Friday, February 12, 2010

The Studio as Composition Vis à Vis MBV

Brian Eno talks about the studio as a compositional tool, representing the shift from "composer" or "musician" to "producer." He writes,
"You're working directly with sound, and there's no transmission loss between you and the sound--you handle it. It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter... He always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out, to add a piece, etc."
I can't think of a more illuminating example of this than My Bloody Valentine's Only Shallow from their 1991 release Loveless. Using the painting metaphor, if a composer's palette consists of the instruments he is arranging, MBV's palette is typical of any other rock band (guitars, a bass, and drums), but the sounds it produces are anything but. The track explodes with a shrieking, spinning, siren only remotely resembling anything a guitar would produce. That sound and most others produced on the record are a product of hundreds of hours of studio time, spent meticulously experimenting: tapes reversed and affected, guitar amplifiers faced directly at each other with a microphone between them capturing the wave phase behavior, etc. It's difficult to imagine the band producing a song as sonically adventurous and dense without the ability to work with sounds in a tangible form in the studio. And indeed, having had the opportunity to see the band perform Only Shallow at the Fillmore last April, I can attest to the fact that the live sound, though powerful in its own way, is distinct from the recording, due in large part to the fact that some of the recorded sounds are simply impossible to reproduce live.

Eno also makes light of the fact that, prior to the availability of recording technologies, people like him couldn't have dreamed of composing music because they weren't technically proficient enough or had little knowledge of its written representations. Wind on Water, a piece which Eno produced in collaboration with guitarist Robert Fripp, is a piece that is sonically, surprisingly similar to Only Shallow, if the latter were stripped of its rock influences. Though produced in a wholly different manner using tape loops, the pieces share more than tonal similarity: they are both likely impossible to recreate perfectly in a live situation, and they were both produced by self-taught musicians. Kevin Shields has gone from (at least compared to guitar virtuosos like Hendrix or Page) a fairly run-of-the-mill guitarist to 95th greatest in the world, due in large part to the sonic creativity afforded to him by the studio used as a compositional tool.

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