As has come before; many of these posts will be philosophical in nature. Some will be in contradiction to previous postings. These are not intended as truths or assertions, they’re merely thoughts…ideas. Think of this as stream of consciousness over a wide span…Please bare with us as we traverse the abstract canals of audio musings.
I’m currently at the Monterey Jazz Festival and have music on my mind. Since leaving music college (where I also made my initial discoveries into the world of sound), I’ve always said the best things I learn about sound come from music, and the best things I learn about music come from sound. I’m reminded of this today.
As “one of those ” composer-hyphen-sound designer types, I have a strong appreciation for how the two disciplines are both distinct and also similar. Growing up I played a handful of instruments including piano, violin, and like everyone else, the recorder. The instrument I played for the longest, since I was about three (when I cried myself offstage from my first public performance), was the drums. I took it pretty seriously, peaking when I was about twenty when I attended a music college in London studying nothing but drum performance for a year. I then attended a music college here in the states where I decided to focus my time elsewhere than performance, principally music composition and sound.
With some perspective now, I can see how my musical education, ear and tendencies have informed my approach to sound. Drums, while somewhat tonal, are very much a textual instrument, dealing with different sonic shapes, some round like a tom-tom, others more angular like a half-open high-hat sizzling. They cover the entire frequency spectrum from the kick of a 24″ bass drum, to the high detail within a ride cymbal bell strike.
I see a lot of similarities now between the way I would combine the various elements at my disposal when sat behind a kit, as I do now when I’m either layering and sculpting sound elements, or orchestrating melody and harmony for a broader ensemble.
There’s much to be shared and learned between the two disciplines, and I think the best place to look from a sound perspective is in the musical style I was least adept… Jazz.
Seeing some of the best musicians in the world performing this weekend, I’m struck most by their use of dynamics, alternative playing techniques and playfulness whether it’s using odd harmonic choices or a recognizable quotation (like a Wilhelm) to elicit a chuckle form the band and audience, or deceptive silence between phrases fooling the audience into believing the piece has ended before bursting back in mid-applause. Often a well-performed piece ends up feeling like some of the best mixes I’ve heard in a movie theater. Ebbing and flowing with beautiful contrast giving meaning and momentum to the soundtrack, going from near silence as the drummer places his sticks down mid-solo and reduces everything to a soft clap from his hands off-mic, to the entry of the whole ensemble, horns and rhythm section blazing (much like the “audio black hole” effect in Star wars Ep.II).
So if you’re a musician or work in sound, I encourage you to go see a Jazz gig, or go see a movie, and think about how the hands at work are playing with your ears as you do in your field.