incredible), the venue managers had the audacity to censor their performance, both visually and audibly. The issue in writing this goes to question, how we censor artists’  live expression, a form that can at times be more important than the music itself. I’ve seen countless bands whose music doesn’t interest me in the slightest, but if they throw a rad show, I have nothing but respect for them. Seemingly independent and punk venues are starting to lose what makes them interesting in ways like this, in his message to Whirr, the manager at the Unicorn kept citing how they lost money without referencing that the punk community by definition is an almost unsustainable model, bands on tour in the punk scene don’t profit that much relative to their time and effort, promoters in the DIY scene lose money almost every show, so why is it that now, venues trying to be punk are limiting what makes the atmosphere so unique. The Joyce Manor ripple of last year when the vocalist Berry, turned anti-stage diving in the middle of a show, causing bands and venues across the country to follow suit. Whirr getting blacklisted from venues for fogging the venue to the point of blindness, which is exactly what I want at a shoegaze show. Now if these limitations on expression occurs in seeming punk venues, I can’t imagine the limitations on bands playing larger House of Blueses, Fillmores or even venues. We’ll see how the rest of the year turns out with bands and venues butting heads over what they should and shouldn’t do, but as bands in the punk community continue to play larger and larger venues, I’m sure more limitations on their individual performances will be pressed upon them.

Where Is College Radio Going?

Because we’re at Davidson, I’m assuming that little to none of us have heard of our school’s radio station, WALT FM 1610, unless you’re friends with me and have seen my incessant updates trying to get people to hear me ramble about punk bands every Sunday night, speaking of which, tune in to Waka Flocka Flaming Lips tonight at 9!

While the WALT personnel generally don’t care or don’t want people listening to their shows, it is fascinating to me, while looking through the archives and finding old documents of how WALT used to function on campus. At this point we have very few DJs, especially regular DJs (so you should come get a show if you want), but looking through documents, even from 2005, pretty much every time slot from 9AM-1AM was booked with people doing anything from music oriented radio shows, talk shows about politics, sports updates and general call in music requests. There used to be concerts with actual artists sponsored by WALT at one point, it seems like it used to actually be something on campus, whereas now its just a select group of people who have wanted to be a part of college radio since before coming into Davidson. While this year seems to have been the worst for WALT considering our budget was stripped completely after hosting an unauthorized event last Frolics, hopefully at some point we can come back as being an events oriented group as I don’t see people tuning in to the radio station regularly in the near future. And really why should they? I mean if listening to music that you haven’t heard before, or trying to just listen to genre oriented playlists, the digital wave (.wav) of music gives you ample opportunities, you could just check a tag on Spotify, have friends send you albums online or just browse the obscurities that bandcamp and soundcloud have to offer. The college radio DJ has transformed from some sort of late night persona trying catering to a certain audience to Spotify premium members who compile large playlists with certain hash togs making discovery simple and effective, and convenient too. It’s that convenience which might be the most damaging to the college radio infrastructure, people no longer want to set aside an hour every week to tune in to their favorite shows or support their friends by listening and giving feedback, now people want a playlist to stream while they go on a run or walk to a certain location on campus to work, hell they could probably hear most of the music they’re interested in just by going to the Campus Summit location. As a DJ at WALT none of this really comes as surprising, especially at Davidson, we’re not really an music oriented school or exploratory in artistic media by a long shot. Which is where I see the future of college radio as playing a different role from just the studio, after attending Duke Coffeehouse’s Brickside Festival, including big names in the electronic scene such as Dan Deacon and Baths, which was cosponsored by Duke’s very own WXDU, I then attended the MacRock music festival in Virginia, a punk/indie/metal fest put on by the students at the radio station of James Madison University. I was blown away by the interest generated at each, the crowd being people who would never generally attend these events but because it was so outlandish for the schools and their generally unpopular radio stations to do something big like this, it ended up being wildly popular. WALT will probably never be able to bring in interesting acts no matter what strings I try to pull, but its great to see radio stations across college campuses (i.e. Brickside at Duke, Macrock at JMU, Nochella at Pomona, etc.) find innovative ways to generate student interest in music.