The Complicator Vol. 41: All Sounds are Created Equal

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“All Sounds are Created Equal”

That’s a phrase I used to like to throw around. The idea is that all sounds are ultimately ripples in the atmosphere, changes in air pressure that our ears can decode; and as such the waves that radiate through the air carrying a Beethoven symphony are no different from the ones that radiate out from a car accident.

That’s true, I think; but it’s not the whole truth, because each wave is perfectly unique as well. No two can be identical. And it is precisely because of this that it’s been possible for us to connect different meanings to these waves. Words, car horns, music, and so on would be indistinguishable if all sounds were the same.

These two truths seem to coexist as a kind of double helix, with one strand standing for the unity of all sounds and the other standing for the uniqueness of each. Sound is comprised of both.

Falling Hammers
Most of us only call certain sounds music. If a hammer falls off of a table, say, most people would not define the resulting clatter as music. But, happily, there are some of us who would hear music in that falling hammer, and it is the music made by these people that is the subject of this post. The station I’ve been working on this week, named “Ovals,” is the soundtrack. Listen.

Some of the music it plays is made from the sounds of machines malfunctioning (a genre known as Glitch). Some of the other music it plays (referred to by the genre name Minimal Click) has been described by Torben Sangild as “the frailest dance beat ever heard” (See his essay in “Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate”). It will also play Noise music, which is comprised of hisses, scrapes, white and pink noise, and similar things.

If the station works right, tonal sounds (pitches and chords) will be rare, as will traditional Western musical syntax or form. There will rarely be any regular beat or pulse in the music, and if there is a pulse, it will be unlike the rhythms heard in other popular music.

There is an emphasis on timbre and texture in these pieces, either by strict limitation of timbres or by inclusion of unusual and possibly “unmusical” ones.

There is often a strong sense of dimension and landscape, as if music is all about the collisions and arrangements of shapes and masses. These are compositions of blocks, holes, slices, and motes of sound.

There is also a sense of vacancy in this music. The world is crowded, but here in this music, entire buildings, parking lots, valleys, and continents seem uninhabited.

Beyond these values and charms, there is the fact that these pieces present most of us with sounds and contexts that are new and unknown. That may be an inherently artistic quality. Hard to say for sure, but it can feel that way. With few associations to bring to these sounds, we are free to make our own. We engage with experience in a way that makes us beginners again. We see the world differently.

If there is a house of music, it has a door that most of us have never noticed before. It is rarely used and coated with dust, and in that dust I have written the word “Ovals.”

See you on the other side.
mz

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