Monday, October 31, 2011

Dub and Real-Time Studio Performance

"Spreading out a song or a groove over a vast landscape of peaks and deep trenches, extending hooks and beats to vanishing point, dub creates new maps of time, intangible tunes, sacred sites, balm and shock for mind, body and spirit."

David Toop, Replicant: On Dub

In Audio Cultures, a great emphasis is placed on the impact of recording technologies on practices of consumption and production. From Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's vision of a visual vocabulary for drawing grooves into vinyl to the early tape based experiments of Pierre Schaeffer and Musique Concrete, the physical medium exerts dramatic influence on the creative approach to the production and development of music. In some cases it simply allows new avenues for listening, but in others it allows entirely new modes of production. Dub--a medium made possible entirely by advances in tape-based systems--is a most compelling example of the latter. In his brief article, Replicant: On Dub, David Toop highlights some of the historical and sensational features of dub, claiming it as the herald of remix culture, as something that deconstructs and creates new meaning out of existing material, and also as a mechanism for revisioning time and space. While almost any dub track could serve to illustrate these points, I found Lee "Scratch" Perry's, Lee Perry Upsetting Dub, particularly compelling.

It begins with a drum roll that rapidly decays, seeming almost to break apart into barely cohesive shards of noise, almost like low-fi radio transmissions. A few seconds in, a deep and reverberant melody comes in. The deep space created by that reverb serves to anchor the other elements, creating cohesion at moments where there is no melody or rhythm. As the drum roll fades away, I am already on my way to outer-space. The drums come back in punctuating bursts, sometimes just a kick or a snare. But the kick or snare rises up and stretches like the drumroll at the beginning. Soon one of these swells takes over completely and the melody falls out for a measure. When it comes back, it seems to have taken on new force so that plucks begin cascading into echo chambers, implying a space not restrained to a studio, but reaching far out into the cosmos and slapping back. As I listen over and over, I start seeing Lee Perry as the captain of the Black Ark, interstellar spacecraft, rapidly moving between sliders and knobs, charting a path through the sensational unknown. Kicks start sounding like spring-loaded cartoon anti-gravity boots. Snares repeat off into infinity, slowly dropping away at the edges of perception. About halfway through, the whole band seems to be on stage. The harmonium (is it?) drones away in the back; Larger than life guitar skanks slip in and out, super sonic, like a dirt road turned into a four lane highway; hand drums and kit drums concerting and combating. Suddenly the guitar is gone and a nasal kazoo blast rides up to the top, atonal, almost a snarl, implying deep discontent and even eliciting a sense of dread, but for only a moment, as if to remind us that in adventure there is also always danger. Then the drums take on a steadier rhythm for the rest of the track, layering and oscillating between a kit and hand drums. A lighter, almost celebratory melody takes over and the track begins to fade out.

Lee Perry Upsetting Dub is a great example of the ways that a studio approach to composition enables producers to work in new creative modes. What is particularly compelling to me about dub is the real-time aspect. The tape manipulations of Shaeffer, Henry or Oswald (of whom I am also a huge fan), are painstaking labors of love, processes of highly detailed cutting and splicing often written out as a visual score prior to compilation. Conversely, the tape manipulations of dub, while studio based, are primarily live; that is, the producers are listening to the playback of the original tracks and making decisions at the moment of listening on how to sculpt, alter, layer, or oppose material. As tools like Ableton Live and Max/MSP become more and more powerful, enabling things like auto-quantization, and as laptops really do become more and more like virtual studios, the boundaries between what is possible in the confines of a studio and live are beginning to blur. In either case, we can see that the studio, whether physical or virtual, is a form of instrument, laden with untapped potential and even entirely new genres.

"In a compositional sense… one becomes empirical in a way that the classical composer never was… It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter--he's working directly with a material, working directly on a substance, and he always retains the potions to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc."

Brian Eno, The Studio As Compositional Tool

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