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Echo and Reverb, Fabricating Space in Popular Music 1900-1960

by Peter Doyle
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 2005
293 pp., Trade, $65.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 0-8195-6793-0; ISBN: 0-8195-6794-9.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


The creation, depiction, or representation of spaces in popular music has never been studied thoroughly as far as I know. Murray Shafer has written about it in his groundbreaking ‘Soundscapes’ and several other critics and historians of music like for example David Toop have touched upon the subject, but always sideways, as an afterthought rather than as the centre of their analysis. Not surprisingly, it took a musician with the imagination and the sensitivity of a novelist to bring acoustically imagined space to the front and to write a history of popular music recording from this perspective. Peter Doyle brings in those qualities and takes us on a journey from the very earliest recordings of ‘natural’ and ‘urban’ sounds through the dance halls, jukeboxes and producers’ studios of the first half of the Twentieth Century. And what a journey it is! Exciting from the first page till the very last, with a guide who seems to know all the tricks of recording and performing, who intimately knows the instruments and the equipment used at any stage and who clearly loves to listen to and write about pop music in all its aspects.

The title of this fascinating book is just a little misleading. Echo and reverb are certainly not the only tools engineers and producers have used to create inner and outer spaces, though they figure prominently in productions from the forties on. Long before that, the placement of microphones relatively to the soundsource — singers or musicians — was extensively used to invoke a more or less spacious environment and the addition of extra-musical sound elements such as whistles, birdsong, trains, footsteps and the sound of the surf also helped the listeners’ imagination. Echo, reverb and slapback properly came into their own only later, when tape recorders made their use easier and practically ubiquitous in the recordings of Hawaiian steel guitar bands, ‘harp’ (the blues harmonica) masters like Little Walter and rock stars like Elvis. In fact, echo and reverb at a certain point became so common that the lack of it was felt as a statement, a strong headed choice that underlined the more marginal position or attitude of the artist.

Peter Doyle follows a rough historical line in his analysis. At each stage, he gives a bar to bar description of some exemplary recordings to illustrate the effects used at the time and throws in his own experience to build some understanding of the resulting spatialisation. At times, his analysis goes much further than a mere description of the relationship between production technique and imagined space. In the chapter on Hawaiian bands for example, he fruitfully and convincingly uses the myth of Narcissus and Echo to explain how the music expresses different types of ‘otherness’ and how in its turn, this musical otherness helped listeners to affirm their own ‘normality’ and identity. In a similar way, blues musicians like the aforementioned Little Walter and their producers - Doyle discusses mainly Sun and Chess in this context - used very different spatialisation techniques from the mainstream crooners like Sinatra and prepared the way for a radically new way of listening by opening up the recording space to include the audience rather than keeping the performer bottled up in the recording. So, this is much more than a book on acoustically imaging space. It is a history of the space created and occupied by performers, producers and audiences, and how that space evolved over time.



Updated 1st September 2006

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