Culture Rover

# 19 - So Freaked Out (But in a Really Good Way) in the Sonic Imaginary

Jill Sobule, Martyr's, Chicago
Saturday, 2 October 2004

The singer-songwriter is like an actor giving a monologue: all we have is awkward intimacy to work with, the body and the voice and the empty space of the stage. With a singer-songwriter, there's no band interaction to watch, no beat to sweep away your troubles, no thunderous drums or amped guitar pyrotechnics or pulsating bass; there's just a naked voice and an acoustic guitar.

What's so amazing about Jill Sobule, besides her well-crafted songs, besides her poignant humor, besides her funky-vintage outfits, and pixie-goofy-spritely poetic presence, is that when she performs, you are not just listening to her. You are hearing her hear more than herself in the music.

What I mean is that when Sobule plays one rhythm on her little portable travel guitar, and sings in a voice that dances across that rhythm through various phrasings, textures, dynamics, she also moves her body in yet another rhythm so that one can actually hear other instruments suggested visually. There's no backup band, but there's more than just her sound onstage, there's a veritable funk posse grooving beside her. Because she lets us in not on what she's playing, but what she's hearing. Sobule is playing us her ears.

Is this what makes someone musical? It's not just what's inside or what comes out, it's not just in throats and notes, but in the connection of one person's own sound-soul-making to the larger sonic possibilities out there flowing through all our brains and bodies.

Ear to ear: that's where the music exists. Sound waves come from all sorts of directions, and they go all sorts of other places. We -- performer and audience -- just try to catch them for a spell.

A person's musicality comes from her ability to relay (convey? invent? inform? create?) musical knowledge by fostering collective notice. When we are all listening together -- performer and audience -- to something larger than ourselves, we fall into the same spot, catch the same notion, hear the same song.

That's music's social role. It bonds. "Social cement," Theodore Adorno claimed. But it's more like rubber cement. It gathers us together for a moment in the swish of a brush against a snare drum that isn't being played, but yet is heard by everyone in the room. One particular sway of the hip, flick of the wrist, roll of the eyes, twist of the lip, illuminates the musical veins flowing through the world all around us, binding us together by blood and imagination. We are all producers, making arrangements, putting together the parts, playing them together.

That's grace. Then it clots, dries up, peels off, slips away, into the breeze, as we step outside, trying to keep its residues alive in memories.

4 October 2004

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