As we prepare for the summer tour we ponder: whatever happened to space in recorded music? Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Lounge Music. Esquivel.
Roger CortonFirst date is coming up fast. How’s the practice going?
JCHPretty great. Haven’t broken one nail yet.
RCI’ll alert the media. You’re always talking about those little practical details. But is there anything more exciting we can tell fans about the shows?
Remember the raison d’etre of hearing is to be able to determines where things are in space. We’ve largely removed that spatial thing from music
JCHSorry, but that’s what I focus on. A broken nail isn’t just a comic punch line. It can ruin a show. Out of control nose hair is pretty bad too. But as far as ‘excitement’? Stereo. I’m gonna try to make everything wider than a mile.
RCYou’re covering Breakfast At Tiffany’s?
JCHI wish I was covering Audrey Hepburn right now. And the song is Moon River.
RCIsn’t she dead?
JCHYeah, but even when she was like seventy I woulda given some minor body part (one of the many that no longer work proper) to get with her.
RCOK, that’s just wrong. But even when she was young, she was pretty skinny.
JCHThat’s not how I see it. If you really think a woman is fine ? I mean down in your heart? Doesn’t matter. Pox? Boils? Doesn’t matter. Is it warm in here? What were we talking about?
JCHYeah, yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
RCYou mean like at the movies with the 7.1 sound?
JCHNo man, I mean like St. Matthew.
JCHEvery time I go to the pictures now I get disappointed with the sound. It just doesn’t match up to the 3D visuals. And that reminds me of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
RCAnd why should it, right? People are there to see the picture. The sound is pretty much just to add pizazz to the visuals.
JCHExactly. But St. Matthew. The Bach Passion. I’ve been playing that most Good Fridays now at the cathedral and if you’ve never seen it…
RCYou’re aware that this isn’t 1300 and 90% of the world isn’t Catholic, right?
JCHDoesn’t matter. It’s all about the STEREO, baby. With all the blather over the years about mono vs. stereo and vinyl vs. CD and tape vs. digital and speakers vs. earbuds and on and on and on…
RC…You left out stereo vs. quad in sensurround…
JCHOh yeah, Sensurround! Feel the earthquake! Anyhoo, all those arguments now seem stupid. I now realise why I love playing concert music
RC…you mean ‘classical’, right?
JCH…yeah, ‘claaaaassical’ music. The reason I love playing classical music so much now is the stereo. I love the depth. The feeling that you’re inside the music.
RCComing to VH-1!
JCHMan, you’re awfully chatty tonight.
RCSorry. Sometimes I stop being your straight man. What was a I thinking?
JCHOkaaay. There’s something you get playing live music; scratch that, not ‘live’ music per se but concert music on a designed stage with no amplification. And you immediately hear how vivid, how absolutely 3D everything sounds. I mean a flute sounds MASSIVE when you can really hear it on a proper stage. Anyhoo, my point is…
JCHLook, you wanna edit these little chats down so it looks more organised? Go right ahead! Back to our show. The St. Matthew Passion, as was a lot of music back then, was designed to take full advantage of the stereo field.
JCHIntentionally. Remember that big musical works, particularly opera, were like the ‘Jurassic World’ of their day. They used every trick in the book to amp up people’s senses. And one of the best ways? Play with sound. Have players on opposite sides of the stage. Have a few off stage. Or in the back. Or up in the loges. They were doing 7.1 hundreds of years ago. The opening to Monteverdi’s Orfeo? It’s just awe inspiring.
And when yer sitting in yer seat and you hear those real players in all those positions, it just hits some spot in the brain that no amount of speakers can touch. And I’m not talking about some philosophy. I mean it literally sounds richer.
RCBut what about the power of a rock concert? The subwoofers. I believe you’ve referred to that as “energising the bowels”.
JCHOh that. I do love it so. That’s the one thing I miss from playing really big shows. There really is nothing like playing in a large stadium and feeling that visceral power.
But sheer volume is like pizza or chocolate sauce. It’s this super-charged flavour that hits right down at the lizard brain. It’s a body thing. Power chords back in the sixties; wobble bass nowadays. But then you go to a really great restaurant and, it’s hard to put a finger on it, but the food just tastes more satisfying. You feel that you’re eating something better.
RCAgain, isn’t that just the pretentious atmosphere and all the psychology of ‘fine dining’?
JCHNo. The food is more satisfying. Even if they presented it in a blank room on styrofoam, anyone would still taste the difference. And that’s what great music does.
RCSo you mentioned classical music; not jazz or folk music. Don’t they do the same thing?
JCHNot generally. Remember that they’re small group deals and they aren’t usually thinking spatially.
RCAnd classical music is?
JCHFor sure. In jazz or folk, most of the people are playing all the time so although you get a general sense of ‘stereo’ you’re not hearing the sound move. But getting back to Bach (haw, haw, haw) the St. Matthew Passion is composed with two choirs; on each side of the stage, two orchestras; again split apart, two organs; generally one at the front and one at the rear of the church and various off-stage players. So the whole thing is designed as something of a conversation utilizing the entire building.
But take that down to even a tiny string trio. When you’re playing, or even just listening, you hear each player as a separate voice; not just because of their position in space, but because each is a separate voice. They’re not all playing at the same time. Players talk about it as a conversation and that’s exactly how your ear hears it; like when we’re at a party and we can pick out individual conversations but then somehow aurally ‘back up’ and hear the whole party whenever we want. We can go back and forth; hearing the forest and individual trees.
RCLike you said, that doesn’t happen in ‘rawk’. It gets loud and soft but everyone’s pretty much playing all the time.
JCHRight. There’s very little ongoing left/right/front/back in any music outside of classical.
RCOr maybe world music. Like in a drum circle.
JCHGreat point. That’s probably a big part of the attraction. The communal effect. With music and clapping and screaming going on all around you.
RCAnd you’re saying that ‘circle’ is the operative term. The reason it works is because the sound is all around.
JCHRight. Again, it’s that conversation. Remember the raison d’etre of hearing is to be able to determines where things are in space. We’ve largely removed that spatial thing from music.
RCRaisins? We’re supposed to be about ‘prog’ here, so I was thinking of the early Yes albums.
JCHRaisins? Culture oozing from every pore. But specifically the Yes Album. Yeah, that was great how Steve wrote separate left and right channel parts. Sometimes they duel and sometimes they work together. It’s a great effect. Hell, even the earlier Yes records with Peter Banks did some of that; the panning is insane by modern standards. Now it’s all gone.
RCWhy do you think that is?
JCHWell, like with most things technological, there are always unintended consequences. We invented speakers and stereo and electric guitars and so on all at about the same time. And we got used to hearing and making music in this 2D way. It’s a formula that works. The convenience, the volume, those things overwhelm everything else. And even when most people go to a club to hear a live band? You’re crammed onto the smallest possible stage. So the sound is coming at you from this one narrow space.
RCAnd then there’s video.
JCHRight. As we said before, movies change everything. It puts music back into this subsidiary role. The funny thing? With all the 7.1 stuff in big movies now, the music is almost always right down the center. Check it out. All the spatial effects are crashes, noises, etc. You never hear, say, drums coming from the back of the room.
RCSo what do we do, coach?
JCHOn a broad scale, I honestly don’t know. But I think that one reason music is not as relevant now is that we just don’t get all the information from it of which it is capable.
RCOutside of a concert hall.
JCHYes. Now on a personal note, I’m working on making the summer shows more stereo. I don’t wanna give away the surprise so I’ll stop there.
RCSuch a tease.
JCHBut going forward? Man, I’m gonna make it my mission to try to bring back some width to the music I do. And I think that starts with writing music that is as spatially deep as what Bach or Monteverdi were doing 350 years ago.
RCDon’t you mean mixing ?
JCHNot just mixing. I probably wasn’t clear before. The music has to be written from the ground up to utilize the stereo field. The St. Matthew Passion isn’t just about placing people on separate sides of the stage. Again, it’s written as a conversation between the various elements. If you try to play it with everyone in one spot it falls apart.
But let’s go from the sublime to the ridiculous. You wanna hear some fun stuff? Check out any of the lounge music from the 50’s like Esquivel and any of that old Tiki stuff. Those guys went nuts on stereo. They heard what stereo could do and exploited every trick in the book.
RCUntil people got sick of it.
JCHYeah. But since then? It’s like someone passed a law against writing pop music that isn’t straight down the middle. It’s not enough to mix wide, you have to write music that takes advantage of the whole sound field.
RCLook forward to it. The difficulty I’ve had with lounge is that it seems like I have to wade through hours of boring elevator music just to hear one good example of what you are talking about. So where is a good place to check out the kind of wild stereo music you mentioned?
JCHThe best single source for this stuff I’ve found? is The Retro Cocktail Hour. It’s a one stop shop for the most interesting stuff. Saves you having to wade through a ton of crap to get to the real gems. That show will change your life, if you let it. Also, pretty much anything by Esquivel will have some absolutely nutty stereo effects. And finally, if the album is in stereo and has the word ‘Percussion’ in the title? You’re pretty much guaranteed fun. It was right about the time that stereo hit that there was this invasion of Cuban drummers and Mambo bands. What better way to exploit stereo than by getting five or six percussionists in a studio going crazy with the panning?
RCThe drum circle of the gods.
JCHI like that. Probably where John Bonham is right now.