Lazy Luddite Log

30.9.13

Timbre

On the weekend I was sitting in a music classroom because it was serving as a changing room for a theatrical production I was in. There were student-made posters on the walls dedicated to particular elements of music – things like tempo and pitch and dynamic. I commented that my favourite was missing – timbre. This is my very layperson musings on the topic.

I once claimed to be a timbre junkie. The waveform of an instrument is distinctive and provides a lot of what distinguishes particular compositions and makes them into an aural banquet. I notice how a lot of the time different musical genres are defined by other characteristics. Some kinds of electronic dance music for instance are defined by Beats Per Minute. If they stray one beat away from the proscribed range do the suddenly become something different? For me a lot of what helps me decide a song is what it is comes from the timbres it exudes. The presence and absence of particular instruments is important to me.

I should clarify that sometimes an instrument can be more than one instrument in terms of timbre. It can be played with a different technique which alters its sound. Or that sound can be distorted differently by amplification and recording. And it can all get rather confusing. I listen to some very old metal songs (the kind many metal fans think is just rock) and can be puzzled as to whether I am isolating an electric guitar or electric organ in my active listening. Or similarly in some old funk or soul I will be confounded as to whether I’m focusing on an electric piano (like the Clavinet) or an electric guitar playing a rhythmic "wakakakaka”. My imprecision comes in part from the fact that all of these produce sound using moving steel parts and electromagnets. And whatever is making these sounds hardly matters as they all sound fantastic.

There are short-comings to my focus on timbre. If someone plays me a cover of a song using markedly different instruments I can have difficulty recognizing it even if the timing and notes are faithful to the original. Is this odd of me? I suspect it is a natural and common thing and I say that because of how important voices are to humans. Every person had a distinct voice and for us as pack animals it is important to recognize them. This gets back to music too – a key way to identify a particular artist is by the sound of the vocalist.

I prefer music produced by ensembles of instruments to a cappella music. Vocals are beautiful and allow for the addition of words to music but I also desire diversity of timbre. As such I prefer a band in which there are both male and female vocalists. Likewise a band that has a guitar and a keyboard is better than one with two guitars. Likewise a band which throws something like a saxophone into the mix gets my attention. I get annoyed if the bass player gets lost between cacophonous guitar and drums – hence production values that allow me to identify all the parts is a preference of mine. And finally this desire to distinguish all the instruments puts a limit on the sheer number of instruments I want to be playing all at once. Few if any bands meet all these descriptions and that is possibly why I listen to lots of various-artist playlists. That way the selection approximates the kind of band I want to listen to.

It is too late for me now to turn this into a project poster and put it on that classroom wall. Also I suspect it is too personal to be deemed informative writing (as well as too sloppy – that was a tiring theatrical weekend). Time now to listen to some more music.

Cross-posted here.

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16.9.13

Omnibus Post

I find walking facilitates thinking. As I wander so does my mind. I can think all sorts of things and in some ways this is nice. In other ways possibly I need to pay more attention to my surroundings. However with a familiar setting like the Scotchman’s Creek I can comfortably switch between musings and observing my tranquil semi-natural environs.

I think of travel as something that can happen from the moment one walks out the door. While I walk along my local creek I am travelling even if I never depart my neighbourhood. It may be familiar but I will sometimes notice new and different things, which is surely what travel is for. However a lot of the time I am thinking idly. Still some of the things I think are new so I’m still exploring that too.

Some of the creek may be at it always was (for a particular definition of “always”). The dirt path runs between gum trees and long grasses while the creek wanders parallel to it. From the track I cannot always see the creek but I can usually hear it if I care to listen. And I imagine I can also feel it in the sense that it is cooler here than back in the suburban streets. Or is that just the effect of all these shady trees?

A cat crosses my path, surprising me. This is a rare event here. Possibly they are usually better at hiding than this. Possibly it is because most locals obey the council rules regarding keeping cats indoors. Somebody however has let this one run free. Millions of years of evolution have honed the cat into a superb predator and a few thousand more years of genetic modification by humans to make the cat a domestic companion have done nothing to mollify its carnivorous desires. I worry for the local wildlife and wish the owners of this cat were more like my friends who keep cats in houses connected to wonderful cat-runs.

I am distracted from this thinking by the next song playing on my randomized device. An obscure Queen song entitled As It Began is playing in its mock-medieval splendour. Brian May plays a meandering melody on his homemade guitar and I get to thinking how cool this old Tory is. He’s a guitar hero, a qualified astronomer, and now an activist working to save foxes and badgers in his native England. The music itself fits nicely with the tranquillity of my setting and makes me wish I had done live role-playing in urban wildernesses like this.

My imaginings must pause, however, as the creek track now intersects with a side street and I need to pay attention to any cars as I cross. Once I cross I notice an old bar fridge sitting on the nature strip, within a few lopes of my current position (it is hard rubbish collection time in my area). Any magnets that once adorned it are gone, but there are still a few old stickers on it, which I decide to inspect.

There are three stickers that I can read, all for music acts of the 90s, Pearl Jam, Chemical Brothers and Cypress Hill. This is an interesting mix and I wonder what they all have in common. While musically different, I suppose they all represent youth culture alternatives to whatever packaged pop the music industry was serving at the time. Ironically all these alternatives themselves became pretty popular.

The bar fridge gets me wondering who had owned it? Did one person attach all those stickers? Or a succession of owners? Or a group of owners living together. I imagined some sort of 90s student share household with a spare fridge in the garage for parties, and arguments over what to put in the CD player. It is difficult to say anything for sure from just looking at this fridge, and I continue with my walk.

I now come to that stretch of the creek that had been turned into an artificial wetland by our water utility. Here is nature as re-imagined by humanity. Its purpose, according to signage, is to filter the water of the creek on its way to the Bay. It's odd to think of a lot of mud and reeds and roots as a filter but that was how it works. This is also a picturesque area to walk around, and animals have definitely taken to it. There is a cacophony of birdsong, frogs bopping and insects chirping. I see ducks and dragonflies as I inspect the reedy waterside of some of the interconnecting pools, and walk along tiny peninsulas that have been made by bulldozers, in what was once an expanse of grassy vacant land.

For me this was a case of civilization providing a framework in which the environment could fill in the gaps and do its thing. In a way I think that defines many of my political opinions too – governments providing structures to which we could all then contribute the texture of our own lives in our own ways.

I cross another road and leave the wetland behind. Here the creek flows along a wider depression and the setting along my path is more cultivated and parklike. There are even foreign trees like willows and elms. I can sometimes see into the backyards that line this public land and glimpse a private tennis court. Nobody is playing currently but it reminds me of an analogy of mine – that flirting works best as a game of tennis.

Making a move is like sending a ball over the net at the other player. You cannot then make another move till such time as they send the ball back to you. That way you can tell that everyone wants to play. But so many played differently. For them (men much more so than women) the game was more like shooting clay pigeons and very much a game for one. Pull… fire… pull… fire… and so on. How obnoxious! But there is this popular notion that persistence pays off. Eventually the target of the pestering decides to play. So those who do this find that it works but they are overlooking something. For every door this method opens you can never tell how many more doors it is closing on you. Occasionally the player wins but the rest of the time they are deemed a creep and that is hardly fun for anyone involved.

I have gone as far as I’m prepared to go on this walk and so start back home, this time walking on the other side of the creek as I pass, once more, through park, wetland, and bush. I encounter a woman walking her dog, a man jogging, and two children riding bikes. It has been a good day for wandering and thinking and I will come back here in a few more days.

The following has never happened exactly as described. The backyard tennis court and the discarded bar fridge are fictional. It is creative writing and an approximation of my internal life on such walks. All the subjects touched on in here were suggested by friends on Facebook in response to a request from me for blogging topics.

Cross-posted here.

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