Amon Tobin: A Cool Acousmatic Cat

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30 Jun 2010, 18:09

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"There are things that you find by chance on vinyl that you never imagined, and vice versa when you go out with mics. A lot of emphasis is put on the origins of sound in sample-based music, and I really think it's important, but it's even more important what you do with these sounds: how they're put together, manipulated and arranged. If you think about it, lots of people have said that I have a particular sound, which is odd when you consider that all my material comes from other places. " – Amon Tobin, Interview with Radio Free Canuckistan

Where Time Becomes A Loop: Acousmatique, Rise & Fall
One of the earliest forms of electronic music was music concrète. Composers started manipulating sound stored on disk in the 1930s, but when the tape recorder became widely available after Word War II, the exploration of a new aural medium exploded. In the late '40s, French musicologist Pierre Schaeffer produced a series of tape studies, coining the phrase "music concrète" (French for "real music") in the process. Those studies presented everyday sound objects such as those made by trains and saucepans as music by utilizing all the processing methods of the day, namely editing, reversal, speed change, and/or mixing, and organizing the sounds into then-groundbreaking new forms.

Whereas early electronic instruments like the Theremin and Ondes Martenot were more or less forced to compete with acoustic instruments and the uncountable of years of tradition they carry, music concrète allowed the composer to focus on timbre and arrangement. In the early '50s, German composer Herbert Eimert went another route by forcing the exclusive use of synthesized sound, banning microphones from the studio, and thus creating elektronische musik (pure electronic music).

However, as more processing and synthesizing technology developed through the late '60s, the practices of music concrète and elektronische musik merged to the point they were more easily described simply as electroacoustic music. Neither genre disappeared completely, though, and in various forms, electroacoustic art music exists to this day. Some still made pure electronic music, and, in the mid-'70s, the school of music concrète was imported to Montréal under the banner of acousmatique, where it flourished through the '80s and '90s.

The year 2000 marked the beginning and the end for many things. After the release of a live album in 1998, Portishead embarked on what would become a decade long hiatus. Similarly, Massive Attack disappeared for five years, disintegrating in the studio to become a Robert Del Naja solo project, Sneaker Pimps booted their lead singer and fell in the charts, and so on. Trip-hop was officially dead.

Around this time, pioneer Danny Breaks (Sonz of a Loop da Loop Era) released his final drum 'n' bass album, after which he focused exclusively on turntablist hip-hop. Goldie released two attempts to follow-up the seminal Timeless, falling shorter each time. One of jungle's primary founders, Rupert Parkes (a.k.a Special Forces, Studio 1, and most notably Photek) marked the withdrawal of drum 'n' bass from the mainstream by releasing 2000's Solaris, an ill-advised and miserably received album primarily featuring Chicago house, speed garage, and minimal techno. It was the first Photek album that failed to chart, and, ten years later, it remains his last original full-length.

Bad Meaning Good: Supermodified
The year 2000 also saw the release of Amon Tobin's fourth album. Supermodified is the axis point of his career, bridging the gap between his first three jungle/trip-hop albums and the increasingly genre nonspecific works that followed. Thematically, Supermodified is an obvious continuation of Tobin's sound, and not a reimagining. Tracks like "Golfer vrs Boxer" and "Deo" are distinctly drum 'n' bass in structure, and I would make the case that "Slowly" and "Marine Machines" are within trip-hop range, yet every track on the record was dense with eclectic sounds, often indeterminable as actual instruments.

Like its predecessors, the album was recorded in Tobin's bedroom, but home recording technology was advancing exponentially at the time, and some of that found its way into his studio. While this meant the following of a learning curve as he came to terms with new gear, it also allowed for greater precision and creativity then ever before. The ability to digitally manipulate sounds grew keener by the day, hence the title of the album.

One of the album's most striking tracks, "Marine Machines" is rich with orchestral sounds, like flute, xylophone, and assorted brass and strings. Sometimes the xylophone is filtered to sound like a vibraphone in the background, and other times, it is mixed with a variety of percussive sounds of varying presence, something like clinking glasses or a wind chime. The beat that pops up from time to time, reinforcing the pulse felt throughout the track, is certainly hip-hop like rhythmically, but its timbral origins are not exactly clear.

In the track's opening moments, a ride cymbal can be heard alternating with a finger cymbal like sound, all of which is forced to the background a moment later as a static drum loop enters, processed to remove lower frequencies. This drum loop possesses an insect like fuzz, playing off the panning granules that buzz around the listener's headphone like a Naked Lunch typewriter. That loop is filtered away after a layer of brass is introduced, but it quickly returns fleshed out with a metallic snare and thick, lethargic kick, and remains a support for much of the track's duration.

About halfway through "Marine Machines" there is a breakdown that pairs identifiable drum sounds (i.e. a slowed snare, a filtered kick) with a slippery whooshing that seems to echo from left to right, but with differing patterns in each ear, acting as cymbals, later rejoined by the opening insect drum loop as the track builds back up. It is hard to tell where the processing begins and where the editing ends. Only "Escape" from Permutation hints at this approach to processing, with its swirling, skittering warps and occasional spoon claps and metallic scrapings, but it consistently places far more recognizable drum sounds in the foreground than seen on "Marine Machines".

That said, Tobin makes no secret of his use of blacksmith anvil samples on "Keepin' It Steel (The Anvil Track)", apparent from the title alone. Yet, what he does with them is quite interesting. The most obvious use of the clanging of hammers on anvils would be in a percussive role, given the distinct blows with their sharp attack and rapid decay. While Tobin does use part of the sample as a kind of rattle, he places the emphasis through editing and filtering on the whiny, whistling tone of the anvil itself, using the sample more for melody than rhythm.

Hip Hip Sun Ra: Out From Out Where
Interestingly, as Amon's studio filled out and his processing became more advanced, becoming comfortable with Cubase as a sequencer, he moved to Montréal, home to Ninja Tune's North American headquarters and the quintessential electroacoustic music scene. The influence of the area was already present in his work, most obviously on "Precursor" from Supermodified. The track prominently featured vocal samples of Montréal beatboxer Quadraceptor, edited and arranged in unnatural manner, evoking the onomatopoeic yet highly rhythmic work of acousmatic composer Robert Normandeau, specifically the Université de Montréal/Francis Dhomont student's "Le Renard et la Rose" from 1995.

Released in 2002, Out From Out Where marked the true realization of Tobin's sound. This album contained few specific references to electronic music genres, just a trace of big beat here and jungle there. Many of the tracks segued into one another, reinforcing the work as a complete album and not a collection of singles for deejays.

The level of studio sophistication Tobin achieved on Out From Out Where was beyond compare to his earlier works. The record featured more intense manipulation of sounds before rearranging them, rather than the editing that dominated his works to that time. Where tracks on Adventures in Foam followed a clear step-wise progression, the compositions on Out From Out Where ebbed and flowed, not unlike soundscape composer Hildegard Westerkamp's "Breathing Room" piece. In each piece, signature sounds seem to bubble forth out of the ether.

"Hey Blondie" begins with just some rattling, ringing, and percussion, and builds intensity for the first half of the track. The drums kick in at the 30-second mark, but the key melodic line, a warbled concoction made from what sounds like guitar and electric piano, does not peak until a minute in, and as soon as it does, it evaporates into a clear electric guitar riff for a few seconds, then reappears with a soaring "Ah" vocal.

Where "Precursor" from Supermodified used the raw sounds of a credited beatboxer, "Verbal" from Out From Out Where mauls a series of vocal sounds so bad between micro edits and wah-wah that, to this date, the true identity of the credited MC Decimal R is still hazy. The vocals are immediately identifiable as vocals, but even when one slows down the track, no actual words are discernable. Yet, he employed the vocal still mindful of gestures, creating a fluctuating, continuous flow. Furthermore, "Searchers" makes use of the passacaglia technique, launching a bass guitar loop early and repeating it throughout the majority of the track, over which various orchestral, percussive, and processed sounds expand and contract.

Meanwhile, the use of "Clair de lune" by Claude Debussy in the opening "Back From Space" and the many samples of Edgard Varèse's seminal electronic piece "Poème Èlectronique" at the very end of "El Wrath" and throughout "Proper Hoodidge" link Tobin's work to the art music tradition that has continued all these years, despite the inexorable rise of popular music. As Tobin embedded himself in Montréal and their rich history, he seemed to reach back into that history more than ever.

Affected Sounds: Chaos Theory & Foley Room
As usual, there were many nods to film throughout Out From Out Where. The title "Hey Blondie" is taken from a line in Sergio Leone's 1966 spaghetti western epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a film whose composer Ennio Morricone is often mentioned by Tobin as a major influence. "Chronic Tronic" uses the famous 20th Century-Fox fanfare, written by nine-time Academy Award winning composer Alfred Newman. Similarly, I believe "Searchers" is a reference to the 1956 John Ford/John Wayne western The Searchers, likely using elements of Oscar winning composer Max Steiner's score for that film.

Tobin's music had frequently been licensed by various television programs, films, and commercials throughout his career, but Montréal presented him with a much more enticing opportunity. Video game developer UbiSoft hired him to score the third installment in the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell series, beating out the likes of his hero Lalo Schifrin (Bullitt, Cool Hand Luke) for the job. The company, and Ninja Tune, was so impressed with Tobin's soundtrack that it was released on CD in 2005. While video game compilations had been released as early as the mid-'90s (with the 1995 soundtrack to wipEout being a cornerstone of both video game and electronic music), Tobin's Chaos Theory was one of the first commercial releases of an original video game score.

It also marked a change in Tobin's approach to composition. While he still utilized vinyl samples for source material, Amon began to experiment with other musicians. For the score, he brought a veritable United Nations of session musicians into UbiSoft's studio. On the bass was Nacho Méndez, a Mexican film composer famous for writing the score to the 1971 psychedelic western El Topo, while Japanese flutist Eiji Miyake, Massimo and Umberto Modugno (Italian brothers who put a long standing feud behind them to contribute Hammond organ and Mellotron sounds), and a host of others contributed sounds. Instead of writing specific pieces for each performer, Tobin encouraged them to simply improvise, providing him with melodic fragments and raw sounds to reform into logical melodies, beats, etc.

Amon took the approach of using session musicians purely as a sound source even further with Foley Room in 2007. Also recorded at UbiSoft's studio, as well as McGill University, he had the likes of To Rococo Rot's Stefan Schneider throwing chickpeas and lentils at a drum kit, and playing with an egg whisk, while the famed Kronos Quartet all playing a single violin, despite their intense classical training and lack of improvisation experience. Polaris Music Prize winner Patrick Watson riffed on the piano, and Sarah Pagé performed likewise on the harp.

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