Sonic Symbolism

boss-distortionAs a guitarist, former thrash head and die hard grunge fanatic I just loved this article entitled, “The Romance and Post-Modernity of the Electric Guitar“, which links love of distortion with a rejection of modernist precision. Here’s some excerpts:

“It’s always been funny to rock fans that critics have been plagued by an inarticulate understanding of the music they love to hate. It just sounds bad to them. It’s a racket, an indistinct chaos. It’s a redundancy of noise. The curmudgeons who reject rock music aren’t interested in listening to it at all. Yet, considered beyond its capacity to spontaneously repel or attract listeners, it’s clear that the soul of rock and roll is distortion. It sounds like a buzz saw, and you either love it or hate it.

The distorted electric guitar is so central to rock music that even serious listeners and musicians are scarcely aware of it as an affectation. Distortion is the sine quo non of rock, which perhaps explains the awkwardness one has in trying to name it and talk about it. It has the same kind of ill-fitting and clumsy names that we normally associate with taboo topics. On the one hand, there are the sterile clinical denominations such as “distortion” and “saturation.” On the other hand, there are the faintly off-color poeticisms like “fuzz” and “buzz.” But it’s clear, especially in our hyper-categorized culture, that it’s probably not rock music in any meaningful sense if the electric guitar doesn’t have the raspy burr of an overdriven signal. Given the overwhelming and long term popularity of rock music, it seems odd that there aren’t more words for this defining feature. To be sure, purists have developed a language of metaphor and simile for variations of distortion, such as “crunch,” “grunge”, “dirty”, and “tinny.” But this vocabulary is nearly as remote and bootless — not to mention annoying — as that of the professional wine taster.

What is it about the sound of buzzing and wailing guitars that causes one generation to gnash its teeth, and another to mosh in the pit? The answer is deeply buried beneath layers of cultural meaning. In her book Natural Symbols, Mary Douglas argues that modernity is a cultural trend away from “condensed symbol systems” toward “elaborated language and signs.” This means that the ways we communicate are becoming more and more concrete and precise. In the modern age, old symbols like the Christian Cross or Motherhood lose their abstract impact as they become loaded with all kinds of apology and explanation and elaboration.

In the post-modern period, it has become a convention to question the wisdom of discarding our old “condensed symbols.” It’s not that we want the old ones back; it’s just that we suspect they want replacing. There’s a growing recognition of the vacuum of meaning left in the wake of technology, industry, and scientific elaboration. Precision of language and ideation is itself criticized as misleading, unrealistic, and unpleasant. Rock music can be seen as a general cultural expression of this reaction. It disputes elaborated systems and modernity’s mandate for precision. The central vehicle of this rejection is distortion.

Of course, “distortion” is a term with negative connotations. It’s often used this way when we speak of someone misinterpreting or misrepresenting the facts.

In music, the term is more neutral. It’s simply a physical effect applied to sound. Distortion is the degradation of a pure signal by the addition of interference, often through a little device called “a fuzzbox.” To illustrate, there are numerous other effects that are frequently applied to the pure signal of electric music. Reverb, wah-wah, and chorus are all good examples of effects which are commonly applied in rock music — as well as country, folk, new age, and even classical music. Most of these other “effects” aren’t so much a “degradation” as an enhancement or an embellishment of sound.

But rock music doesn’t just mimic the sounds of a heavily industrialized city. Through distortion, it represents the deconstruction of industry. In other words, the fuzzbox applies technology to the job of degrading itself. The fuzzbox allows the musician to “make dirty” the normally “clean” signal of an unaffected electric guitar. It intentionally distorts the products of technology, making them less precise, clear, and controlled.

All of these characteristics make rock music look an awful lot like historical Romanticism. The rejection of artifice, the championing of the vulgar, the infatuation with mystery and power, sexuality, aggression, primitivism, and the gothic — all of these elements smack of the nineteenth century’s Romantic movement. It’s typical for art to be critical of political, social, and cultural realities. Romantic art criticized enlightenment ideals which championed “Reason” and “Science” over “Emotion” and “Art.” Romanticism wanted to introduce some fuzziness to the crisp picture of reality that the Enlightenment purveyed. Rock music stands squarely in this tradition.

But rock music has a distinctly post-modern complexion in its use of distortion. Rock music stands in an ambivalent relationship to technology, since it’s dependent on it, while at the same time wary of it.

The metaphysics of distortion suggest that chaos is beautiful, and uncertainty is powerful.”

5 thoughts on “Sonic Symbolism

  1. Fernando says:

    As a guitarist and fuzz-box maker I want to embrace the idea that guitar and to a lesser extent rock is postmodern, but I’m just not sure I can. The idea that distortion is postmodern sits even worse with me. Just go to any guitar equipment forum and cork-sniffers of amplifier tone will dissect distortion in totally modernist tones.
    I think where guitar and rock get postmodern is where they incorporate global influences beyond the limits of dialectical fusion. For example Santana was, initially post-modern, because he deconstructed THE modernist music, the bossa and samba, and unravelled it by using rock.
    Probably some of the most knowingly postmodern music these days is the stuff being churned out of bollywood, which blends genres in a wonderfully contextless way.

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  2. Fernando says:

    As a guitarist and fuzz-box maker I want to embrace the idea that guitar and to a lesser extent rock is postmodern, but I’m just not sure I can. The idea that distortion is postmodern sits even worse with me. Just go to any guitar equipment forum and cork-sniffers of amplifier tone will dissect distortion in totally modernist tones.
    I think where guitar and rock get postmodern is where they incorporate global influences beyond the limits of dialectical fusion. For example Santana was, initially post-modern, because he deconstructed THE modernist music, the bossa and samba, and unravelled it by using rock.
    Probably some of the most knowingly postmodern music these days is the stuff being churned out of bollywood, which blends genres in a wonderfully contextless way.

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  3. Matt Stone says:

    Well I disagree with the school of thought that says pop post-modernity emerged out of the blue with Generation X. I think we need to go back as least as far as the Beatles ‘St Pepper’ era and their engagement with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The paradigm shift was certainly far from complete back then but it’s just as certain that it was already underway. It has been encroaching into popular culture for some time now and surely this distortion phenomenon can be seen as indicative. In any transition period it’s inevitable that elements of the old and the new will co-exist. I am not asserting rock is 100% post-modern. I am merely saying that this correlation resonates with my own personal observations and I think there is something to it.
    I think embryonic post-modernity is particularly evident with the genre that took distortion to an art form – heavy metal. The links between metal music and occult spirituality is undeniable – the grand-daddies of the genre: Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin – are infamous for it. This was in fact how I was personally introduced to occult spirituality. Years before I had ever heard of the New Age.
    My point is not that distortion should be our no. 1 benchmark for charting post-modern influence in music. My point is merely that the ‘sampling’ and ‘DJing’ so talked about in the EC is not the only music form reflecting post-modern sensibilities.
    While we are on that subject there is one other genre that I think the Emerging Church has somewhat neglected in terms of missional analysis: the ‘New Age’ or ‘Ambient’ genre. In the same way that metal incorporates the discordant sounds of rage into music, ambient incorporates the chaotic and un-manufactured harmonies of nature, deconstructing precision and technology, through technology, in a different way.

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  4. Fernando says:

    You are very, very right that the EC needs to reference more than DJ/Dance music when talking about emerging culture. In my time I’ve heard some pretty hubris-ridden statements putting down hard rock. Maybe one can deconstruct the EC by it’s music preferences/prejudices?
    FWIW, I did submit a short work on musical subcultures as a way to understand mission to youth and young adults to the denominational youth person back in the very early 90s. It was my first bit of serious missional thinking (though I didn’t use that language back then) but it went nowhere and threw the draft and file out when I left Aus.
    In referring to Santana, I was talking about his late 60s and early 70s music. His style (and post-modern-ness) was fully formed before he worked on the Mahavishu Orchestra with John McLaughlin and waay before his recent sucess with Supernatural (a good album, but on a musical level nothing but a pastiche of his older work). I think there are parallels there with the Beatle’s journey.
    I hope you keep writing on this stuff, because it is a good corrective to the narrow EC foci on music and culture.

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  5. philjohnson says:

    You could add in as a follow-on from The Beatles some of the solo work of George Harrison as he publicly linked up with Krishna Consciousness and brought about some fusion between Indian forms of music (collaboration with Ravi Shankar) with his own distinctive approach to guitar composition.
    But I wonder if this is just a phenomenon of the Rock era?
    Afro-American spirituals/gospel music of the 19th century helped spawn rhythm n’ blues and jazz and those genres retain the gospel impulses and operate on grounds that are not “modernist”.
    And then in a different genre there was Listz’ approach to piano composition (like his rhapsodies)that reflected a peculiar genius in mixing up earlier classical styles.

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