Archive of posts tagged with "treble"

September 4th, 2014

Fresh Jamaican Catch-Up

What can I say? It’s been a chockfull summer. Mostly with farming and teaching, but also, I’m happy to note, with writing and talking about music as well. And while I’ve found the time to do some “dancing about architecture,” I’m afraid I’ve been a little slack when it comes to linking/re-posting it here. So here are some items from the last few months that I’d like to call attention to if you haven’t already seen & heard em. (FYI, I’ve also been reviewing albums for The Wire, but I’ll be reposting those separately.)

First, I’m excited to report that I was asked by the nice ppl at Mixpak Records to pen an essay for Popcaan’s debut album, Where We Come From. Writing reggae liner notes is something I’ve always dreamed about doing, and I was thrilled to sit with this stellar set of chunes for a few months before it went out to the world. Here’s a little teaser, but definitely click through to read the wole ting — and do give the album a good listen, it’s well worth the time!

In turns uplifting and haunting, reverent and rude, Where We Come From gives voice, as the best reggae does, to the contradictions of life in a society rife with inequities and yet so rich. Whether odes to the ghetto or the good life, Popcaan’s lyrics bring realist portraits and utopian visions into dynamic tension. Songs about struggle and sex and happiness occupy the same space because they do. …

Like his predecessors in crossover without compromise, Popcaan appeals to listeners outside of Jamaica precisely because he brings a distinctively Jamaican voice to the proceedings. In a world gone global, Popcaan occupies that sweet space of possibility where a deeply local accent communicates to outernational listeners. With his patois lyrics, plainspoken and poetic, his own takes on the latest slang, and his vowels stretched in that Portmore twang, Popcaan is unapologetically uberlocal in address. But since dancehall is itself a globe-spanning style and symbolic code, Popcaan’s performances are also pitched to the world. For all the downhome detail, nuff translates—and plenty comes across in universal terms: hustle for the money, too damn evil, everything is nice.

Speaking of hustle for the money (and it shall appear?), the Popcaan essay dovetails with a conversation I had recently with Afropop Worldwide for their “Money Show,” which explores the role of money (or not) in music scenes spanning Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, Jamaica, and South Africa. The topic turns to Jamaica at around the 45 minute mark:

Also on the reggae tip, I make a brief appearance in an article by Max Pearl on Polish Reggae, to wit:

Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggae’s success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. “The genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,” he explains, “from Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression.” So whether it’s the image of Bob Marley as a revolutionary avatar, the liberated body politics of dancehall music, or simply the flows of culture enabled by the sprawling networks of English empire, something has made reggae stick in a number of unlikely locales.

“You can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,” Marshall continues. “It really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.”

Remember “treble culture“? I’m pretty sure it’s still alive and well, and I rounded up some examples for Norient to give people a sense of some of treble culture’s sounds and contexts. Here’s a taste, but click through for all 5:

This is, admittedly, an exaggerated example, and it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying it save from a certain ironic distance. But it’s noteworthy – if not mindblowing – that someone uploaded it at all, and it speaks volumes about the political economy of contemporary music circulation. The intense compression artifacts may or may not be intentional – whether anti-piracy technique or incidental product of crappy software defaults. It reminds me of Jonathan Sterne’s contention that the MP3 puts the listener on a «sonic austerity program». Illustrative because so extreme, the warped sound of this clip is deeply familiar to the MP3 generation – like cumulative tape hiss or dusty record crackles for older ears. Due to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, and more liberal leaking practices, such distortions already strike us as «artifacts» in the archaeological as well as audio sense.

Finally (for now), I also make a brief appearance in a lengthy, strengthy article by Eric Harvey about the “Past, Present, and Future of Music Streaming” (and don’t miss the cool flashy version):

In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and “nuking” the imeem streaming service in 2009, ethnomusicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall, a longtime annotator of the microtrends popping up every second on any number of online streaming platforms, wrote an extensive blog post, spurred by the very real fear that “entire media ecosystems” might suddenly “succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.” I’ve been using the word “platform” throughout this article as linguistic shorthand to describe a variety of streaming services, but as Marshall notes, the term can disguise as much as it describes. YouTube and other services use “platform” as strategic PR, Marshall contends, to cover up the much more precarious technological and political realities that underpin their use. Calling YouTube and other streaming services “platforms” creates the image of an elevated space on which one might communicate to a large audience, strategically eliding the fact that uploads can vaporize at any point, often without warning.


March 24th, 2011

Have Some Reggaeton With Your MP3

Sorta blows my mind that someone would upload something like this. Sorta. (Available for download too!)

Don Omar Ft. Daddy Yankee – Miss Independent (OFFICIAL PREVIEW) By Jannick. ! by ReggaetonCaleta1

In an edutaining essay published 5 years ago (prelude to a book) media scholar Jonathan Sterne examines the MP3 as a “cultural artifact” with its own particular, embedded “philosophy of audition” and “praxeology of listening.” After explaining the psychoacoustic tricks that MP3 employs to (relatively inaudibly) shrink large files, Sterne contends that, contrary to what you might fancy, the MP3 actually “plays its listener” by mimicking — and hence partly preempting — “the embodied and unconscious dimensions of human perception in the noisy, mixed-media environments of everyday life.”

As such, Sterne jokes (sorta), the MP3 puts the listener on a “sonic austerity program.”

The example above, an almost exaggerated embodiment of the aesthetics of making music mobile on proprietary platforms, no doubt already strikes us as an “artifact” in the archaeological sense (thanks to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, more liberal leaking practices, etc). That should be evidence enough, perhaps, for us to examine our present predicament and reflect on why and when we favor portability over fidelity. Perhaps.

file under: treble culture, mp3 as cultural artifact, platform politricks


September 13th, 2010

Wax On! (700 Club Linkthink)

self-portrait in stainless steel sculpture
here’s looking at me

Apropos of noticing, this marks the 700th post since I moved this blog to my own server, way back in October 2006 — almost exactly 4 years ago, and well before Google/Blogspot starting alienating users en-masse. That’s a lotta posts, and I want to thank all of you who read here on occasion for the support, criticism, love, and feedback in general. (Speaking of, I also recently passed the 4000 comment mark — spam free! — which is maybe even more impressive than 700 posts.) As loyal readers know, I wax and wane like the name, and I’m grateful to those who can deal with the ebb and flow. Recently, it’s been more ebb than flow, but as you know, I’ve got my reasons. (Two of them, mainly.)

So, I thought I’d celebrate, and wax a little, with classic bit of “linkthink” for ya, mostly w&w + extended fam related —

  • First, I want to point you all to the latest helping of bass baditude c/o of my pardner in Beat Research, DJ Flack. Last month Flack boiled down a really tasty mix, full of weighted bangers, including a number of his own, for Mad EP‘s radio show. It’s a great distillation of the sort of set he’s been rocking on Mondays at the Enormous Room, so if you like what you hear, come catch him live. I love how the mix brings Flack’s own bouncy, tuneful productions into conversation with the music that inspires him (from dub to garage, & lots in between). You can see the tracklist and grab the mix here, or head over to Soundcloud if you prefer that —
    StepDropAndRoll by dj_flack
  • Speaking of my man MadEP/MattyP, I was just enjoying one of his own latest productions last week, thanks to !Kaboogie records, which is releasing an EP on Sept 20 including heat from MadEP, Ed Devane, the Banker, and Sarsparilla. As I listened to MadEP’s track, which features at least 3 or 4 distinct species of bass, through headphones last week, I was struck by how the lows were resonating not only my eardrums but my cranium, face, and down into my neck. As I noted on Google Buzz (yeah, I still use that), “i thought my brain was gonna leak out my nose for a minute.” Which Matty took as a high compliment, which it was. Another charming part of the track is that it includes some vocal cameos from one of Matty’s dear kids, who, I’m told by proud pops, also helped design the bass-patch on the track! Now that’s proper parenting. (And if you want a true testament to his superdaddiness, read this tweet from last night!)
  • I’d also like to point people to the episode of WNYC’s Soundcheck that I appeared on a couple weeks ago. Our “world music 2.0” convo will have familiar contours for many longtime readers, but I thought it was a nice summation of some of the major differences between what formerly (and still) gets marketed as “world music” and what a lot of us have been hearing as the music of a new “world,” a world of increasingly interconnected technologies and societies and marked by shared urban signifiers, random walks on YouTube, and banging club beats. I didn’t get to say everything I would have liked to, nor did I say everything the way that I would given a second chance, but that’s live radio for ya! (In particular, though, I want to note that I misspoke when I said that DJ Tito was sampling a reggaeton vocalist — actually it was mambo/merengue — and when I placed kuduro in “Brazil” rather than Angola/Luanda — total brain failures on those two.) You can access it here, or just stream it below. And don’t miss host John Schaefer’s sympathetic take on laptopping teens of the whirled vs. “rich producers manufacturing world music supergroups.”
  • In other news, I gotta thank Christina Xu once again for spotting yet the latest allusion to the good ole “zunguzung meme.” If you haven’t heard it yet, Vybz Kartel’s new track, “Whine (Wine),” produced by Max Glazer of Federation Sound, employs our familiar zig-zagging friend as a recurring, structural element (rather than a one-off reference)!
  • And I want to send a shout to Dan Hancox, who published an interesting, apparently provocative piece in the Guardian on “treble culture,” aka, “sodcasting” in London. It reads largely as a defense and celebration of the practice, and as such it invited a fairly strong bit of opposition in the comments. Since I’m still polishing up my own essay on the phenomenon, I’m grateful for the plenty more grist for the mill this provides. Also, to Dan for quoting me in the piece! e.g., —

    On London buses, I’ve seen middle-aged gay couples playing South American pop on a wet Saturday afternoon, moody raver mums sodcasting acid house from their glory years; it’s not just the preserve of teenagers with attitude problems.

    Nor, contrary to popular belief, is it an especially recent phenomenon, says the American anthropologist and musicologist Wayne Marshall, who is currently researching what he calls “treble culture”. “Sodcasting could fit into a time-honoured tradition of playing music in public as surely as reggae sound systems or the drums of Congo Square, never mind their antecedents,” he says. “Transistor radios and ghetto blasters are both good examples of a longstanding history of people making music mobile. The case of the transistor radio shows that people have long been willing to sacrifice fidelity to portability; while the ghetto blaster reminds us that defiantly and ostentatiously broadcasting one’s music in public is part of a history of sonically contesting spaces and drawing the lines of community, especially through what gets coded as ‘noise’.”

  • Finally, I want to point people to the Library of Vinyl blog, where Pacey Foster shares exciting news about becoming the trusted keeper of a trove of early Boston hip-hop demo tapes, as well as to b-ball blog supreme Freedarko, where I’ve got a guest post discussing this incredible cassette:
    FD’s Bethlehem Shoals asked me if I might write up an “imaginary archaeology” of the thing, and since I can’t actually find anything on the interwebs about either the mysterious TROLL ASSOCIATES or the beat-boxing, tape-head-rocking Double D Crew, who have forcibly occupied the cassette since the mid-80s, that’s about the best I’ll be able to do at any rate. So here goes an attempt to channel my inner Dave Tompkins

    On one very merry late 70s Christmas morning, a young Markie D, yet to rise to local stardom as one of Boston’s several answers to Doug E. Fresh, found in his stocking a cassette boasting amazing contents: basketball “SUPER THINK” according to Julius Erving. Released by the suspicious but nonetheless seemingly credible TROLL ASSOCIATES, Dr. J’s informational and inspirational spoken-word performance had a reportedly noticeable effect on Markie’s ability to penetrate the perimeter. But when those dividends dried up around the same time hip-hop came to town, the tape was — somewhat ceremoniously — taped over, scotch guarding the knocked-out knockout tabs that tell cassette-players to keep their heads to themselves. (As noted clearly on the cassette, duplication was prohibited, but the word was mum on overdubbing.) For several years the tape played host to the latest greatest raps one could catch on the airwaves, or copy via visiting cousins from New York.

    Eventually, it served as the eye-popping receptacle of 9 minutes of beatbox fury, bragadocious cautionary tales, and reverb freakouts, carefully packed and mailed to DJ Magnus, whose “Lecco’s Lemmas” radio show on WMBR (and later WZBC) was fast becoming the primary platform for the Bean’s aspiring rap talents, including a young, recently-relocated-to-Brooklyn M.C. Keithy E (aka, the late, great Guru of Gang Starr). The broadcast of these 9 minutes may have warped more minds than the TROLL ASSOCIATES’ original and perhaps even taught more listeners the proper method for driving the lane despite that the wisdom of Dr. J had by this point been encrypted into a series of throat clicks, pursed-lip bass bombs, and allusions to famous German automatons counting in Spanish.

    Recently rediscovered by vinyl librarian Pacey Foster, Boston’s premiere hip-hop historian and assistant professor of management, now you too can learn how to dunk like Dr. J, or at least maybe rock the bells like Markie D. Here’s how:

    Double D Crew, Lecco’s Lemmas tape (née Julius Erving, “Basketball” — Super Think, Troll Associates) from wayneandwax on Vimeo.

That is all, for now. Thanks again for stopping by! Here’s to 700 more…

/wax off

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November 17th, 2009

Follow Ups

For those out-of-towners who were wondering (and I’m flattered, really), it turns out that last week’s talk at MIT, “Skinny Jeans and Fruity Loops,” was recorded after all. That said, it’s audio-only whereas my talk was fairly visual-centric at times, so it’s a little weird to not be able to see the accompanying videos, photos, and slides. If I get a chance, I’ll try to post some of the links here before too long; otherwise, get your search on. Special thx to Generoso Fiero for bringing the equipment & hooking up the CMS podcast, and to Ian Condry for the effusive introduction —

The Afropop Worldwide radio program on “World Music 2.0” (as previously mentioned here) is now available for listening online, streaming in its entirety here:

If you haven’t seen it, Dan Hancox recently riffed on my Treble Culture posts (and offers some great grist for the mill) with a post on “sodcasting in the UK.

Finally, Beat Research won the Weekly Dig’s Dig This 2009 award for Best Monday Night! Big thx to all who voted in support. Now do us one better: come out and jam with us! Next week we’re psyched to feature one of our favorite up-and-coming producers in the transatlantic bass/dance scene: Kingdom. If you don’t know, get familiar–

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October 28th, 2009

Pass the Pod (Like They Used to Say)

I’ve been working on a talk/chapter called “Skinny Jeans and Fruity Loops” and while part of that has involved tracking floggers and tecktonik across Latin America, another part has required that I dig into LA’s similarly day-glo/geeky youthtube dance scene: i.e., jerkin.

More on all of this research later. Meantime, I just want to share a video I stumbled across today (h/t davequam). It’s a jerkin battle between Zhani (reppin for local jerk crew, In Living Color) and someone solely identified as “A Girl Frm Insane Kidz” (another crew). Notably, as with a lot of TCK and floggy shufflin, as much jerkin seems to take place in public spots (malls, parking lots, or — as we see below — the Walk of Fame in Hollywood) as in bedrooms or living rooms. Lots to say about that — e.g., the blurred lines between private & public, the mixing of digital and meatspace flaneury, etc.

My favorite feature of this video, though, is not the dancing or the scene more generally but the moment at 0:30 when Zhani steps up and her competitor hands her the iPod she was wearing so that, presumably, Zhani can dance to the same track. It’s an interesting moment for lots of reasons, not least of which being the way it illustrates an improvised solution to the problem of “treble culture” (i.e., no boombox).

Here we have two girls dancing for their friends & peers, in public, to music only the dancer can hear* (I guess onlookers have to fill in the beat until it can be overdubbed for the YouTube masses) —

I’m sayin, tho: who got the bluetooth, yo? Let’s JAM!

* until the earbuds fall out, of course ;)

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October 6th, 2009

Mobile Music & Brass Culture

photo by julie_chen

The annual HONK! Festival is going down this weekend, making Somerville the joyfully cacophonous meeting ground for an international bloc of brass bands (and related ensembles). I missed HONK! last year, out of town, so I’m looking forward to taking it in this time around, especially with the girls, who will no doubt be amused and amazed (and hopefully not too alarmed).

Quick shoutout to Rozele, who chimed in on the treble culture conversation and snuck in a plug for her band, Brooklyn’s Rude Mechanical Orchestra (who I look fwd to hearing at HONK!). I enjoyed her musings about contemporary and historical brass culture & the politics of frequency, i.e. —

it’s making me think about how this plays out or doesn’t in the street-brass world i hang out in (what you could call the live & unamplified wing of globalized ghettotech)… and in other live & un-/minimally-amplified contexts.

lots of the brass music that my circles play (and listen to on record), especially the older stuff, is from contexts where the emphasis was on high, fast and loud, the balkans in particular. and as instrumentation changed over the past century-plus (and recordings began to be made), the highs there got higher and the louds got louder (fiddle to clarinet to trumpet leads in the balkans, for instance). my understanding is that this is partly the same as the tenor-centrism of older opera: the higher it is, the farther it carries, especially over a crowd that’s chatting in the usual conversational range.

a lot of the current bands, though, have serious low end, and often prioritize it in their arrangements. part of this probably has to do with bringing the (’bass culture’) new orleans brass tradition into contact with the balkan side of things. and that change being reinforced by bands covering pop songs that come out of other faces of bass culture (”Push It”, “Crazy In Love”, “Thriller”, &c). and it’s least evident in the most trad-oriented bands, which supports that theory. but i wonder whether it’s also about acculturation to a general bass-heavy mode of listening to music, and whether it’ll change over time if this ‘treble culture’ motion continues.

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September 21st, 2009

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.

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September 9th, 2009

Bass Is a Feeling

I’ve really been enjoying all the feedback I got on my “treble culture” post. One idea that’s been especially interesting is the seemingly common notion — repeated & affirmed by many commenters — that we tend to imagine/assume bass even when we don’t hear it.

I suspect that this phenomenon may be at work more frequently than we think. Indeed, I suspect that even when we’re in the presence of a good enough system to “hear” bass, it’s hardly bass at all if we’re not feeling it. Comments from Nina and Beni emphasized this point, but nothing brought it home quite like last night’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli concert at the House of Blues.

As you can see in that picture above, the speaker stacks at the HoB are pretty damn serious (see the arcing array rising from the stage). Corporate sheen aside, I can’t remember being in a club with a system that pumped like that. The highs and mids could have used some teasing out — 30 years in & soundmen still haven’t figured out how to mix hip-hop unmuddily? — but the “lows” were perfect. It feels a little odd to call them “lows” actually, since rather than hearing the bass frequencies I felt like I was being inhabited by them, body cavities vibrating in sympathy. There’s no way I could translate this physicality for you — YOU HAVE TO BE THERE, simple as that — but this little video, and the crushing distortion produced by the bass therein, gives some sense — if a kind of bizarro, fractured representation — of what it was like.

I’d love to hear more thoughts on this, if anyone has any.

I’ll leave you with an apropos photo c/o Botswana brethren, Ruff Riddims. Seeking to push their sound out, they’ve been building their own speaker boxes, which are as beautiful (and, I’m told, as awesome) as the studio they built last year. Moemedi, aka Red Pepper, says they’re going to build four more like these, for the other side of the flatbed!

& if you think that’s impressive, here’s what Mr. Ruff himself told me yesterday:

Ruff: today I started molding bricks for the new night club that I dream of building
me: bredrin, you’re an impresario!
Ruff: we have 200 bricks so far
me: 200 bricks so far!
Ruff: yes and 4000 is where we must reach
me: brick by brick! that’s some real industry right there
Ruff: I told the guys helping me that, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and they where very motivated and laughed too.
me: i’m sure they can see by the studio and soundsystem that you mean business
Ruff: the thing is the building where the club is now is sold and so we need a place to party so I will build one
me: necessity is the mother of invention

What I’d give to feel some Botswana bass bouncing off 4000 bricks!

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September 1st, 2009

Mobile Music & Treble Culture

I’m in the process of working up a short essay on the topic of “treble culture” for a volume on “mobile music.” I’m hoping that some of my awesome readers/interlocutors might lend me a hand (and/or ear). There are two main areas in which I am interested:

1) the rise of “treble culture” and the crucial relation to music technologies (incl mobile devices)

2) the effects of “treble culture,” esp as, ironically, a means of filtering “bass culture

With regard to the first point, I’m hoping to offer a historical overview of the attenuation of bass frequencies in consumer/commercial music culture with the successive advent of particular player/media technologies. In particular, I intend to trace, alongside an increase in audiophilia and high fidelity, a steady march toward consumer-end devices that have different priorities and have, in effect, progressively moved us toward a rather trebly everyday engagement with music. There are plenty of technologies which have contributed to this “rolling off” of bass frequencies. Here’s a partial list; if you can think of other notable factors/tech (esp particular devices and their quirks), please make a note in the comments:

* vinyl records, esp 78s, 45s, and 33 rpm LPs (the 12″ single, with its deeper grooves, offers an exception)
* early AAD CD transfers, which often didn’t account for the bass boost in record-player pre-amps
* lo-fi speakers, portable radios, boomboxes, headphones, cellphones, etc. (recognizing a wide degree of difference across brands & platforms)
* audio compression (in the studio, but also for radio, in clubs, etc.)
* MP3 (and other file format) compression

With regard to the second, I’d like to explore the cultural/phenomenological significance of this trend — what is gained & what is lost, besides certain frequencies — using some ethnography and interview data. In this sense, I’m interested both in listeners’ perspectives and experiences (how frequently do you encounter, or practice, treble culture?), as well as producers’ (from savvy 80s hip-hop heads pushing stuff “into the red” to compensate for attenuated bass to the more recent mid-freq emulation of bass in bassline, niche/electro/blog house, etc.). Please feel free to share any and all thoughts on this. It seems to me that “treble culture” is increasingly broadcast across our city soundscapes. Tell me about the kids on the bus, walking down the street, outside the club, huddled around computer speakers. I’d love to offer more cross-cultural/geographical context than my own curious ears and eyes have witnessed.

Getting us toward phenomenological effects, consider some of the following perspectives (all, admittedly/interestingly, “British”):

Don Letts: “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.”

Kode9: “there’s a particular kind of bass sound which really fucks me off. … a kind of lowest common denominator way of getting people to move. … a complex of frequencies which works on even the shittest soundsystems. And you can’t underestimate the impact having to play on shit sound systems has on a music culture…”

K-Punk: “Both dubstep and minimal techno only achieve their full potency when played on a club soundsystem. The subtle pressure of sub-bass, the way it moves the very air itself, the hypnotic pulse of the drums, not to mention the role of the dancing crowd iself: none of this can be replicated at home, still less on iPod headphones.”

Finally, here is my (lengthy) abstract, in case it provides further food for thought:

Since the advent of the handheld radio, listeners have long adopted portable music technologies and adapted to the (often tinny) range of frequencies supported by such devices. For their part, producers have tailored their mixes in order to exploit the popularity of such technologies. From one perspective, then, the rise of personal mobile devices — especially mp3 players and cellphones — represents yet another stage in a historical continuum which includes the boombox and the walkman. There are, however, significant differences presented by the latest wave of mobile music products and practices, especially with regard to their ubiquity, their social uses, and their narrow frequency ranges. Whereas previous portable music devices certainly enjoyed some popularity, even that degree of usage stands in stark contrast to the present: today most people — in the overdeveloped world, that is — have a cellphone, an iPod, a laptop on their person, much of the time. (And cellphone usage is rising drastically in the “developing” world.) These digital devices have become, for many, the primary interfaces with sound recordings, especially in the form of mp3s, compressed music files that allow for easy circulation and storage by adding a further layer of frequency range constraint (albeit mostly out of the range of human hearing). While some bemoan the social isolation symbolized by Apple’s white earbuds, remarkably, especially among young people, these personal portable technologies also enable the sharing of music in public. It is not uncommon in major cities such as New York or London to observe a crowd of teenagers clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit.

Despite ongoing endeavors in audiophilia, some of the most commonly used devices for listening today — cellphones, mp3 players, laptops — were not designed with high fidelity as a priority. Rather, as size constraints and style have dominated design, certain sonic dimensions have been conspicuously left out, namely bass. So ironically, even as what Linton Kwesi-Johnson calls “bass culture” remains strong as ever through the global reach of hip-hop, reggae, and other electronically-produced dance music, we simultaneously witness a filtering of such low-end-centric genres through what we might rightly call “treble culture,” as mediated by mobile music devices and their physical limitations. The attenuation of bass is a product not just of the size of these devices but — as highlighted by the issue of bandwidth (both internet/wifi and telephonic systems) — results also from the transformation of sound into digital representations capable of being easily transmitted and stored (i.e., “lossy” encoding).

But beyond tech specs, the rise of “treble culture” calls attention to a number of crucial intersections between music, technology, society, and culture. In offering a history of treble culture, this essay will place today’s digital mobile music players alongside twentieth-century precedents, considering their relative frequency range constraints as well as their relative popularity, but it will also attend to the new practices emerging with such devices: the class issues surrounding cellphone vs. iPod use, the racially-tinged discourses around public projection of mobile sound (or “noise”), the socialization of such technologies via communal listening practices, and the representational strategies on the part of producers and engineers to compose music that “works” through such devices. Just as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” was meant to evoke grandiosity through even the most “consumer-end” radio, the recent embrace of mid-range synth lines and square waveforms suggests a kind of zeitgeist aesthetic feedback loop, a way of suggesting bass amidst all the treble. As an utterly mundane — indeed, naturalized — and yet largely unexamined phenomenon, the advent of treble culture merits a serious and critical appraisal.

Hit me on Twitter, in the comments, etc. Tell me all about those trebly slices of life you’ve been a part of and/or a witness to. I’d love to collect some anecdotes, find some angles I hadn’t considered, flesh out my brief history, and so on.

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I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com


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