So when I was in high school, on the bus ride, there was one day where the other girls and I somehow got into the topic of talking about words that stop sounding like words. Don’t ask me how that came up; I have no idea whatsoever. I think it was out of boredom from hearing top 40 radio over and over. The point was though, that we started to try and figure out when a word would stop sounding normal. Like, how many times do you have to say something before you think, “What the heck? That’s not even a word.” even though it totally is.
Well over the weekend I was in the city and was invited to attend this mini concert/”friend-raiser” event hosted by the New York Art Ensemble. I had remembered this ridiculous bus ride story because of a piece lined up on the Ensemble’s program that night. Preston Stahly, the NYAE’s Artistic and Executive Director, made a reference to what he sees as an “evolution” in style he called “Avant-Pop.” I heard a beautiful violin, a vibrant piano and some impressive digital manipulation in four certainly avant-garde fashion. The one piece that stuck out as particularly unique was the third piece, entitled “Body of Your Dreams,” by Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis, also known as Jacob TV, for easier recollection. The piece features piano paired with fragments of audio from an informercial for a piece of abdominal exercise equipment, (think “old fashioned, really over the top enthusiastic informercial…”) that supposedly lets you get a workout for your abs while you do nothing! (uh-huh, go on) Well the placement, looping, timing and blending of the spoken words with the pitches composed for the piano was definitely shocking and impressive. Sure, it took a moment to adjust because you’d hear someone shouting out “Wow! That’s Incredible!” right in the middle of a phrase and you have to remember that’s supposed to happen and not start laughing. Though everyone did at one point because it just got THAT ridiculous.
Here’s an excerpt of what I’m talking about from Jacob TV’s Youtube channel:
I noted some of the word placement was for rhythmic purposes, but then other times I noticed the absolute connection between the pitch of the voice with the phrase on the piano. And sometimes the audio being looped was a mere syllable or two. Even weirder, once the piece went on for long enough, my mind started to pick up on phrasing –musical predictability if you will. When a sentence got re-introduced in different parts of the piece, I started to feel where the different audio clips fit together and know what piano pattern would come with it. What I’m trying to say is that it’s amazing you think about how a mash up of ordinary human speech and an informercial about sweat and muscles suddenly clicks from sounding utterly crazy and silly to being a meticulously and logically crafted work. I mean, think about it. If you were to walk into the room during the piece, the whole thing out of context would sound like someone’s cd player was busted and skipping. That’s usually something that pisses people off. Given the right preface though, the result is almost the opposite because you want to keep listening.
On a related note, this piece also reminded me of a podcast I had found about a year ago via a site called Radiolab. The particular cast I had found was with Diana Deutsch, a professor of music psychology and was all about the very nature of tone, human perception of sound, what really makes music actually music, and perfect pitch vs. tone deafness. In one portion of the interview being given she talks about how, after accidentally leaving a clip of audio on loop playback in her studio and walking away, a short time later she hears the loop playing and thinks someone is singing in the next room, only to remember it’s a recording of her own voice simply speaking words. If you listen to the podcast and her explanation, as well as the clip, you’ll hear what I mean. One minute someone is talking to you and then it seems like they’ve been dropped into a musical.
Radiolab Podcast – “Behaves So Strangely”
Personally I’m just amused how three completely unrelated things I’ve found or experienced came together to make a related chain of conversation. Words that don’t sound like words but sound like music, that then make music….wait, what are we even talking about? 😉