April 12th, 2006


Roomtone: indigenous sound

Yesterday Wired News published Hell is Other People's Music, an article (and podcast) based on Ubiquity is the abyss, the "comment superstar" of my March entries here at Click Opera, with over 150 comments. The Wired News piece only has one comment so far, but a Technorati search shows that many people took these ideas away to their own blogs to thrash and hash them out. (Some even went so far as to fact check on my behalf, finding the original Eno quote I was reciting from memory.)

It isn't always the case, but this time I think the Wired article was better than the Click Opera piece that inspired it. I had more time and space to think, and I was more ambivalent, seeing iPods as both part of the music-flooding problem and a solution to it, proposing a "Parkinson's Law of music", and so on. One important thing that emerged in the Wired piece is the idea of roomtone. The Wired editors split it up, rendering it as "room tone", but I like the run-together version. Roomtone, as I'm using it here, means "the raw, natural sound of a place". It means indigenous sound.

If you google roomtone, ironically enough, you get mostly hits relating to electronic music projects. It's one of those words, like "Mute", which gets picked up and used as a pleasingly minimalist name for a music project. There's an LA band called Roomtone, and a record label which has hosted some of my favourite formalist bands; people like Dymaxion and Tarwater.

But I think the first time I heard the phrase "roomtone" was when I was working with students of the London International Film School in the early 90s, making a documentary called "Momus: Amongst Women Only". Nikos Triandafullidis, the director of this ten minute film (which "climaxed" in a scene of me getting castrated, though luckily it was Nikos who stood in as my body double for the gory chop), would wrap up each scene with a reminder to the sound recordist to "get a few minutes of room tone". Wherever we were, we'd then all have to stand still and quiet for a couple of minutes, listening to the background sounds of the location. The resulting "roomtone track" would be used at the editing stage to provide continuity between jumpcut shots, or provide a natural-sounding backdrop for any re-recorded dialogue. (You can read film tech types discussing roomtone here.)

Standing still like that was a great exercise in hearing indigenous sound; suddenly something in the background would become foreground, something small would become something big, something assumed to be "nothing" would graduate to "something", a valuable commodity. What was amazing was to discover that mechanisms in one's own brain had been suppressing the roomtone, reading it as silence, when in fact it was quite loud: traffic, gulls, wind in the trees, air conditioning units, plumbing. Reframing it as "roomtone" gave it a new dignity; instead of "sound pollution" or "a reason to raise my voice", it became something valuable; the original and organic sonic occupier of a space.

Putting roomtone into my anti-music argument in the Wired essay allowed me to escape from the binary silence/music, with the implication that something is always better than nothing, and that "no music" means "no life", or nothing. Rather than a positivistic battle between music and nothing, I could propose a battle between music and "the lovely, subtle melodies of roomtone; raw natural sound". I cited Cage, Eno and Alejandra and Aeron as the people who'd opened my ears to raw sound as "melody"; I could have added the laptoppists of the late 20th century, or field recording "sound recordists" like Chris Watson.

The next metaphor to arrive in the Wired piece was of songs as opportunistic weeds taking over a garden. I could perhaps better have reversed that metaphor, saying that the garden originally contained lovely weeds, but that pedigree commercial flowers -- stinky, expensive, bright and foreign -- were taking over from the beautiful, subtle, local weeds.

Of course, the danger of this kind of metaphor is that, like the phrase "indigenous sound", or the phrase "natural", it begs a lot of questions about authenticity. Vegetation, like population, is a complex mix of the local and the imported, the feral and the planted, and so on. The word "indigenous" might make us think of the massacre by whites of the American Indians, the "raw natural sound" of the American continent. But the problem is that authenticity is an eternally regressing horizon; I've heard theories that a pre-American Indian civilization was displaced by the Indian tribes, for instance.

Sound is the same; "raw natural sound" has no title deeds on the space it occupies; it's usually just a random mess of spillage from various sources, and to frame it as something beautiful is slightly perverse and willful. To oblige people by law to respect roomtone, for instance, would be an absurd sort of tyranny. It's only during the rush-revelation of "the return of the repressed" -- the moment at which we first hear it and decide to frame it as "something" rather than "nothing" -- that roomtone has value and dignity.

Things get more complicated when we listen to a "roomtone" track like "Barbearia Salão Ferreira" from Alejandra and Aeron's Porto album. It's a field recording of a Porto barber's shop. Close up, we hear the comforting, irregular rhythm of scissors cutting hair. In the middle ground is the barbers chatting. In the background is a Portugese pop song playing on the radio. If songs too can be roomtone, my whole opposition collapses.

But I'll say in my defence that, as a musician, I can't help finding the syrupy, sentimental song the most dominant sound object in the whole composition as well as the most "commercial" element. I find my mood altered by it in ways I don't want, and I find it impossible to background it, no matter how far in the background it already is. Even considered, themselves, as "roomtone", songs are particularly aggressive and over-determined sound objects. They refuse to "sit" in the landscape with the rest of the random noise. They demand to be foreground, no matter how far back you set them.

Songs are fascist immigrants, conquistadors who've come, inevitably, to slay indigenous sound wherever they find it. They can't help it, the poor things, that's just how they're made. Correction, with a mea culpa: it's how we make them.