Many musicians have exploited mistakes and disorder to great effectPixabay

Glenn Snoddy, the studio engineer who invented the fuzz pedal, died last week. The fuzzy guitar tone emerged in the 1960s from the amplifiers of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, and has been used in rock and pop music ever since. Snoddy invented the piece of equipment (a box holding a circuit with three germanium transistors) which allows the guitarist to change their tone from clean to fuzzy with the tap of a pedal. The fuzzy tone – now desirable for guitar players in many genres – was initially an accident. Snoddy and Don Law were recording the electric bass part for Marty Robbins’s 1961 single ‘Don’t Worry’ when they noticed the bass’s distorted rumble. Snoddy convinced the unhappy bass player that the sound was worth keeping, and later revealed that it was a result of the transformer in the amplifier having blown up. He created an effects pedal which allowed guitarists to replicate the sound without any explosions, and soon he heard it all over the radio: the riff in The Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ perhaps being the most famous example.

Many musicians have exploited mistakes and disorder to great effect. The introduction to Radiohead’s ‘My Iron Lung’ has a thin, haunting guitar part which is hard to imitate. The guitarist used the first version of the Whammy pedal, which had foot-controlled pitch-shifting effects. He had it set so as to produce a note an octave above the one he was playing on his guitar, but the original pedal design had trouble with more than one note at a time, resulting in the malfunctioning robot noises. Cameron Carpenter does something similar in his organ arrangement of Schubert’s song ‘Erlkönig’ (‘Fairy king’), in which a young boy tells his father who is carrying him about a supernatural being that he, the father, cannot see or hear. Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s poem distinguishes four voices: the narrator, the father, the child, and the Erlkönig. The boy’s cries become progressively more anxious as the Erlkönig asks him to join him and eventually seizes him. In Schubert’s song, the boy’s cries (“Mein Vater, mein Vater”) are troubling enough, but Carpenter, in his arrangement, adjusts his organ so that the higher parts, representing the boy’s voice, are out of tune, making the piece even more distressing: Carpenter said “it should be painful.”

Steve Reich’s ‘Pendulum Music’ is an extreme example of composed chaos. In summer of 1968 he was working in New Mexico, and, imitating a cowboy, tied a cable of a plugged-in microphone like a lasso and swung it back and forth. He noticed that a nearby speaker made a ‘whoop’ sound whenever the microphone passed by it, and decided he could orchestrate the sound for multiple microphones. His composition calls for three or more microphones suspended at different lengths above a row of speakers. When a microphone nears a speaker, it gives off feedback. Different lengths of cable swing at different speeds, creating an unsynchronised series of feedback squeals. Occasionally the squeals coincide in such a way that the listener thinks that there is a deliberate underlying rhythm, but there isn’t one. We only hear one because of the brain’s necessity to create and recognize patterns.


Mountain View

The mushroom as muse

The progressive metal band Between The Buried and Me recorded a song called ‘Ad A Dglmut’, the title of which was the result of one of the band members sitting on his phone which then sent the text message ‘ad a dglmut’ to a fellow band member. The band wrote and recorded a song with that as a title to show how we find beauty in something putatively disordered, whether it be an accidental message, a fuzzy guitar tone, or a cubist painting. With this in mind, I recommend modern pop bands to include some more disorder in their songs: more than two chords, please!

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