[43] How to Wreck a Nice Beach

How to Wreck a Nice Beach
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  Dancecult: Journal o Electronic Dance Music Culture  4(2): 67–83 ISSN 1947-5403 ©2011 Dancecult H󰁯󰁷 󰁴󰁯 W󰁲󰁥󰁣󰁫 󰁡 N󰁩󰁣󰁥 B󰁥󰁡󰁣󰁨: T󰁨󰁥 V󰁯󰁣󰁯󰁤󰁥󰁲 󰁦󰁲󰁯󰁭 W󰁯󰁲󰁬󰁤 W󰁡󰁲 II 󰁴󰁯 H󰁩󰁰-H󰁯󰁰—T󰁨󰁥 M󰁡󰁣󰁨󰁩󰁮󰁥 S󰁰󰁥󰁡󰁫󰁳 D󰁡󰁶󰁥 T󰁯󰁭󰁰󰁫󰁩󰁮󰁳 Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-933633-88-6 (hardcover), 978-1612190-92-1 (paperback) RRP: US$35.00 (hardcover), US$22.95 (paperback) DOI: 10.12801/1947-5403.2012.04.02.04 TOBIAS C. VAN VEEN M󰁣G󰁩󰁬󰁬 U󰁮󰁩󰁶󰁥󰁲󰁳󰁩󰁴󰁹 (C󰁡󰁮󰁡󰁤󰁡) Never mind the robots. Electronic music has always entertained the trajectory o becoming someone—or something—slightly i not entirely other. When the Jonzun Crew perormed “Pack Jam” live in 1983, they took the stage in a strange blend o interstellar outerwear and 18th century clothing modelled rom the French aristocracy. Who were these Arouturists aliens? Te Jonzun Crew’s blend o hip-hop and electro announced a unique, offworld status to black electronic music: we are not rom this planet! With electronic sound ideas seem to fly at different speeds; we all dream o other planets and speaking in alien tongues. Tus it should come as no surprise that i there is a voicing to the intergalactic tendencies in electronic music—the sci-fi sounds o sonic fiction—it is thoroughly alien. Te device to achieve this is known, o course, as the vocoder. In order to write this review, I put on a greatest hits compilation o Zapp & Roger’s early ’80s electro-unk, ollowed by Te Rammellzee’s 2004 album o duck-intoned and raspy R󰁥󰁶󰁩󰁥󰁷󰁳 “ Never mind the robots: what’s more human than wanting to be something else, altogether ? —Dave Tompkins  D󰁡󰁮󰁣󰁥󰁣󰁵󰁬󰁴 󰀴(󰀲)󰀶󰀸 Panzerist rap. First the sexy, silky tones o the vocoder lulled me into the ever-so-slightly alien unk o Zapp and Roger. I was on an easy-lounge spaceship leading me into deep space... inside all was warm and uzz, shag carpet and slo-motion gravity. As Rammellzee came on, I was thrown into a different universe entirely; the vocoder was now an interace device communicating the hidden mathematics o slanguage. ‘Zee’s voice intoned growls and wheezes through alien harmonics as the vocoder became more or less menacing in the  vocal chords o the Garbage God.For researchers in EDMC, the vocoder is likely more known or its use in the earliest recordings o everything rom electro to hip-hop, rom Krafwerk’s “Pocket Calculator” through Arika Bambaata’s  Planet Rock , Cybotron’s  Enter   through Te Jonzun Crew’s  Pack  Jam . Roger routman. Scorpio. Laurie Anderson. Can. Te vocoder has a storied history in the history o EDMC; it is the alien-enabling device, one o the ew direct means o altering the human signature in sound to speak in alien-tongues. Dave ompkins provides an evocative history o the vocoder in How to Wreck a Nice Beach, digging deep into the archives o the vocoder’s buried past, unearthing rare stories o its invention, its srcins as a secret scrambling device or Allied communication during  World War II, and its creative misuse by legions o electronic musicians worldwide. Written in a provocative style that makes use o the vocoder’s inamous ability to blur signifiers into sonic scrambles and strange sibilances, ompkins’ writing seeks to perorm, in a way, the weirdness o the content it explores. As he recounts the strange history o the vocoder, ompkins demonstrates an uncanny ability to cobble together seemingly incongruous observations into bite-sized slices that are as absurd as they are penetrating. Or as he puts it: “One man’s rubbish is another man’s theory” (271).Tus the title How o Wreck a Nice Beach is a vocoded mishearing o How to Recognize Speech. Academic readers seeking a closely ootnoted, dry and logical text take note: though ompkins’ volume contains many closely researched sources that tell the story o the vocoder’s use and srcin, it steams along without a scholarly apparatus. It is writ like a letter to a long lost robot lover: somewhat dense, crowded with conceptual metaphor, and enraptured with the rhyme and rhythm o its text. Tis makes sense, and I couldn’t ask or more; there are enough dry tomes out there. Like Kodwo Eshun, ompkins demonstrates that a hybridity o research, critical thought and immersive approach, impecabbly researched, can always teach a thing or 2 to academia when it comes to communicating its content through style. Metaphor is not superfluous here, but the outcome o a text vocoded. Tis is candy or the ears. When ompkins described the painstaking effort Arika Bambaataa  went through when to vocode “uh huh” in  Planet Rock , I came to realise that nothing passes by his ears—this is a writer who is a raptured listener.Besides its use in music, How to Wreck a Nice Beach discusses in some detail its invention. Like many such technologies exappropriated by a myriad o perormers during the 20th century to orm the strange culture o electronic music, the vocoder’s history is military in srcin. Invented by Bell Labs, it served as an encoding device or phonecalls between none other than the likes o Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Te vocoder is basically a  R󰁥󰁶󰁩󰁥󰁷󰁳󰀶󰀹 bandwidth compressor and a scrambler. It slices the source into specific requencies which can then be cut-up and rearranged across the scale. When combined with a randomized channel o noise, the result is a transmission that sounds a little like background hiss over the radio. What is thoroughly intriguing about the vocoder’s earliest incarnations—along  with its massive, vacuum-tubed room size—is that two turntables were used to synchronize the scramble platters. One-off vinyl records were recorded with the signals necessary or encoding/decoding the encrypted signal. Tese records, by the way, were made by the Muzak company (72). With the calls connected through the vocoder, say rom Washington to London, the turntables on either end would have to be matched in perect sync or the conversation to properly decode. In short, both beatmatching and the alien vocoder were invented to get the Allies talking. Who knew?During the War the Russians were working on a vocoder as well. Well-known dissident author Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, a zek or prisoner in a sharashka—a gulag or inmates with some technical skills—worked on the design o a Soviet vocoder in the Moscow suburbs. His experience is documented in his book Te First Circle (1968), which ompkins weaves into the Cold War narrative o the vocoder’s use as an encryption/compression device or communications. What is interesting is how ompkins unolds the ate o the vocoder during its early days. In 1939, vocoder inventor Homer Dudley (o Bell Labs) offered the vocoder to MGM Studios in Hollywood as a “scientific aid to movie stars,” a kind o autofix or bad  voicing, possibly or use in overdubbing (49). A large-scale, art-deco Voder was presented to the public at Te World’s Fair the same year, as a marvel o modern telecommunications; the  public could have their voice mangled in ront o the crowd. Te War, however, intervened, and the vocoder went more-or-less underground until its resurrection in public lie by—who else—the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which managed to get its hand on the costly EMS 5000 Vocoder in 1976 (90). Still in use as a mobile communications encryptor during the Vietnam War—in a convenient suitcase size—the vocoder ound its way into the hands o musicians, who immediately began to misuse it as a strange kind o signal processor. Tough “ Tompkins demonstrates that a hybridity of research, critical thought and immersive approach, impecabbly researched, can always teach a thing or 2 to academia when it comes to communicating its content through style.  D󰁡󰁮󰁣󰁥󰁣󰁵󰁬󰁴 󰀴(󰀲)󰀷󰀰 analogue vocoders had been built afer the War by the likes o Siemens, it was Robert Moog (and Wendy Carlos) who built one o the first solid-state vocoders in 1970. Carlos went on to score Kubrick’s  A Clockwork Orange ; rom then on the vocoder popped up everywhere in  prog rock: omita, Styx, Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons Project and ELO. But or ompkins, the  paradigm shif is Michael Jonzun, Arouturist hip-hop and electro innovator, who used a Roland SVC-350 to create an entirely vocoded identity (111). It didn’t take long or it to all into the hands o the likes o Krafwerk, Can and Arika Bambaata.Along the way, ompkins clears up several misconceptions concerning what is and is not a vocoder. Roger & Zapp, or example, used a alkbox, as did Peter Frampton (notably on his best-selling  Frampton Comes Alive  (1976)). Likewise, -Pain does not use a vocoder but rather more-or-less “is” (at least sonically) the sofware program Auto-une. In act, ompkins’ reflections on the conusing technico-ontology o being an application make a ascinating postscript to the book:As the voice o pop-radio, Auto-une is there or the conusing identity siege that is  junior high. Faheem Rasheed Najm is -Pain. -Pain is Auto-une. Auto-une is a  vocoder. (-Pain said so.) I am -Pain is an App. You are -Pain. -Pain is a brand. No sooner did Jay-Z call or Auto-une’s head afer seeing Wendy’s use it to sell a Frosty, than Apple made the I am -Pain app available or $2.99. As demonstrated on the Champion DJ track, “Baako,” babies can now be Auto-uned beore reaching intelligibility (303).Marshal McLuhan would be impressed—which is actually not a bad point o comparison or this book, save that ompkins, on many occasions, does it better. Tere are no embarrassing “tribal man” motis and ompkins’ in-depth knowledge o his subject allows him to orge connections between technics and concept at a level perhaps best compared to a unky mix o Friedrich Kittler and Kodwo Eshun. Indeed, this is how I tend to read ompkins  when, on the same page as his reflections on Auto-une, he writes: “Robotic is the world in which everyone sings perectly without even knowing it” (303). Te consequences o always-already technico-ontology could not have been stated more succinctly. Te question is: has it already happened?Perhaps. Te vocoder finally saw the widespread adoption o its intended use as a bandwidth compressor when the world began gossiping on digital cellphones. Yes, the PCM band (Pulse Code Modulation) is a vocoder. Te voice is scrambled down into harmonic  particles and reassembled, which is why we all sound just a bit like robots on the mobile. I am unclear i this remains the case once we all switch over to data networks, but this shows again how the vocoder has become oddly ubiquitous in modern society’s use o audio communications, both or alien effect and as its means o cost-effective efficiency, which is  where the whole story began.


Apr 16, 2018
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