Guest Editor Elizabeth Lindau brings to the IASPM-US site a series of essays on the topic “Stop Making Sense: The Unintelligible in Popular Song.” During the month of May, we’ll explore what it is to sit just on the edge of reason in popular music.
As I went along the street where I live, I was gripped by a rhythm which took possession of me and soon gave me the impression of some force outside myself. It was as though it were making use of my living-machine. Another rhythm overtook and combined with the first, and certain strange transverse relations were set up between them. They combined the movement of my walking legs and some kind of song I was murmuring, or rather which was being murmured through me. This composition… went far beyond anything I could reasonably produce with my ordinary, usable rhythmic faculties. The sense of strangeness…became almost painful, almost disquieting. Paul Valéry, “Poetry and Abstract Thought”
When I listen to a song by the No Wave band DNA, I sense that I am in the same inspired yet difficult position Valéry describes. I do not merely listen to a song: I am gripped by a “force outside myself.” It is as though I experience exactly those “transverse relations” of rhythm upon rhythm, sound upon sound which Valéry (and he is certainly not alone in this formulation) painfully, disquietingly feels as antecedent to poetry and song. For instance, a song like “Not Moving” (included in Brian Eno’s influential 1978 No New York compilation) produces this enigmatic, noise-ridden state through a strange concatenation of distorted electronic keyboard pulses, strict and stark drum beats, all-over Cy Twombly-ish guitar scribble, and the slurred, wretched, and distorted voice of singer Robin Crutchfield. All this moves from one inchoate sound form to another. These transversals possess me. Even the brilliantly awkward transition into the B section of the song’s ternary form (:35) creates a kind of cut that forces a reevaluation, a new relation to the sound forms previously there. I am in the midst of cross-talk and cross-purpose that force me to move three ways at once and stay still, too. My “living-machine” resides within an anxious space, a space of something-about-to-happen and anything-can-happen. Where am I?
DNA’s willful inarticulateness tells me I am neither here nor there. I am simultaneously locked within and knocked out of the rhythms, timbres, and mouth-sounds of their songs. As Simon Frith has argued, in popular music “inarticulateness, not poetry, is the … conventional sign of sincerity” (Sound Effects 35), but DNA’s inarticulate vocal and musical gestures refuse the forms of identification and “soul-to-soul” empathy that typical pop songs provide. Simulating neither an expression beyond expression nor a way of speaking beyond words yet through words, DNA’s performed unintelligibility—their emphasis on a texture of transverse relations—constructs a poetic space that simultaneously entices and confuses, invites and repels. In this complicated listening position we do not overhear and appropriate a lyric enunciation or spontaneous overflow of emotion; instead, we nervously but pleasurably bask in a kind of sonic effulgence, an all-over, malleable and yet immobile radiance of sound.
Within this effulgent texture of crossings, voice—that privileged locus of identification—exists in a radically altered space, where it is neither the over-arching sound form in the music nor merely another instrument. It exists in the midst of noise, yet it still contains the sense of a making-sense. To return to “Not Moving,” Crutchfield’s language and the ways in which he enunciates that language create a dynamic stasis borne out of opposing movements. The lyrics themselves reference this movement and negation:
When you went this way
I went that way
Where are we going?
We’re not moving
Not moving not moving not moving not moving not moving not moving
not moving not moving
These words are extremely difficult to understand and transcribe, as they come to us through a matrix of effacements. And this is not merely a question of volume. Before voice even arrives, the instrumentation counters and muffles it. The instruments refuse to melodically mimic voice or create the resonating relationship of figure / ground that harmony provides. They are neither metaphoric nor preparatory. Instead, they seem to be working at cross-purposes. The musicians are simultaneously together and apart—each wrestles with his / her own instrument (and the traditions of that instrument) while also organizing the group in song. There are repeated motifs but the sounds act less as narratives of harmonic or linguistic progress and more like layers or strata of sound. Robin Crutchfield’s distorted electronic organ “hook” emblemizes this individual and collective push and pull: while he blurs frequencies in a splashy glissando, he also articulates a single, piercing final note that gives shape to the song’s opening. The high scraping of Lindsay’s guitar (typically the most anthropomorphic instrument in pop music) and the flat power of Ikue Mori’s drums similarly remain caught between slurring / choking and articulation. In other words, the sounds in the song internalize the static dynamism that is “not” (and yet) “moving.” These transverse relations do not accede to the communicative (even if “inarticulate”) relation of voice.
When voice does arrive in the song, it also internalizes this sonic situation. Crutchfield’s dysprosodic performance refuses traditional musical, poetic or linguistic sound shapes. It erases itself even as it is being formed. Crutchfield’s mouth reproduces English in a way that desynchronizes his singing body and the metrics of pronunciation. At the same time, he leaves just enough of a trace of the forming words to allow us to listen for a possible articulation. Voice, here, does not emphasize reference or expressivity but rather what Northrop Frye calls charm: “the hypnotic incantation that, through its pulsing dance rhythm, appeals to involuntary physical response, and is hence not far from the sense of magic, or physically compelling power” (Anatomy of Criticism, 278-279). The “magic” of DNA, however, is not only this inviting and involuntary physical response but also the anxiety that meaning might happen at any moment. This cross-talking atmosphere of compulsive but disembodied rhythms—these transverse relations that offer themselves to a listening ear attuned to and confused by the sounds it encounters—might at any moment cohere. This systematic reduction and reconstruction of voice (which is also found in the vocal performance of DNA songs without lyrics, such as “Grapefruit”) echoes the ways in which modernists like Valéry, T.S. Eliot and the Dada sound poets sought to “save” poetry by deemphasizing representational narrative and emphasizing instead language’s connection to sounds and rhythms beyond individual subjects and national boundaries.
DNA, however, reimagines this modernist desire for a form of contact and affection that traverses ossified relations between self and other. By transforming the process of erasure into an act of choking, a grinding of body against language, instrument and self, the band explicitly resists even the consolation of finding sense beyond sense. Instead, choking happens at the point where cross-rhythms meet, where the relation of a voice to a melody, a sentence, a song, a language, an atmosphere, a beat, a body come together and grip the self. The intense vocal performance of “New Fast” perfectly illustrates this: not Barthes’s “the grain of the voice” but rather the grind of the voice. One way to hear the burst of sounds Lindsay emits around :15 is “don’t duplicate my rhythm,” but we might hear this as if he were saying, “do not redouble, redeem, and repeat one’s self in this rhythm. Instead, take this strangled, stuttering sound and let it—and you—be exposed, threatened and open.” DNA perform the inarticulate as the movement by which a bare voice bursts out of noise and by which noise bursts in on voice and meaning. Like Valéry’s reverie, for DNA this process remains always and everywhere in potential, there and not there in every sound, every voice, every walk along the street.
DNA on DNA. No More Records, 2004. CD.
Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock. New York: Pantheon, 1981. Print.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.
Valéry, Paul. “Poetry and Abstract Thought.” The Art of Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958. Print.
John Melillo is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at the University of Arizona for 2011-2013. He specializes in poetry and twentieth century British and American Literature. His dissertation, “Outside In: The Sound of Noise from Dada to Punk,” examines the influence of noise–environmental and musical–on poetics and poetry during the twentieth century. John studies the relationship between sound and meaning in a variety of literary and cultural contexts, from the rhetorical strategies of modernist poets to the contemporary performance of punk music. In addition to his academic research in noise, John writes music criticism and plays guitar and sings, most recently in the pop/noise project Algae and Tentacles.
Elizabeth Lindau is Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology at Gettysburg College. She completed her Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2012 with a dissertation titled “Art is Dead. Long Live Rock! Avant-Gardism and Popular Music, 1967-99.” Liz’s essay “Goodbye 20th Century! Sonic Youth Records John Cage’s ‘Number Pieces’ ” appears in Benjamin Piekut, ed. Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies (University of Michigan Press, in press). This fall, she will join the faculty of Wesleyan University as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music.
Correction: A previous version of this essay stated that Arto Lindsay, not Robin Crutchfield, wrote and sang the song ‘Not Moving.’ Thanks to Alan Schneider at No More Records, who produced the reissue of DNA on DNA, as well as to Robin Crutchfield, for correcting this.