Happy Mortal

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Radiohead & Shabazz Palaces: Plateau Effect

Ever since James Blake dropped his self titled LP, I have been arranging and re-arranging my best albums of 2011 list. Amidst the tinkering, I discovered a captivating phenomenon in some of my favorite records. I call this the “plateau effect” (with apologies to Gilles Deleuze).

I noticed the plateau effect first in Black Up, the Shabbaz Palaces record. Many of the tracks find Lazaro rapping over hodgepodge–buzzes, clicks, off-kilter beats, chopped loops, sounds that belong more to post-dubstep than to mainstream hip hop. It is Lazaro’s flow that gives the tracks coherence. The pieces depend on his rhymes to make sense of otherwise unsteady alliance of sounds. [See especially A Treatise Dedicated . . . and Yeah You].

However, my thoughts on the plateau effect didn’t fully coalesce until I heard Radiohead’s NPR interview on The King of Limbs. When they started making KOL, the band spent five weeks experimenting with loop-creation using a new software. According to Yorke, they ended up producing tracks that were more “sounds and layers flying at each other, like a collage,” than structured songs. Yet Yorke says that the moment he recorded his vocals, the tracks made sense; that he unleashed latent melodies with his singing. You can hear this phenomenon so well on Bloom, the first track of the album. Yorke doesn’t come in for a whole minute. But when he does, you move from listening to a collection of sounds, to hearing a song.

For me, a song produces the plateau effect with these three elements: 1. an unstable alliance of sounds–you are not even sure if they “go” together 2. an element that lends coherence to the track, but which comes in after the song has begun (Lazaro’s flow, Yorke’s singing) 3. a continuing sense of the precariousness of this assemblage. So for the third point, we still hear the hodgepodge of sounds underneath Yorke’s vocals, and thus remain aware that the song is built of elements that sound like they might at any point just go their own separate ways.

The name “plateau effect” is loosely inspired by philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept of a plateau, “an intensive continuity” composed of “very heterogeneous elements” (cf Two Regimes of Madness, pp. 176 – 179). The plateau effect draws attention to the fact that the elements (sounds) that make up a specific intensive continuity (song) are “very heterogeneous” (don’t obviously belong together). At the same time, the plateau effect also highlights (via the vocals) the unity of the “plateau,” and the fact that we have a tendency to see things as units versus assemblages.

The plateau effect is unsettling. Its reliance on an unsteady combination of sounds reminds me that objects–in this case, songs–are composite, and that the composition is unsteady, temporary. Alliances can be dissolved; objects can pass away. Recognizing the plateau effect in a piece of music is like recognizing that I have trillions of microorganisms in my gut that help me digest my food. My body is an assemblage and my consciousness is an element that represents my body to me as coherent, unified. This is not to say that I do not possess a unified body apart from consciousness! The analogy just helps to highlight that uncanny moment where we come into contact with the fragile interpenetrations that make up objects. It is also the uncanny moment where we sense what is alien within the familiar, that which is in some way “in but not of” (like the microorganism in my intestines, or the blip that helps make the song what it is, but still does not quite fit).

But the plateau effect does more than highlight an object’s fragility and strangeness. It also exposes the power of those elements that obfuscate the fragile (and composite) nature of objects, elements like a sung melody, an author, or a logo. We often mistake these elements for the essences or foundations of an object or assemblage, when in fact they are either emergent properties, single elements among many, or fictions posited after an object’s composition. After you listen to Bloom once, you cannot help but hear the melody even before it comes in, as if it was always already there. Subconsciously you might even begin to smooth over the uncanniness in the music, to consider the song itself as smooth, homogeneous, a nice scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

Stay tuned for my Best Albums of 2011 List, which will present shining examples of the plateau effect in a neatly unified list. “Some you play, then move on, couldn’t find the notes/Some friends they groove on you and haunt you like a ghost/You can’t sleep/Always hear that beat/It flow back to mind, every time you breath” (Shabazz Palaces, The King’s New Clothes . . .).

More music and philosophy mash-ups:

2 Comments

  1. Will,
    I agree though I think that this process of our minds “finding” or overlaying a melody or organizing principle within or onto disparate, discrete elements is part of what it means to be a consciousness, a meaning-creating kind of thing that we humans are.

    The bit about the bugs in our guts is a disturbing little game of set-theory. How do you define the boundaries of what comprises a discrete human, a creature etc.? You can take it futher, what is a human without oxygen? Or a baby without a family/caregiver. If the criteria is viability then both fail.

    With music, the kind of play with disparate elements has reached a new kind of height with the tools we have at our disposal. I think with the exponential expansion of tools/sounds on our pallete, the best artists impose a restriction on themselves and focus on working within that limit so they can refine their sounds (e.g. James Blake’s piano, Prophet 08 and voice or fleet foxes’ vocal harmonies and acoustic fingerpicking). For those like radiohead who have continued to explore new sounds, the unifying theme tends to be the use of the minor scale and of course the voice.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Matt.

    My thoughts in this post have been greatly–though unfaithfully–influenced by Object Oriented Ontology OOO (see this post for a pithy definition, if you are unfamiliar: http://www.bogost.com/blog/what_is_objectoriented_ontolog.shtml). Thus, I am not only interested in the work of consciousness projecting structure onto an object or assemblage. Perhaps even more, I am interested in the qualities of the objects themselves. That the song itself is both precarious and unified. A core assumption in OOO is that we can think objects outside of human consciousness. Thus, while I recognize (and wrote about) the interplay between song and mind, I also want to ask, “what does it mean that the song possesses these qualities?”

    As for the set theory, this is one of the major questions I have for OOO, how do you define the boundaries of an object? I believe there is a good post at Larval Subjects about this (http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/), but I can’t find it at the moment. One of the tenets of OOO is that objects withdraw. So we can never come into contact with the essence of the object. I’ve been flirting with the idea that perhaps what withdraws is the objects coherence (its unity).

    I totally agree with you about music and technology. Also, as an artist, I know that my creativity would wither without limitations. Limits are the conditions of creation.