Hey, check out my new song, “口口口口口口口口.”
Perhaps some explanation is in order, especially for those readers living outside China (such as the Russian spambots that frequent my blog—hi, fellas!). The Chinese character 口 is written “kou” in Chinese pinyin, and it’s pronounced like “comb” without the “mb.” It’s pronounced with a falling-rising tone, classified as the third of Mandarin’s four tones. Especially when first learning Chinese, I would sometimes involuntarily bob my head while speaking to help me reproduce the proper inflection.
I’m no professional etymologist, but basically 口 represents a kind of archetype mouth. It’s not used to refer to the mouth of a person (that would be 嘴, or zui, also third tone), but it’s used for doors （门口）, entrances and exits (进口 and 入口, respectively), mouths of rivers, and such. It also functions as a component (or “radical”) of more complicated characters, usually indicating that the character has something to do with the mouth (as in the aforementioned 嘴), or that it’s an interjection of some kind.
Most foreigners living China will be familiar with the phenomenon of receiving a Chinese text message on a phone that doesn’t recognize Chinese characters. The text is therefore displayed as a series of boxes, which, as the astute reader will have noted, closely resembles the character 口. So I used to make a little joke of feigning ignorance on the subject, delighting myself and friends with the apparent ability to read a text message comprised entirely of 口’s. And that, pretty much, is the idea behind this song.
That’s Torturing Nurse’s Xu Cheng 徐程 on guitar. I wanted to do a noise solo, thinking about garbled communications and such, and while pondering how to accomplish this, I decided, well, why not just turn to the pros? I had gone to Xu Cheng’s house for a Torturing Nurse rehearsal in 2006 (Torturing Nurse being Shanghai’s seminal noise band, who just celebrated their 5th birthday 2 weeks ago) and recorded some of his guitar playing for the piece Mobile 3 that I performed at that year’s 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou. I asked Xu Cheng if I could reappropriate some of this material for this song, and he graciously agreed. I think it fits the song super well (in fact, I think the end result is probably more successful than Mobile 3).
I had a bit of an agenda for harmony in this song. A lot of pop music I hear seems to rely on volume, distortion, and aggressive delivery to convey, you know, angst or tension or whatever. But to me, harmony is the real source of angst in, for example, Nirvana’s best songs, distinguishing them from, you know, Warrant, or so many punk bands that posture angst on top of common practice era chord progressions that could have been lifted right from the pages of Mozart. So especially given that my sound palette mostly revolves around shiny synthesizer tones, I wanted to try to get the frustration and uncertainty of the song across harmonically.
The song is basically built around a whole tone scale, though I switch whole tone scales a few times. This shifting between whole tone scales (there are only two) happens with increasing frequency in the longer, louder second verse section, trying to settle into something that won’t be pinned down, but at the very end approximating enough of a major scale to suggest a half cadence. There’s usually a constant drone in the background, and tension derives from these two musical ideas trying to fit together somehow, to forge some meaningful relationship. I think this is the neat thing about harmony; it’s not just a metaphor for something not fitting in; it is literally the same thing.
At the same time there’s only one chord type in the whole song, a major triad, and it’s always presented in root position. I did something similar in “Hack Coo!” from Stranger Personals, a setting of personal ads from The Stranger for voice and piano, where almost defiantly optimistic major chords are lost in a cascade of other notes, depriving them of their tonal moorings. Since the roots of the chords conform to alternating whole tone scales, but the chord type is major, the hegemony of the whole-tone scale is constantly being thwarted by the fifth of the chord. At the same time, the constant transposition of this immutable voicing causes harmony to move towards the realm of timbre (like a pipe organ, or Ravel’s doubling of horn with piccolos on the upper partials in Bolero), so that the chord starts to fuse into a single musical entity.
The bridge breakdown is the only part of the song that exists entirely in a whole tone scale, with no perfect fifths to get in the way. While this keeps it from resolving in a traditional tonal way, the fact that it belongs all to one scale provides a kind of respite from the conflicts of the rest of the song, creating this brief cocoon of tentative intimacy before exploding again.
Around the time of his death earlier this year, I was rereading George Perle’s The Listening Composer, in which he points out the prominent role that symmetrical structures play in the music of Berg, Varese, Stravinsky, Bartok, and other giants of the early 20th century (an aspect that unifies these rather diverse composers). [A symmetrical structure is basically an interval sequence that eventually gets you back where you started. If you move by half-steps or fourths or fifths, you get the whole 12-tone chromatic scale; but if you move by whole steps, you get the 6-tone whole tone scale; a half-step plus a whole-step will get you the octatonic scale, etc.] So I still had these ideas on the brain, although I’m sure this song wouldn’t have earned much more than an eye roll from Mr. Perle. While the verses are mostly wandering adrift in whole tone land, the chorus and breakdown shout-out sections are working through different cyclical structures; for example the breakdown repeats the same material at (negative) minor third transpositions until arriving back on the initial pitch. The chorus pattern basically short-circuits a circle of fifths progression by the introduction of a minor third, so that the figure leads straight to the tritone transposition and back again. (For another, prime example of symmetrical partitioning in a pop lick, check out Prince’s “P Control” from 1995’s The Gold Experience.)
My original concept for the vocal delivery of the song was to have it kind of shouted, kinda rap or sprechtstimme, to keep things floating and unresolved, and at several points during production, I fought the urge to turn it into a conventional melody. There kind of is a bit of a hidden melody, a simple, slow-moving ascending figure in the fuzzy drone part during the verses, but I only vaguely follow the contour of it, not matching any pitches. As is probably quite apparent, I was thinking very much of Elvis Costello, in particular “Pump It Up” and “Playboy to a Man.” That squawking sound is something I’d heard Prince do (and Elvis, on rare occasion), but never figured out how to do it (by inhaling) until going back to the source, some old James Brown recordings. Of course the shout-out stuff is very Prince inspired.
Can we have that 800 number again?
[Addendum 9/22/2010: I forgot to mention there’s also an oblique reference to Sylvia Plath’s poem “Metaphors.” Extra points if you can find it!]