Saturday, August 21, 2010

slow sound/slow listening

There is nothing new about time-stretching itself. Johan Sebastian Bach always did. In making Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini took melodies from some traditional Japanese songs and changed their tempo: a lively dance piece was slowed down and then turned to a sad song. Manipulating or deforming a melody is what a composer can show off. Using time-stretching function of various music software programs is not very far from this. A big difference between them may be the electronically processed sounds are marked by those very machines. The sounds are deformed, distorted, and often appear grainy, and still contain “what has been.” Those processed sounds are haunted by their past, and often a bit “spooky.” But a composer can choose whether to erase this spookiness, and sometimes achieves “happy” ambient sound without much labor. A Canadian teenager did it. To put it metaphorically, his sound indeed looks on the bright side of life.

J. BIEBZ - U SMILE 800% SLOWER by Shamantis

Marc Weidenbaum of Disquet mentions the recent SoundCloud hit of Justin Bieber’s U Smile 800% Slower. Here Weidenbaum’s interest seems not the slow sound itself, but its popularity. In my view, Bieber’s track has become so popular because it is not really serious: this manipulation of the sound is not really manipulative. Many SoundCloud users know how to do it. They are attending Bieber’s discovery and celebrating it. Toying is an angelic act. What many see as angelic quality can be achieved only by a kind of automatism, but not by deliberate manipulation. It is angelic because many know the fact that the effect was attained easily.


It could be said that this charmingly granulated and distorted track is marked by what Adorno calls “the cunning naïveté of the culture industry,” if I put it in Slavoj Žižek’s way, “at its purest.” Not that I am harsh on this. I actually smile at U Smile 800% Slower. It made me slip down from the chair and laugh aloud. But my question is whether it shows what Weidenbaum calls “popular attention to slow sound.” He may be right about that there is such a popular attention to slow sound. But, my question is whether it should be “popular attention to the easy manipulation of sound.”


Glenn Gould dreamt that the technology would allow every listener to edit the voices of a Bach’s piece to make the listener’s own Bach. In his ideal forum, a listener is also a performer. Since the time of Plato, many talked about a theater without audiences, in which everyone attends as a performer. In this context a passive audience has been deemed as evil. I have no immediate answer to this kind of thoughts since the relation between activity and passivity is not clear for me. I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the forum such as SoundCloud, in which Gould’s dream appears to be partly realized. My complain is that browsing many tracks often tends to be too busy. Slow sound may be popular, but it is questionable if there is slow listening here. I, as a listener, have to be self-disciplined in order to keep my other activities intact. I often find myself surrounded by the beautiful environmental sound when I shut down my computer.


Our everyday experience of time is not linear. In my view, it was already so even for ancient humans, but recording devices explicate this our function of experiencing. Video artist Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) is well-known for its haunting effect. He stretched the famous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). It gives us a lot of time to think as long as we can stay a long time before the screen. When it comes to time-manipulation, I personally like Pipilotti Rist’s early video work I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986). In this work, what makes the performer in the video (Rist) look crazy is her crude manipulation of time, separation of the visual and the audible, and the “glitch” effect of the machines.

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