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BEYOND A MUSICOLOGY OF PRODUCTION

Allan Moore, University of Surrey


In the light of the Call For Papers, the easiest part of my paper is already done – the choosing of the title. The hardest part, which is to justify it, is to come, and it is this which forms the substance of what I want to do today.

I’d like to start with a quote from Andy Wallace, taken from Albin Zak’s excellent Poetics of Rock (California UP 2001). Wallace says the following, of his studio practice: “I try to provide things so that upon repeated listening there will be some new things to find that are cool … something that will continue to augment whatever I’m trying to get out of the mix on further and further subterranean levels” (p.156). This “whatever I’m trying to get out” is, of course, always beyond precise verbalisation. Fine. If music doesn’t move us, doesn’t function for us, it has no significance. In the same book, Zak himself refers to the distorted acoustic guitar sound on the Beatles’ ‘I’m only sleeping’, a typical Beatles sound. He says of it “that this is not your average guitar sound … and [I] take my delight from its unusual sonic texture … By its raw, harsh tone it has gotten my attention, and even if I cannot put it into words, I know that it is saying something.” (pp.191-2). This conference is in part devoted to the inchoate musicology of production towards which some of us have been moving over the last decade. As with any new form of cultural production, as Raymond Williams says, the issue is to “determine whether these are new forms of the dominant or are genuinely emergent.” (Culture, Fontana 1981, p.205).   If these two quotes are anything to go by, the musicology of production is in danger of being categorised as the first. Wallace’s emphasis on technique at the expense of content gives rise to the suspicion that ‘content’ is simply assumed, or even invented, by the listener. Zak’s satisfaction with privileging the identification of that sound’s meaningfulness, despite the fact that he does offer a powerful interpretation, reminds me of what positivist musicology has long held: the recognition that something significant is happening [the guitar tone], which can be identified analytically [its departure from a norm], but whose significance doesn’t need to be articulated [by verbalization] in anything other than internal, formally-relational, terms. Today, I want to suggest that identifying that something matters, and then what it is, is insufficient. We must endeavour to identify why it matters, for communicating our understanding, rather than allowing ourselves to inhabit a hermetic aestheticized space, carries a morally imperative charge.

So, the search for significance must issue in its expression. I’m going to go straight in, and remind you of the Beach Boys’ hit ‘Heroes and villains’, of 1967. This is the version I guess we’re all familiar with. Now listen to the new version Brian Wilson recorded for the album Smile. Watch out for the drum-kit. To my ears, this is the same song, as far as pacing, harmony, groove, melody, and even arrangement are concerned. It’s not the same track, of course. For one thing, it seems Wilson takes lead vocal on the latter version, but I want to focus on something rather more subtle. In the latter version, the snare is altogether more prominent than in the former, has been brought forward as a feature of the production. Why might this be? Remember, my concern is to articulate a reason for this difference. Well, if we move forward to the subsequent track, ‘Roll Plymouth Rock’, we discover an unusual emphasis on drums. Not snare, to be sure, but drums nonetheless. This track, of course, contains an internal reference to ‘Heroes and villains’. Now let’s move forward to track 13, ‘On a holiday’. This track also has an unusually prominent kit. And, from 32”, it re-runs the lyric hook to ‘Roll Plymouth Rock’. Now of course, we don’t know what Smile  would have sounded like had it seen the light of day in 1967. We might assume from Wilson’s commitment to releasing it that it would have sounded rather like this. And, if it had, it would have had a more profound effect on the history of popular music than did Sgt. Pepper, for it offers a far more thoroughgoing means of overcoming the limitations of the 3 minute single, in its constant intra-textual references. I’ve just concentrated on the most obvious, as ‘Heroes and villains’ becomes incorporated within ‘Roll Plymouth Rock’ which in turn becomes incorporated in ‘On a holiday’. And the unusually prominent drums call attention to these embedded references. In this particular example, then, I can find a satisfactory interpretation, namely that the drums have a structural function, whatever else they may be felt to do.

Of course, the significance Smile would have had in 1967 is entirely different to the one it has on its authorised release now, notwithstanding that various versions and part-versions have circulated for decades. One of the more important things we have to bear in mind in interpretation is the historical context for a recording. This is nowhere more apparent than in discussion of the spatial domain – the location within the sound-box from which particular sound-sources appear to issue. Take the Hollies’ hit ‘King Midas in reverse’, for example. This track, too, saw the light of day in 1967. It starts with band on one channel, and voices on the other. This itself is unusual, since we would expect to hear the voice in the centre, and is made even more so when, on the chorus, it’s the tambourine which enters in the centre. Then, in the second verse, cellos muscle in on the vocal territory, forcing the voices toward the centre, but still off by about 30°. Thereafter, the spatial opposition between orchestral and band instruments is maintained, somewhat mediated by the voices. Now, how might we understand this? Two points are worth noting. First, the contemporary rock convention whereby bass, snare and voice are pretty central in the mix was not in place in 1967, so the fact that it sounds strange to us may simply be due to our historical location. However, this track also represents the Hollies’ half-hearted diversion into psychædelia, a style marked by its overturning of normal perception, which certainly stretches into production values too. What is difficult, here, is that the achievement of stylistic norms for locational placement coincided with psychædelia. While the displacement of the voice from centre-stage can easily be read analogously to that of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, the lyrics make such an interpretation difficult.

So, I would argue that whatever sense we do make, it needs to be on the basis of a range of available information, rather than solely playing a place in our own mental lives. And I would go further, and argue that the major context for production decisions is the other musical decisions which go into the making of a track. Thus, I believe we should already be moving beyond ‘a musicology of production’. While production details are vital, they do not stand outside other musical decisions. Let me illustrate what I mean with reference to the Ben Folds Five track ‘Don’t change your plans for me’ from 1999 – one reason for my choosing this track is that the  mix engineer was Andy Wallace, with whom I began.

The verse, in A mixolydian, is founded on the harmonic pattern| I-VI7-| VII6-V4-| bVI7-| bIII-|. Over the first two bars, the melody falls by step with prominent C#s, coming to a rest in bar three with an upward rise shifting to C natural. This chord in bar 3, then, the F, implies change, within the context of the track, an implication which will be realised in the chorus. The first verse leads straight into the second, where we have the full band, the resonance of a medium-sized (living?) room, and no metrical space (piano arpeggiations fill out the space which the first verse had left, through its homophonic chordal articulation). The protagonist, having newly arrived in an unfurnished apartment to be shared with his lover, and clearly devoted to her having encountered her when “there was nothing left”, nonetheless turns and leaves the building, carrying his suitcase, despite the fact that he declares this action “makes no sense”. Ah, but perhaps it does. The chorus declares his inability to move to “LA” (presumably the location of this apartment), and his determination to follow his heart “back east” to where the “leaves are falling”. Harmonically, this chorus offers a variant on the verse: | I-IVb3-| VII-bIII-| bVI7-| bIII-|. However, the metre has changed (4/4 becomes 3/2, with the lengthening on the second chord), while the substitution of a d chord for the earlier f# immediately weakens the power of the tonic. Moreover, both the I and the VII are in first inversion, mimicking this VI#-ii-V-I (in C) baroque-like motion. There is a vast increase in metrical space (no decorative arpeggiations), the merest hint of a bell, and an increase in resonance to that of a cavern or perhaps large church. The space in which the protagonist’s decision to leave is transmitted to his (imaginatively present) lover is private but imposing – what is being said here is much more important, life-changing, than what was being said in the verse. The gradual return of the kit illustrating the falling of the leaves is but one of a number of beautiful, subtle touches. So, both harmony and production conspire to create this sense of gravitas. The chorus is followed by wordless, polyphonic, vocal embellishments (again reminiscent for naïve listeners of baroque churches, perhaps) and then by a repeated trumpet phrase over lush strings, before we re-enter the world of the verse. To my ears, however, both the vocal embellishments and the trumpet clearly act as a Taggian genre synecdoche for 1960s Los Angeles, through the vocal interplay of Flo and Eddie and the trumpet of Herb Alpert (the trumpet’s tone seems unmistakable). The trumpet phrase is repeated six times, without any change. Although the tone signifies LA, this repetition is stylistically false (for the type of phrase) – indeed, for me it suggests that the reason the protagonist cannot leave his beloved east is that, in his mind (the trumpet/strings marking an introspective moment), LA (in what he perceives as its repetitiveness) would bore him. Now, whether this was in the mind of Andy Wallace as in perhaps searching for that little something which would “continue to augment” the feeling he was creating, he set the reverb levels for the chorus, or listened to the tone of the trumpet, is immaterial. What is material is that this interpretation makes sense of something left unsaid in the lyrics, and in its communication, is therefore left open to other listeners to negotiate with, as they wish.

Production details, then, are vital to an interpretation of this track, but only in conjunction with the results of the other musical decisions which were made in its realisation. We are, of course, interpretive animals – if we don’t interpret our environment we die. This, I believe, is why the activity of using music is so vital, and why we can’t afford a musicology of production any more than we can afford a separately-located musicology of the voice, or a ‘verbology’ (or whatever). Our interpretive apparatus has to be all-inclusive.