Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tear Down this Digital and Cultural Brick Wall!

This may or may not expand into a post, but the other day I was thinking about how something analogous to digital clipping and compression can be applied to language, to the detriment of its users, i.e., Everybody & Soul.

Audio engineers routinely boost the volume of a CD by clipping away the top and bottom frequencies. As a result, the disc or file or radio broadcast is much louder, but at the expense of a loss of subtle but vital information at the top and bottom ends.

For example, below is an image of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, before and after compression:

This is a visual representation of what these barbarous sound engineers are doing to your ears. It results in obvious audible changes, such as less difference between the loud and soft passages, between hello, hello, hello and WITH THE LIGHTS OUT.

However, there are also many subtle losses that one may not even consciously notice, but will affect one on the soul level. Compression can make a track sound superficially good to the ears, but it will have a hard-to-define fatiguing quality, like eating ice cream three times a day, or like a colorized black-and-white film. Such music either sounds (superficially) better than it actually is, or else fails to sound as (deeply) good as it really is.

If you read the wiki article about the loudness war, you can see that something analogous has happened in mass culture vis-a-vis our tediously transgressive pop stars. Loud and crass as it was, whatever tawdry thing Madonna was doing in 1985 no longer shocks the sensibilities (which it probably never did, since it was old and decayed before it even came out of her piehole), which is why Miley Cyrus has to be that much louder and cruder.

You might say that she clipped Madonna of all *subtlety* and compressed the monotonous sexual message to soul-shattering amplitude. Just as louder CDs result in the image of the digital brickwall above, the range of human reality of a Miley Cyrus is extraordinarily narrow but shrill and in your face. The only way she can continue her courageous artistic development is to embrace straight-up pornography.

Below is the charming image of an impenetrable cultural brick wall:

This line of thought was provoked while listening to the news about the Santa Barbara mass murderer, and the banality popped into my head, there are no words. I then thought of how there is a range of human experience, and how difficult it is for language to reach the top and bottom.

For example, there are no words that reach as deep as the loss of a child. Language simply doesn't go down that far, which makes it a kind of dreadful mystery that only those who have gone through it can know. The rest of us can only pretend, but to even get near that space is profoundly upsetting, so we try to avoid it.

But even short of such extremes, there is a whole range of extra-linguistic experience that is precisely what makes us feel "alive." Analogously, it is same thing that makes an uncompressed CD or good vinyl recording have more "life."

Very difficult to put into words, but it is definitely something one can feel sub- or extra-linguistically. Indeed, a good subwoofer, for example (which extends the lower range of a recording), allows one to hear, say, cello and bass guitar in the core of one's body, not just in the ears. The same sort of thing is used in movie theaters so as to facilitate more "involvement" in the film.

Back when I was studying psychoanalysis, it occurred to me that it is not so much that its various theories are literally true, but rather, that it provides a language with which to reach down into unconscious and preverbal material and clothe it in words.

But what I really wanted to discuss is how There Are No Words for regions above and beyond the ego, and how if we forget this, we may unwittingly reduce these to mere word-worlds. Then you turn the kingdom of heaven into a kind of brick wall instead of a door or window.

Distressing though it may be, it is possible for the supra-conscious realm to be subject to the same dreadful fate as, say, the Sinatra-->Elvis-->Madonna-->Cyrus regression, i.e., decreasing subtlety and increasing density.

Lately I've been reading a biography of Ira Gershwin, who was the lyric-writing half of the immortal Gershwin brothers. This was after picking up an irresistibly cheap used copy of Reading Lyrics, a compendium of some of the finest lyrics of our greatest popular composers.

Yes, 90% of the songs are about love, and it is interesting in itself to trace the evolution of how it is described and conveyed (the collection proceeds chronologically).

Now, love is the quintessence of one of those high-frequency states beyond the reach of language, which I suppose is precisely why there are so many songs about it. You can't write a song about 2 + 2 = 4, because that's it. There's nothing more to say. But there is always something more to say about love, which, when you think about it, is odd.

A very distinct increase in subtlety -- or dynamic range, you might say -- occurs with the lyrics of Cole Porter. This is because Sex per se is allowed in the door, obviously not in the hamhanded manner of a Madonna or Cyrus, but in a sly, playful and witty way that always complements and intensifies the Love. Let's see if I can dig out an example. Here is the very first one, All of You:

After watching your appeal from ev'ry angle, / There's a big romantic deal I've got to wangle, / For I've fallen for a certain luscious lass, / And it's not a passing fancy or a fancy pass.

I love the looks of you, the lure of you, / I'd love to make a tour of you, / The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you, / The east, west, north, and the south of you.

You could say that prudery and pornography are two sides of the same brick wall. But Porter's lyrics cover a much wider range of what it means to be human, body and soul.



ted said...

I guess this is what we mean by an embodied soul. Embodied in the sense there is no dissociation or repression, and soulful in the sense of being capable of revealing subtlety, texture, and weight. I can think of many songs that get there myself. For some reason, I went back to Van:

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Could you find me
Would you kiss-a my eyes
Lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again!

Gagdad Bob said...

Van routinely breaches transverbal territory. It's what he does, i.e., "inarticulate speech of the heart."

julie said...

Re. movie theaters, having been in one a couple of days ago I think they completely overdo the subwoofer, and tend to use the same set of sounds over and over again, so that a tornado, a crashing train, and an energetic jump during a chase scene all have the same sort of feel. It might have been subtle once, but not anymore.

Re. song lyrics, I was thinking this weekend about how much things have changed. It's not just the prudery/ porn dynamic, it's that the entire focus has shifted from all-consuming love to mere lust. I can't say much about Cole Porter lyrics in particular, but love in popular music used to be characterized, perhaps above all, by a kind of longing, which one almost never hears anymore. In the pornified music culture, nobody has to wait for anything, or earn anything, and nobody expects to stick around. Men describe women with all the playful subtlety they use to order fast food at the drive-thru speakers, while women offer up their lists of available services, occasionally mentioning a price.

I was at a wedding this weekend. I don't think any of the contemporary songs they played contained more than the slightest hint of romance fit for the occasion. Thankfully, they played a lot of older music, too...

Gagdad Bob said...

About those movie sound systems: audio fatigue in action, i.e., overemphasis in one dimension.

Gagdad Bob said...

Just like a gangbanger's thumping stereo, which makes the bass sound like someone striking a cardboard box with a hollow tube.

ted said...

I have no idea how culture can reel in the arc of vulgarity. I do find the bell curve is widening though. While there are more and more vulgar cultural artifacts in some forms, there are other forms (TV for instance) where there is an offering of more skillful and intellectually challenging shows to take in. Series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Friday Night Lights would never have been made 20 years ago. So while I feel music had its peak, there are other cultural forms that may rise to the occasion.

Jack said...

To perhaps extend the metaphor: about a year or so ago I purchased a compressor for my electric guitar set up. Used with discretion it can smooth out your playing and allow one to "cut through the mix" without the typical use of overdrive (itself a form of compression).

The danger, is if used to much ever single note sounds exactly the same. Hit the string hard or with a light touch will make no difference. All the same.

The seems to hold in our culture, the more compressed it all gets--with the hope of cutting through the mix--all of it just starts to be the same.

I never use the thing.

Gagdad Bob said...

I crank up the gain on my guitar amp to conceal the fact that I don't really know how to play.

Jack said...

There's that too...

Gagdad Bob said...

Along these lines, the entirely appropriate dying words of another brick in the cultural wall.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

IRT theaters, the last time I went was to watch the Avengers (great flick).
I wouldn't have gone but my oldest daughter had paid for the ticket online for my birthday so I was kinda obligated.

I enjoyed the film immensely, the volume was OFF THE CHARTS LOUD!!!
I have a 30%hearing loss. I can only imagine what it was like to someone with normal hearing.

I almost walked out a few times and would have if the film wasn't so good.
At any rate, I don't plan on going back to that theater.

It's really a shame, because the problem isn't the sound system. The problem is operator stupidity.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Come to think of it, the operator of that theater sound system is a lot like democrat politicians.
Just turn up the volume and that solves everything!

I would love to shove that over the top volume up their collective and individual jackasses.

mushroom said...

I'm like Ben in that I have a lot of sound "clipped" anyway. It's why I don't have a high-end sound system anymore. I can't appreciate it.

Would it be fair to restate that, as my ears have become dulled from too many 2-stroke engines and too many firearms, so, morally, there are a lot of people who have lost the ability to discern any but the most gross and outrageous violations of righteousness?

Maybe that's why we have mass murderers. Until your carnage exceeds five or six innocent victims, you really can't tell that it's any worse than, say, people at school calling you a pussy.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Good point, Mushroom.
Lots of folks wanna be unique, not realizing they already are, so they rebel in some way and try to be the most outrageous so they'll be remembered, as if that will make them feel better.

Note how the Miley Cyrus/Lady Ga Ga types always go to how low can you go?
They never consider how high can you go?

The lowest denominators ain't art, it's crap.

Art rises above. Too bad Miley and many others abuse their gifts so much rather than use them to inspire and be truly unique.

Brazentide said...

love in popular music used to be characterized, perhaps above all, by a kind of longing...Men describe women with all the playful subtlety they use to order fast food at the drive-thru speakers, while women offer up their lists of available services, occasionally mentioning a price.

You've described exactly what's been bothering me about popular music for the last few decades.

Thinking about it, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was the source (or at least catalyst) for the pornographic shift in pop-culture.

Sure, porn use was quietly growing behind the scenes with the rise of the internet, but when he emerged from that scandal unscathed... everything changed.

Rick said...

RE TV lately (at least in a few shows), cooncur. I don't know why it's happening, I just know what I'm seeing. Could be a fad. Either way, the improvement in writing, stories, and production quality, with shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, is not accidental. And -- I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

Along those lines, have you seen the show Rectify? It's on Sundance. The second season starts June 19, but season 1 is on Netflix Instant.
When I watched the first few episodes of season 1 I thought, this is better writing than Mad Men. I don't know where they found the main actor, but he is perfectly cast.

Paul Griffin said...

it occurred to me that it is not so much that its various theories are literally true, but rather, that it provides a language with which to reach down into unconscious and preverbal material and clothe it in words.

I think I grasped the possibility of that sort of word-clothing at a very young age. This is a big part of the reason for a so-called "classic liberal education", no? We expose ourselves to a broad range of experience, and in so doing, provide ourselves with more and more subtle and nuanced ways of addressing and thinking about those things that would otherwise be inaccessible except via more primitive mechanisms like emotion.

Frankly, I think this is why I have become something of a jack-of-all-trades (and certainly a master of none...). The more broad my experiences are, the more analogous language and personal references I have access to. Lessons learned in one realm, say, the physical, often transpose into others. For example, my time in aikido has been very helpful for helping me to relax in the midst of stress and uncertainty, merely because I began to have a reference point for what it looks and feels like to relax in the face of physical danger. Neat! What should I learn tomorrow?

We are meant to explore and colonize these spaces. Otherwise, we are like pre- miracle worker Helen Kellers, perpetually angry, grunting, and falling far short of what we are actually meant to be. When we finally accept the miracle worker, the water hits our hand, and we finally make the connection to those higher places and begin to have words for all the things that were just urges and emotions before, I think our joy is just as great as hers. And in my experience so far, that joy appears to go on indefinitely. Just the realm of music could occupy a person for more lifetimes than I could count, and we are promised far more than we can see...

ted said...

Hi Rick, I did see Season 1 of Rectify and I am in agreement! Well written, and such a beautiful story of redemption. I am looking forward to Season 2!

julie said...

Off topic, but quite interesting, is this article linked in Vanderleun's sidebar on the difference between humans and other animals:

"The first exception turned up in the front of the brain. This region, called the prefrontal cortex, is important for figuring out how to reach long-term goals. Dr. Khaitovich’s team found that the way the human prefrontal cortex uses energy is quite distinct from other species; other tissues had comparable metabolic fingerprints across species, and even in other regions of the brain, the scientists didn’t find such a drastic difference.

This result fit in nicely with findings by other scientists that the human prefrontal cortex expanded greatly over the past six million years of our evolution. Its expansion accounts for much of the extra demand our brains make for calories.

The evolution of our enormous prefrontal cortex also had a profound effect on our species. We use it for many of the tasks that only humans can perform, such as reflecting on ourselves, thinking about what others are thinking and planning for the future."

Gagdad Bob said...

The neurological substrate of slack, as per today's post.

Tony said...

Coastal erosion is a good metaphor for all this.

Before the Mississippi was channeled by the US Army Corps of Engineers, it moved around like a hose no one held on to, spraying silt over the coastal wetlands. This process replenished the soil eroded each year by the Gulf, the waves of which ate away the coast bit by bit.

Now that the Mississippi has only one outlet, and the Atchafalaya's effluent is strictly controlled, the replenishing of the wetlands doesn't occur. Result: the Gulf has eaten away the local detail of the coast, leaving a kind of skeletal version of the richness that existed before.

This is a metaphor for mass culture. Creativity and slack gets channeled, which means it gets simplified, reduced, and reductive. In the most popular musical forms, for example, all we're left with is a bare duple pulse, naked skeletons of lyrical content, and a deliberate loss of particularity and detail.