Sunday, March 11, 2012

Changing Opinion

Remember when Philip Glass provided a piece of music to end the song "The Late Great Johnny Ace?" Well, Glass went on to record an album called Songs from Liquid Days. He provided the music for all the tracks, with lyrics by Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne...

...and Simon, whose is the first song on the album.

Glass' form of music is called "minimalism," and Simon's song reflects the idea of doing a lot with a small amount of sound. Because, you see, the song is all about a sound: "Gradually/ We became aware/ Of a hum in the room/ An electrical hum in the room/ It went mmmmm." This "mmmmm" hum is repeated at the end of each verse.

The people in the room try to locate the source of the sound. The even thought the sound may be coming into the room from outside it: "We pressed our ears/ Against the walls... And put our hands on the floor." The sound seemed to almost willfully elude them. It would vary in frequency, and even "seemed/ To disappear" then reappear: "It would roll around the sofa/ A nimbus humming cloud."

As they traverse the room, the seekers offer possibilities to its source. The logical ones guess it might be a "refrigerator." More psychologically inclined think that the voices are in their heads, or memories: "Maybe it’s the hum/ Of our parents’ voices/ Long ago in a soft light... in a dim light."

(The song is available on Simon's website, but only to this point. In the Lyrics book [and on the album], there is more; the song runs onto a second page and concludes as follows:)

"Maybe it's the hum/ Of changing opinion/ Or a foreign language/ In prayer/ Maybe it's the mantra/ Of the walls and wiring/ Deep breathing/ In soft air."

The "foreign language" hypothesis is intriguing-- maybe the sound is merely a hum to us, but interpret-able communication to others. Or maybe the "refrigerator" idea is only half-right, and should be combined with the "foreign language" idea. Maybe the physical entities in the house, the ones with current running through them, are communicating, humming their "mantra" whether we can understand it or not.

But all suggestions of these presume that a sound is actually being, or was, made. By electricity, by people, by something. The suggestions assume that people in the room are hearing, or remembering having heard, sound waves striking their eardrums.

Simon seems to indicate, through the title, that the "hum" is none of these, but the one idea that was not elaborated upon beyond being stated: "Maybe it's the hum/ Of changing opinion."

In other words, when a paradigm shifts in the forest, it does make a "sound." In any case, we all somehow seem to sense it. If we try to pinpoint the source, it will elude us, because it does not come from any one place. It comes from around us, and then resonates within us. It's like that sound we don't hear, then with "a quarter-turn of the head," we do.

"Wait! Just then...! Did you hear that? I thought I heard something... No, I guess not, nevermi... there! There it is again! I think it's coming from over... wait..."

My feeling is that this song led the album because it captured the purpose of the album. The concept of an elusive sound sneaking around us and calling us to play hide-and-seek with it perfectly opens an album meant to introduce the marginalized minimalist genre to the mainstream.

(The song is on YouTube; search for the title and Philip Glass. The track is about 10 minutes long. The vocalist is Bernard Fowler. Paul Dunkel is on flute, and Michael Riesman on piano.)

When Simon won the Gershwin Award from the Library of Congress, there was a concert in his honor (Simon's, not Gershwin's). The last performer was Glass, with a solo piano performance of "Sound of Silence." Well, what other Simon song would a minimalist pick?

Next Song: The Obvious Child


  1. If Simon and Glass actually worked together in the studio, I certainly hope someone recorded their conversations.