Monday, June 2, 2008

"Trans" and Other Electronic Affairs

Paul McCartney - "Frozen J_p"

Cat Stevens - "Was Dog a Doughnut?"

Carly Simon - Why?

"Someone once asked Hildebrand [inventor of the Auto-tune] if [it] was evil. He responded, “Well, my wife wears makeup. Is that evil?” Evil may be overstating the case, but makeup is an apt analogy: there is nothing natural about recorded music."

-Sascha Frere-Jones, New Yorker June 9th, "The Gerbil's Revenge"

If you carry this point to its conclusion, you begin to understand that all recorded music is like the Trans cover. It's a work that by way of apparent exception, points out the hidden universality of its condition: all records are man-machine throwdowns.
So SFJ's latest piece is on the auto-tune, the electronic vocal-altering software popularized by T-Pain, which he points out will sonically represent the late aughts the way that the "dry, flat drum sounds" of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours represent the seventies. And also that most people think the autotune is a vocoder. Very different process: autotune corrects your voice until you have hyperexact pitch, while the vocoder adds a tone, effectively "encoding" your voice.

This is why it was invented. The vocoder, like Muzak, has a military origin:

"Between 1942 and 1945, while working for Bell Laboratories and the British Secret Service, respectively, Shannon and Turing developed the vocoder, a wonder weapon that would make the transatlantic phone conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt safe from interception by Canaris and the German Abwehr...It lives up to its name: it encodes any given data stream A with the envelope curves of another sound sequence test his vocoder, by the way, Turing played a record of Churchill's belligerent voice, whose discreet or cut-up sampled values he then mixed with a noise generator using modular addition...Appropriately, Turing's vocoder was named after Delilah, who in the Book of Judges tricked another warrior, Samson, out of the secret of his strength." - Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone Film Typewriter, p. 48.

I posted the track "Computer Cowboy" from Trans before, but f*ck a re-up, here's the album. My friend Trey gave me Trans. I was at his house over Thanksgiving and he had the album image magneted to his fridge, perhaps the only bit of visual decoration in the entire apartment, which shows how significant it is. Trey taught me everything I know or think I know about DJ craft. If I ever wanted to make a version of "Searching for Bobby Fischer" but about DJing, then Trey would be the Bobby Fischer part. Born of a great inner aesthetic sensitivity, his skills are unparalleled, but like John Fahey or Sly Stone he largely withdrawn from the game in recent years. All of Trans is really dope. It's his Devo album, so it's no surprise that some of the tracks show up on the goof-off movie "Human Highway" that he filmed with Devo the same year. "Computer Crusher" is a serious jam. In general you could just DJ by mixing two copies of this LP into a face-melting electro-rock megamix.

It's been often noted that Young started using the vocoder in part because he noticed that it got a stronger emotional reaction out of his young son afflicted with cerebral palsy. So an instrument that alienates a great deal of his fans helps him connect with his child stricken by an alienating disease.

Young explains the record in an 1989 interview for the Village Voice Rock N Roll Quarterly:

"Trans was about all these robot-humanoid people working in this hospital and the one thing they were trying to do was teach this little baby to push a button. That's what the record's about. Read the lyrics, listen to all the mechanical voices, disregard everything but that computerized thing, and it's clear Trans is the beginning of my search for communication with a severely handicapped nonoral person. 'Transformer man' is a song for my kid. If you read the words to that song - and look at my child with his little button and his train set and his transformer - the whole thing is for Ben.

"People completely misunderstood Trans. They put me down for fuckin' around with things I shouldn't have been involved with. Well, fuck them. But it hurt, because this was for my kid."

Oh, interestingly enough, want to know how Frere-Jones' autotune article ends? with a quote from T-Pain, current autotone master. Read it together with Young's sentiments:

"When I asked T-Pain if he could ever forgo Auto-Tune, he said, 'I got a song on my album about my kids. I ain’t use it on that one.'"

Here's Neil doing a track from the record mit vocoder on the BBC. BTW there is an 1983 concert film of him doing a lot of Trans material, filmed in, you guessed it, Berlin, aka the town where musicians go to turn into robots.

Neil Young - Computer Age (Live BBC)

Attached are three other wtf electronic jams, one by Paul from his 1980 solo record, one from Cat Stevens, which is totally goofy and great, and a Chic-produced Carly Simon slow-disco jam that was for a 1982 film that flopped and later became an Ibiza acknowledged classic.
All illustrating another reason why electronic music is great, because not only can anyone do it, but it's ok if they do it for just one song. Anyone can do punk also but it's fake if you just have one punk song, but you can have all the one-off drum machine jams you want. Which makes crate-digging (or as Wade says, leak-digging, or even craig-digging) even more entertaining, because pretty much everybody has one cash-in disco jam, or one beatboxed-out free for all.

Because techno is for everybody.

"The Pod - Community Techno Unit"

PS I almost put up the video for "Coming Around Again" by Carly Simon because I must have heard that song one billion times when I was a kid, and it is kind of awesome. but the video, replete with home-movie clips and a severely 80s-out Carly, is also kind of horrifying.

PPS do you know that if you click on 'share' on the player, it takes you somewhere special? try it.

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