Echo and Reverb
Peter Doyle, Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900–1960 (Wesleyan University Press, 2005)
The cover of Peter Doyle’s Echo and Reverb is promising as hell—a red-rock mesa (New Mexico?) into which intrudes a vintage Shure microphone, next to an intriguing subtitle: “Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900–1960.” I’m a sucker for such oblique, scholarly tomes; I mean, now that the Beatles’ story has been told a hundred times over, what’s left? Auspicously, there’s a university-press logo on the spine and, of course, no illustrations. Plus, very small type.
When will I learn my lesson? For every File Under Popular (Chris Cutler), Country (Nick Tosches), or Noise (Jacques Attali), there must be thirty or so near-misses of the Echo and Reverb kind. It happens often enough to qualify as a pathology. Why?
Doyle (an Australian professor of “media,” I think) is interested in echo and reverb mainly as essential qualities of various “despised” musics of the early-to-mid twentieth- century: Hawaiian, hillbilly, blues, Southern roots-rock. In his very long introduction, he cites Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of territorialization-deterritorialization-reterritorialization (don’t ask), as well as the usual suspects in the field (Guralnick, Palmer, Tosches, Marcus, Lomax), in tracing the genesis of his own thinking. He also spends an inordinate amount of time tiptoeing about the minefields of musical critical theory—for me, one of the few really interesting parts of the book.
He references Adorno (“his broad approach of seeking and seeing both the text within the culture, and the culture within the specificities of the text”), Susan McClary and Robert Walser (“the alternatives in writing about music are either to write impressionistically [and thereby fail to address the details] or to address the details in technical terms [and risk mystifying readers]”), and David Brackett (“we need to consider parallel codes relating to listener competency”). He mentions Charles Keil’s Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy vis-à-vis recorded/live music, and cites Albin Zak’s contention (The Poetics of Rock) that “the aesthetic criterion shifted from the sound of the actual performance to the sound of the recording.”
These are not garden-variety ideas in a book about popular music; I’m beginning to salivate. Doyle seems to have read so deeply in the critical canon that he can come up with a passage like this: “Feld compares [R. Murray] Schafer’s formulation of ‘sounds split from their sources’ with Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ with Attali’s notion of ‘repeating,’ and with Baudrillard’s conception of the ‘signature.’” Or this: “As a counter to Schafer’s wholly pessimistic notion, Feld poses a construct involving complementarity, borrowing from Gregory Bateson the term schismogenesis, which refers to ‘patterns of progressive differentiation through cumulative interaction and reaction.’”
What kind of wild roller-coaster ride are we in for here?
It is not to be. What follows is a fairly interesting history of “spatiality” in recorded sound (including film soundtracks), and a discussion of carefully selected examples of “deterritorializing” effects in popular music achieved through reverb and echo, either through a performer’s placement vis-à-vis room and microphone (e.g., Robert Johnson) or electronic effects (e.g., Les Paul). We even get a Freudian reading of Shane, focusing on the “phallically impaired” father.
It’s admirable that Doyle can speak of early opera recordings, Delta bluesmen, and Hank Williams in the same breath. It’s admirable that he’s conversant with both actual recording techniques and theory. And it’s admirable that he doesn’t try to depoliticize the realm of popular music, instead characterizing artists as disparate as Elvis, Robert Johnson, and Sol Hoopii as bearers of deeply subversive messages.
But Doyle’s examples begin to take on the whiff of arbitrariness. A lengthy discussion of Robert Johnson’s self-conscious achievement of “intimacy” on his records fails to truly differentiate him from such predecessors as Son House, Charley Patton, and Skip James. And just when he’s convincingly linked reverb-soaked vocals/guitars to outsider music, he somehow rationalizes Hank Williams’s “dry” approach. Similarly, it’s never made clear why the massively reverbed vocals of, for example, Tony Bennett and Elvis (Sun period) don’t “mean” in the same way.
The book is actually most engaging when the author gets down to nuts and bolts. He enumerates Les Paul’s experiments in some detail and even makes a convincing case that the jerk suppressed Mary Ford’s creativity through his fascistic control of the process. Ultimately, though, Doyle’s reliance on the Deleuze/Guattari model (which I admit to being somewhat mystified by) paints him into the same corner occupied by so many critiCS: The facts are molded to fit the idea.
DANN BAKER is freelance editor, writer, and musician living in Brooklyn. His musical projects have included Love Camp 7 and the late, lamented (?) Admiral Porkbrain, a Beefheart cover band.