Thursday, 22 September 2011

Nebraska: echos of a dissolving sense of studio.


Earlier this week, I wrote a fairly ill advised and rambling text to try to understand why I didn’t like any of the recordings I had done in a well equipped and acoustically bespoke studio. Within this text, I made a number of absolutist claims about ‘the studio’. After a some conversation, some reading, and some consideration, it is important to say, before writing what must follow here, that ‘the studio’ that I was attacking as some kind of narrative stripping architecture, a transparent ‘un-place’ supposedly washed of signification, robbing me of pathos and meaning even as I sang, does not exist. I don’t think even as an idea, that kind of argument will stand close scrutiny, however, I do think that it is fair to say that no matter what the efforts are to minimise the character or the imposition of real ambience or discernable locative context in a space, the means of recording can be as great a signifier as the sound itself. From the inescapable hi fidelities of a 5:1 electro acoustic composition to the bland mythologies of the supposedly lo-fi. In writing this, I am applying thoughts that are practical, aesthetic and ideological, and analysis of recorded music must surely reckon with these (even in the hyperbolic realm of the journalistic).

Originally, I had written this, ‘The studio’s erasures of the outside, or even the ‘here’ seem as a by-product to erase the very narratives I seek to tell, or at least whatever aspect of them which had convinced me that I should pursue them. There is a sense here of having turned up to a casual social event dressed for a formal dinner and in doing so forgotten my own name, becoming a body of no sense and no discernable context.’ Immediately, I should have written this studio, for I am referring only to one. The idea that I can blanket assault the very idea of studio in this manner is an error. Yesterday, an analogy was made to me, comparing the studio to a black smith’s, a place, where tools are collected together in order to craft something. There are no rules as to how this should occur, or indeed where. It seems, on reflection, strange that I was so unwilling to allow that the spaces I have to used to record were in any way less of a studio than the one I have been using of late. Certainly, they have been more cheaply and simply equipped (I had to stop myself from writing ‘worse’ there), they have not been sound proofed or acoustically treated, but nevertheless, however temporarily, they have been studios.

The issue perhaps is one of a pre-conceived notion of an assumed hierarchy of what is ‘good’. What is a ‘good recording’? I believe now, that the failure, in my eyes at least, of these newer recordings, stems partly from decisions I had made on the grounds of what I was ‘supposed’ to do with this technology. I could have assumed that a clean and balanced signal, treated with digital reverb would not achieve the results I wanted for songs concerned primarily with specific location and some kind of auto-ethnography, but I used them anyway, because I was there. Subsequently the presence of that technology becomes all that I can hear. There is much in production that can be done to synthesize or imply space (or even place), but more interesting to me and perhaps more useful, is the idea of not synthesizing space, but using it instead to inscribe recordings as they are with carefully selected technologies that seek to be as much a part of the aesthetic and ideological meaning of the work as the arrangement, or instrumentation or indeed the lyric. How much I wonder of Fleet Foxes supposed authenticity is implied by the cavernous plate reverbs that mirror the desolate wildernesses of the mythologized Americana? (And how much of that changes once we acknowledge the presence of these plates, digital or otherwise, within a professional recording context?). We are happily lulled and deceived by certain romances within music’s making, which sometimes are told rather than heard. I might reference the media attention of the Bon Iver album recorded in some log cabin in isolation, the truth of which when considered purely in the world of audio, is at best unclear. Even my own work has been subject to this, Mojo wrote in a review of my last album that, ‘The straitened circumstances (of its recording) are worth dwelling on.’ It seems that when the means of a recording’s production are audible (or just made public), then they are as necessary a part of its critique than any other aspect of its sound. If we are to give some credence to the notion that a definitive aspect to the contemporary practice of folksong might be this very idea of ‘craft’ coupled with an ideological practice of the ‘home made’, then the straitened circumstances may well be worth consideration? (But this is not an argument of analogue versus digital, I would suggest that in the arena of open source software and its availability digital has the upper hand on analogue as far as DIY recordings are concerned). I would argue rather for a use of technology that performs conceptually and symbolically in the music’s best interest, by which I mean a highly personal decision making process that conforms with a methodological motive for whatever sound or aesthetic the composer requires in order to articulate to an unknown public the meaning of both writing and performance.

Ian Reyes, in his article To Know Beyond Listening: Monitoring Digital Music. From Senses and Society. (Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 322-388. Berg.) writes that, ‘A “good” recording aligns a material object with a social object.’ (p325) and I have set my mind to thinking about a record that seems to do just that, but in the way I have tried to outline above. The closest I can think of is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982). It is useful perhaps to note that the album as we hear it was intended as a demo and was re-recorded by the E Street Band, with the demo being favoured over the band recording, useful too to note the sophisticated mastering process undertaken to deal with the low level of the recordings and subsequent noise on the increase of volume. This is only a record of lower fidelity at one stage, not entirely on its final release. But it is none the less, a four-track cassette recording, with all of the restrictions and character that go with this, despite the mastering process eliminating much of the saturation and hiss that we might associate with this technology. The point though is that it works extremely well. It is a landmark album for Springsteen, which seems to contain sonically, much that his writing attempts to inhabit. The song’s narratives are isolated, downtrodden and stoically American. There are empty roads, crying waitresses in truck stop diners, old time tunes danced to by blue-collar characters in unfulfilling jobs. The landscape of this record is neither pastoral nor urban in total, but a fusion of speeding blurred cultural wilderness disappearing in the rear view mirror. It is dust and heartbreak and running away, but it is located, heavily placed, and it is folk song. Little wonder that the musical excesses of the E Street Band were shunned in favour of the bleak simplicity of the demo.

These songs would still be songs of value and quality had they been rendered in a more conventional professional studio context, but the easiness of the above adjectives comes not entirely from the narratives, arrangement or writing (although there are many melodies on this record that seem to be a slower version of recognizable tropes within the American folk cannon), but also from its sound. It is not just the enforced sparseness of the four-track portastudio that brings this sound, but the aspect of wilderness, of travel and of isolation is brought to the ear by Springsteen’s use of the Gibson Echoplex (a vintage tape delay, now sadly digitized for mass consumption, with little of its original sound preserved). This echo spills over the songs liberally (and as I understand it, almost in direct homage to Suicide, in particular ‘Frankie Teardrop’, one of the most harrowing narratives of destitute America I can think of); it is a cold sound, in contradiction to the clich├ęs of analogue ‘warmth’. Nebraska is not a warm record; it is a record of hopelessness and loneliness. Springsteen’s backing vocals, when the occur, seem distant in a way that is spatially staggering, hollered down a blackened virtual canyon of maybe less than an inch of tape. It seems alarming that such great cavernous distance can be so microcosmic and close. Peter Doyle (2005) in his book Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording 1900 – 1960 writes, ‘If place, space and physical form were to be perceived or described in terms of their acoustic and aural properties, a rich substratum of signification might be accessed. This layer of meaning might contain, in surprisingly unproblematic form, many of the attributes of place that lie just below the surface of conscious perception.’ (p39) I think that Springsteen’s album seems somehow to fulfil and successfully articulate this ‘unproblematic form’ of meaning. Nebraska seemingly manages to not just be a document of song writing on this located/ dislocated culturally floored subject, but also to sound it convincingly, to become this space (if a recording might be said to have any kind of tangible, however fluxed, ontology). The restrictions of cassette become metaphor to the restricted lives of the subjects and the Echoplex gives image and experience in real time to the implications of landscape and emotional state simultaneously. The tunes and arrangements further place this record within both actual geography and located musical tradition. This is perhaps one way in which technology (of the home-based low fidelity type and the laboratory high fidelity kind) and material conspire to make a “good” recording.