I) Ferrous Oxide’s Day Off
Remember the bad old days of yore, making mix tapes for yourself and friends, mistakenly believing you could re-use the same cassette over and over again ad nauseum ’til the ferrous oxide particles started to dissolve or flake off? Somewhere between the time you first slid off the shrink-wrap and the time the tape inevitably got stuck between the capstan and pinch roller, leaving 17 seconds of that unreplaceable Minutemen live bootleg tangled up like a knot of dried tagliatelle pasta, there was the “print through/partial overdub” period, when traces of audio from previous recordings or adjacent layers of tape would appear as ghostly traces on the current recording.
The effect was mostly annoying, but also sometimes mystical. Rhythms might accidentally match up, or serve as counterweights to one another. Sometimes you’d think you’d proven finally and conclusively that T. Rex and Marmalade really were involved in a mutual back-masking cabal. But mostly it just sounded weird. In a good way.
After the jump: Backyardigans and Evan Lurie, The Wizard of Floyd, Dali’s paranoia-critical method, and the sonic layering of Solveig Slettahjell.
II) Evan Lurie and God Knows What
Five-year-old Miles was deeply zoned in a Backyardigans video game featuring a predictably groovy Evan Lurie musical soundtrack (Lounge Lizard John Lurie‘s little brother Evan Lurie scores the music for Backyardigans). Knowing Backyardigans tracks can sometimes have a lot going on at once, I didn’t bat an eye when I first heard what sounded like a second, unrelated layer going on in the background. But after a few seconds, it became clear that the second layer of music was completely unrelated to the first. Realizing that iTunes must be chugging away in the background, I suggested that maybe we should turn it off. “No daddy! I like it this way!” Whoa. What to my ears sounded dissonant and distracting, he was digging. Solving his little spy puzzle, accompanied by simultaneous doses of Lurie and god-knows-what shuffling through the background rotation.
n.b.: This was the same toddler/punk who recently reacted to his first exposure to the genius of Harry Partch by saying the music “Sounds like space chimps driving a broken car.” Had I broken his musical brain by exposing him to too much avant stuff too early in life? Was he genetically wired to like challenging music? Or was he finding synchronicities in the two soundtracks that I wasn’t tuned into?
But the more I listened, the more I was struck by the sonic coincidences; moments of musical timing that came together purely by accident, complimenting one another rather than conflicting. Either he was oblivious to the strangeness of the layering and just didn’t want to be bothered, or he was truly digging on the confluence.
III) Dark Side of the Rainbow
Try this (no, really — try this): Cue up a CD of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and immediately hit the pause button. Simultaneously cue up a DVD of the Wizard of Oz on the TV. Keep your TV’s sound muted. When the black-and-white MGM lion roars the first time, un-pause the CD. Sit back, torch a doob or brush up on your mycology if you must, and let the audio/visual coincidences mount. Some accounts say there as many as 100 noticeable moments where the technically unrelated media streams appear to line up perfectly. Impossible coincidence? Mass hallucination? Mystical multimedia kismet?
The phenomenon is called, alternatively: Dark Side of the Rainbow, The Wizard of Floyd, or Dark Side of Oz. A decade or so ago, a handful of Stuck writers and their significants gave it a shot. We didn’t find all 100, but the match-ups were pretty striking.
What’s going on here? Floyd vehemently deny any intentional connection, but your brain insists otherwise. Salvador Dali had a name for this tendency of the mind (and used it to great advantage): The Paranoia Critical Method:
It was defined by DalÃ himself as “irrational knowledge” based on a “delirium of interpretation. As a matter of fact, all of us have practiced the Paranoid Critical Method when gazing at stucco on a wall, or clouds in the sky, and seeing different shapes and visages therein. Dali, though not a true paranoid, was able to simulate a paranoid state, without the use of drugs…
In other words, it’s the same thing iPod users do when they insist that Shuffle mode is not actually random, but is rather capable of “sensing” what songs would work well back-to-back, or even capable of reading their minds. Apple engineers insist that random mode is as random as a computer can get, but our brains tell us otherwise. We’re really good at finding coincidence where there is none. Making connections is what we do. Our brains will scramble like hell to map the un-mappable, connect the un-connectable, and to draw false (but pleasing) meaning from perceived confluences. We’re a trip, man.
IV) Solveig Slettahjell != iPod Malfunction
So there’s all this wispy stuff out there – tendrils of information intertwining in our minds. For the most part we do a good job of filtering out the stuff we’re not paying attention to, and focusing on what we want to hear. But every now and then, improbable textures collide in mid-air and transform themselves into some kind of freaky new whole.
I’m not sure what made me pick up Solveig Slettahjell’s Good Rain. Slettahjell is a lovely Scandinavian jazz singer with a sliver of Bjork in her face and voice (but isn’t that true of all beautiful Scandinavians?), sans swan dress. And another sliver of Norah Jones. Maybe it was the name of her backup band that got me: “The Slow Motion Quintet.” Oooh, I loves me my slow motion – this must be good![audio:http://stuckbetweenstations.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/solveig_slettahjell-dont-look-back.mp3]
Truth is, I hadn’t given the record much of a listen since coming into it six months ago. Then, while pounding my way through the daily bike commute home a few days ago with the iPod in shuffle mode, I started to hear what sounded like a print-through effect rolling through one of her tracks. My first thought was that something had gone terribly wrong with the iPod. Sultry vocal jazz in one ear, back-masked synth warbles in the other. A rhythm section working contrapuntally to the cadence. Felt like I was simultaneously hearing laid-back Scandinavian vocal jazz, Bohemian drums, and left-field electronica all at once. And yet, all of the pieces somehow fit. I assumed that these disparate sounds couldn’t be thrown together intentionally – that I was actually hearing multiple sound sources at once, and was merely having a paranoia-critical moment. Had to stop both the bike and track to make sure I wasn’t hearing audio from an external source.
The track was composed this way – but my expectations of her style
* Most of Slettahjell’s stuff isn’t like this; the record is lovely, but don’t buy it assuming you’ll get an ear-load of experimental sonic layering. There’s a bit of it going on, but the Slow Motion Quintet is pretty restrained, with the exception of this song.