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Sound & Music Semiotics
by Chris Arning| London, UK
Monday, 6 July 2015
tags: categories, clients & brands, consumer culture, europe, fuzzy sets, semiotics
I am embarking on a large project on the semiotics of sound and music. I have been commissioned by the Radio Advertising Bureau in a project ran by Push Research to create an audio mood board of brand words. As I do so, something has occurred to me about the way music and sound is packaged. Sampling culture in electronic music has enabled packets of affective scripting to be condensed into breaks – this is arguably why hip-hop production has had such an influence, because the crunching beats, moody baselines and scathing guitar riffs are salient but they are also deftly combined with richly daubed musical leitmotifs often conveying exultant triumphalism or a sort of hectoring anguish.
“Maximalism” is vague and capacious enough to contain a whole bunch of ideas and associations. In terms of design, it is the opposite of minimalism and the famous Bauhaus Manifesto that pronounced ornamentation a crime and that exalted pared back parsimony. Maximalism in interior design is associated with unusual juxtapositions, opulent shapes, and a greater association with the baroque than with the classical. The irony now of course is that musically we live in a time of both minimalism and maximalism. Philip Glass and his ilk having had a huge influence on ambient music and on advertising too. But what is maximalism? A good example would be the TRON Legacy soundtrack composed by Daft Punk composed in 2009 which combines a full orchestra with synth and drone samples for a hybrid classical trance house soundscape.
Is the definition given by this reviewer in Pitchfork magazine: “the general slant of these verdicts is that there are a hell of a lot of inputs here, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty.” For me, the exemplars would include artists such as Rustie and Hudson Mohawke and potentially artists such as Black Moth Rainbow and Genghis Tron in its more thrash metal iterations. In classical or romantic music you would associate it with Mahler and Beethoven, lush, bombastic, majestic symphonies. And perhaps even a Richard Strauss.
Synths and the potential for layering music in production means that lushness of music can be continually added to, like thickening the fibrousness of palms in a jungle by continually adding new threads to the fibre. Music production software packages like Logic allows us to create a new track at whim.
In hip-hop too, much production favours the use of heavy strings, synths and a wall of sound, designed to heighten the tension, sense of alienation or odds. Certainly when we compare it to the stripped down beats of the mid 1980s.
This surfeit of semiotic resources, may not be a bad thing; not an accursed share but I do think it’s popularity and catchiness to the ear does owe something to the notion of Supernormal Stimuli. This is the theory stemming from the work of ethnologist Tingerben as developed by cognitive scientists.
Maximalism is the musical equivalent of a sherbet fountain, a mouthful of Cheesy Wotsits (that’s a rather arcane UK reference) or a vast arcade of instantly viewable porn MPGs or a chromophiliac colour monkey on LSD.
Maximalism has also been called Purple to describe just these synaesthesic qualities of the music – the music is so luscious you can almost cuddle it.
Physiologically, we are easily habituated to get accustomed to a threshold of stimulation and pleasure and the threshold can be permanently recalibrated by continued over stimulation our pleasure centres can be easily overwhelmed and this is arguably what much music does. Our dopamine, serotonin and opioids.
What culturally does it mean? Is this just about the human predilection for both possibility and excess in music production (simply because we CAN do it, we SHOULD), is it just a function of the UK’s fecund underground urban music scene, or is it somehow connected to a deeper chord of ideological note? Well, Slavoj Zizek indicated in Living in the End Times the notion of neo-liberalist capitalism built on eradicating the superego. So totalitarian injunctions against transgression have been replaced by a tyranny of permissiveness, the injunction to enjoy, consume, acquire become normative. To be hedonistic with a hedge fund spunking money created in a casino and to blow it on cocaine, crystal meth or prostitutes; go on a spree, a binge, a bender is encouraged. Frugality in consumption and to renounce is to be a pariah or at least enemy of consumerist capitalism. Isn’t Maximalism in music then an anthem for a mythical ideology? In prodigal times celebrated by those who have and craved by those who don’t.
For me the apotheosis of maximalism is Hudson Mohawke’s Fuse. Listen here:
For more on Maximalism and Purple music see:
© Chris Arning 2015