Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Studies in the Physicality of Recorded Sound

1 – Rick Wakeman’s “Statue of Justice”

Rick Wakeman’s “Statue of Justice” operates as a series of continually modulating physical presences and changes, like sonic pressure waves, in the listening space. It is constructed so that our listening pleasure derives from the various physical qualities and contrasts of the sounds in the space. It feels good because of the way it twists the sounds within the space.

The track starts with a clean, glistening piano sound, a fully pleasurable catchy sound. The piano at first sounds fully normalised in the space – placed left and fairly close to front as the solo instrument, given the spotlight so to speak. It has a sharp glistening resonance that conveys some size to the space, but not so as to distance it from our experience – it makes the space feel like a mid-size concert hall, where we might expect to attend the performance of such playing. We are placed in a specifically performative relationship to it – high notes are quite left in the speaker, lower notes right but not all the way, so that in the imaginary space, the pianist is on the left hand side of the stage facing us, and we are watching him with the piano in between. The sound of the piano, its space, and our relationship to it, are also all privileged: the first two have a clean, liquid beauty to them, so that they are made to sound of a higher quality than sounds of our normal experience, and as a result we feel that we are in the presence of something special. This is congruent with the presentation of the space as being akin to a classical recital.

However, the piano seems to “trip” in the space. It is not that the piano moves, for its position within the space does not change, nor does the quality of its sound. The “trip” is a function of a couple of manoeuvres: firstly, when the first lower notes are knocked into the space, the piano seems to momentarily pull back or lose “balance” in the space, to soften for a moment. By losing balance, I mean that one half of the piano (the higher notes) is given a kind of credence and privilege in the space, whereas the other half seems to be pulled back from this, not being accorded the same privilege. This is also of course partly a function of the notes played and the way they are played, but it instantly and finely complicates the space, reducing its consistency. Secondly, the piano gradually becomes louder in the space, but in a couple of steps, rather than incrementally, so that with each swing of higher notes, the piano becomes louder. Meanwhile, the lower notes seem to remain softer both musically and sonically, so that there is a swing in the sound, rhythmically within the run of higher notes, between the louder higher notes and softer lower notes, and between the separate runs of higher notes.

The effect is not to disfigure the space or to intellectually dismantle the performative construct; it is to highlight its texture and complexity, to ready us for the “pressure waves”, so to speak, of the changes which can be effected in it. Another element contributing to this effect is the sound of the piano itself – though beautiful in its sheen, there is a faint brittleness to it, a quality of tremor in it, and a hardness to its attack (which may also be the way it is played or has been prepared, or the kind of piano that it is – as the piano progresses, the sound of the notes loses this hardness), that highlights its physicality and plasticity. We are given the lightest touch of the producer’s hand here. It is a wonderful gesture of simultaneous joy in the beauty of the sound, and in the variety and manipulability of that sound, and in the ability of the producer to effect that variation.

Instruments continue to swing into the space, enhancing the playfulness of the sound, as organ wells up behind the piano and the cymbals get brightly tapped in the right speaker, and with the lower notes of the piano finally being given a full workout in the space at 0:13. There is a controlled chaos to the sound, as if all elements of the ensemble and of the space are being mustered from disparate locations. But there is also a sense that the disparate elements are being run up against each other: the spread sibilant sound of the cymbals seems to brush against the piano, the organ seems to squeak out between the two different hands of the piano at 0:08, and even the lower notes of the piano seem to roll up and over the higher notes. This plastic feel to the manifestation of the sound in the space is enhanced by the fact that the arrival of the lower notes seem to ground the space, but in a somewhat disconcerting way: they seem to cement the space as a neutral classical one, somewhat removed from us, refined and aloof, whereas otherwise the space has seemed bright, sparkling and alive. There is a key contrast here that supports this effect of neutrality to the sound: the other instruments and the higher piano notes so far have had an almost scratchy feel on the ear, they seem to almost scrape on our hearing, giving a physical edge to their sound, whereas the lower piano notes move away from this, into a more traditional imaginary space, and off our ear. This gives the effect of rocking the space backwards, not just (metaphorically) spatially, but in an imaginatively projected sense, in that the space as an imaginative construct is moving away from us, thereby increasing the depth and size of the space in metaphorically physical terms, as well as in a referential sense – that is, the sound exists in more than just a metaphorically physical dimension, but in a dimension whose continuum goes from the physical here and now to a receded imaginary presence to which it refers.

This abstract characteristic of the space is not a main feature of this song, and it is not a feature I want to focus on here; but it is important to note that it is one more element in the plasticity of the song’s sound, as it is used gesturally in the song as a way of presenting the malleability of the sound, its way of bending in and out of our hearing, at one moment forward and present on us, and at another curving away and relieving the ear. This is how it works here, as the producer lifts the sound off the ear, thereby leaving the sense of the impact of the other and preceding sounds, and preparing it for the next onslaught of sounds. It is not that the lower notes afford a let-up to the on-the-ear presence of the other sounds, for they continue. However, the lower notes seem to draw the other sounds somewhat back with them, so that their tinkle seems to slide over the space, rather than snap out of it onto our ear. This is particularly evident with the mellotron, which arrives about 0:17: though it adds to the higher-toned sounds of the space, it is entirely spread, lacking any quality of plosion, and so does not leap out of the sound, and helps to cushion the impact of the other higher toned sounds. The sound does not deaden, but instead changes its effect: the space now has a smoother quality, and the higher pitched more physical sounds seem to tinkle out from this.

However, there is also a period of disfigurement here, starting about 0:26, as other sounds seem to drop away leaving the mellotron more clear, though it does not take up a particularly strong presence in the mix. There is a resultant dislocation, as it is not entirely clear where we have moved to spatially. The mellotron has a characteristically warm, obviously mellow sound, spread in the space, a more inherently emotional imaginary sound, which doesn’t quite sit with the firmly located piano. With the arrival of the mellotron, sounds seem to start pulling away from each other, leaving an emptiness in the middle of the space. This position is more or less taken up by the piano, but its recession into a more neutral location, and the way the lower notes roll it down and away from the listener, mean that it does not fill this part of the space. We are left with a consequent expectation that this part of the space should be filled, but this does not happen immediately. The organ and the cymbals continue to tinkle left and right (respectively), and then the harpsichord synth enters back, central and high, marking a kind of rearward boundary to the space, but leaving nothing in front of it. There is a kind of physicality-by-absence to the space as a result, because it engenders almost a bodily yearning for something to respond to.

However, the harpsichord synth does fold the space forward in one way: like the cymbals and the organ, it has a high physical scratchiness to it, which kind of teases the space onto our ears. It also has a physicality and a sharpness which sits over the top of the piano, and contrasts with it, and has a “travel” to it, in that it rolls above the space, over a broad range from right to left: it is not that the synth just has a breadth, but that it moves between the speakers. This breadth is picked up in the ensuing organ which replaces the synth, and there is a compressed production move, as the organ seems to travel like the synth across the speakers, but then solidifies, moves into the left speaker and sits there, with another high-pitched glockenspiel-like synth (and perhaps another piano) taking up position in the right speaker. All the while, the piano continues to play central, but seems to fade back in the space, if not in a spatial sense, in a musical sense and in loudness. The effect is to give the space a kind of pulsating presence, but without any defined rhythmic core to it: it is given a mass without a solid centre, fallen away from us as listeners, but with sounds continuing to frame the space within the construct of the production, within the speakers so to speak.

Then about 1:26 there is a subtle change in the piano: it returns to the high sharp notes of the introduction, but these are slightly pushed back and up in the space. The sharpness effects a further folding forward of the space towards the listener, but in not too immediate a fashion, for the piano retains the quality of sitting within a classical performance setting. However, it is a means of bridging the gap that has previously existed, between the recessed classical setting, and the tinkling of the other instruments, and of returning an element into the centre of the space. Note, however, that this return occurs with a consequent removal of other instruments in the mix: the space becomes for all intents and purposes entirely performative, the sharpness of the piano is modulated within an overall performative context, and it is as if, despite all the foregoing, we are just listening to a piano recital. The effect again is to create a physicality by absence, and also to foreground the sense of the space as being malleable and modular. This is then emphasised first by the sudden return of the harpsichord synth and the sustained cymbal wash in the right speaker, kind of lifting the corners of the space forward; and then by the renewed recession of the space with the reverb on the piano and the return of the mellotron and organ, which push the space completely back, behind and around the piano. The harpsichord synth is also made to tremble in the space at about 2:04, lifting the corners of the space back and up, and somewhat into our heads, assisted by the fact that its placement in the space and the mix gives it somewhat of a felt rather than a distinctly heard presence (though this is perceptual rather than acoustic). In wrapping round the piano, however, the sharpness of the organ also continues the physicality of the harpsichord synth and the cymbal wash, by bringing the edges of the space forward and just lightly onto the ear. The effect is that the space is sitting in the head, with the rearward position of the mellotron and the harpsichord synth and the position and space of the piano, but coming forward onto our ears with the right and left position of the organ and the tinkle of the harpsichord. That is, within itself (for the movement is only metaphoric), the space is moving from an internal, imaginary position (“recital hall” of the piano) into a pseudo body space or an alternative/altered state (the mellotron) and then forward slightly into a body space (on the ear, with the right and left organ).

There is then a resolution of all these spaces, initiated by a quick sharp run up the piano at 2:10, and then a bathetic gesture with the downward note of the farting synth at 2:13. The piano pulls the performance space back central and on the ear; the farting synth gives lower depth to the sound (without necessarily grounding it), reinforces the electronic nature of the space, and helps fill it out (the synth actually sits slightly above the listener, and back, despite the downward notes, which do not move in the space: the synth sits in position as it makes this sound). The farting synth has an odd effect, because it also seems to drop the space, as if a catch has been dropped, the piano representing the uplifted hands; but the relationship is a dynamic swinging one, like the opening of the song: the piano rises in fits up the scale, the synth drops the scale, and the piano picks it up again. In effect, the space gets shaped and filled with air: it moves forward towards us, giving it an imaginary cohering presence, it increases in vertical size, and the instruments start to take shape within it, given qualities that seem to interact with each other rather than against or tangential to each other. The interaction is effected by this sense of air around the instruments: it seems that the instruments are now playing within the same air, as the breeziness of the farting synth seems to be in the same space as the reverb on the piano.

Of course, all these 2+ minutes wrap up into a resolution of the space into a unified, present, forward entity, performative in a rock concert sense, at 2:15, with the simultaneous drum beat and the sustained pulse of the wasp synth. This is purely a rock moment, an assertion of the sounds in the space, pushing them into our bodies, the synth filling our heads up to the top of the inside of the cranium, and the drums grounding us through our feet. The entire space is virtually filled: there is a non-defined bassish kind of sound (this could be synth or bass guitar – certainly Chris Squire is credited with bass, but the sound is not distinct enough to determine its precise origin) at mid level central in the space, and there are various mid to high range synths (including the wasp synth) pushing the space sideways. As the wasp synth rises higher (and higher inside our heads, pushing its physicality onto us), the organ sustains its notes rear and high, leading to a kind of reflection in the rear of our skulls; and then the cymbals push this height to left and right corner. The sound here is pushing the extremities, and there is a note of daring here, of attempting to see both how far the sound can go in the space, and how physical and pleasantly excruciating the effect of the sound on us can be. The movement into this new space, however, is not just one of logical sequence: there is a sense here that the new space is folding the earlier one into itself, climbing on the back of it, and striking somewhere anew with a spring of realisation or epiphany. There is a twin kind of relief and renewal in this movement, a kind of sonic reprieve.

It is important to note that, firstly, the movement is double, both taking on an abstract dimension within the putative space (vis a vis the projected performative space), and a physical dimension in our bodies. Secondly, the movement is effected within a projected rock performative context: by impressing the performativeness of the projection onto the listener, its twin abstract and physical effects are also impressed on us. There is a point of junction in these projections: the wasp synth takes on a classic rock cliché by acting like a trumpet calling across the space, announcing its and the band’s arrival, filled with pathos. So this synth is increasing in height in a projected sense (within the projected performative space), in an emotional sense, and in a physical sense (within our bodies). Finally, sealing this, the drums take up their normal position in the space: cymbals right and left (not just right as before), bass drum centre, and perhaps (prior to 2:38 where they take up a key role in the piece) lightly tapped toms.

Nonetheless, and persisting through the piece, there remains just the slightest touch of a hollowness at the centre of this space. There never seems to be an instrument or sound that fully occupies the centre: as noted, the wasp synth, which would seem to occupy a quasi-vocal role, is distributed, right, left and high, and the central bass is non-defined, as if it is a murmur. In fact, there is a series of quick sonic movements for the wasp synth which further add to the hollowness: its initial arrival on the drum beat at 2:15 is forward, full, and spread across the speaker (it actually seems it is multitracked, so that its body is generated by having a high rear synth and a more forward right synth) as it declares itself and the new section, with an abstract size that seems to disembody it. As it increases up the scale, it is situated clearly right, so that it empties out a little and becomes localised. And then at 2:32 it gets multitracked again, this time taking up a position in the left speaker in addition to the current position in the right, so that it seems to nimbly skirt itself and yet still dominate the space.

This hollowness gives the track a coolness, but the result is not to alienate the music from the listener. Instead, the hollowness acts like a central ball of energy for the track, as it forms a kind of spring around which, or from which, the various physical effects of the song can move. Once the track moves into its full rock mode, there is never a point where the space around this ball is very great – the various sounds are generally only a breath away from this hollowness – but in so doing, it results in a sense that there is a kind of magnetic force both binding and just keeping apart the various elements of the track.

This is further exposed by the wasp synth at this section of the track, through the various qualities of its sound, and the way this modulates from 2:15 to 2:37, rather than just in its positioning in the space. Its first arrival gives it a body within the space which seems to soak the entire space up into it, a sonic version of transubstantiation. It does not do this in actuality of course: the space is “larger” than the synth. However, because the synth and the space can never be removed from each other – as long as the synth is there, it is of the space, and the space is partly of the synth – it has a fundamental effect on shaping that space. The space and all the other sounds are made to feel like they empty into the synth, and in so doing, it feels like we empty into it as well – it seems to have an emotionally and artistically transmuting capacity. But it is key to note that sense of “emptying into”, because the synth, as stated, is not the entire space: it seems to have an expansive role at 2:15, opening the space, filling it, but not filling it up. Into this space then other sounds rush in – the drums, the bass, the organ, the cymbals – but not only these, but the wasp synth itself, as it takes up a position in the right speaker. The synth is in a sense opening itself up to expose yet another manifestation of itself; or it is creating a space for itself to take on a new form. The synth in the right has a clear location in the space – it locates itself within a hall-sized space - but also has a physical presence, that familiar scratchiness on the ear, though by being given an imaginary location, this scratchiness now seems to be contained within another framework. Yet this imaginary location is also slightly dissatisfying, both because there is a faint sense of incongruity in giving an electronic sound such an identifiable location, in that electronic sounds are artificial and don’t seem naturally to have a “real world” identity; and also because there is a sense of other earlier Wakeman works in this location, and therefore a kind of referentiality[1] that seems slightly out of place and unnecessary or redundant in a work that seems to work so unreferentially (despite its title and presence on a concept album). Furthermore, the position of the synth is contained in the soundspace – it is right in the speaker, so that it loses physical body, compounding the sense of recession from the listener’s physical experience into an imaginary one. Interestingly enough, the referentiality of the synth paradoxically adds a slight and new dimensionality to its sound, by slightly sliding it off onto a plane that comprises a series of heard (imaginary) environments, rather than acoustic ones. This both deepens the dimensionality of the synth, but also lessens it, as it consequently slightly removes it from us as listeners in the here and now.

As a result of all this, the synth doesn’t seem to have one fixed quality: its movement into the right speaker, and into a projected space, seems to fold it back from us in a way, so that though it is still sharp on the ear, its sharpness is contained. This re-positioning of the synth results in the synth dancing around itself so to speak; but not only that, it dances around us, and around both our physical and imaginary relationship with it.

Of course, this is not the final move here. Following its movement into the right speaker, it then multitracks into the left speaker at 2:32, so that there are two distinct simultaneous wasp synths. The synth therefore doubles in size, but not only that, it moves forward again in our hearing, out of the performative setting imagined for it in the right speaker. We lose a predominant sense of the concert hall, though there is still a note of it: instead, the synth takes on a body of its own within the soundspace, with a distinct glistening but massive clarity and lyrical quality, so that its physicality is folded or pressed forward to us again. It once again expands inside our heads and expands our emotional response as it reaches joyously higher. In this expansion, it once again, as at 2:15, seems to soak up the space and soak up its manifestation in the right speaker: it’s only on close re-listening that we realise that in fact it still exists as a distinct entity in the right, and is now also a distinct entity in the left. There is a sense that it is absorbing itself and the other sounds into a new height of joy. However, as before, there is a hollowness here: the wasp synth is panned left and right, and there is something just missing in the centre – despite its qualities, it does not take up a clear central vocalic position in the mix. So, from 2:15 to 2:37, the wasp synth manoeuvres itself in a number of ways around this hollow core. First, it never takes up a single consistent position in the space. Second, it never takes up a single consistent quality of sound in the space. Third, it never takes up a distinct central position in the space. Fourth, it never takes up a single consistent imaginary location (and in fact, at one point has a touch of deferring to a pre-established imaginary location, rather than even one inherent to this recording). Added to this, there is the sense of a varying physicality, of it folding back and forth in our bodies, and reaching in various degrees of proximity to our ears. And finally, there is a sense of the quality of its sound folding up preceding or surrounding sounds at 2:15 and 2:32.

The energy generated by this hollowness is also demonstrated in the first major change within the full rock mode, when the organ re-enters the space (2:37). It seems that, as it arrives, the organ is moving out from within the overall mass of the track, but there is also a sense that it is skirting something, that it is not quite hitting the mark. Part of this lies in the fact that the organ does not quite dominate the central position – it is a bit back, a bit right and left, with something in front of it just missing. Part of this lies in the fact that it is quoting a classical composition, so is not quite of the track in a rock sense. Part of this also lies in the fact that, like the arrival of the full rock mode itself, it feels like the organ is replacing something, or acting as a reprieve for something, but there is nothing that it is clearly replacing: it is coming into the space anew and in itself. Part of this lies in the fact that there is a note in the quality of the sound of the organ of being quoted as a “classical” instrument, as if it does not quite exist in the here and now of the recording. And finally, part of this lies in the fact that the very sound of the organ seems to act to transmute the space, or the sounds in the space: it is a thick, chunky sound, which is not consistent with the other sounds, with a slight drag to it, so it has an element of absorbing the other sounds into it; yet it cannot fully absorb them, because they are largely so bright and present in the space.

The other element at this point which exposes the hollowness is the sound of the drums. The drums from this point have a totally idiosyncratic, unique, individual sound. My main interest here is in a particular sound which is generated on the toms, but it is not always there: it occurs first in the song here at 2:38. This particular sound is at the same time beautiful, irritating, excruciatingly pleasurable and complex. On the one hand, the sound is dense, tight, and flat on the speaker. There is no mistaking the drums’ presence – they fall into the space with clarity and precision. But there is also a paradoxical hollowness to the drums, a space within them, and a soft spread as well. With the hollowness, there is a subtle clarity and note of something that seems like reverb, so that they have a declarative size, a kind of rock performative punch, as well as a lyrical almost liquid beauty, like a drop of mercury. The spread, overlaid on the dense core, at times also gives a temporal containment of the sound, a feel where, a fraction of a second after the drum has been hit, we realise that it is now past (for instance, the beats at 3:26 to 3:28, and through the passage commencing 4:09). This containment, allied with the closeness of the sound on the mike and its precision, gives the sound the edge of being just a bit too “pat”, making an assumption for itself that is a little too easy and self-contained, and not wishing to engage with the rest of the space. And within all this, there is a quality of the pure sound of the drums as well, a character which feels somewhat woody and grainy, but also flat and hard. As a result, these drums seem to be orbiting themselves, hitting at something but also rounding themselves out so that the mark is both hit and also not quite hit. They have an authority or fixity, but also a volatility, a kind of fissile nuclear certainty.

Consequently, the drums, within the dynamics of the space, act in a similar way with respect to the space and the other instruments, as they do within themselves. So, unusually for drums, while grounding the space, they also give it a volatility and springiness, lifting it up at the same time that they solidify it. They knock at our ears while hitting a rhythm in our innards. Like the overall sound schema, there is not a point where the drums can be heard to comprehensively sit immobile in the space: they are constantly negotiating it and moving to points within it. This reflects the playing of Alan White, who is restless across the drumkit, moving between the various toms, cymbals, high hats and the bass drum, often brushing the cymbals up into the upper corners of the space. He also has a fluid, funky style, both precise and discursive, able to work across and with the rhythm at the same time. The drumkit’s sound therefore is inseparable from the playing: it constructs a net of sonic movements within the space, operating like a web or a skeleton extended along which the soundspace operates, moving at the joints with the soundspace, and effecting a consequent response in the soundspace.

There is a beautiful moment where this is demonstrated, from 4:09, where Wakeman bursts into a virtuosic flourish as he plays along the keyboard. Yet White’s drums are decidedly tight and dense, and the temporal containment of their sound seems to pull back at each beat away from Wakeman’s histrionics, as if we haven’t quite heard something, or haven’t quite heard it right; yet at the same time, the drums are giving the synth a rhythmic kick along, a bathetic kick in the pants. It results in a stretchiness to the sound (not just in the rhythm), where the two main elements, synth and drums, are both drawing away from each other, and driving each other forward, like muscles and ligaments tightening to move joints. This is made musically explicit at 4:19 where both White and Wakeman chase each other, interweaving through each other, with Wakeman’s pulsing synth taking over White’s role and drawing back from the drums, with White ranging over the drum kit, but with Wakeman, in so doing, never opting out of a rapid forward-moving display of his flexibility on the keyboard.

In fact, the whole piece from 2:37 on is constructed as a kind of sonic dance between the two instruments, manoeuvring around each other over and over, but never quite touching, occasionally locking in step, but then free-wheeling again. This is another way in which the absence at the centre of the piece constantly drives the piece forward, and is one of the reasons that the drumkit is given such a complex and textural sound. The “pat” sound of the drums described above is a way of constantly trying to rob the dominance and pervasiveness of the synths: it acts like a series of rocks in the stream, constantly interrupting the flow, but also sending out new ripples of its own. In this way, it is constantly negotiating the physicality of the sound of the synths, pulling it back from filling the head, sucking it into the innards. A great example of this is the passage from 2:47. Here the wasp synth is doing what it does best, filling the head with its clear, beautiful sound, constantly warping the space, having lost almost all sense of itself as a performed instrument. Even the tinkle of the space around it acts as a kind of psychedelic sheen over its sound, rather than as a locating device: it lifts the synth up to an abstract, almost celestial space, or acts to dislocate the space. This is something that Wakeman is a complete master of: using a defined, clear synth, or even a piano, to twist the space, bending it out of its frame without bending the frame itself (compare, for instance, what is possibly the same synth in the middle of “Jane Seymour” off The Six Wives of Henry VIII), in contrast to the ambient practices of contemporaneous artists like Tangerine Dream and Rick Wright (who used thick, space-filling/space re-shaping synths for the same purpose). The pulse of the wasp synth into the head here is assisted by the mid-range throb of what seems to be the bass, centre in the space, and ranging from a vertically central to a somewhat lower position, as a kind of sonic reverb to the synth.

Yet the drumkit here, especially the “pat” toms, are slicing into this space, pulling it into the gut at the same time that it is stretching ever higher with the synth, punching the sound into the head. Due to the overwhelming nature of the synth, there is a quality of the drums of being hidden behind a thin veil, through which the drums punch. This is played musically structurally by movement between the bass drum and the tom: the tom hits the notes under the synth, bringing the drum forward, but at points drops out, replaced by the bass drum. This effects a quick, sudden, but kind of after-the-fact withdrawal from the head, dropping the beat onto the bass drum. The bass guitar plays a key role here too, acting viscerally as a kind of thickening element, pulling the synth backward. Of course, in doing this, these two elements, despite their more earthy feel, are also warping the space, both because it is impossible in a logical “real” world sense for these disparate elements to represent a real space (thereby making the space more unreal), and because in a physical acoustic sense they are stretching its dimensions. What complicates this even further is that the spread cymbals, panned left and right, push the space out either side. However, rather than making the space more massive and heavy in that way, either adding to the weight of the synth, or given a crispness that might add to the pull of the toms, the cymbals are given a sibilance, and are not fully exploded in the space, so that they seem to brush at the edge of the space.

The intense physicality of this section is then relieved at 2:58 with a more normalised discursive section to 3:18: instruments take up positions in the space that are more consistent with a performative space: drums and bass stable and central, cymbals spread right and left, organ slightly left of centre and taking up a quasi lead vocal position, bass a relatively undefined thread low and back. It is as if the pressure wave has inverted again, but it would not be correct to assume that the track thereby loses its physicality. The effect is of relief but not of dissipation: the bass, for instance, has a kind of just-in-the-cranium feel to it, as if its fingers are just holding on to us; and the organ maintains the sharp on the ear feel, though it is somewhat recessed. There is a sponginess to the space relative to the surrounding passages: there is a sense that the space has become a bit more dense, less hard on us physically, but still with a physical weight to it that seems to lean rather than push hard on us. Furthermore, as the sponginess metaphor suggests, the song’s hollowness is maintained: in the drumkit, for instance, there is a sense that it is touching the sides of the space but not coalescing inside it - the cymbals are once again moving out to the edge of the space from a somewhat inner position right and left, and the toms have an odd referred quality, not quite “here”, as if they are behind something in the space.

At 3:18, the space changes again, fracturing kaleidoscopically as the sounds scatter through the space, with various percussion instruments and elements of the drumkit sounding off at different points in the space, and the bass guitar pulsing apparently randomly both musically and spatially (it’s never quite clear whether the bass is central or right at this point). The drumkit also has a sense of restless motion here, repeatedly coming from a right receded position to fully front on the deeper toms and bass in the left, with its sound consequently varying in great detail: for instance, there is a tight quick roll on the toms at 3:22 which gives a quick touch of graininess in the midst of this clatter. In a way, by being temporally in the middle of the song, this also becomes the manifestation of the song’s hollow core, in that any pretence to move to a certainty of space or sound is here broken up: the effect is of the instruments sliding through the space and over each other, never coalescing at any single point. It’s like just as the microscope’s focus has enough resolution to get to the core of matter, it only exposes a whirling mass of neutrons and electrons. What could be seen as a resolution at 3:28 (a return to the musical passage of 2:37) is in fact no resolution: it comes across as a kind of forgetting or ignoring of the preceding 10 seconds, as if it hadn’t happened, as there is no single distinct structural element cohering the two passages. In so doing, the “resolution” merely confirms the lack of solidity at the centre of the track.

For the remainder of the track, it ranges restlessly back and forth between these different sorts of passages. It can’t be said, however, that the song is ever searching for something in doing this: there is never a sense that the track feels a sense of its own lack, that its hollowness is a void that needs permanent filling, some identifiable stable centre. Though it’s true that the track is always looking to find new ways to fill that hollowness, it is that sense of always looking, and enjoying that process, that characterises the track. In fact, as a kind of reinforcement of this, the fade-out of the track at 5:48 returns to the kaleidoscopic passage of 3:18, this time featuring the bass more prominently, as a kind of self-contained substitute for the wasp synth of the earlier passage, as if it is erasing the wasp synth. The bass also has a transformative quality that has similarities to the synth in the passage of 2:47: it fills the head with an interior quality, as if it is expanding in the cranium. But the bass here is also somewhat disfiguring, rather than having the rapturous quality of the synth, largely due to its lack of spread or sustain: it drops into the space, expands, and then contracts, on each note, rather than moving to fill the space. In fact, there is a note of subtracting something from the space in these notes: each note seems to suck something away, though this is only temporary with each note, as the arrival of each note also drops something back in the space. Metaphorically it has the quality of shoes stepping in mud, so that in lifting the shoe from the mud, there is a sucking of air away, but in that same moment, the mud returns to fill the space. There is a paradox here, because the bass takes up a clearly central, vocalic position, the only time this occurs for any instrument in the track; yet the bass also has a quality of not quite sitting with the other sounds in the space: once again, there is a sense of some kind of gap here, this time between the bass and the other instruments and the rest of the space. A hollowness follows the bass here, and sits between it and the other instruments, which have a quality of slipping around behind it. In a way, the bass is summing up the way the track works overall, because it is drawing its sound forward onto us, foregrounding its own and the space’s physicality, while also leaving something behind, not quite drawing the rest of the space and the other sounds with it. Furthermore, while in itself it bends the space, it also bends the space around it, leaving a sense of the malleability of the space, so that it pulses on and off our ears in this closing passage of the song, with the other instruments behind it refracting the space and tinkling at our ears. In this closing, we are left with a sense of the track losing referentiality, logic or destination; and yet there is also a sense that it is still moving on. We are left in a space of negotiated physicality, with the sound pressing onto us at various points in the space and retreating again, pressing into our heads and also into our guts, and always with a sense that there is still something remaining which is yet to arrive.

[1] By this I mean that the sound of the wasp synth recalls Wakeman’s earlier, more commercial work, on Journey To The Centre of the Earth, and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, especially as this type of synth was at the time well associated with Wakeman. These works are clearly conceptual and referential; the way they function musically is to convey a story, and the synth is subject to that purpose, rather than being exploited primarily to convey its own presence and qualities. The production of both those albums is also clearly figured around an imaginary performative space (explicit in Journey To The Centre of the Earth as it is a live recording). So there is a referentiality bubbling under this synth here, in referring to the earlier albums, in indirectly referring to a referential form of musical performance, and in referring to an already-established performative space.

"Statue of Justice", "Jane Seymoure" available at iTunes store
The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Journey To The Centre of the Earth; The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; Rick Wakeman's Criminal Record available at

"Statue of Justice" may be heard here:
I provide this link purely for the purposes of reference. If the copyright holder wishes, I am happy to remove the link.

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