Friday, August 20, 2010

Describing Slowing Down

It's been fun to watch the blog world try to put a finger on why Justin Bieber's hit song "U Smile" sounds so great when you slow it down by 800%:

(You can hear the original here; the slowdown was achieved by a 20 year old Floridian feeding the track through a free program called "Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch.")

Daniel over at Renewable Music put a precise finger on the situation, comparing it to La Monte Young's attempts to get "inside" the sound. That's what I had been thinking as well. It also reminds me a bit of Steve Reich, especially Different Trains. At any rate, as he and some of his commenters point out, the slowed-down Bieber makes use of techniques--and a mode of listening-- that have been part of experimental and electronic music for ages, and it's nice to hear so many people get into it.

However, when you spend a lot of time with interesting new music, one of the challenges is trying to describe the bizarre sounds being achieved. With canonical classical music one always recourse to technical vocabulary if needed, and there is certainly a lot of new music criticism that just holds still with a technical description of how the sounds are achieved, e.g., "This is the sound of Justin Bieber slowed down 800%" My first class in college was a survey of experimental music taught by the illustrious Alvin Lucier, and he repeatedly drilled into us that we should just describe the sounds we heard without recourse to metaphors or fancy-schmancy romantic adjectives.

But at some point it's nice to move beyond that level of description. And it becomes particularly amusing, and interesting, when it's not your typical new music critics doing so, but random pop culture bloggers out there trying to wrap their ears around a new sound:

"the climactic score to some kind of historical epic...It sounds like the ocean, but, like, in heaven." [Gawker]

"a monstrous but peace-loving ocean's surf as some all-encompassing ethereal chant hums in the language of the whales. Into your brain." [SF Gate]

"something that might be tacked onto the end of a Sigur Ros album or be on one of Enya's more experimental forays into noise." [MTV]

"like standing on the edge of some majestic cliff in the wilds of Ireland feels." [mashable]

"like the ambient soundtrack to an edgy indie film set either in outer space or underwater and helmed by a director who's high on magic mushrooms." [cnet]

"giving him sort of celestial-choirboy quality, while the music becomes almost ludicrously majestic and beautiful." [npr]

As our students all learn on Day 1, describing music is hard!


rrb said...

Thanks for bringing all of this to my attention, Phil. I'd encountered neither the original nor the slowed down version of this song.

I think that, given the meme-ness of this track, it (or using the software to slow-down any other song of your choice) could become a great teaching tool to get at this very issue of technical vs. adjectival description.

Random thought: It's too bad Bieber didn't have his own slow-down machine the other day when he got hit in the head with a water bottle...

Kyle L said...

Cool post!

I'm reminded of Pauline Oliveros... specifically her "Deep Listening" album. Her use of long tones in a cistern is somewhat similar to the otherworldly quality of the stretched "U smile." Here's a link to a streaming track:

Hans Goldbach said...

Wow! Never thought I would ever say that I actually like listening to Justin Bieber, but this is pretty cool!!!!!