March 2, 2014, by Stephen Mumford
Making Sense 2
Being awoken by birdsong is the most peaceful start to the day, something you miss if you live in a city with few trees. Waves crashing against a beach similarly creates a sense of serenity. We are surrounded by sounds, natural and artificial, all of which provide raw materials for our art.
Music is a joy, composers and songwriters being among our most treasured artists. But in popular music, the producer is equally important, crafting the set of sounds that constitute the concrete realisation of an abstract composition. A combination of imagination and technical expertise is required to achieve this, art and science in conjunction.
Occasionally someone seeks a type of music that uses a broader soundscape than the traditional musical instruments, gathering inspiration from the everyday but also the weird and wonderful, assembling sounds that wouldn’t usually appear on a record. A breakthrough album in this respect was Pet Sounds, nominally released by The Beach Boys in 1966 but largely written and produced by Brian Wilson in the band’s absence.
Given free reign, Wilson had lofty goals. It was to be the greatest pop album to date, an ambition in which he almost certainly succeeded. There was to be the fullest range of sounds you could assemble in a 36-minute piece. Some sounds were mundane: a dog’s bark, a bicycle bell. Others were created from combinations of traditional instruments: staccato strings might play the same line as the organ and in conjunction it sounded like a new, unknown instrument. And when that wasn’t enough, a new instrument could indeed by introduced, such as the Theremin on I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. Added to that, there is tons of reverb on the production making for a deeply immersive auditory experience. Try listening in a darkened room, with no other sensory distractions.
I discovered Pet Sounds relatively late but had already developed a taste for new, experimental sounds through my love of German industrialist band Einstürzende Neubauten. Guitars and drums take you only so far. Neubauten used drills, metal bashing and factory noises as their sound palette on a series of paradigm-smashing albums: Kollaps (1981), Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (1983) and Halber Mensch (1985). My first encounter was when I was loaned a copy of their Thirsty Animal 12” single and I have still never heard anything like the two sides of this record. Neubauten were a big influence on Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising (1985) album. Although Sonic Youth continued to use traditional pop music instruments, their alternate guitar tunings and composition made for more creative novelty.
Music is one of life’s joys whether traditional or ground breaking. At its basis is our capacity to enjoy sound. Sounds can be pleasant or unpleasant and we have ears that tend to discern the difference. When we weave a beautiful or challenging sonic tapestry, we have created art from the world’s lavish auditory resources.