On the Sudden Popularity of Glacial Sound

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.

9 thoughts on “On the Sudden Popularity of Glacial Sound

  1. To me the big revelation of the week is that the tools for extreme audio stretching are so easily available: The Bieber slowdown was made with PaulStretch, an open-source program available on Linux and Windows, and also ported to Mac OS (google for [paulstretch mac].) You pretty much just select your MP3 file and press the Render button, leaving all the knobs at their preset positions, and out comes the ambient goodness.

    I’ve tried it on about ten different tracks so far, and it’s interesting that mainstream teen pop like Bieber (and Miley Cyrus) tends to work best. Rock songs tend to suffer because guitars don’t sound as good slow (all the attack is gone) and drums get washed out into surf sounds; and the overwrought vocals of pop divas get even more dramatic, in a good way, slowed down.

    To test this hypothesis, I picked a really good song that has those traits — “All The Love”, my favorite Kate Bush song — and it works really, really well.

    I’ve just started trying out ‘serious’ music — Györgi Ligeti’s “Lux Æterna” (aka the monolith theme from “2001”) turns out to be an eigenvector for this transform, remaining exactly the same only much longer. I’ve been listening to it for the past hour.

  2. Good post, Marc! :)

    I do have some thoughts on this. As I stated in a tweet, I wonder how much is being done in popular music using techniques like Zimmer’s. The way Zimmer uses it (producing self-similar structures), it’s kind of a descendant from serial techniques in that it may be used to generate not only strange sounds but also internal scaffolding for bigger structures. Film composers of course can bring sounds and forms that popoular musicians would be chased out of town for, anyway, and in electronica the same sound played at varying speeds simultateously is common practice. However, using it in a way that is not recognizable on first glance, as with Zimmer’s strangely über-popular score, or not at all ( i.e. playing with form in a way that it is impossible to “find out” and thus avoiding the degrading a piece to a structural riddle, as I often find it in New Music), I wonder what could be or is being done in pop music without anyone noticing (beyond the fact that 1.2 mio teens have just been introduced to the concept of “ambient” of course).

    Without wanting to sound too much self-promotional: if you got a chance to listen to my album, there’s lots of structural puns between tracks, often impossible recognise. One piece re-appears as a percussion sample in a latter piece – speed up 1000 times… No one will notice, but I like the somewhat metaphysical idea that maybe it has an effect on the listener after all?


  3. Hello Marc, It is the first time for me to comment on your blog, but I always appreciate what you bring up to. My question is whether the popularity of slow sound is really about a kind of slow listening (sonic slow food?), which has been promoted by many sound environmentalists and artists. I don’t really think so… I posted my thoughts about this: http://thefirstpersonpronountowear.blogspot.com/2010/08/slow-soundslow-listening.html This doesn’t entail a clear conclusion, though…


  4. that sounds very good – and it sounds exactly like my abstract ambient stuff&musings I uploaded some months ago at http://www.jamendo.com :))) … and exactly, because I discovered then (with a little from disquiet.com:) PaulStretch (and ultrastretch) freeware!

    the only problem (at least for me) is, that it’s so ultra-easy to convert even the most simple sound into an epic ambient texture… but, nevermind: let’s hope for a thousand new ultrastretched ambient sounds and musicians in next time coming.

  5. My main issue with this is that Beiber is getting credit for the gorgeous sound this program is making, which only got noticed because Beiber normally gets knocked for not being a ‘true artist’ and just a corp puppet. He still is. This program makes anyone sound good (nearly).

    This isn’t even the best song to do it with – if it had been done with say, an actual gorgeous piece of music like “Ave Maria”, it wouldn’t get nearly the same coverage.

    Plus it takes NO talent to pull this off. I am not looking forward to ambient overload, because it will just cheapen the genre and diminish the work of people who actually do it well.

    I’m reminded of Chris Hughes “Slow motion blackbird” who already did this much better, nearly 20 years ago.


    Sorry for the rant, I must have Beiberfever.

    1. Don’t worry, the novelty will wear off soon.

      It’s becoming clear that such bubblegum pop songs sound the same, no matter what speed they are played in! Now that there are 2(!) subreddits where everyone and his cousin is uploading examples of indistinguishable pop songs slowed down 800%, this trend will go away soon. The Beiber phenomenon is exciting because it just happened to work so well in this case, and millions of teenagers are be hearing “ambient” music for the first time. But those same millions will soon become impatient and bored with such 35 minute expeditions.

      But, as it happens in all art forms, someone will do something interesting with the technique, rather than simply running the program and uploading the output file.

  6. Thanks for weighing in, everyone.

    @Jens: I love the idea of stretching music that, like that of Ligeti, already sounds stretched: “the same only much longer.”

    @Tobias: I do wonder what other secrets are out there. The Zimmer transformation of the Piaf song in Inception made me think back to that whole “Aphex Twin hid his face in a song” thing from years back. Ultimately what made the Inception thing work was not just the fact of the transformation, but how it was rooted in the plot of the movie, in its internal logic. (As someone said on Twitter, the movie can be read as meaning that if you run a virtual machine within a virtual machine with in a virtual machine, it runs slowly.)

    @Kevin Thanks for the legal context. Interesting it could pass as fair use. I was wondering if/when a Bieber representative would complain that all someone needs to do is to download the track and shrink it back to normal size to have the original.

    @yasuo Glad you weighed in. I definitely recommend people click through to what Yasuo linked to; it’s a thoughtful take on the situation, including references to several favorites of mine, such as Douglas Gordon (whose 24 Hour Psycho I’ve referenced on Disquiet a few times, most recently in my piece on DeLillo’s Cosmopolis).

    @fabio and @Lee You’re not alone with expressing concern about the ease with which something can be stretched. Ultimately for me, the concern is what someone does with a tool. Yasuo touches on a similar concern.

    Yasuo notes in the post linked to that my focus in this post is the very popularity of the item, less than the sounds inherent in it, which is true. I write a lot about slow music, and slow art, here at Disquiet.com, because slowness (stasis) is an inherent aesthetic characteristic in ambient music and in field recordings. There’s a bit of a tautology at work here, at the risk of sounding a bit DeLillo-ish (a la his famous “most photographed tree” riff). Even had the Bieber achieved its current level of popularity, I’m not sure I would have considered it as a particularly meaningful topic, had there not been another instance of mainstream slow sound within such close proximity.

  7. Here’s sound designer Richard King talking about another Inception technique apart from the Piaf one: http://designingsound.org/2010/08/inception-exclusive-interview-with-richard-king/

    Quote from his reply to the last question: “…we also altered the pitch of all the real-world sounds when we transition from level to level (much like the watch ticks change speed in the first sequence). So all the sounds slow and change and become a different sound in the next sequence – interior jet roar becomes traffic when we transition to the first dream level, for instance.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *