Bass Poverty & the Politics of Frequency: Kode9 on Treble Culture

photo by jake walters, via the wire

As the treble/bass culcha conversation continues here and there, we keep coming around to the words & work of Kode9 / Steve Goodman. It became increasingly clear, esp as we wait for his book to come out (yo MIT Press, get at a Fellow!), that I should ask him if he’d answer a few building questions, as artist and/or theorist, producer and/or scholar. He was nice enough to shoot back “some quick thoughts.” They appear below, with my questions in boldface. If anyone else has opinions to offer, I am — as they say — all ears. (Thx also to Derek Walmsley for his questions, referred to below, that have spurred my own — and for, presumably, letting me run that great photo above.)

* Listening to music via mobile devices appears increasingly common, and has been an aspect of street/public culture especially remarked on in the UK/London. Don Letts recently told the Guardian that, “It’s disturbing when I see kids on buses, listening to music on their phones, and it’s just going: tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, with no bass. Bass culture is Jamaica’s gift to the world and technology is, kind of, ruining that. Bass is sexy. Women respond to bass.” Knowing something of your own interest in bass, both as a scholar and as a producer/DJ/labelhead, I’m very curious about your take on this phenomenon and its phenomenological implications.

Well while I can definitely relate to where Don Letts is coming from, thats not my point of view regarding mobile devices. While I share a concern with the bass poverty of new media and clubs etc., the fact is that music has never been more ubiquitous, coming through so many different technical channels. Clearly there is a politics of frequency going on when these technical devices are designed, just like there is “expert decision” making going on behind the supposedly psycho-acoustic criteria involved in perceptual coding of mp3s that favours certain average frequencies over others. There is a politics of frequency that permeates the whole technical ecology of sound recording, storage and playback devices. And I’m the first person to complain about crap sub bass response on your average club sound system. But I think something much more interesting is going on with kids using the mobile phone speakers as mobile sound systems. The potentials of young people carrying sound reproduction (and increasingly production) devices around with them at all times I think is more significant than the fact that they are trebly. . .the becoming trebly of mobile culture is perhaps part of the cost of sounds ubiquity – bass is heavy – i.e. its not so portable. I think that sonic culture is in transition right now, and this kind of ubiquity is going somewhere quite unpredictable and i don’t think you get half of that picture by just complaining about lack of bass, as much as I do generally complain about that.

* If bass (pressure) is, in some basic sense, about mobilization, about moving masses/massives, does something fundamental about this socio-cultural circuitry get lost when frequencies drop off? Or does perhaps the representation of bass (in higher frequency ranges) or the imagination of bass (on the part of listeners) serve to compensate?

At least in the club setting, what gets lost is a certain sensual relation between the dancer and their body, the sense of the materiality of their bodies, that they are just another vibrating object in the room. What I think is conceptually powerful about bass culture is that it reminds the arrogant human race that they are really mostly composed of non-organic matter, are not self-enclosed individuals but permeable membranes through which forcefields can pass and interfere with your insides. I think there is a extent to which bass culture educates dancers about their bodies, literally vibrating parts they didnt know they had.

The thing is, the mobile phone sound system – what are its precursors – transistor radios on buses? ghetto blasters? well not really I don’t think – there is something new about the mobile phone sound system which maybe has not fully materialized yet. . .i.e. that it is potentially a production and a reproduction devices, as well as a transmitter – like a junior pirate radio micro-transmitter. So my problem is not with tinny playback devices in situations where there traditionally there was never much bass playback. . .my problem is more with the squeezing out of bass in music performance venues/clubs/festivals etc. Now obviously there is a feedback from a youth culture used to hearing their music as purely in the mid-range of frequencies, and you can hear that e.g. in the brittle production of grime, but thats still a very bass heavy music.

* With regard to “bass you can hear” (as you said to Derek Walmsley, since subbass is, as you put it, “not even a sonic thing”) have you yourself tailored, or are you aware of other producers tailoring, tracks knowing that they might often be listened to sans bass? Is the “fuck off” riff-based craze, “across different dance music genres,” an inherent/inevitable product of treble culture?

I’d say its got some relation to mid-culture and the way riffs resonate with alchohol, drugs, your average club sound system, and radio compression

* If, as you note, “you can’t underestimate the impact having to play on shit sound systems has on a music culture, and it’s aesthetic decisions, and what it feels it needs to do to translate into as many environments as possible…” — how do producers reckon with the commonplace that their tracks may be largely listened to on mobile phones and tinny laptops, never mind “shit sound systems”?

Well I think tracks get EQd and mastered with this in mind, to make the tracks brighter than you might think is necessary or comfortable to listen to in the studio.

* Is bass (increasingly) a luxury?

Certainly in the club world. Even when commercical clubs buy in Function 1 sound systems, they are usually not tuned up properly so you are not feeling anything under 70 Hz.