Thursday, January 31, 2008

Synthpathetic Vibrations

I'm not a pop/rock guy - more and more, I wish I had a more natural interaction with these worlds, if only to understand them better, but I feel that I'll never apprehend them any more fluently than a grown-up trying to learn a new language - this is mainly because I have never been a regular listener to the radio, MTV, or whatever. I rather consciously decided to take an interest in the Beatles a few year's back, but I got to know their catalog in a culturally disconnected way. Instead of learning their songs slowly in the context of other artists on the radio or whatever, I just bought a bunch of CDs and plowed through them.

I don't know if that makes much sense, but the point is that I'm never sure how to approach new non-classical music that crosses my path; the expressive devices that others take for granted tend to be foreign to me. It's not so much the loud, electric, rhythm-driven accompaniments as it is various styles of singing that just strike me as unattractive and/or artificial. For example, the husky Springsteen sound always sounds to me like an affectation - the very opposite of the kind of genuine artist he's supposed to be. I'm not saying others are wrong to hear his voice as authentically expressive, but it doesn't ring true to me. And, yes, I readily acknowledge that this is odd coming from someone who, for the most part, likes operatic singing, which is pretty darned unnatural in many ways. Talk about affected.

Anyway, what has me thinking about all this is a differently inauthentic kind of singing I just ran across. Greg Sandow has been singing the praises of the Wordless Music series that pairs classical artists and composers with cutting edge non-classical artists - indie rock types, etc. (The "etc." is my way of saying I don't really know how to describe these "others.") I noticed that several of the concerts featured something called Beirut. One link later and I was listening to this world-music-y indie band that's fronted by an early twentysomething singer who sounds like - this is what it's taken me three paragraphs to get to - who sounds like a synthesized voice. I should know because I'm kind of an armchair connoisseur of the digivoice. Listen to a quick sampling of Beirut. Now listen to one of my Virtual Singers do "Hey Jude." Wow.

Now maybe it's just that I haven't spent enough time imbibing the indie vibe to connect with the expression this guy's selling. My point isn't to be mean or to make fun - it's to marvel at how much he sounds like a synthesized voice. This had me wondering - is that just coincidental, or has this Zach Condon guy been influenced by the sounds of virtual voices? Is he imitating the imitating? Synthesized instrumental sounds are already a secure part of the non-classical expressive vocabulary. In fact, having just posted about the wonderfully funny Barcelona, an aural flashback this morning reminded me that this low-budget flick has a depressingly bad synthesized soundtrack that's especially heavy on the synth strings. I've mentioned before that another mostly perfect movie, The Princess Bride, is also afflicted with a cheap, synthetic orchestra on its soundtrack.

Tastes change. Although I don't think I'll ever get used to string substitutes, it's safe to say these "fake" sonorities don't just function as stand-ins. The synth string sound has developed its own identity, and probably some people even prefer it in some situations. It had never occurred to me that the same would happen with the digivoice sound, but it's a big world out there. The Beirut guy is much more successful than I'll ever be, so there must be people out there who groove to that sound. Maybe they'll find this moving as well.

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