There must be a third round coming. These things come in threes, don’t they, like celebrity deaths and blockbuster movie franchises?
The “thing” in this case is the mass popularity of — the sudden mass consciousness of — what, generally speaking, is a matter of sonic composition relegated deep in left field, in the outer margins of music-posting hubs such as bandcamp.com, soundcloud.com, and archive.org, where avant-gardists are known to ply their trade in the after hours and share it with other out-sound listeners.
And so it’s especially appropriate that it was on soundcloud.com that Justin Bieber, the peculiarly youthful Canadian 16-year-old, was revealed to be utterly angelic … when one of his songs is slowed to the glacial pace of 800% its original length:
As of this writing, the Bieber art-prank has garnered over one and a quarter million plays, and almost 800 comments, the latter of which have turned the elegant Soundcloud waveform interface into block of harsh striations that look like what might happen if Paul Smith were given half an hour to art direct an issue of Benetton’s Colors magazine. Those comments tend toward the comparative: a user named Seefreund says “sigur ros on helium,” and adds a smiley face, while one named Precipidate noted: “Reminds me of John Tavener / Ben Frost.” Of course, it’s quite likely that all songs sound like a Sigur Ros sound check when slowed to eight times their intended pacing. What we do know is that when Sigur Ros is sped up by 800%, it resembles nothing remotely like Justin Bieber (for this we can, again, thank the struggling servers of soundcloud.com). What Predipidate is getting at is that ancient and contemporary music have, alike, strived for the angelic by using stasis as a compositional tool. We can expect more of these slow-mo mixes shortly — the question is whether early-polyphony experts like Anonymous 4 or Tallis Scholars will get in on the action. As a measure of the impact of the GBM (glacial Bieber moment), the usually practical-minded website lifehacker.com has run a how-to on what software can be employed to make one’s own “slowed-down ambient epic.”
And this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg, at the risk of extending the glacial metaphor. That honor would go to Inception, from director Christopher Nolan. Only a few weeks ago, it was discerned that the artfully attenuated main theme by composer Hans Zimmer for the brainteasing film is, in fact, an orchestration of a maudlin Édith Piaf pop song heard elsewhere in the film, slowed down almost beyond recognition, the key word being “almost”:
This Eames-ian matter of degrees fits tidily with Nolan’s narrative logic, which posits that dreams occur much more quickly than real life, so that hence a dream within a dream will happen all the more quickly — which is to say, will feel like it lasts all the longer. Nolan made his name with another kind of time-shifting, in the backwards-told tale Memento. (Summer 2010 was something of a bonanza for experimental orchestration. Shutter Island, the pulpy Martin Scorsese psychological-horror enterprise, featured slow-music masters like Ingram Marshall and up’n'comers like Max Richter. Both films star Leonardo DiCaprio.)
To think, a year and a half ago, I’d merely hoped that the latest Nintendo DS system — whose microphone allows for slowing and speeding of recorded audio — would spark sonic play among gamers. This current zeitgeist is deeper than mere concerns about sound for its own sake. Leif Inge’s “9 Beet Stretch” got a lot of attention six years ago (disquiet.com, villagevoice.com, nytimes.com) for its slowing down of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 to 24 hours, but it never seemed to tap into some broader cultural desire.
So, what’s the cause of popular attention to slow sound? What have Nolan and Bieber, the latter unwittingly, tapped into? Is it the drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the extended recession, the Kurzweil-ian hyperbole about incipient immortality, the way rapid changes in technology have us half-living in the future, or how concerns about global warming suggest that we may in our lifetimes witness the sort of change previously comprehendable solely by geologists?
Whatever is going on, time is most certainly on our minds.
Now, all this activity is unlikely to suddenly welcome the music of an Alan Morse Davies (check out numerous examples of his work: disquiet.com, at-sea.com) or a Thomas Köner (whose recently reissued 1993 album Permafrost — note the pertinent title — was the subject of debate earlier this month in the Disquiet.com “MP3 Discussion Group”) to the Billboard classical charts. But if the sonic properties of the Bieber opus are previously unfamiliar to you, and strike your fancy, please do track down what Davies has done with the sounds of pygmies and old jazz standards, among other source material, and what Köner can majestically summon from that most stasis-infused sound of all: static.