Sunday, August 27, 2006

Feedback and discord

I have a theory that specific aesthetic conditions that are present within a society can indicate deeper social structures and the metaphysical principles that motivate these structures. In other words, the way in which certain forms of expressions appear or are reveals aspects of the mechanics of society itself. This is a difficult point, but perhaps two examples drawn from my experience here can flesh this idea out:

1. Feedback. We live in age of affordable highly proficient sound recording and production technology. Certainly, television studios and film production companies are fully able to afford the various components of the technology. The question that is begged is why is there still frequent feedback on television and for instance in nollywood films? (By feedback I mean when the sound levels peaks and starts to distort into a fuzz of noise). Is it a) production facilities are cash-starved, and even the basic equipment is not available? b) there isn't the technical know-how of equipment or production/post-production to flatten any possible feedback? c) There is no perception that there is anything wrong with feedback, and therefore a) and b) do not apply?

I toss and turn to decide which of these three responses applies, whenever I listen to an NTA news report rendered inaudible by feedback, or when some hammy actor in a nollywood flick starts shouting and the volume peaks into noise. Given that HD digital cameras are increasingly used here as elsewhere in the world, it may be the case that while a and b are factors, my suspicion is that c plays the domineering role. Feedback and excessive noise is not regarded as problematic here, whereas elsewhere it is. It is therefore only casually addressed. The point this aesthetic phenomenon reveals is that Nigerian society is a noisy society. I don't simply mean that people are loud on film, when using the phone etc. Rather, it is that excessive volume is part of the way in which life is lived and things are done. That volume expresses itself as feedback - where any significant content is transformed momentarily into the pure expression of white noise - is a spiritual value that structures the society. It indicates that sonic violence, as a mode of expression, is embraced within the rules of acceptable communication. There are similarities and differences with other cultures and societies here. Perhaps the main difference with western patterns (in Northern Europe) is that feedback and excessive volume is parcelled into compartments - youth culture, the demonstration etc - and expelled from many forms of collective gathering (the hushed office, the silent tube in the rush hour). One could say that noise is part of a restricted economy of sound in Northern Europe, whereas it forms part of a general economy here.

As has been observed, climate may play a role in all this. Warm places, where life has traditionally been lived outdoors tend to be more accepting of volume than cooler climes, where life has traditionally been lived indoors (has anyone ever accused Italians of being a quiet bunch?) That said, I'd like to argue for something specific about feedback levels in Nigerian social circumstances. Nigeria is a noisier society than for instance Ghana. Perhaps the highly complex political and ethnic backdrop plays a role in raising volume levels in this case.

2. Discord. One thing I've noticed in my time here that continues to puzzle - but first, a prefatory remark: I play jazz guitar, and have a reasonably advanced understanding of music theory after many years of classes and jam sessions. Just as spelling mistakes leap out at me without consciously looking for them after many years of professional writing/copywriting, so too, I find an out of tune instrument an offence to the ear.

What therefore puzzles is me is why every guitar I've heard played live in Nigeria has been out of tune. Again, a set of explanations arises. Is it a) guitarists here aren't trained on how to tune a guitar (matching against a piano, using harmonics, using a tuning fork/guitar tuner)? or is it b) They know how to tune a guitar but can't be bothered if the strings are just a little out? or c)(and a direct parallel with the c) of the feedback example) - there is no perception that a slightly out-of-tune guitar presents an issue?

Again, I am tempted towards c - for various reasons. First, all the out-of-tune guitars are not completely out of tune - they are just slightly (often a few microtones) out. This creates an unusual but not unattractive sound - a little like the first time one hears Thelonious Monk playing at the edge of the scale with flattened or sharpened thirteenths. It seems to me in fact that there is a stronger version of c at work - that the slight dissonance of an untuned guitar has a certain aesthetic quality to it. Untuned, the guitar creates microtones in the context of an ensemble which sound to me a bit like certain Saharan sounds. (As a caveat, I have to say that perhaps the two most famous Nigerian musicians in recent times who use guitarists - Fela and King Sunny Ade - do not use the technique).

Again, I suspect that the appreciation and culture of a slight dissonance within various music forms here - a dissonance that has parallels in other music forms such as flamenco or arabic forms - speaks of a larger social dynamic - that of an appreciation for the role of dissonance and discord within society itself. In general, forms of social harmony require disruptive elements as aspects of internal critique. It seems that this principle has long been maintained within various aesthetic traditions in Nigeria and relates back again to more fundamental spiritual values. One need only mention eshu-elegba, the orisha of disruption and communication within the Yoruba pantheon, as a case in point.

I'm sure some readers will find the above slightly self-indulgent pontification. All I would say in anticipation of this is that all societies are highly complex and multi-layered. Sometimes, analysing aspects of the aesthetic surface (the way people communicate, the forms of music and discourse they appreciate) can reveal aspects of the larger whole. Nigeria is a noisy and dissonant society. I think we see this in the joy of feedback and the appreciation of the discord created by an out-of-tune guitar.


Shango,  11:41 pm  

"I have a theory that specific aesthetic conditions that are present within a society can indicate deeper social structures and the metaphysical principles that motivate these structures."

Specific aesthetic conditions ..., metaphysical motivating principles, huh? These $10,000 words must have taken many years ensconced in some Ivory Tower to handle the way you do: so deftly, like a nightsoil man and his load.

If you wanted to say Nigerians are loud, obnoxious, and tone-deaf, just say so. See? Only one simple sentence. Then again, I didn't spend much time in any Ivory Towers.

obifromsouthlondon 4:18 am  

shango your summary is to harsh and i'm sure Jeremy is making a considered observation here. i lived in naija for years and "feedback" wasn't an issue to my inner ear. then i came over to the UK and noticed the sonic difference. nothing critical here and i strongly subscribe to "c". you see i listen to alot of rap and jazz music and I've marvelled at the capacity to make something really creative out of what would be considered noise. noise in it's own right becomes a form of expression. a positive expression. some may venture a "black" expression. listen to any Fela song for case in point. splendid in it's aural brashness.

"and I could rock a rhyme to just static"

google it.

a raging and interesting argument/debate went down on this blog about Nigeria and i think it'll be of great interest to you guys.

efiko 4:19 am  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
efiko 4:25 am  

I had a look at your pictures on flickr and you have a picture labelled QC girls. Please note that they are not, i repeat NOT QC girls. The are from HOLY CHILD!!! It is probably against QC rules to be photographed in the street in your uniform. How could you think that QC could ever have anything to do with a maroon, 3 cornered hat? Abeg, my guy, levels dey different. Please amend the caption accordingly before QC girls will see it and vex for you.

Jeremy 9:40 am  

Hi Efiko. Thanks for alerting me from imminent danger and possible disaster. I will make amends forthwith..

dissonance,  11:04 am  

But why denigrate academic pursuit and excellence by calling it 'Ivory Towers'Shango. I bet you went to one and you'll want your children to go to one. Yet, those who spend their lives nurturing minds and the site to do so her so demeaned. Shango you exhibit a profound anti-intellectualism.

I suggest you read both J's comment again and Obifromsouthlondon really and really listened to what is been said. What I hear them saying is that a positive expression can be produced out of noise. this experience is rarely tolerated in Western musical and lived expressions. One of the things that I often wonder about is how we Africans whereever we are located can hold multiple conservations, with so much 'noise' around and yet feel totally unperturbed and at home. AS south london rightly notes, Fela's music is a fine example of holding together multiple sonic dissonance to create aural poetry.

Of course Nigerians can be loud, obnoxious and tone-deaf, but thats a different conversation. If you can't enter the discourse that is been presented to you, just listen to others and you might be amazed as to what you will find.

Aaron Rowe 12:24 pm  

I think this audio effect is called Distortion or clipping not Feedback. Audio feedback is when you put your microphone too close to your speakers and get a high pitched squealing noise that makes you want to clamp your hands over your ears.

The distortion effects are caused because the sound levels are not set properly. Normally a sound engineer would check that the voices of the speaking people and other background noises will not 'peak' the recording equipment, and set the mic levels accordingly. That's what that 'one two.. one two' thing is about.

After that it is possible to post process the audio recording to boost quiet spots and reduce loud spots but generally anything that is too loud, having exceeded the limits of the recording equipment, has lost information in the signal. Anything that is too quiet when amplified will also amplify other noises.

When my better half was watching Big Brother Nigeria earlier this year I couldn't believe just how bad the sound was. It seemed like each room in the BB house had one microphone suspended from the ceiling and the sound people would crank up the mic level to pick up someones whispers, when suddenly someone would shreik or shout out some useless thing about food that would shake me to my bones.

Radio seem to do OK most of the time. Some presenters voices seem to just be a droning mumble of noise, and the call in sections are a definite turn off and watch tv moment 'Hello?...<bzzz> Hello?...<fizz> Hello?... Hello?...'
But generally sound is clear and good quality.

I also can't stand the sound levels in the DSTV advertisements on most channels. In our house we keep the mute button to hand and hit it as soon as we see 'End of Part one'. I hope the advertisers are glad to hear that.

Anonymous,  7:00 pm  

It comes down to three words;

Shango,  8:12 pm  

Obi: "shango your summary is to[sic] harsh and i'm sure Jeremy is making a considered observation here."

Oh, I'm sure Jeremy's observation was "considered." So was Hitler's.

I wasn't necessarily disagreeing with Jeremy. In fact, I agree with his main points; I just thought bloviating about it in the way he did was unnecessary. After all, I'm not that well educated.

Shango,  8:20 pm  

Dissonance: "But why denigrate academic pursuit and excellence by calling it 'Ivory Towers'Shango."

Teehee, this is too good to be true. Tell me Dissonance, did you choose your name in advance knowledge of the cognitive dissonance you were about to show?

To wit: I did not denigrate or otherwise malign any Ivory Towers or the pursuit of academics and excellence. I'd just wanted an easier-to-digest blog entry as I ... yes (everybody!), am not well educated.

St Antonym 9:43 pm  

Shango, ki lo le to'yen?

Hitler ke?

St Antonym 10:18 pm  

Aaron's point occurred to me too.

The phenomenon you describe (very lucidly, nothing ivory tower about it) is more about distortion than about feedback.

Not that we don't love feedback too: visit the nearest New Gen church, and you'll be in feedback heaven.

The question is whether people are unaware of the thing, or whether they enjoy it for its own aural/psychological properties. The answer, as you suggest, is probably both.

I don't like distortion at all, but I quite enjoy feedback. A lot of early West African electric guitar music is full of both feedback and microtonal shifts. It drenches the listening experience in the best possible kind of nostalgia.

Shango,  10:57 pm  

@antonym: perhaps I overreached. :-)
My point is, whether or not an observation was "considered" is moot.

d for dami,  5:30 am  

"this experience is rarely tolerated in the western blah blah blah" u lost mate?, this is our africa!

shango i dey your back. the post is very interesting but coulb have been made simpler or maybe jerry should write to the music and movie people who might just employ a consultant to analyse the post then another "workshop in abuja can follow"

Anonymous,  9:47 pm  

The main problem with the sound is clipping. This can be caused at every stage of the sound recording and production process. And typically people at all stages probably dont care enough. They have all the tools and probably know what should be done but time is money and producers want to maximise profits...

As for out of tune guitars - if you have played any of the guitars used by live bands in Abuja you will find that they are using strings which may be months old and are impossible to tune because of the uneven thickness caused by corrosion and wear. Frets are worn and octaves are not set properly. The guitars themselves are cheap with frets often slightly out of position and with electrics usually in a nasty condition.

The most commonly available acoustics cost around N3,500 and are impossible to tune and have a crap tone.

The slight out of tuneness is more common in high-life (in my experience) than other forms but high-life has quite a human feel and the imperfection gives the music a lot of character - the lead vocalists are quite often more out of tune than the guitars. Maybe that is what the idiot Kanye West is trying to copy....

Felas band used quality Fender guitars and new strings were readily available and he himself was extremely critical of tuning. But he cared...

Almost all professional musicians in Nigeria don't own the instruments they play... Those that have their own instruments still prefer to use the crap provided by the band leader rather than wear out their own.

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