The Schizophonia of David Byrne, Brian Eno and The Orb

For Paul Geluso’s Advanced Audio Production midterm, we were assigned to choose two tracks from his recommended listening list, and compare and contrast them sonically. I chose “Regiment” by David Byrne and Brian Eno, and “Little Fluffy Clouds” by The Orb.

Recorded ten years apart using very different technology, both tracks nevertheless share a similar structure: dance grooves at medium-slow tempos centered around percussion and bass, overlaid with radically decontextualized vocal samples. Both are dense and abstract soundscapes with an otherworldly quality. However, the two tracks have some profound sonic differences as well. “Regiment” is played by human instrumentalists into analog gear, giving it a roiling organic murk. “Little Fluffy Clouds” is a pristine digital recording built entirely from DJ tools, quantized neatly and clinically precise.

In his 1977 book The Tuning of the World, the Canadian composer Murray Shafer coined the term ‘schizophonia’ to describe “the splitting of sounds from their sources.” Professor Geluso put it more informally: “Everybody’s music is in everybody else’s music!” The disorienting, dreamlike quality of decontextualized samples is one of the central pleasures of electronic music, particularly dance and hip-hop. But “schizophonia” conveys considerable anxiety as well: about creators losing control of their creations, about the undermining of our copyright system, about the erosion of the notion of authorship itself. The tension between the creative possibilities of sampling and the conflicts they provoke about our commercial and artistic norms makes “Regiment” and “Little Fluffy Clouds” particularly significant cultural artifacts beyond their remarkable musical and technical qualities.

“Regiment” — basic song information

“Regiment” was included on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, released by Sire in February 1981. The album was produced by Byrne and Eno. It was recorded between August of 1979 and October of 1980 during a break between two Talking Heads albums, More Songs About Buildings And Food and Remain In Light, the latter also produced by Eno. Sessions took place in RPM, Blue Rock and Sigma Studios in New York, Eldorado in Los Angeles, and Different Fur in San Francisco. The title comes from Amos Tutuola’s 1954 novel of the same name. The word “bush” in the title means “backcountry tropical forest.” According to Byrne’s liner notes to the 2006 reissue, neither he nor Eno had actually read the book (though both had read Tutuola’s earlier novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard.) They were attracted to the mysterious and evocative title, which reflected their Afrocentric aesthetic.

The authorship of any sample-based work is usually problematic, and “Regiment” is no exception. The album liner notes list the composers as Eno, Byrne, and Michael “Busta Cherry” Jones. It also lists arrangers Eno, Byrne, Jones, Chris Frantz and Robert Fripp. This last credit was meant as an arch joke. Fripp never appears on the album, but Eno modeled his synth solos after Fripp’s guitar sound.

The ululating vocal is by the Lebanese singer Dunya Yunis, sampled from the Tangent Records album The Human Voice in the World of Islam.

Byrne and Eno were scrupulous about legally clearing their samples and listing the original sources in the liner notes. However, in this case, they obtained permission from Tangent Records, not Dunya Yunis herself. She had been recorded by the Danish ethnomusicologist Poul Rovsing Olsen, and there was some controversy over whether Olsen or his label were the proper owners of the recording. Again, Yunis was never seriously considered to be the recording’s owner, and to my knowledge, has never received any compensation from the sample usage.

“Regiment” — instrumentation and vocal inventory

David Byrne and Brian Eno play most of the instruments: guitars, bass, synthesizers, piano, drums, percussion and assorted found objects. (In the 2006 reissue liner notes, Byrne listed some of the found objects as a cardboard box used as a kick drum and a frying pan used as a snare.) The drum kit is played by Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz. Busta Cherry Jones plays the loud slap funk bass. David van Tieghem plays additional drums and percussion.

“Regiment” is structured somewhat like a pop song, though with an unusually long introduction. At nearly a minute long, the intro groove sets the hypnotic tone for the rest of the track. Chris Frantz enter first with a pickup roll, and then rest of the rhythm section hits at full intensity, where they stay for the rest of the track. An electric guitar and synth provide atmosphere, but the lead instrument in this section is a guiro with a heavy tape delay.

The eight-bar “verses” are led by Dunya Yunis’ sampled voice. Eno responds to her with eight-bar “choruses” of his Fripp synth. After two call-and-response pairs, there’s an eight-bar bridge featuring several new layers of percussion, most prominently a tambourine. This is followed by two more call-response pairs and a five-bar fadeout. Throughout all of these sections, atmospheric elements enter and exit: a piano, a second electric guitar, more percussion and a mysterious choir of chanting and ululating vocalists heard through heavy reverb. All of these elements merge together into a murky stew, chugging along at an unhurried 93 – 94 beats per minute. The track clocks in at 4:11, long for a pop or rock song but quite brief for a hypnotic dance track.

“Little Fluffy Clouds” — basic song information

Recorded and produced entirely by Alex Paterson and Martin “Youth” Glover, “Little Fluffy Clouds” was released as a single on the Big Life label in 1990. It was later included on the 1991 album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. Paterson and Glover assembled “Little Fluffy Clouds” entirely from synths, a drum machine, and myriad samples from eclectic sources. Paterson and Glover made no effort whatsoever to clear or license any of their samples, in keeping with their general punk anti-copyright philosophy. Their heavy use of samples makes the authorship of this track even more complex than that of “Regiment.”

The spoken word centerpiece of “Little Fluffy Clouds” is an excerpt of an interview with Rickie Lee Jones, issued with promotional boxed copies of her album Flying Cowboys.

Orb folklore says that Jones’ speech cadences are so slow and muffled because she was high on drugs, but Jones said she simply had a head cold. Jones’ label pursued legal remedy for the unauthorized sample, and received an undisclosed out-of-court settlement. Jones herself reportedly enjoyed the track, however.

The guitar sample is from Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint III – Fast” as performed by Pat Metheny.

Reich is a lover of electronic dance music generally, and was flattered by The Orb’s use of his work. He specifically instructed his record company not to sue, though he did ask for some royalties and a custom remix of the song.

Alex Paterson concealed the source of the drum sample for many years for fear of additional lawsuits, but he did finally reveal that it was taken from “Jump Into the Fire” by Harry Nilsson. Listen at 3:59.

The harmonica is a sample of Ennio Morricone’s “The Man With The Harmonica,” from the score to Once Upon a Time in the West. The phrase “layering different sounds” is a sample of a radio interview that Alex Paterson did about ambient music.

“Little Fluffy Clouds” defies the conventions of pop song structure; it was probably largely improvised to tape rather than carefully planned. There’s a nineteen-bar intro section that begins with a few enigmatic samples: a rooster crowing, a plummy British narrator, an airplane. Then, above a few long harmonica notes, we hear an American voice ask, “What were the skies like when you were young?” through a cloud of digital delay. He’s answered by the equally spaced-out voice of Rickie Lee Jones, describing the titular little fluffy clouds over her native Arizona. Her voice has been slowed somewhat and lowered in pitch, making her sound either stoned or hypnotized, or both. Twelve bars in, a Roland TB-303 enters, along with some samples of traffic noise. The 303 plays a distinctive pulsating line, very simple melodically but with a complexly evolving timbre. The tempo is 105 bpm, quite relaxed by techno standards.

I consider the song proper to begin at measure twenty, when the drum machine enters. It kicks off an eight-bar “verse,” continuing Jones’ abstract narration. Halfway through the “verse,” the drum machine is joined by a tom-heavy sampled drum loop. Jones’ voice drops out for the following eight-bar break. A low, pulsing synth bass enters, as does a second layer of TB-303 playing a higher-pitched lead line. Halfway through this break, the ethereal guitar sample appears, along with Alex Paterson’s voice. Next, there’s a very long “verse,” 48 bars spanning over a minute and a half, with Jones’ voice throughout. Other elements enter and exit in four-bar increments, including a new electronic organ part.

At measure 88, there’s another eight-bar break, the full rhythm section with the airplane sample above. Finally, there’s a fourteen-bar “dismount.” Jones’ voice re-enters along with a new sample of twittering birds as the drums thin out, tapering down to the ending: the airplane sample by itself for the final seven bars. At 4:25, “Little Fluffy Clouds” is long for a pop song, but quite short for a dance track, much like “Regiment” in that regard.

Relative balance between the instruments and the instruments to the vocals

Busta Cherry Jones’ bass dominates the mix in “Regiment.” The snare drum and hi-hats are also quite prominent, whereas the kick is subdued. The drum mixing generally follows the Talking Heads’ rock feel rather than the kick-heavy dance music that would later be influenced by this song. Each section has a major upper-register foreground element. In the intro, it’s the guiro; during the “verses” it’s Dunya Yunis’ vocal and Eno’s “Fripp” synth; in the break it’s the tambourine and electric guitar. All of the other sounds — the piano, synth pad, backing vocals, second bass and assorted percussion — lie far in the background.

“Little Fluffy Clouds” emphasizes the kick quite a bit more. Both the drum machine and the sampled drum loop have strong kicks, in keeping with electronic dance music tradition. However, these kicks aren’t as massive as the earth-shattering thumps that would come to dominate subsequent dance tracks. This makes sense; “Little Fluffy Clouds” was never meant to be a club banger, but rather an atmospheric mood piece for the chill-out room at the rave. Only later did it come to be a staple of raves proper.

The snare drum is multiply layered and occupies a wide frequency range, but is not as dominant as a rock snare. The hi-hats feel more prominent, especially because of their wide panning, which draws listener focus. The drum sample was played very aggressively and loudly in the Harry Nilsson recording, but here it’s compressed and blended with the drum machine; while it’s strong in the mix, it’s not the focus. The midrange is dominated by synths, especially the distinctive pulsating TB-303 track.

The perceived driving force of the music based on the mix

“Regiment” is driven by its massive and weighty rhythm section. The prominent drums and doubled bass keep up maximum intensity from bar one straight through to the end. The aforementioned foreground elements — Dunya Yunis’ vocal, the “Fripp” synth and the lead percussion instruments — have both strong performance intensity and prominent mixing. The background elements are mostly rhythmic and add to the propulsion, but not to the same degree; they’re submerged in a murky reverb, giving the sense of a solid mass of rhythmic sound.

While the drums may be louder, “Little Fluffy Clouds” is mostly driven by the TB-303. Its pure waveform, crisp attack and ear-catching modulation feel like the core of the track, with the drums and bass there as reinforcement. Within the drum machine, the kick and snare are balanced, with the hi-hats made more prominent by wide panning.

Use of environmental effects

“Regiment” uses the two most prominent spatializing effects in the analog toolkit: reverb and tape delay. The basses, guitar and “Fripp” synth are the only elements not to have reverb applied. The drum kit and Dunya Yunis sample have a moderately sized reverb, and all other sounds are drenched in a highly diffuse reverb that doesn’t so much immerse you as completely submerge you. The tape delay is used most prominently on the guiro in the intro section. Its long decay time creates a distinct tempo map, likely the organizing force behind the track’s tempo and groove generally. There’s also some tape delay at work in the background, particularly on the piano. The tape delay adds noise and contributes to the swampy sonic environment.

“Little Fluffy Clouds” uses effects that are completely idiomatic to the digital age. There’s no reverb on the track anywhere except whatever may have come in with the samples (for example, the Pat Metheny sample has some.) In place of reverb, The Orb uses digital delay to spatialize the track. The lack of diffusion gives a much crisper sonic image than the murk of “Regiment.” The TB-303, assorted synths, hi-hats and miscellaneous samples have tempo-synced delays that act both as spatial cues and additional drivers to the groove.

The application of sound processing, effects and other studio techniques

Most of the sounds in “Regiment” are compressed severely, as is the master channel; there’s a very steady and loud dynamic throughout. The track would do pretty well in the current loudness wars. There’s EQ on the master track as well; the low end is densely filled, with a steady rolloff beginning in the mid-lows and sloping almost to nothing in the very highs. The density of the background elements makes it difficult to parse out where instruments are doubled and where they have slapback delay or chorus on them; that ambiguity is likely intentional.

While Dunya Yunis’ voice sounds like it’s received some treatment, maybe vari-speed to lower her pitch, her voice quality is actually exactly the same on the original recording. Presumably Byrne and Eno chose her precisely because of her naturally otherworldly tone. The most arresting effect is the heavy overdrive on the “Fripp” synth. The nonlinear distortion is remarkably similar to a guitar through a Marshall stack.

“Little Fluffy Clouds” uses very light compression, making it surprisingly quiet and dynamic as club tracks go. This reflects its intended use in the chillout room — the track only became a dancefloor classic later on. There’s significant chorus on the Pat Metheny sample, though that was present on the original and not added by Paterson and Glover. All of the synths and most of the samples have very prominent tempo-synced filter sweeps. The dramatic sweep of the TB-303′s frequency and resonance settings are the defining sound of acid house generally.

The most conspicuous sound processing, aside from digital delay, is the treatment of Rickie Lee Jones’ voice. She’s been pitch-shifted down and slowed noticeably to give her voice a more drugged and semiconscious quality. There’s a stuttering quality to the vocals caused by triggering the different segments from the Akai S-900 sampler. The closest thing the song has to a chorus is a rhythmic figure created by aggressively stuttering the word “little” to make the phrase “little fluffy clouds, little fluffy clouds, li-li-litl-litl-li-li-litl-litl.” This is a technique that Martin Glover learned from hip-hop, and it’s used to arrestingly strange effect.

Use of stereo imaging

“Regiment” fills the center with the rhythm section. The kick and snare are dead center, with the hi-hat and crash very slightly panned left and right. Both basses are nearly dead center. Dunya Yunis is also run up the center. The atmospheric sounds sprawl widely across the stereo field. The tape-delayed guiro is duplicated at about 60 degrees to both the left and right. The “Fripp” synth is also duplicated across both stereo channels, spread to about the same width. The piano and rhythm guitar float in the medium-right. The hand percussion is distributed across the entire image: one tambourine on the left, one on the right, conga rolls on the left, triangle slightly right, and so on. The many background voices are distributed so widely and diversely that they seem to come from everywhere and nowhere.

The imaging on “Little Fluffy Clouds” is enormously wide and conspicuously artificial-sounding, by design. This music would sound great mixed in surround. The desired effect is to transport the listener into an otherworldly psychedelic dreamscape. The two sets of hi-hats are panned hard right and left. The TB-303s, kicks, snares, and bass are all dead center. The kick has a spreading quality that makes it appear to take up more space in the stereo image than it actually does. Rickie Lee Jones is very slightly right of center; her interviewer is very slightly left. The Pat Metheny sample consists of doubled guitars panned quite widely right and left respectively. Speech, airplane and traffic samples and ambient synth sounds move quickly from hard left to hard right and vice versa.

Other innovative and unique aspects of the productions

Both tracks are remarkable for using radically decontextualized samples in place of conventional vocalists. The provenance of these samples must have been mysterious indeed to listeners in 1981 and 1991 respectively. Without the internet, curious sample hounds were dependent on unreliable word of mouth, very rare interviews and luck. While Byrne and Eno did list the source of the Dunya Yunis sample, only the most devoted fans would have gone through the difficulty of getting their hands on The Human Voice in the World of Islam. (Some people were clearly undeterred; a few years later, MARRS sampled the same Dunya Yunis track in their proto-mashup “Pump Up The Volume.”) The Orb kept their sample sources willfully obscure, partially out of a pragmatic desire not to be sued and partially out of ideology, the code of the DJ. A Steve Reich fan might have spotted “Electric Counterpoint,” but it would have taken an obsessive Rickie Lee Jones fan indeed to have heard her interview.

Between the samples, mysterious percussion and synthesizer sounds, heavy processing and lack of familiar pop reference points, both Byrne/Eno and The Orb worked hard to keep familiar sounds out of their tracks. When Murray Shafer talked about schizophonia, he was thinking of the anxiety and dissociation caused by hearing sounds divorced from their physical sources. But such decontextualization also opens the door to new associations, new sonic combinations and new forms of musical expression.

References

Feld, Steven. “Entangled Complicities in the Prehistory of ‘World Music:’ Poul Rovsing Olsen and Jean Jenkins Encounter Brian Eno and David Byrne in the Bush of Ghosts.” Popular Musicology Online, 2010.

Orlov, Piotr. “The Orb Look Back on 20 Years of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds.’” Spin Magazine, January 5, 2012.

Shafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. Random House, 1977.

Bonus mashup

How could I write about these two songs without mashing them up? Drop me a line if you’d like to hear it.

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