The first time I heard the Divine Fits’ debut album, I remember thinking that the members of Spoon must be peeved that someone had so perfectly emulated the band’s sound as to produce what could pass for the best Spoon album since 2002′s Kill the Moonlight. After a quick Wikipedia search, of course, I realized that it wasn’t a case of “emulation” at all: The group’s line-up included Spoon front man and songwriter Britt Daniel, whose unmistakable sonic fingerprints were all over the album.
Probably every reader of this blog has often had the similar experience of hearing a new song by an artist they know well, and instantly recognizing its authorship, even before the singer’s voice comes in. What we’re recognizing, of course, are the rhythmic and melodic tricks certain songwriters recur to, and the idiosyncrasies of each performer’s technique. Yet those of us who aren’t musicians, or at least trained in music theory, usually can’t tell you exactly what we’re recognizing. If pressed we might be able to isolate some familiar elements and say something vague about what makes them familiar: Johnny Marr’s “jangly” guitars, that yearning quality of James Mercer’s ascending and descending vocal melodies, the “too many notes” intricacy of a Mozart composition, the driving rhythm that somehow reminds you of three or four other Spoon songs, even though it’s not quite the same. It’s a classic case of what Hayek and Polanyi called “tacit knowledge“: We’re much better at employing our knowledge than we are at articulating exactly what it is we know, or how we’re doing it.
But of course, what we’re recognizing usually can be articulated by an appropriately trained person—and I bet I’m not the only non-musician who’d find it pretty fascinating to have that explained. So here’s a free idea for any music sites or magazines on the lookout for a fresh feature—or an aspiring music writer with the know-how to pull it off: A regular “What’s that Sound” column that picks an artist with a distinctive sound and tries to explain—with some technical detail, but presented with reference to specific examples so the untrained reader can get some sense of what it actually means— exactly what that trademark “sound” consists of. I’m so confident this would be popular that I’m almost surprised that (as far as I know) it hasn’t already been done.
I'll start off with three. I'm sure many other members have kept their questions under a vault for a long time.
How are the strings orchestrated to make them sound so shiny and shimmery and beautiful? It's nothing like anything before Wagner that sound has only been replicated a few times after Rheingold, mostly by Wagner himself.
Again, how does Wagner make the strings, or rather, the none brass elements, sound so mysterious and far away, not like strings at all? The sound is like a pure silky throng of light. The transparent stringiness of the strings that is salient in a Beethoven Symphony or in Verdi's arias is missing here.
Whence the mysterious atmosphere? It sounds more mysterious than any organ music I know, any music with cannon sound effects I know etc.
An exemplary example of an explanation would be David P. Goldman's exposition of Brunnhilde's Awakening in Siegfried.
In the final act of the opera Siegfried, the third of the Ring series, the hero has broken his grandfather Wotan’s spear and braved the magic fire to find the sleeping Brünnhilde. He never has seen a woman before, but he quickly determines that she is not a man and vaguely recollects his mother, who died in childbirth. He kisses her, and the orchestra wanders into a loud B-major seventh chord that is announced in a grand crescendo over two measures in which the tempo slows to a stop. The B-major seventh loudly resolves on what, at first hearing, seems to be its tonic, in the form of an E-minor chord that appears to be the harmonic goal of the whole passage (although Wagner leaves room for doubt by sounding the E-minor triad in the brass only, and in the middle register rather than the bass). The E-minor triad diminishes in volume (“very slowly,” according to the composer’s instruction), and its upper tone B resolves upward into C major. The tone B, which we first heard as an element of E minor, turns out to be the leading tone, or seventh step, in C major.
Retrospectively, we reinterpret the B3 as a leading tone in C major, which resolves upward in the expected way; the grandly announced E-minor chord that so beguiled us was not really a chord at all but, rather, temporary support for the passing motion of the seventh to the eighth step. We thought we were in one place and, to our surprise, find ourselves in another—a purely musical evocation of the passage from a sleeping to a waking state. It is, both literally and figuratively, “somewhere over the rainbow” in reverse: As the leading tone rises to the tonic in its delayed resolution, we return from dream to reality.
Brünnhilde’s awakening alters a well-worn compositional gesture to achieve a novel effect, which we might call retrospective reinterpretation. We hear backward from the eventual resolution to C major. Musical time has virtually stopped, for we stand transfixed at the juncture of two states: Brünnhilde’s somnolent divinity and her awakening into mortality. It is a musical effect that breaks up the longer-range motion of the work rather than propelling it forward.