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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/07/23
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: Animation Music

On the way down to Bonnaroo, I played an album for my friend called Black
Foliage: Animation Music by the Olivia Tremor Control. I tried to
explain that it turned me on for many of the same reasons that improvised
and live music turns me on. There is no improvisation in the proper sense on
Black Foliage, and my friend had a hard time seeing the connection
between the two ideas. "It just sounds like The Beatles!" he said.
Well, that’s true. It does sound like The Beatles. The Olivia Tremor Control
made their home inside a mammoth wall of sound. On a given song, lurking
somewhere in the vicinity, is other stuff — bells, chimes, horns, ambient
noises, sound collages, toy pianos, whistles, theramins, snippets of people
describing their dreams, and other stuff. The total effect is overwhelming
but wonderful. When I hear Black Foliage, I hear the group
collaborative process just as much as I do in, say, a Phish jam.
The main difference is the sense of scale. Where a jam played by live
musicians is linear, the creation of an album (or, at least, an album like
Black Foliage) is in bits and pieces, fitting things together like a
puzzle. They are two different kinds of conversation. In the former, each
musician retains his own voice, simply because that’s all he has to work
with. The conversation is filled with logical arguments, each part building
only on what is around it. In the latter, assuming that there is more than
just the basic tracks of a live band performing, the voice is necessarily
subsumed by the whole, as (ideally) each member contributes equally to the
whole. It is a bit more impressionistic. Each part can only react to what
came before it in the mix.
They are two different ideas about how to conceive music, each of which
captures something vital and alive about it. My friend’s main confusion with
the argument, I think, was that improvisation happens in the moment and, if
it’s on tape and layered and all of that, it necessarily has to be thought
out and planned. With a work like Black Foliage (or Radiohead’s
Kid A or the Disco Biscuits’ They Missed The Perfume), there
are so many layers that – while the musicians may’ve had an idea about what
the final work would sound like – it certainly wasn’t a scored piece of
music.
In that sense, the creation of a studio collage like Black Foliage
might be even more intuitive than a live improvisation, simply because the
musicians have to anticipate what might come next without actually hearing
it. (And, in the case of Black Foliage, which was recorded at home on
an eight-track, there was no way to go back and reconfigure previous tracks
to later overdubs.) Composition, of course (as a friend is fond of telling
me), is just very slow improvisation. What I enjoy about improvised music – on either scale – is hearing something being created as the product of human
communication and collaboration, the way ideas interact and meld with each
other. It is music that could not be created in any other way.
A few months back, I saw the production of a play called Sibling
Ribaldry. The play was put on by a bunch of improvising actors, though
the play itself wasn’t improvised. Instead, it was created in rehearsal over
the course of several months, letting the characters develop and the plots
emerge from there. The result was something with idiosyncratic and almost
nonsensical plot twists — a totality that could never have been the product
of a single mind. The play held together with a tangled and cluttered grace,
like a Rube Goldberg invention or a functioning governmental bureaucracy.
The beauty of the plot was precisely in the frozen creative process.
The same could be said for Black Foliage. It is filled with stereo
pans and tape edits. A description of the album’s concept, from the Elephant 6 website reads: "First, a
section of the bass guitar riff from ‘Black Foliage (Itself)’ was taken.
Subsequently, ‘variations’ of this part spawned the ‘animation’ tracks.
These were then combined with parts of the other songs (which themselves
contained parts of other songs) to create the ‘combination’ tracks, creating
interludes between the main songs… as it says in the liners note the
album: ‘edits within edits within edits…’".
Every tape edit, every pan, every bleep and every knob twist on Black
Foliage is a movement inside the music, an animation. More importantly,
each one of these things is an artistic choice that represents some kind of
communication. This is what comes through on the disc. And that is why I
like it.
All of this isn’t necessarily to lavish praises on Black Foliage
(though I guess it sorta is), but to suggest that more bands might adopt
(and adapt) approaches like this. Too often, bands (especially ones that
spend the bulk of their time playing and improvising live) enter the studio
and record versions of their live repertoire, perhaps with a few overdubbed
embellishments (horns and backing vocals and acoustic guitars and a guest or
two and whatnot). It’s a damn shame, really, especially because the choice
to improvise in a live setting seems akin (theoretically) to committing to
rethinking and experimenting with their material on a regular basis. To do
in one medium (the live performance) and to not do in another (the studio),
seems like an inherent contradiction if a band is really dedicated to the
idea.
In the studio, many groups record Platonic versions of their songs,
attempting to make them somehow definitive by stripping away the layers of
improvisation. The net result is that the character of the band often
disappears, too. On one hand, yes, it is a bit silly to go into the studio
to record endless jamming (which doesn’t usually work, anyway). On the other
hand, that doesn’t mean that the creative processes used to create live jams
has to be entirely absent.
Performing live is a time-based medium — one has, say, a three hour block
of time, five musicians, and a finite amount of instruments and sonic space
to work with. The aspect of time isn’t entirely absent from the studio, but
one is responsible for (and capable of) filling it in very different ways.
What is effective in one setting will almost inevitably not work in the
other. So it goes. Studio time is expensive. ProTools is not. If bands are
to make great albums, they must learn to animate, one frame at a time.
Jesse Jarnow is mixed quadraphonically.

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