Monday, 23 November 2015

Prick Up Our Ears

‘We never hear anything where no men were involved’. This is the opinion of Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes. She’s right, too. There are plenty of all-girl groups, and many of these groups have made conscious attempts to produce female and feminist music. Wholesale girl power is restricted, however. There is always a man lurking at some point in the process. By way of illustration, Grimes points out that Emily Lazar is the only female mastering engineer working today, while there are no female mixers at all. As a consequence, she feels that Art Angels, her new, self-made album, provides something novel. It is a truly female recording. Grimes says, ‘The whole record was produced, engineered, written, performed by a woman, which is pretty rare. I don’t know if I ever heard a record like that, fully, with vocals on and stuff.’
Art Angels is a valiant enterprise. There is nevertheless still a male presence in this woman’s music. We need only follow Grimes’ logic further down the line. Most instruments have been designed and built by men, as have most professional recording studios and most software programmes. It is men, primarily, who have been responsible for the development and manufacture of recording formats.
This matters aesthetically as well as politically. Record listening is a complex process. This can be witnessed in the interviews that Justin Morey and Phillip McIntyre conducted with artists who used samples. They wanted to know what attracted them to particular recorded sounds. I have quoted some of the responses before:

“Sometimes we might sample a drum loop that’s amazing, you know it’s got a fantastic sound. For us it’s the atmosphere that it gives [to] something . . . so [we look] more for the sound and the feel that a sample would give you rather than the playing.”

“So we sort of chanced upon all this stuff that we weren’t really aware of because it wasn’t part of our generation really … We really liked the kind of woody warmth to that stuff, which was all obviously produced in lovely studios, and the sound you were getting off the vinyl . . . And hearing that in the context of the cleanliness of the analogue synths and drum machines and stuff like that, we just enjoyed that whole kind of warmth really, and just the way it added this kind of organic dirt.”

“The sonics, the groove … it is essential the sonics.”

“the circumstances that they recorded in were atmospherically different than the way modern records are recorded, and that’s part of the whole thing”

“A lot of the time, it is the sound”

When we listen to records there are many things that prick up our ears. The songwriting and musicianship are clearly important, but so is the sound of the instruments, the sound of the room, the sound of the recording format itself. There is something great about this. A record is not just made by a community of musicians; it is made by a series of communities, including the production team, the mixers, the manufacturers and the mediators. Popular music truly is popular: it is of the people. Grimes is right, however, to make us pause for thought. Sometimes it is good to narrow the focus; we need to have records that reflect particular constituencies. This remains easier for some communities than others, however. There probably are records that are male through and through, from the songwriter’s initial idea to the finalisation of the recording format. We are still waiting for a record where only women are involved.

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