Deriving Meaning From Music
Narrative In Music: a Study of James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream”’
In his article ‘The Meaning In The Mix: Tracing A Sonic Narrative In ‘When The Levee Breaks’, Aaron Liu-Rosenbaum explains that ‘a multiplicity of staged musical elements can function as a cohesive whole, forming a ‘sonic narrative’ in a song’. Positing a sonic narrative hinges on how one defines ‘narrative’, for there is more than a little contention about whether or not music is capable of being narrative at all. Jacques Nattiez, Carolyn Abbate , and Lawrence Kramer have all argued against this notion. Serge Lacasse allows for ‘narrative strategies’ in music, while Filimowicz and Stockholm support the idea that ‘sounds can be interpreted or experienced as characters in a story’.
To some, the idea of a sonic narrative may be too reliant on the literary model; it might be fair to say that not all music is created with the goal of telling a story or delivering a message. The development of technology and the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) has propelled the role of the producer, as Virgil Moorefield describes, ‘from a primarily technical matter to a conceptual and artistic one as well […] it has assumed a central role in areas such as instrumental arrangement and the sculpting and placement of audio samples’. This is particularly true of modern electronic music producers. As mixing becomes increasingly a DAW based task, the bedroom producer is able to make crucial mix decisions from a very early stage in the song’s conception.
In a musical landscape saturated by loudness wars and brick wall compression, James Blake’s music incorporates sub-sonic sounds with intimate and sparse arrangements, utilising the sound stage to make for a vast spectrum of sound where intricacies and details of the mix are made somewhat obvious due to the space in the sound stage to which they are attributed. Blake stated in a 2011 interview in the Telegraph: ‘music without any intimacy drives me insane; it needs to appeal on the human level or you are left cold’. Blake’s songs often begin in a very traditional sense, i.e. a piano and a voice. By using instruments and textures outside of their traditional roles, Blake explores density in the sound field and breaks the norms associated with ‘singer-songwriter music’ by chopping up and manipulating parts of the song.
This article aims to explore the sonic narrative within the song and consider the key features of dynamic contour, use of the sound stage and sonic cartoons to suggest a meaning, and how this is interpreted in relation to the meaning derived from the lyrics. It also aims to examine how Blake’s use of the DAW has pushed the boundaries of music production and the roles of songwriters and composers, as well as the importance of mix aesthetic in modern music.
Liu-Rosenbaum suggests that although sounds can be heard as ‘characters’ within a narrative, this is not necessarily intentional. Like literary narratives, sonic narratives may have multiple interpretations. The lyrical narrative of Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ is supported sonically by bringing forward the music within the sound stage. The listener is met with a lyrical theme that coexists alongside a sonic narrative; these complement each other serving to further perpetuate the intended (or unintended) meaning. In this instance, the sonic narrative suggests that the voice (the protagonist) is overpowered by the drums and guitars (the antagonists) throughout the course of the song. If one considers the antagonists to represent the catastrophe of the levee breaking, the sonic narrative may be understood. As opposed to a narrative based solely on a literary model, Liu-Rosenbaum proposes an absolute musical narrative. This narrative is still beholden to the idea of a protagonist and antagonist but avoids much of the contention of literary narrative. An abrupt or unexpected occurrence in the arrangement or mix of a song constitutes the element of surprise that captures the interest of the listener, adding to the perceived emotional architecture.
Songs with a seemingly familiar form or structure might benefit from a key change or a less obvious bridge section by introducing familiar ideas only to suddenly deviate from the norm, inhibiting the listener’s expected course. For example, Kiss’s song ‘God Gave Rock ’n Roll To You’, uses multiple key changes in order to justify what might otherwise be a series of repeated choruses; by modulating up a key, the listener experiences a physical rise in frequency which can translate into a feeling of elevation or ascent, thus creating a sonic narrative.
This is supported by William Moylan’s theory of the sound stage and Simon Zagorski-Thomas’s concept of ‘sonic cartoons’. Meaning in music can be attributed to mixing techniques applied to create the sound stage from positioning (left, right, front, back) to space and timbre. By applying a reverb with a long decay time the listener might perceive an instrument or ‘character’ as being further away than it actually is. Consequently the voice appears to be exerting a great deal of energy in order to be present in the mix. A shouted vocal from a ‘distance’ separates the listener’s perception from the front of the sound stage. The voice has to ‘try harder’ to reach the forefront, which can give the impression of distress. In order for the human brain to understand this distance or position, it must reconcile the sound with a context or situation with which it is familiar. Consciously or not the listener will refer to experience either physical (something which actually happened) or learned (scientific logic; a sound must be amplified to a greater extent from a distance in order to reach the ear at a relative volume to sounds which appear to occur from a shorted distance).
Perhaps an obvious platform for delivering meaning in music is lyrical content. When meaning is delivered from a lyrical message, coupled with an appropriate harmonic and melodic framework, the listener is more susceptible to the implications of that message. The repetitive nature of the lyrics in ‘The Wilhlem Scream’ negotiates a focus towards what Zagorski-Thomas calls ‘sonic cartoons’ within what Moylan describes as the ‘sound stage’ by moving the attention from a textual narrative and towards the perceived space and field of the song. By changing the performance characteristics of an instrument (i.e. time, space, modulation, distortion) the track can hold sophisticated implicit meaning; stress, intimacy, distance and presence that all add to the idea of sonic cartoons as semiotic indicators.
Challenging the roles of the producer and the performer in his journal The Musicology of Record Production, Zagorski-Thomas explains how ‘a relatively inexpensive and portable recording set-up that doesn’t require years of special training to operate can produce recordings whose sonic characteristics meet professional norms’. It is this principle that elevates James Blake’s status as a songwriter by ‘negotiating the relationship between performer and producer’. In his book The Domain of Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihályi suggests that in order for the domain to progress boundaries must be broken and expectations exceeded.
The song begins with an eight bar introduction followed by the two verse phrase:
I don’t know about my dreams, I don’t know about my dreamin’ any more, All that I know is, that I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, Might as well fall in. I don’t know about my love, I don’t know about my lovin’ any more, All that I know is, that I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, Might as well fall in.
The vocal phrase repeats for eight verses over nine beats per bar until the final verse of eight beats per bar. On the third verse the word ‘turning’ replaces the word ‘falling’. The instrumentation consists of lead vocal, backing vocal/vocoder, main synth, secondary synth, bass synth, kick, percussive hit A and percussive hit B. This is complemented with an array of effects and processing. Using reverbs and modulations to manipulate sounds means that much of the perceived narrative is inbuilt from the early stages and therefore not an afterthought as it is in traditional narratives engineered in the mixing room. This can be seen as a product of the DAW, the rise of which has distorted the boundaries between composing and mixing.
The 808-style kick enters the sound stage in the centre with a thudding high-mid transient and a pitched element on the G at around 392Hz. The Universal appeal of the 808 kick allows this track to operate in several domains; in particular, the offset ‘lazy’ pattern in the performance gives a distinctive hip hop groove, emphasised by the percussive hit also taken from a classic drum machine sample. This hit is allowed to fill up the majority of the wide and distant space during the intro by the use of reverb with a decay time of around one second. Meanwhile, a single sine-based modulating synth begins the chord progression, which underpins the song at the centre of the stage.
The lead vocal enters in the centre of the soundstage with a stereo ping-pong delay effect, similar to the effect which occurs when speech is heard within a large space as the sound reflects rapidly. A reverb effect similar to the percussive hit can be heard on the vocal in moderation at this stage, allowing the vocal to act as a lead melodic line as well as a background pad instrument; inhabiting a dual role.
A second synth line enters with a very similar timbre to the first, arpeggiating the chord progression. A second percussive hit enters with a longer decaying reverb filling up more space in the sound stage from a forward right position.
At this point the space begins to grow. Filters open on synths and LFOs begin to modulate. The reverberation and delay effects are increasing in size and decay amount. A vocoder backing vocal effect occurs, achieving the most obvious presence of high frequency content in the song thus far with its modulating vocal harmony. Somewhere between the literary model and one based on the human experience, this modulation might further perpetuate the notion of confusion or uncertainty and potentially be perceived as an indication of weakness. Leading into the fourth verse, the second synth resonates closer and more intensely at the front of the stage.
The main synth line transforms into a distorted and reverberating sawtooth wave drone, coupled with white noise effects. The reverberation of the track continues to consume Blake’s voice as the once spacious stage begins to fill and seemingly increase in size. Artefacts are captured from the white noise and are delayed going into the next verse.
By this point the rhythm section has lifted playing more complex patterns across smaller note divisions.
Here the rhythm section cuts out and allows the track to continue seemingly with force. This could be considered to evoke the feeling of falling by sonic similarity.
Verse 7 onwards
At this point Blake’s voice begins to distort, dipping in and out of the focal point of the track. Heavy modulation and a multiplicity of delays as well as reverbs are beginning to crescendo. The track finishes with increasing chromaticism and dissonance, the vocal seemingly mangled beneath a wave of noise filling the entire stage, which is eventually penetrated by the original synths coupled with a sidechained white noise effect. The track finishes in almost the same way it began: a synth, a kick and a relatively close vocal (spread across the stage nonetheless).
By using the DAW as an instrument and sampling his voice, Blake redefines the traditional notion of the singer-songwriter. Using the voice as a lead or pad instrument in place of technological ones and deviating from consistent structural forms common in popular music, has allowed Blake’s sound to incorporate many styles and genres and shift attention away from traditional focal points within his music (i.e. the lead vocal). Using loop-based patterns and deviating from popular structural forms (verse – pre-chorus – chorus, etc) encourages the listener to perceive changes in timbre, emotional architecture and shifting within the sound stage. The meaning or narrative in the music is delivered in a much subtler way than explicit lyrical content, negating the use of experiential overlap and common lyrical themes which relate to the human experience, as vehicles for delivering the narrative of the song.
In his Telegraph article, Niel McKormick describes Blake’s sound as:
Music that aspires to be as lyrically and emotionally sensitive as classic singer-songwriting while pressing forward into new sonic territory, where the spaces between and around the notes are as important as the notes themselves, filled with dubstep’s dramatic vibrations of subsonic bass and other auditory signatures of the modern dance floor. Loud is the new quiet. Blake’s almost folky, introspective, piano-based songs are pulled apart, stretched in every direction, cut up and reassembled into surprising new shapes, where his disembodied vocals float over earth-shaking bass and vast chambers of echo, to ghost choirs of autotuned androids. It is gorgeous, strange and experimental yet accessible enough for the mainstream ear of daytime Radio One listeners, where Britain’s chatterbox DJs have been playing Blake’s minimalist cover of Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love’ alongside the usual flashy offerings from American rappers and R’n’B superbabes.
As in his track ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ from the same album, Blake’s repeated vocal becomes pushed to the back of the sound stage allowing for otherwise modest orchestration to occupy a larger auditory space. In the absence of melodic progression in the vocal, the mix of this track becomes the aesthetic; there is little else to retain the listener’s attention, and should that attention be fixed on the vocal, it is hard to ignore the effects of staging and sonic cartoons in delivering a sonic narrative. The lyric itself suggests confusion and uncertainty, while explicitly stating that Blake is ‘falling’. The use of reverb to put the singer in an artificially large space after being previously forthright and upfront gives the impression of the sound moving from the precipice to the chasm by emulating the growing space of falling into a chasm, by increasing the amount of time it requires for the reverb to decay.
Blake’s vision allows him the role of the auteur, allowing him complete control over every aspect of his vision.
Perhaps without the lyrical narrative ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ might just be perceived as a developing sonic landscape, but when this landscape is coupled with the lyrical narrative the listener can interpret a sonic narrative with relative ease and derive meaning by relating the sounds heard to human experience. When attention is taken away from the vocal, interpretation of the sonic narrative is encouraged.