Reflections on Sonic Environments

Vincent Meelberg and Marcel Cobussen

Rattle and Hum

As a double bass player, I am constantly trying to improve my technique. Develop a more acute sense of timing, play more dynamically, more in tune, and with a better tone, in order to be able to execute the musical ideas I hear in my mind. While it is clear what developing a stronger sense of timing, playing more dynamically, and more in tune implies, the notion of “better tone” is more ambiguous. It is very difficult to come up with objective criteria that enable the determination of a sound as “good” or “bad,” despite the efforts made by teachers, critics, and conservatories to formulate such criteria and rules. One thing that most teachers tried to teach is how to play as “cleanly” as possible, to let the note sound with as few additional “unnecessary” or “unwanted” sounds as possible. The tones played need to be as clean as possible. Only then can a good tone be achieved. The music one plays should be without rattles, scratches, bumps, or noise. These sounds are considered the “other” of musical sounds, and musical study should be devoted to minimizing these noises.

Since I began playing free improvised music, I have become more and more suspicious of these criteria. Not only because I often use these so-called unwanted sounds as my main musical material, but also because I noticed that these sounds are necessary to create the singular, defining timbre of instruments, or to be more precise: the unique sound of a specific musician playing that particular instrument at that precise moment in time. Without these noises, these sounds, music would literally be anonymous and inhuman.

Hearing these sounds creates a sense of intimacy with the instrument and the player. It is a reminder of the fact that these sounds are produced by a human body. In terms of Susan Kozel’s (Kozel 2007) phenomenology of the body, these sounds are traces of the bodily activity that is responsible for the creation of music. Consequently, the rattles, scratches, bumps, and noise can be considered as sounds about bodily movement, movement that is necessary in order to produce music at all. More precisely, it is about the meeting of two kinds of bodily movement, the movements of a playing and a played body, i.e. the musician and the instrument, respectively. Therefore, the quest to eliminate these sounds is a quest to remove the human in music, as well as to deny the constant struggle playing an instrument such as the double bass implies. Moreover, this conception of “good” musical tone implies that human movement is the other of musical sounds. Movement, the start of all movement, is not supposed to be noticeable in music. Fortunately, there are genres such as free improvised music that celebrate human movement and that place this aspect of music to the fore.


                                                                                                                              The Study

                                                        The Shop

            Sirens                                                                                                                                                                  The Gym


                    The Bedroom


                             The Ear and/versus the Eye

                Sound Design    



                                                    Footsteps                                                                                                                                      Rattle and Hum

                                                                       Your Space