In recent years, music analysts have grappled with the sonic strategies from popular expressions that evade traditional notation. Their approaches often rely on harmonic spectrographs or various textual tools to decode the creative mechanics of these art forms. But for many practices with innate musicality—such as spoken-word poetry—these common techniques make limited explanatory headway. This article proposes an alternate path to fill the gaps: Adopt an analytic perspective, grounded in phenomenology, that listens for the musical subject’s negotiation of embodiment through their calculated treatment of timbre in the voice. Here, the analyst traces their perception of the subject’s bodily resonance through diagrams called timbral maps. And through these maps, two key concepts are discovered that structure the creator’s interior logic: timbral surfaces and timbral moments. Surfaces and moments are built into recognizable patterns, which in turn disclose the methods of these artists as lucid on their own terms. This “surface-moment” model is prototyped using a recorded performance of “This Clouded Heart” by the grunge-era Seattle poet and performance artist Steven Jesse Bernstein. The model reveals several stylistic tactics honed by Bernstein through his play with resonant shifts, but more significantly, argues for recasting timbre in analytic contexts: first, as a sustained and winding musical dimension, able to unfurl like other large-scale organizing principles; and second, as a heuristic capable of engaging listeners in an empathetic web between themselves and the subject through the mimetic connection of their bodies.
Timbral Heuristics and the Sonorous Presence of Steven Jesse Bernstein
Daniel Siepmann works in research development for The City University of New York (CUNY). Previously, he served in the nonprofit arts sector with organizations ranging from the Cultural Research Network and Chamber Music America to Bang on a Can and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. His other writing appears in publications such as The Quietus, PopMatters, NewMusicBox, Perspectives of New Music, Preternature, and the Journal of Musicological Research, among others.
Daniel W. Siepmann; Timbral Heuristics and the Sonorous Presence of Steven Jesse Bernstein. Resonance 1 September 2021; 2 (3): 353–376. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/res.2021.2.3.353
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