R. Luke DuBois Timelapse

[Cantaloupe; 2006]

Rating: 5/5

Musician, programmer, pedagogue, video, and sound artist R. Luke DuBois has
delivered an innovative, ambitious and enjoyable endeavor for his first
major solo release. The pieces on Timelapse were composed through a
process DuBois developed and deems "time-lapse phonography." Much like how
time-lapse photography collects the motion which unfolds before a camera's
lens over a period of time into a single image, "time-lapse phonography"
compresses and, in a sense, "zooms away" from the music to the extent that
most distinguishable components of the input music (instrumentation, form,
vocals, etc.) are subsumed into a single gestalt tone. The technique
involves applying a statistical algorithm to a sound or piece of music to
abstract the spectral average of the input's frequencies and distill a
composite tone representative of these frequencies. But these tones do
reflect the register and average key of, along with the production values
inherent within, the input sound, thus generating timbres which vary in
terms of color, light, and pitch, and sometimes producing surprising
crackles, bubbles, pops, and whirls.

For "Billboard," the input sounds are 857 number one hit songs on the
Billboard Hot 100 charts from 1958 to 2000. Each song is given one second on
the piece for each week spent at #1 on the charts, and you can follow the
chart's progression by viewing the enhanced CD's accompanying program that
shows the artist and song currently playing. The piece succinctly traces pop
music history, from Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool" to Santana and Rob
Thomas singing "Smooth," and is layered with information and observations to
be unpacked about the evolution of pop music. You can watch the rise (or
fall) of rock, disco, R&B, and rap in the public favor. Or notice more
intricate aspects of pop's development, like how earlier hits are often
rooted in brass instrument keys, such as B flat or E flat, while later hits
are most often in guitar keys, such as C, G, D, or A.

Changes in technology and production capabilities also become evident as the
listen creeps closer to the present; you can hear the tones become
significantly deeper, fuller, lower, louder, and noisier as recording
techniques developed, stereo fidelity increased, pop music made the switch
from AM to FM radio, and drums were increasingly incorporated (all this is
best realized with a good set of headphones). To say these tones estrange
their origins is an understatement. It's quite funny to hear the rich, dark,
deep space drone that is Brandy and Monica's "The Boy is Mine" in comparison
to the thin-sounding results of thematically similar songs like the Angel's
"My Boyfriend's Back" or the The Supremes' "Baby Love" (the latter of which
comes out sounding kinda frightening).

"Billboard" provides good fodder to ruminate on the spaces pop music
inhabits and occupies in both our personal and cultural consciousnesses.
Many memories were conjured by these curious pop essences, themselves more
akin to the shape and nature of memory than the actual songs, when I played
the piece with the accompanying program. What "Billboard" really
demonstrates is pop music's capability to map cultural history (see also the
Forrest Gump soundtrack), and how history itself is now inextricably
tethered to pop music. This is most concretely understood in that during
late-'60s songs of protest, angst, and social discontent actually made it to
number one on the charts (Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson," The Rascals
"People Got to be Free") before pop fell into the ubiquitous solipsism of
the 1970s (Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive").
What's worse is to be reminded how Elton John's Princess Diana tribute,
"Candle in the Wind, 1997," was so completely unconvincing, yet went 11
times platinum and spent 5 weeks at number 1.

"Billboard" also brings up questions of pop hit essentialism. Could a
process like this possibly disclose a sonic formula or pattern to guarantee
a chart topper? If so, is it static, or does it shift through the years?
Although the Billboard charts, ostensibly a barometer for current pop
taste, become complicated when considered with the economic factors
(marketing and distribution apparatuses, access to production resources)
determining what gets made, played and when, there is a noticeable lack in
sonic variation and an increase in homogeny among the timbres when
"Billboard" reaches the 1990s as compared to, say, the 1960s. Also, the
later chart toppers tend to stay at number one for much longer periods of
time than their predecessors. One might infer that the playing field for
musical success, in terms of the type of success that Billboard
represents, is growing smaller and smaller, or in that some elemental way
all pop music nowadays sounds the same (the latter of which could be
attributable to more uniform production standards).

As readers of this site already understand and participate in, the pop music
industry is stubbornly going through a transitional period, and grassroots
success is becoming more and more possible thanks to file-sharing,
internet-based music review sites, MySpace, music blogs, and the internet's
infinite potential to disseminate information. Although I'm personally
incapable of performing mathematical or sonic tests to come up with any
"golden formula" for pop, it's safe to say that, given the music industry's
unstable state and the shifting balance between artists, consumers, and
record companies, DuBois's "Billboard" will prove a timely and useful
document in evaluating this shift.

The other two pieces on Timescape are "Clavier," composed of 96
"moments" generated from preludes and fugues from Bach's massive The Well
Tempered Clavier
and boiled down to a little over 5 minutes in length,
and "Time Goes By," which was generated from the soundtrack to the classic
film Casablanca. Inputting Bach's WTC into the time-lapse
phonography process makes sense given Bach's use of mathematic determinants
in composing music, and the WTC has been assigned algorithmic values by
other theoreticians (not to mention its seminal influence in Western
composition). But effectively talking about Bach is beyond the scope of this
review. Casablanca's result is haunting to say the least, and
probably stems from another of Dubois's works, Academy, which
compresses all the winners of the Oscar for Best Picture Oscar into a
76-minute video.

Although generated from and deeply invested in pop music, Dubois's
"Billboard" is not music necessarily geared for repeated ingestion. Purely
as a listen, however, the generated tones are fascinating to hear in all
their sharp and sudden starts and stops and ambient otherworldly
oscillations. But since the piece's architecture is completely determined by
the Billboard charts, it would be a fault to critique the piece
solely as a listen, without its conceptual, technological, or historical
scaffoldings. Dubois's work is best viewed as meta-music, and it's these
ingenuous and accessible conceptual underpinnings that elevate "Billboard"
above other, arguably less inviting, sound art pieces and mark it as a
unique and essential work in the genre. Timelapse gives us not only a
new technique to quantify and experience music, but also a work surely to
elicit new revelations and departure points in the dialogue and critique of
music and cultural history.

1. Billboard I: (August, 1958-June, 1970)
2. Billboard II: (June, 1970-April, 1980)
3. Billboard III: (April, 1980-November, 1991)
4. Billboard IV: (November, 1981-December, 1999)
5. Clavier
6. ...Time Goes By (Casablanca)


Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.