Every so often when listening to music, a particular sound piques your ear’s interest in a way unlike any others. It happens when you least expect it, in the dark corners of a song, tucked away like a forgotten sweater. I like to call these little moments in music “micro sounds,” and they are often responsible for jarring you from passive to active listener, something we all need from time to time again. This playlist compiles some of my favorite micro sounds; moments in a song that, in their simplicity, help tune you in to the artist’s intent. They’re a blend of the right timbre at the right moment captured via recording techniques unable to be repeated, and in their own special way, they’ve each become a synecdoche of their corresponding larger work.
The distorted piano sound at 0:26 in J Dilla’s “Mash,” off the groundbreaking, game-changing Donuts, holds a special place in my heart. I remember bringing this album to a listening party with my friends on a USB drive, and pouring into each individual track. And as the mélange of sounds passed through our ears, this particular instance grabbed my attention and refused to let go. In my opinion, no other sound holds such an awesome balance of beauty and grit than this distorted sample. Jutting out from the standard melody in both tone and rhythm like an overactive child blurting out a genius idea in class, you come to both expect and love the outburst, and the entire work’s significance raises from this one minute moment.
Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois is a prime example of how the right combination of songwriting, arrangement and recording technique serves to spring a work from the mind of the composer to the heart of the listener. This song excels in its intricate orchestration buoyed by the pulsing 5/4 time signature. It feels both unsettled and perfectly natured at the same time. Nowhere is this dichotomy more felt than in the short instrumental breakdown between 1:20 and 1:25. When you truly focus on these 5 seconds, you start to feel somewhat lost and yet never lose track of the main pulse of the song. For an extra special treat (and a testament to the level of detail Sufjan Stevens puts into his recordings), listen through headphones. As the handbells bounce from left to right ear, you start to realize the many layers an artist puts into his or her work. It’s one thing to write a song; it’s an entirely other thing to plan and produce this level of detail in a song all while making the whole thing feel effortless.
The lore behind Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago has become almost as characteristic as the songs held within. Trapped in a cabin, Wisconsin winter, yadda, yadda, yadda, you’ve heard it countless times. But take a minute to see the trees for the forest, so to speak. Justin Vernon’s careful approach to sound and sonic intricacies get to take the forefront this time. The buzzing string sound beginning at 0:28 and featuring intermittently throughout is just one example of this man’s brilliance. To achieve this sound, he has admitted to misusing one of many guitarist’s bizarre gadgets: the EBow. Simply put, the EBow creates a magnetic field around a string, vibrating it similar to a horsehair bow and creating a sort of ethereal sound. By letting the initial moments of the vibration begin and then slamming the device into the guitar strings, Justin Vernon creates a sort of tortured twang, emblematic of the despair and longing present throughout the album.
The Langley Schools Music Project recordings are one of those timeless, outsider classics which continue to baffle and inspire. The wash of natural reverb, caused by the expanse of space only an elementary school gymnasium can provide, help round out the choir’s individual voices, and causes a monstrous blend of saccharine singing. It’s simultaneously extremely large and incredibly intimate, and it keeps you entranced listen after listen. Of particular note is the moment in which the choir splits into a two-part, high-low harmony at 2:32. Building up over 30 seconds to a climactic finish, you can’t help but ponder what the song’s infamous refrain meant to the children in ’77 and how it’s relevance affected them over the last 35 years.
Lastly, we come to Kanye West’s “Runaway.” If you’ve had the misfortune of talking to me about music for over 5 minutes, you’ve likely heard my incessant praise of the musical genius that is Yeezy. I’ll spare you the play-by-play of every significant sound I can find in this work of art (I could analyze this song for hours), and just state the following: the song perfectly captures Kanye’s musical and personal rise from focused beginnings through maximalist endeavors and foreshadows the haunting simplicity of his Yeezus-era work. True beauty.
J Dilla – Mash (0:26)
Sufjan Stevens – Come On! Feel The Illinoise!: Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition/Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream (1:20)
Bon Iver – Flume (0:28)
The Langley Schools Music Project – God Only Knows (2:32-end)
Kanye West – Runaway (the whole damn thing)
Bound Playlist 3: Micro Sounds