Friday, July 2, 2010

Walls of Sound

Whenever the subject of separating the art from the artist comes up, the first name that's ever mentioned is Roman Polanski. After that it's Michael Jackson. But the third person who's always mentioned whenever the subject of separating the art from the artist comes up is Phil Spector.

There's a new documentary out, called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector based on interview footage of Spector taken during his murder trial, that's trying to further the notion that Spector may be a psycho killer but, dammit he's a genius.

Back in '06 shitty British gimmick band The Pipettes took third-wave "feminism" to its logical extreme when they claimed that Phil Spector was a champion of women's liberation (well he did liberate Lana Clarkson from the burden of existence).

There's one crucial difference, however, between Spector and Polanski or Jackson. Namely, Polanski and Jackson actually made art.

What did Phil Spector actually accomplish? Well, you know, he produced all those shitty teeny-bopper girl groups in the early '60s that all sounded the same. Oh, and he did the "Bum ba!" part in "The Long and Winding Road". Oh yeah and he ruined Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies' Man. And then there was the whole "wall of sound" thing.

To hear Spector's apologists, you would think Phil Spector invented the concept of having a whole bunch of instruments playing at the same time. Really, he just invented a very specific recording technique of recording a whole bunch of instruments playing in unison onto a single track. This meant that his girl group drones would sound somewhat fuller when played on jukebox speakers or AM radio. And he did the same thing on ever single track he produced, whether was suited to that thing (John Lennon's "Instant Karma") or not (see Leonard Cohen comment). And most of the actual work on that was done by Larry Levine, not Phil Spector.

He didn't even invent the phrase "Wall of Sound". The term was first used in the 1950s to describe Stan Kenton's big band Jazz ensembles.

But, now whenever any artist tries to use a whole bunch of instruments together, it's always assumed that they were being influenced by Phil Spector. The Cocteau Twins, Arcade Fire and Olla Vogala have to live in the Shadow of Phil Spector despite the fact that they in no way resemble his music beyond the whole-lot-of-instruments aspect.

With that in mind, I feel it's necessary to look at some of the walls of sound that preceded Phil Spector, in order to rescue the concept from the tyranny "Da Doo Ron Ron".

The wall of sound has been around almost as long as music. It was common in war to have the soldiers play various horns and trumpets to distract the enemy (no vuvuzela jokes, please). This was partly the inspiration for the myth of Joshua and the battle of Jericho where the Jewish army marched around the city playing shofars which God heard and knocked down the walls making the way for some good old fashioned genocide.

Of course, all that ancient music is lost and most early written music was smaller scale, because of the limits of printing. However one composer, Thomas Tallis, wrote a 40-part motet called "Spem in Alium around 1570. It's not very loud, but it does have a full, dense sound.

This piece was intended to one-up the Venetian school which was popular at the time, and was known for poly-choral works, in which different chorus's would sing in different parts of a church, giving a surround sound effect. In "Spem in Alium" there are eight choirs with five singers each. It should be noted that Phil Spector is a noted proponent of the "back to mono" movement that's opposed to both stereo and surround sound, so the first written "wall of sound" is diametrically opposed to Phil Spector's principles.

As far as instrumental music, outside of war trumpets, there wasn't a whole lot in the Renaissance for purely economic reasons. But by the early 19th century they had gotten the ability to have big orchestras. And the first composer to take advantage of that was one Ludwig Van Beethoven. Inspired by the French Revolution, he wrote the Eroica Symphony in 1805, ushering in the romantic movement (but mid-composition he got a bit pissed off at Napoleon for the whole declaring-himself-emperor thing).

This was Beethoven's third symphony. Later Beethoven symphonies would have bigger orchestras and the ninth would also include a chorus. But the third symphony ushered in the modern orchestra, and had a big influence on classical music in general and the Austro-German school in particular. Although it used a large orchestra, the Eroica Symphony had a wide range of dynamics (unlike Phil Spector), using the full wall of sound in places that demanded it, rather than slapping it on arbitrarily.

If you are looking for genuinely over-the-top wall of sound excess, you should look to Hector Berlioz. In 1844 he conducted a performance of Beethoven's fifth symphony with an orchestra 1,022 performers. Including 36 double basses. Even Phil Spector at his most grotesque never went that far.

Berlioz was pretty much synonymous with "lack of subtlety". That's not to say he was always loud. The following piece, the Rákóczi March from his 1846 opera Le damnation de Faust has quite a dynamic range, going from absurdly quiet to absurdly loud in the blink of an eye. But the quiet parts are there mainly to make the loud parts sound even louder in comparison.

In his time, Berlioz was not particularly respected. Even now, he's often mocked for how grandiose his stuff is. But one composer who was strongly influenced by Berlioz is one Richard Wagner. Wagner is the main composer who comes up when people talk about Phil Spector. Wagner, was not only big, but epic. His four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen was an elaborate, complex story of Norse mythology where each character had their own leitmotif. It was also responsible for one of the greatest comedy routines of all time.

The following is the famous "Ride of the Valkyrie" from the second opera, 1870's Die Walküre.

Do you know who didn't write long, complicated epics? Phil Spector. Now to be clear, Meat Loaf had a lot of complicated epics that sounded like they were produced by Phil Spector, but they weren't actually produced by Phil Spector. Which is odd, because Meat Loaf is the single artist best suited to Spector's productions style.

It should also be noted that in 1884, Wagner redesigned the Nibelungen Theatre in Bayreuth, Germany, in such a way that the orchestra was not visible. In a New York Times article about the redesign it was mentioned that
"The mere sinking of the orchestra is, however, not the only innovation. Wagner leaves there, a space of eighteen feet wide, and extending the entire breadth of the stage (not merely of the proscenium) and extending up to the roof, perfectly free. He calls this the Mystic Space, because he intends that here the invisible 'wall of music,' proceeding from the invisible orchestra, shall separate the real (that is the audience) from the ideal (the stage pictures.) If we may so express ourselves, the audience will perceive the scenes through an invisible wall of sound."

Now, to be fair to Phil Spector, he wasn't a crazed anti-semite like Wagner. But to be fair to Wagner, he never shot anybody.

Of course, Wagner was a bit over-serious and pretentious. Sometimes all you want is light-hearted camp, you know, like Meat Loaf. Well, if you want wall-of-sound light-hearted camp that predates Phil Spector, there's always Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I mean, come on! He wrote the 1812 overture! You know, with the live church bells and cannons! That was written in 1880, before Phil Spector was even born! I mean, if you're talking about a wall of sound, I think live cannon fire would qualify.

After watching that video, you be surprised to learn that it's actually possible for a wall of sound to be, you know dignified. Well, after a century of development from Beethoven, the Austro-German school of classical music culminated in Gustav Mahler. He managed the difficult feat of being grandiose without coming off as pretentious (like Wagner) or campy (like Tchaikovsky)

His most famously large piece was his eighth symphony, known as the "Symphony of a Thousand". It requires over 100 performers. Now that Berlioz performance of Beethoven's fifth had way more than that, but it could have been performed on a smaller orchestra. But Mahler was trying to create a "new symphonic universe" with his eighth symphony. Consider the brass section. There are eighth horns, four trumpets, four trombones and a tuba on stage. In addition there are another four trumpets and three trombones playing off-stage.

In addition there are other instruments like harmonium, celesta and mandolin. And there are two separate SATB chorus's and a children's chorus. And eight solo voices. It's pretty big.

After Mahler, there came the more avant garde Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. These guys tended to be much sparser, especially Webern. However, outside of the Austro-German school was a new movement, called futurism.

Remember how the 1812 overture had live canon fire? Well, George Anthiel's "Ballet Mécanique" of 1924 had a jet engine as one of the instruments. Futurism was based on the celebration of modernity which, at that time, was really loud. This movement was especially popular in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, where they were inspired by the Russian Revolution. When Stalin came to power, the movement was crushed, resulting in the loss of many of the works.

One such lost work was Alexander Mosolov's ballet Steel from 1927, but one movement called "Iron Foundry", still survives, and it's all kinds of awesome.

Up until now, Phil Spector has been the only person mentioned whoever shot anybody. Alexander Mosolov is the first of two exceptions. During the Russian civil war he volunteered for the First Cavalry Regiment of the Red Army where he fought General Denikin's White Army troops. Denikin's army was absurdly anti-semitic and was responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Jews in pogroms in the Ukraine. In the grand scheme of things Mosolov shooting some genocidal maniacs during a civil war is not as bad as Phil Spector shooting a fashion model.

He wrote Steel as an ode to the Revolution, with "Iron Foundry" imitating the sounds of a factory, albeit entirely with orchestral instruments, unlike Anthiel. But as Stalin conducted his counter-revolution, the revolutionary music that arose in the 1920s was one of the main targets, as he promoted "socialist realism" (no relation to "social realism", which is pretty cool). In 1937, during Stalin's purges, he was sentenced to eight years in the Gulag. He was freed before the sentence was complete, due to complaints other composers, but it was sufficiently intimidating that he conformed to Stalinism after that.

Futurism was also popular in Italy, but most of them became Nazis, so fuck them. But the French-Swiss composer Arthur Honegger's was a well-known non-Nazi futurist composer in Western Europe.

If you're looking to contemporary French music for a wall of sound, however you should look to Olivier Messiaen. He had a lot of strange influences, from Indian Ragas, to Debussy-style impressionism, to birdsong, and often played them all at the same time. He was also a big pioneer of an electronic instrument called the Onde Martenot, known today as the weird electronic instrument Johnny Greenwood plays in Radiohead.

His biggest piece was 1948's Turangalîla Symphonie, which was so intensely futuristic-sounding, that a Futurama character was named after the piece.

Now that's a wall of sound!

Messiaen is an interesting composer in that his music is so undeniably awesome that he tends to be a big crowd-pleaser in performances, but also so rigidly avant garde and mathematical that the post-war modernists love him too. He's sort of a bridge between the old days when classical music was considered widely important and the days when it was considered the realm of a few avant garde types isolated from popular culture.

But the avant garde types isolated from popular culture aren't necessarily bad. One of Messiaen's students, Iannis Xenakis managed to perfect the "wall of sound" concept to its bear essence. He is the other non-Phil-Spector person I'm discussing who shot someone. In this case, he fought for the Greek resistance during World War II. Once again he can be forgiven for this because, he was fighting genocidal maniacs. He was also fighting British soldiers during the Greek civil war, when the US and UK decided that the Greek fascists were the good guys for some crazy reason (the Truman Doctrine).

Xenakis noticed that there was a distinct sound of gunfire, but you couldn't hear individual gun shots. He studied architecture and engineering before the war, and afterwards took to mathematics, focusing on probability and stochastic processes, and decided to adapt these ideas to music.

His music consists mostly of dense soundscapes based on various mathematical concepts, usually involving some sort of a stochastic process. The exact note a single instrument is playing at a particular time doesn't matter, because it's all about the mass of sound. But, unlike John Cage, he still insisted on rigidly writing down the notes to play, leaving the chance at a purely compositional level.

The piece that brought him to (relative) fame was 1955's "Metastasis", which is depicted visually at the top of this post.

And just a reminder, this piece was written before Phil Spector "invented" the wall of sound. All of the pieces were. Xenakis influenced a lot of other avant garde classical composers, like György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutosławski who had similar dense walls of sound, albeit not based on mathematics. Ligeti's music was based on the concept of "micropolyphony" which was an attempt to combine Xenakis's incredibly dense masses of sound with the sound of early music, making it sort of like Xenakis meets Tallis.

Also, as alien as "Metastasis" may sound, it has had some influence in popular culture. Most immediately obvious is the soundtrack to Lost. But it also influenced the really weird part of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life". And who produced "A Day in the Life"? Was it Phil Spector, mad "genius" and "inventor" of the wall of sound? Nope, it was George Martin.

Now I will concede that Phil Spector did produce some good songs. I mentioned "Instant Karma" and, a lot of John Lennon's solo stuff had good production. Some of the people who are directly influenced by him, like Brian Wilson and Jim Steinman did some good stuff too, in fact better than Spector himself. And "The Long and Winding Road" was cheesy, but still kind of endearing. But still, the guy's a one-trick pony, whose one trick had already been done several times before.

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