Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Pump Up The Volume

Part of the movement of sound production from the 60s to the 90s was a movement to a more dense use of soundspaces, so that by the early 90s there was a component of dance music where each track was "playing" soundspaces, rather than sounds or representations of instruments (e.g. Messiah’s “Temple of Dreams” or Felix’s “Don’t You Want Me”). This movement was of course made available, and mediated, and arguably "caused", by the increasing facility of sound production made possible through the development of technology and increased computerisation. By the early 90s, it was no struggle to posit a sound in the production that came ready-made with a complete sonic environment that in an earlier era might have taken many hours or days to generate in the studio.Of course, this move was gradual, and predicated on a whole series of strategies employed by producers and engineers to represent sound on a recording. There are many examples of this, and this is by no means the earliest, but a key early example is Ken Scott's recording of Bowie's Hunky Dory: the opening piano note of "Changes" wraps up a whole world of emotions, simply in the one note, before any other elements are introduced into the mix or any other notes are played. Furthermore, the dislocated spaces of early 90s dance music are well founded in non-dance productions, as far back as the mid 60s: George Martin and Geoff Emerick were already setting up alienating spaces in a track like "Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite", where the brittle crispness of the track, the reverb with its own peculiar quality, and the choice of instruments, set up a sonic image not just of another time, but of another slightly skewed world that does not sit squarely with our own. By the 80s, producers are well experienced at setting sonic elements against each other for an ulterior effect: Launay's production of "I Send A Message" has the rhythm of the track not only created through the instruments themselves, but through the sonic displacements caused in the productions of these instruments. Most notable in this is the infectious bounce of the keyboards and guitars in the opening bars, where one sound seems to bounce off another, as a kind of sonic echo of the other.So it is by the time of "Pump Up The Volume"[1] that producers are constructing highly complex soundspaces built up from many disparate elements. It is not just that the soundspaces are complex in terms of the instruments or sounds used; it is that the soundspaces are given a multidimensionality where the sonic elements have not only musical effects (such as to build up rhythm), but also emotional effects constructed on various cultural dimensions. "Pump Up The Volume", as an early piece of sampled and electronic dance music, provides a strong example of the sophistication of this multidimensionality.The sonic rhythm of "Pump Up The Volume" starts in a similar fashion to "I Send A Message" - three separate sounds working (metaphorically) contrapuntally, the bottle-sounding synth plonking in distinct positions in the space, with the hi-hats bouncing off this, and the brushed-drum bouncing almost into any position in the soundspace. The synth and the hi-hats are actually systematically and carefully positioned - the synth is positioned in three clear spaces, mid, and fairly far right and left, with the right and left appearances somewhat muted. The sound of the synth itself, and this tripartite positioning, gives it a fine, precise quality, almost like it is tickling the ears as it falls into the various spaces. There is a distinct physicality to this sound, like a sonic ping pong ball, and an aural sensuousness in the way it teases the ears by dropping onto the speakers in each position. The sound has a kind of sudden round completeness that quickly goes, so that it has a kind of mysterious, attractive and cute wonder to it: a sweet almost pretty sound that is like a sonic fairy, darting in and out of the listening space. Yet the sound is also somewhat cool and slightly distant, making it almost ethereal.By comparison, the hi-hats and brushed drum are relatively dissipated sounds, though their dissipation is tightly contained: there is a sense that they are cut short, as if they are part of something that would otherwise be larger. This interestingly enough draws a superficial connection with the bottle synth, as it carries on the somewhat mysterious quality of the latter sounds. However, the dissipation of the hi-hats also pulls away from the bottle synth, as if there is a kind of dragging of the thread of the track away; this is compounded by the way the other brushed drum, with a slightly different tone, smacks into the right speaker and then across from left to right. A rhythm is created, not just in the timing of the two types of sounds, but by the way the hi-hats seem to flick up off the bottle synths, and the brushed drum then starts to seem like it is flying around the soundspace, like the bottle synths are drops of water that leave splashes in the form of the hi-hats and brushed drum.Yet the phantasmic quality of the bottle synth, its sensuousness, the way it drops on the ears, and the interplay with the hi-hats and brushed drum, makes it seem like these sounds are actually falling randomly in the space, fracturing the listening and resisting a settled consistent soundspace. This sets up four seconds of tension where the listener is working out exactly what is to come, where the rhythm will settle, and what kind of musical form will result.Within this four seconds, therefore, a musical space and a soundspace is created that is already given a number of dimensions. There is the interplay of the qualities of the different sounds; the rhythmic "bounce" and contrasting disfigurement that occurs by the way the sounds fall into the space and across each other; the purely physical and pseudo-physical positioning of the sounds in the speakers (right, left, central, moving across these positions); and the physical quality of the sounds themselves as they fall on the speakers and the ears. There is a kind of putative physical space, from the positioning of the sounds and the qualities of the sounds; intersecting with which there is a putative musical form, created by the purely musical rhythm, and the metaphorical rhythm of the interplay of the sounds, as if this musical space is a kind of second dimension on top of or intersecting with the lateral dimension of the soundspace. Note that even in this, it is not entirely adequate to depict the lateral dimension of the soundspace as one dimension, as the qualities of the sounds themselves give a kind of imaginary height and depth to the soundspace - the bottle synths and the brushed drum sound both higher and closer than the hi-hats. In another production (and as we shall see, later on in this production), added strength could be added to such a dimensionality by the way in which the sounds are shaped with post-production techniques, such as echo and EQ - echo could be used to retreat a sound "back" in the soundspace, and EQ could be used to also heighten or lower a sound.However, the primary determinant of dimensionality in "Pump Up The Volume" is the quality of each sound, and their interplay, as here in the first four seconds. This becomes more obvious when the track's musical rhythm becomes clear at 0:04, when the kick drum appears, then vocals, then scratching, then piano, maracas and the more formless treated vocalic sounds that appear in left and right speakers. The kick drum immediately (but temporarily) cuts the dislocation short: it is a neutral central sound that brings conventional rhythmic order to the soundspace. But it has an automatic and disregarding quality, as if it too is expressing some kind of alienated position. For our purposes here, this quality serves to further the track's dimensionality: as if the drum is a kind of featureless sun in the middle of the orbit of the other sounds, or a deadspot itself separate from the other sounds. The first vocal, of Wolfman Jack or a simulacrum, adds another dimension (or perhaps another two or three dimensions) to the soundspace. This dimension could be conceived of as a fourth temporal dimension (though there is already a natural and inherent temporal dimension in any musical work, as part of the revelation of a musical work in the way it plays itself across time), in that the vocal is realising a kind of remembered space. It is important to note that this dimension is more complex and more inherently structural than appearances of spoken or quoted or sampled vocals from other earlier recordings, such as the train announcements in Supertramp's "Rudy" or the spoken ruminations on dying in Pink Floyd's "Great Gig in the Sky". This is primarily because the sampled vocals are played musically in the space, so they gain a structural position within the song from the outset. So their position in the space automatically complicates it: they are not inherently "of" the space, because they originate from elsewhere than the system on which the rest of the music is being created. They carry the codings and environment of the recording or space in which they originally appeared. By appearing in this new space, their appearance gives the total space a more explicitly abstract nature, so that the space is (if it ever was) even less about a real performative space (like a club or even the studio), or a projected real space, but about a "mind" or “aesthetic” space. As noted, by this time there has already been an extensive history of "head" spaces in popular music, from the unsettlement of "Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite" to the complete alternative universe of Tangerine Dream's "Phaedra", and the host of dreamy spaces of dub reggae. However, though the "head" space established by the use of sampled vocals has some similarities with these headspaces (most simply because, to sample the vocals, some treatment of the vocals has to occur, so that they sound somewhat bodiless), the mindspace of sampled vocals in this and other tracks of the time has the effect of deepening the spatial dimensions of the track by setting up, as another dimension, the dimension of the recorded space itself in its completeness. What I mean by this is that the elements within the mix are metaphorically placed on a continuum of recorded spaces, so that the sampled vocals take up a position of being in an "over there" of recorded space of their own. As listeners, we are more less hearing across a dimension of various recording spaces. There is the recorded space of the "instruments" themselves, then there are the various recording spaces of the different sampled vocals as well (from Wolfman Jack to Eric B. to the wailing middle Eastern-sounding female). It is tempting to describe this as a continuum of remembered spaces, and this is certainly one of the overtones of this use of sampling. But the "remembered" quality of the spaces is as much to do with the EQing of the samples to dampen extraneous sounds, and to posit them as "remembered" actually limits the way they work in our listening.Similarly, it is tempting to describe the continuum on which these spaces are placed as a historical continuum, and again, that is partially true, and part of the overall effect of the use of the spaces: it is as if we are listening to a snapshot of the history of recording, and we are at one end of this historical continuum. This partially explains the "depth" of this dimension of the soundspace. But again, this is not the full "picture" of this dimension. The dimension works by a depth of "recordedness", so that it is as if our position in relation to the recording is less one of spatial position, but of a textual position. "Textuality" is a convenient term for this position, and somewhat captures the sense of the position as a non-real one related to an artefact, but it does not quite capture the sense that our listening is as much conditioned by a whole host of recorded spaces, and spaces represented in a recorded production, as it is by real instruments playing in the air. A visual image of this dimension might be a landscape comprising a series of different recorded or broadcast environments retreating from us to the horizon.A comparison with Paul Hardcastle's "19" may make this a little clearer, in terms of how this latter song represents voices. "19" has a series of vocals represented in a number of different ways, including the relatively unmarked vocal of the female "backing" singers. In a sense, the backing singers are of a recorded space of our time, or current with us; it is not that the space represents anything physically congruous with our own listening space, but that the space sounds "now", both due to the style in which it is recorded, and due to the clarity and depth of the sound (which in itself makes this as “now” as the “nowness” of the whole style and currency of the song itself). Receding a little further from this is the vocal of the narrator[2], which is produced in two ways. The first is where the voice is narrating statistics, and sounds ever so slightly "thin" or cushioned, but still sounds somewhat present, perhaps like he is narrating over FM radio; the second where he is presenting a news report and sounds like he is narrating over AM radio, representing the historical past of the war, as well as the historical past of recorded sound. However, there is a quality to both these recorded spaces which does not recede the sound from us further than our listening present, because even the AM radio space sounds like it could be a current representation of a past recording style. It is important to note, though, that the spaces of this voice are slightly ambiguous, and this adds to the sense of recession of the spaces, while also resisting it: it takes a little listening to work out whether these spaces are re-created ones, not past sampled ones, partly because both are slightly treated (and even then, one is never entirely sure whether the spaces are re-created or sampled). The ambiguity is enhanced by the fact that the voice itself sounds like it is of the Vietnam War era - it is a style of voice from that time, and may well be of a reporter or announcer well-known from that period (and the "news reports" complicate this, as they appear to verify the voice as one from that period).Finally, even further from the AM radio voice, and clearly a voice from the past and from another recorded space, is the voice of the soldier: "I wasn't really sure what was goin on". The sense of recession is not just in the quality of the voice, but in the tone of "extraction" to the soundspace of the voice - it sounds like this is an extract from a larger utterance from the soldier, as the start and end of the vocal sound slightly rounded off. There are other voices and sounds from roughly the same space – the opening crowd noises, the scream at 1:29, and the gun fire at about 3:03.

“19” does not fully explore the kind of dimensionality found in “Pump Up The Volume” (partly because “19”’s focus in the use of the various voices is on a moral exploration), but it illustrates how the various voices, in a relatively pragmatic way, are made to step back from us towards other contexts, and to step back from the foundational soundspace of the synthetic instruments, so that our own relationship to the soundspace deepens, or perhaps, our awareness becomes spread out away from the foundational soundspace. “Pump Up The Volume” takes this further by not having these “found” spaces step away from a central core: instead, we are posited as participants in a much larger (multi)dimensionality – our involvement in the space seems to be part of something larger, beyond our full comprehension. The image of the kickdrum as a sun at the centre of a solar system is illustrative here: if the space is a solar system, then it and its various elements are moving away from and around us, like a solar system: each element in the space seems to be circling away from us, and circling away from each other, so that we as listeners end up being just one element in this solar system. Unlike a conventional recording, we are not so much projected into a space (as might be the case with the foundational space of “19”), but posited as having a position in the space equivalent to the other elements. Under this regime, the space is completely neutralised and abstracted, so that it is not representing a physical space, but an abstract presence, an abstract re-reality, in which we are located as one of the elements. We are basically in a new world of understood spaces, known spaces, spaces with which we are familiar and are familiarised, remembered spaces, internally experienced spaces, “felt” spaces, not (just) physically experienced or heard ones. As a result, our memory, our understanding, our context of the various musical elements, are as much participants in the space as the elements themselves. It is as if we are almost regardless in this space, casual listeners or participants in some other world or activity to which we don’t fully belong, or of which we don’t fully understand, and which have their own rules which we are not privy to. In a way, the “rememberedness” or quotedness of the voice of Wolfman Jack doesn’t just have this quality because we remember it (which in fact we may not): it has this quality because there is a sense that it is also someone else’s remembered voice, as if there is another plane of memory with which we just lightly intersect. This of course partly has to do with the fact that there is a kind of cultural memory here: we may have heard Wolfman Jack in other contexts, and so he represents a quoted, textual, broadcast element in our broader sonic understanding. As a radio voice, he is predominantly (in our awareness) disembodied, predominantly broadcast, and therefore predominantly a recorded artefact. But there is also the fact that, by being broadcast, he is part of a wider experience to which we don’t have personal access (the experience of the millions of others who have heard him); and, moreover, he has been broadcast over such a long period of time, and used in all sorts of different cultural contexts, that we also don’t have personal access to all the experiences of these manifestations either. This is all the more so because Wolfman Jack is sampled as saying “this has got to be the greatest record of the year”, as if somehow, from this other history, from this other experience, he is casting a judgement on something in our space. So our experience of Wolfman Jack here is like an intersection with all these other manifestations, all these other experiences and memories of him. To compare with “19”, this quality is back-of-mind in the use of Peter Thomas; but the various treatments of his voice, as noted, give a stepped-back quality to these manifestations, so it as if the various manifestations are stepping back away from us towards Vietnam itself (but also towards a moral comment on that war). In “Pump Up The Volume”, however, there is no similar stepped-back quality: Wolfman Jack is both already “stepped-back” (speaking to us from “another” time), but also present in all sorts of other realities and memories, as reported to us in the sampling of him here[3].

Which makes it all the more complex when the sounds in “Pump Up The Volume” are made to physically bear upon us – the sound in the speakers (rather than the sounds as remembered entities) is just one dimension of our relationship to the sounds and the space(s). This helps to explain the effect of the bottle synth, for instance, which has a delightful physical presence on our ears, but also seems to be coming to us from somewhere else: it is a kind of intersection with us of another world, or of another experience, or of another experience of this sound. So, too, the apparent randomness of the synth and the hi-hats operates so that these instruments are like particles flying around in space, which seem to fall around us and occasionally onto us. In this framework, we are just another celestial body which is subject to the effect of these sounds; but in a sense, these sounds cannot have the effect that they do without us being equal participants in the space, part of the fabric that constitutes the space.

This framework therefore explains more generally the use of sampling in this track. When the title line (a sample of Rakim from Eric B and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul”) is sampled, it seems to come to us from somewhere else, while playing musically in the space; it is not just a sample in itself, played for musical effect; it has a textual function, quoted from another text with which we may or not be familiar. Like the Wolfman Jack quote (which sounds “broadcast”), it comes with its own medium’s baggage: Rakim here sounds like a recorded voice, because the sample is made to include the vinyl surface noise which comes with the recording. But in this quoting, and the inclusion of the surface noise, it also has a textural function, by adding to the various sonic characteristics of the piece. It seems to come fully formed from somewhere else; but its musical position in the piece (as the title line, repeated rhythmically) also fully locates it in the song as well, so again, it is as if two worlds are intersecting here in the musicality of the track. (There is a tangential effect too as a result of the use of this sample: because it does have this quality of seeming to come from another experience, there also remains a question in the back of our minds as to whether this really is Rakim, even when we fully know that it is: this lack of certainty is a kind of aura that sits around or behind the sample, rather than coded explicitly in it, so that our own experience of the sample continues to carry with it this sense of another possible experience or existence separate to us.)

It would appear to be no accident that Eric B and Rakim are sampled here, because their output at this time, as a result of their unique style of sampling, scratching and production, has a dreamy, “spacey” feel to it, a feel of drifting-off spaces and sounds calling in from afar. M.A.R.R.S. appear to be drawing on this characteristic in both sampling Rakim, as well as building up the soundspace of “Pump Up The Volume”. This becomes more evident in the next set of vocalic samples, from 0:16 to 0:27, which seem to be voices set in deep space, coming to us through a technological medium. The sampling here creates both an odd deferred headspace feel to the samples; but even more striking is that, though the samples kind of sound like they are broadcast to us over some sort of deep space transmission, there is also a quality to their sound that makes the broadcast character not quite on our minds as we listen to them. We don’t quite get the front-of-mind sense that we are being broadcast some message through deep space, partly because the quality of the sounds has this headspace feel: there is more a sense that these sounds are glancing at us from afar, from some other existence, as if we are passing a spaceship and as we come closer we telepathically become more familiar with the sounds occurring within that spaceship. Obviously, this is strongly conveyed through the Doppler-effect quality to the two different samples: the one at 0:16 has a bullet-like attack and slow decay to it, and the one at 0:21 (what has always sounded to me like “pipe down”) has a slow electronic attack and seems to have a slight spitting quality to its decay (this is because there is a metallic instrument or sound beaten under the vocal on each of its utterances: this could be a tambourine, though it is unclear; this sound is separate from the distinct tambourine placed left and right in the space). Added to this, each sound is located specifically in left and right speakers respectively, so that they retain a sense of peripheral glancing impermanence.

This glancing impermanence is also a result of the fact that, chronologically, each of these sounds is “triggered” by a resonant piano note in the left speaker, which creates a small but complex sonic couplet. Within each couplet, there is firstly a mental image of an entity flying close alongside and then faster away forward from us (the piano), and another entity consequently flying slightly further away towards us (the vocalic element). There is also a back-of-mind ballistic image, as suggested above, where the vocalic element is a delayed ballistic response to the pulling of the trigger of the piano note. In this regard, the second sample, having a duple structure (in my analogy, “pipe” and “down”), seems to have a ricochet. There is also a musical rhythmic function here, where the piano and the vocalic element seem to be a kind of stretched beat, the piano initiating it, and the vocalic element completing it. But furthermore, the piano itself, in its resonant musical quality, when set against these samples, has a kind of springy arrival into the space. Its acoustic musicality seems to land in from another location, even though it is not produced so as to be placed in a soundspace markedly separated from us; the springiness of the piano itself suggests a kind of autonomous movement of the piano into our path. Its resonance also has a fullness that seems to come from another fully realised place, coding it as coming perhaps from some kind of putative acoustic performative world. This fullness also gives it an organic presence in the mix that seems to make it stand equally against the other electronic sounds: the spring from piano to sample seems to mark some kind of sonic challenge between the two sounds.

Furthermore, the sampled sounds have been treated so that, as my interpretation of the second sample indicates, it is impossible to decipher what these samples are “saying”, or whether they are “saying” anything at all, or indeed, whether they are vocal samples at all. The treatment also gives these samples a metallic quality (the “tambourine” under the second sample compounds this quality) which both removes them from any real-world spatial representation, from any “live” representation, and from any congruence with our own space.
All these qualities and relationships therefore add to the disfiguring quality of the samples and the space, and consequently, to the sense that these sounds are part of a logic separate to our own involvement in the space. They remain forever locked away from us, fellow travellers in the space that we encounter briefly before disappearing.

Similarly, the James Brown “brothers and sisters” sample that begins at 0:29 has some sense of appearing from somewhere unknown, slightly ahead (it is placed horizontally centre and vertically slightly higher than centre in the space). The sample here, because of the scattered echo on it, and the slightly flattened fidelity of the sound (possibly because of the EQing and the need to limit its spatial range), also has a kind of broadcast quality to it. But it also, because of the nature of the vocal, coupled with these other qualities, has a kind of “calling” quality to it, as if it is calling to us from afar; or, alternatively, and just as heard in the space, a kind of calling to someone else in the space (after all, it is a sample of a voice raised in supplication to others), as if we have, in passing, come across a rally. The sample has a tantalising quality too, because it always, due to its spatial location, remains just ahead whenever it is repeated: this compounds the sense of it being always somewhere else from us.

At this point in the track, there is a complex series of interweavings of sound, constructed so that it is as if we have entered a space with high traffic activity, with the various elements in the mix running at some speed across each other, but never meeting. I won’t address every one of these elements, but they are not confined to vocal samples, though there are plenty of these. At 0:29, just a fraction ahead of James Brown, a high pitched repetitive electronic sound appears right and plays a sequence under (or over) Brown, then repeats this left, then right, then left again. This sound has a cool, large but spread-away reverb on it, and seems to get louder as each sequence progresses, but never quite hits us so to speak – it never seems to quite hit the speaker or quite worm its way into our ears, though its pitch has a sharpness that seems to threaten shrillness. Again, as a result, the sound seems to be travelling near or towards us, but never with us, and never in our own space, though it seems to hold the prospect that our two spaces will intersect.

From 0:32, two separate vocal samples appear that are commenced from scratches: at 0:32, “you’re gonna get yours”, and at 0:36, “pump that bass”. Both of them are placed centre in the space (along with James Brown and Rakim), which would seem to be a fairly conventional location for vocal elements. But it is unusual for separate voices to all be placed virtually identically centre in the space, with the same size. Being samples, each of these voices carries with it some of the characteristics of their own recording spaces, as well as the vinyl surface noise, so that there is a stacking up of voices here. However, the stacking up does not amount to something new or bigger: by stacking up these series of voices (and attendant soundspaces), it seems something keeps being held away from us, because we never quite seem to get to the central or unique soundspace in the midst of this. Moreover, because of the multiplicity of voices, and the fact that their words are only sampled extracts, we never quite seem to get to the message that any of them is conveying; nor do we ever quite seem to get to the world to which they belong. They all seem to be calling or singing or rapping across our space, or across our path. Again, there is a quality here that all these voices are someone’s else’s memory, or perhaps even in someone else’s hearing (we may not, after all, know who these voices are or from what recording they come, yet they have appeared fully-formed in our hearing in their own packeted soundspace), and we have just happened across them; so again, as a result, we become just one of the many entities in the textual space created around us.

Stepping back for a moment, there are two musical elements in the mix which have been introduced slightly earlier that add to the complexity of this passage. At 0:12, the bass has appeared, though its presence is not fully felt until perhaps 0:18. The bass is not produced in any remarkable way – it sounds like a bass, and is placed central and slightly low in the space (a conventional position for the bass). It does have a distinctness which may be slightly surprising, but given the prominence of the bass in 80s music, again, this is not necessarily unconventional. However, the conventionality of the bass here is what complicates the space. It is on the one hand a distinct musical element, so that it is not removed from us in the same way that the samples or the synths are. It has a conventional musical presence, and if it is removed, this is, in one way, just a function of its projected space. However, in its conventional function within a projected recorded space, the bass often works in a non-declarative sense; that is, it works viscerally, so that we sense its rhythm, rather than necessarily distinctly hear it. It is a felt presence, rather than primarily (in perceptual terms) a heard one. In this track, the bass is also given this presence, so that it has a throb in the woofer that spreads through the lower areas of the space. By working simultaneously as a heard and a felt presence in this space, the bass also seems to move away from us. Firstly, as a distinct heard presence, there is a vocalic quality to the bass (perhaps heightened in our perception by the fact that sampled vocal elements in the mix have an instrumental quality), so that it both seems to be something more than it otherwise isn’t (a voice rather than an instrument), and therefore more present in the space than it would normally be (and more present than the actual vocalic elements, the sampled voices); and also somewhere else than it otherwise is (that is, it seems to have an existential logic, a logic of voiceness and humanness, that sits somewhere slightly outside its otherwise normal musical logic and the musical logic of the track). Secondly, as a felt presence, it seems to be coming to us from somewhere else, from the depths, intersecting with us in the speakers and in the soles of our feet. The net result is that this alloyed presence of the bass makes it seem like it is brought to us from somewhere else, that it may be sampled[4] and from another soundspace, even though we cannot be sure of this; and therefore it, too, is another entity that has made some kind of glancing contact with us, reflecting back at us off the other entities in the space, especially the explicitly vocalic elements. There’s an odd sense of self-satisfaction that comes with this: it is as if the bass can declare its bassness, while also fully realising a personality in the space that can stand alongside the other elements in which personality would normally reside; it is as if the bass player or the bass itself wears a smile as they play their part in the space.

The second instrumental element I wish to highlight here is the scattered synthetic “brushed-drum” sound that first appears at 0:02, but whose presence is not particularly felt until 0:27. This sound takes up a similar role to that of the bass, for its presence is partly felt, and partly distinctly musical. Its felt presence is not the same as the bass’s, however, because it is the nature of bass frequencies to be more felt than heard; however, the way this brushed-drum is mixed in the space, alongside other higher frequence sounds, particularly in the introduction, means that it seems to flit in the space, rather than stand out in it. In the introduction, because there are so many elements entering and scattering through the space, the brushed-drum seems to belong to other sounds, or fly out from them. Its tentative and temporary nature in the introduction, as well as the way it flies from speaker to speaker, also seem to bury it perceptually, so it just seems to be written into our hearing as “introduction”, as part of setting up the piece, rather than as featured in it. However, its construction in the piece from 0:27 takes on the track’s broader logic, as it takes on distinctness as a scattering element in the piece, a piece of flying debris in our listening path. Moreover, its sound sits somewhat against the other elements in the mix, as it is quite “present” in the mix, forward and on the speaker, almost touching our ears with the distinctness of its contained dissipated sound. However, this also seems to bring it more forward than it logically can be: it has the quality of having entered our ears, an internal (but not necessarily in-the-mind) felt presence. This is exacerbated by its scattering from speaker to speaker, and the fact that it always seems to end abruptly or too early, so that it never seems to sit still long enough to be anchored in our hearing. Again, this combination of the heard and the felt makes this sound, though musical, seem to be brought in onto us, while at the same time part of our listening space.

This broader logic of the track is conveyed structurally across its length as well. Two sampled spaces or passages are used to cut in across the track’s path, at 1:46, 2:41, and the third immediately after the second at 2:59. The passages function in a number of ways in the track, some of which I will not explore in depth here. One of these ways is an aesthetic which runs parallel (and which is ultimately subservient) to the aesthetic of the intersection of referred spaces, that is, an aesthetic of bricollage. Much has been written about this elsewhere, but for the purposes of my argument, it is important to note that this bricollage sets up a consciousness of the media which construct the piece. In effect, this pushes the piece away from us, and away from a realistic representation of a space (whatever that space may be, and however performative), so that it remains always just beyond us as an experienced space. By being conscious of the piece’s source media, we are made conscious that we are more or less at the end point of the various recording processes represented: we are the (listening) players in a whole galaxy of recording processes and recorded spaces. Moreover, there is a sense that the sampled passages are made to stand like openings or crevasses or landings in the space, to which each of the smaller samples have been leading. Each of the smaller samples, as noted, are like glimpses into another world; the sampled passages are like landing points in these worlds, where we touch down for a few seconds. This is all the more so because these passages are rubbed up hard against the rest of the track: for instance, the first passage appears to have no elements from the preceding 1:46: it is a fully realised eight seconds from another track (albeit edited and scratched from 1:51), carrying with it the vinyl surface noise. In fact, the scratching and surface noise act to dislocate the passage somewhat, so that we are not made to sit in it: they draw attention to the medium and the recording process, pulling us out of the passage, and pulling us out of any clear trajectory into a unitary projected space. This lack of unitariness is also contained in the fact that the sample is a recording comprising mainly acoustic and electric instruments (various percussion instruments, and a voice), not electronic ones, so that the space suddenly shifts a level in projection – it is no longer comprised largely of explicitly artificial electronic sounds, but of reproduced “human” sounds. Also in this example, the rhythm has a heavy drag to it, and contrasts with the track’s general rhythm, so that it seems to weigh the track down somewhat, creating the contradictory effect in the listener of not quite being able to settle into the rhythm – the listener has to shift gears in the attempt to do so. This lack of settlement is also conveyed in the return to the Rakim sample following this passage: though the irruptions of these passages seem to operate in one way like landing points in the worlds represented by the smaller samples, they are also made to not quite connect with the smaller samples, so that the Rakim sample in this example seems to be slightly regardless of the foregoing passage, in turn cutting across the passage. The Rakim sample could be made to seal or cap off the passage, but it doesn’t: instead, it seems to operate independently of it, and almost independently of the track as a whole, despite the fact that it has been operating like a chorus through the track. This is all the more so because, in the repetition of the “dance”, there is a kind of curbed surface noise around it, which distinctly starts and stops on each repetition, operating like a buffer against the rest of the track, and even against the “pump up the volume”.

It would be wrong to overstate the disjunction afforded here by either the sample passage, or the subsequent Rakim sample, for the track continues to work rhythmically and musically through these passages. Part of what the track is doing is maximising its rhythmic pleasure, so that the listener, as a dancer, is not locked into a single monolithic rhythm. The irruptions work as a kind of pressure valve in the rhythm, hooking the dancer further into the rhythm, and then allowing some form of reprieve (in the Rakim sample), and then providing an easier return to a smoother rhythm with a return to the electronic sounds from 1:59. However, this rhythmic effect cannot be achieved without the sense that the various sounds and spaces represent intersections with larger existences, so that there is a rhythm in the interplay between them, and in the movement from one to the other.

In fact, by the second and third sample passages, there is a kind of normalisation of the passages in the overall trajectory of the track: the tambourine that has been consistently keeping rhythm in the track (except for the first sample passage) continues under the second passage, along with what seems to be an electronic hi-hat and kick drum (though the kick drum changes quality under the passage, and may well be part of the samples used in this passage), and consequently the fundamental rhythm does not change. Some of the elements in this passage are also given similar positions in the space to those which immediately preceded them: so the “brushed hi-hat” sound that has been placed reasonably far left and right is replaced by the steel drums in the same position (the steel drums also in their staccato metallic quality seem to substitute for the scratches which have appeared at 2:26, 2:28 and 2:31), and the iconic bass of the track is replaced by a bass synth centre in the space (though the synth is slightly higher spatially and tonally). However, this normalisation also has an odd shifting quality within it: it is as if we have opened a door into a new space that is still somehow the same space as before, with a whole new cast of characters that somehow know how to fit into place immediately we open the door. There is a kind of organic energy in this space, because some of the new elements seem also to be held away from us, all the while that they fit in with the overall rhythmic architecture: so the steel drums for instance, though they maintain the consistent rhythm of the piece, and though they even take over the spatial position of elements we already know, and though this position is actually quite close to the speaker, there is also a sense that they are somehow not right where they are supposed to be – they seem to be somewhere else even while they are here with us. This is carried through to the third sample passage, where toms immediately replace the position of the steel drums; this in itself seems to keep the security of this position at bay; but the wrapped-up quality of the sound of the toms, allied with their position (which being so far right and left seems to be almost under the ear), seem to make the sound of each beat disappear before we can really grasp it. In a sense, the second and third passages are at one level brought forward to us as more readily graspable within the logic of the song; but then their various elements seem to be playing to us from somewhere else, from another performative context, so that we don’t seem to have access to the full context or logic for their performance. This shift within the normalisation is also manifest through the way these sample passages are presented to us. Unlike the first sample passage, it appears the second and third are much more thoroughly assembled from different elements: it does not seem that a single piece of music has been sampled (as appears to be the case with the first passage). So with the second passage, the vocal sample seems to have nothing to do with the steel drums; and the various other percussive elements not only don’t seem to have anything to do with the vocal and the steel drums, but also may or may not be sampled themselves (e.g. the bass synth). Similarly in the third passage, where the middle eastern vocal, the drums, the vocal chant and the closing indefinable screech in the left speaker seem to be totally disconnected. So while we have a passage that is carefully musically constructed to be rhythmically affecting, its elements all seem to stand at some distance from us in an imaginative and spatial sense. If we have “landed” in these passages, then perhaps now these various elements are like faces or tableaux in a crowd which appear for a time alongside us then disappear.

This brings us to a larger question which remains from all of this, a question which relates to this track’s position within Western recorded popular music from this period on. Why does this track, and dance music in general, take to sampling, and more generally take to a sense of intersecting spaces, so extensively? A large part of the explanation lies in the fact that the dance space (as opposed to the more familiar listening space of a domestic room) liberates us from having to imagine a place for us in which we are listening to the song: as dancers we are already physically liberated into the dance – by dancing, we are physically realised anew in a new space, and are fully physical in the space. The space does not need, therefore, to be an imaginative re-creation of a physical space. What a track like “Pump Up The Volume” seems to do is re-create imaginary worlds in which our intensively physical experience can re-create itself: we are released into these new worlds on the dance floor. This obviously has a connection with the drug states which are induced in the dancing environment, but a track like “Pump Up The Volume” shows that positing a putative drug space (for instance, the spaces of dub reggae, or the dance music spaces influenced by this genre as found in Usura’s “Open Your Mind”) is not the only way to re-create the space in which we find ourselves. “Pump Up The Volume” represents an engaged way of re-creating the space: as noted, the various sonic elements take up position in respect to us so that they become, for us, like brief intersections with other experiences or memories; as a result, we are constantly put in the position of having to renew our relationship with these elements. However, “Pump Up The Volume” takes this further by rhythmically playing these intersections through the space and along our experience of the track: not merely in a chronological sense (one intersection follows or responds to another, as with the piano/sample couplet), but in a synchronic sense with us as participants in the space. In effect, under this regime, we are one of the rhythmic elements of the space, so that our response to the space, to its elements, and to the rhythm, forms part of the rhythm of the space. In crude terms, the playing of these elements heighten our desire to keep dancing, to find new ways to physically engage with the rhythm. For this reason, the smacking of the sampled passages in the space across the other elements is like a challenge to us as participants in the space: we are made to stand and fall by how we can respond to these elements, and thereby take part in the space. It is the intersection of spaces taken to an extreme: we are asked to physically re-engage in our own (dance) space by physically engaging with the new abstract “world” glanced at us in the form of the sampled passage.
[1] The edit of this track studied in this essay is the version found on Pump Up The Volume: Classic Club Sounds From The Late 80s and Early 90s, Universal Music TV, 2001.
[2] Peter Thomas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Thomas_%28television_narrator%29)
[3] An easy way to appreciate this differentiation – between a “stepped-back” sense of sampled sounds, vs a multiplicity of intersecting experienced sampled sounds - is by listening to two different works by the same artist. A good example of where this occurs is in two Cabaret Voltaire albums – 1980’s The Voice of America (stepped-back sounds), and 1985’s The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord (multiplicity of intersecting experienced sounds).
[4] If the bass were sampled, this would only complicate our perception of it further, because its salience in the space gives it a distinct musical presence, sampled or not; so that, though sampled, it would appear to us primarily as musical and recorded (a here-and-now presence, rather than a referred one); and then, on reflection, or on further understanding, with us realising it was sampled, it would then take on a deferred (quoted) quality.

1 comment:

Tolla said...

People should read this.