High On Volume

Being surrounded by people bothered by noise—not just roommates, but also the classmates and resident tutors next door, above and below—can sometimes feel like living in a library. Obviously the expectations aren’t even in the same ballpark, which is probably why it’s thought to be obnoxious when bass actually breaks through walls in the first place, upsetting naps and cram sessions and quiet evenings on the futon and what have you.

It comes across as inexplicable (or truly selfish) that I hate turning down the volume so that everything’s contained and nice. “What’s the point,” one thinks, “of owning a subwoofer just to blow more air?” Maybe while driving your car out in the street you can justify the extra liberty, but not indoors, where the smaller environment renders the whole device excessive. Admittedly, owning equipment that’s made to boost a hedonistic (as opposed to transcendental, but I’ve been thinking they are on the same continuum) experience renders me a wasteful bohemian. But there is a point.

Bass, in itself, isn’t base. I think the low-end in music after rock has been stigmatized not just because it’s loud, but because it’s become disembodied. There’s no bass player, no one there to praise or blame but the bass itself. Yet the bass is ever more important; it’s a force of its own that literally forces attention to itself. There’s always been low-end in music, but at this point it demands proper representation. So does everything else for that matter.

When I listen to a jazz or classical record (or a folk record—not that I have more than two) it hardly matters how loud it is. As a recording it’s already a second-degree experience of the musicianship, without the spontaneity or theatricality of the performance. You can still hear some of it, but there’s no fundamental connection. The only essence that’s preserved is the notes themselves, their tangible ideas and relationships. As long as they’re clearly audible the music conveys enough

The first Walkmen album, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, actually sounds better to me coming through my alarm clock speakers. I don’t think it’s a fluke—the most compelling thing about that record is how their piano is mixed to sound like it’s punching through the cloud of thin, ringing guitar and hoarse drums (and it comes across just as energized and hypnotizing as the bassline in, say, Britney’s “Toxic”). The tinny speakers simply double the effect. But the point is that the production itself is a huge part of what matters; it’s a separate idea that isn’t merely bound to replicating the original acoustics.

When the music happens on hard drives, never really existing outside of virtual space, it conflates composition and performance. In hip-hop, the voice is only half the equation if not less—beyond lyricism, freestyles and all that, the musical invention is happening on the level of the sampler and sequencer. You’d think hip-hop would be incredible live, but at this point the music has a hard time straddling its two worlds. Little surprise, then, that the Roots put on the best hip-hop show I’ve ever seen.

This is why “Mad” Mike Banks, one founder of the seminal Detroit producer/DJ collective Underground Resistance, said “techno is deadlier than rap” even though the latter’s the one that yells in your face. Electronic music (modern hip-hop, which is indeed 95 percent electronic, is still 5 percent “real”) takes you from all angles. It implicates you directly as part of the phenomenon—forces (assumes, even) a response because it is effect. It could hurt you or captivate you or strike you so deeply and immediately that you’re paralyzed for a few seconds.

No, these words aren’t pseudo-academic jargon for “I should be able to turn up my music because I like it.” (Ideally, then, I’d live alone in a warehouse.) The fact is that most of this stuff comes from club and rave culture, where booming soundsystems are the norm. Below a certain volume threshold, it loses effect—thus meaning—completely. Leftfield drum & bass producer Equinox makes dub basslines so deep (below 30 Hz) they’re barely audible at high volume on standard speakers. They’re meant to literally shake your body, seize your insides. And studio wizards like Foul Play used to program breakbeats that were so rapid and microscopic they had the tactile effect of crawling over your skin.

When it’s loud enough, Triple R’s gorgeous Friends mix on Kompakt makes me feel like I’m dancing inside a womb. Debussy might’ve fallen head over heels for the German house label, whose artists are masters at coloring texture as well as tone. Like so much new music, it fully engages the physical field, which is exactly why you can’t listen to it the same way you used to be able to enjoy a lyric or a tune—it’s become more than that. It goes well beyond spectacle. The skeptics say you have to listen loud because “there’s nothing there,” but it’s precisely the contrary.