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The Undersung Heroes of Music: Soundbreaking (A DOC NYC Review)

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By Jude Warne.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” –Idiom of recording artist indicating the producer

What defines a quality music producer? Well-informed and developed artistic taste? Phenomenal technical prowess in the recording studio? Is it someone who stands off to the side of the musicians, supporting and supplying yet allowing complete artistic freedom? Or is it someone who tugs, digs, bends, and sometimes breaks a top-marks result out of the performers concerned? To each his own, seems to suggest the brand-new eight-part PBS series Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music, the first two episodes of which premiered at this year’s DOC NYC Festival (full episodes are available for viewing here). The brainchild of the late great genius Sir George Martin, record producer and not-so-invisible hand on the Beatles’ catalogue, Soundbreaking seeks to tell the ideological and cultural history of recorded popular music and the people who made (and continue to make) it. As a series Soundbreaking is largely concerned with examining where and how the musical artist’s pure talent and humanity meet and mingle with the non-human technology that allows the artist to preserve and share his art. It is concerned with the magical intersection between raw material and the possible embellishments available to it during studio recording and mixing.

A good producer encourages half-formed ideas and gives an artist confidence. Producer Jeff Lynne, also a renowned musician and composer in his own right, chose to listen for and be supportive of potential creative ideas from a Tom Petty at work. This largely affected what became the now-familiar track “Free Fallin’” (Full Moon Fever, 1989), which began as a mere couple of guitar chords nonchalantly played around with by Petty, overheard by Lynne. Lynne made a chordal suggestion, and then a lyrical one upon hearing Petty ad-lib lines that would become the song’s opening verse – and thus an American classic was born. A good producer knows which artists to track down and form creative relationships with. Producer Rick Rubin, who was largely responsible for bringing Johnny Cash’s career back to the frontlines in the 1990s, chose not to be limited by genre when drawn to an opportunity. His approach was an open and allowing one, colored by his own authentic good taste. Instead Rubin followed what he liked and chose to champion it, bringing it forward into the future.

soundbreaking-03One of Soundbreaking’s achievements is its success in bringing to light the multifaceted and complex work that record producers are responsible for. This is done in part by the breadth of interviews featured in the series and the variety of topics and historical moments discussed within them. Every individual producer, it seems, devises and formulates a unique contribution to the projects on which they work. The overall series incorporates over 160 interviews with artists, producers, engineers, and other involved figures from popular music history, which allows the viewer to garner knowledge and insight from whichever interviewees he/ she identifies most with. Rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, pop, blues, and rap are all covered extensively amidst the series’ examination of recorded music. Soundbreaking is a democratic and egalitarian program.

An ample amount of screen time is given to Sir George Martin and his work with The Beatles, and rightfully so. Martin is explained to have been the intellectual answer to The Beatles’ ingenious artistic intuition, which made for an ideal partnership, one that human culture benefitted from immensely. John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” off the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver is discussed and sonically picked apart at length in Episode Two, particularly its influence over the unique abilities of recorded music. This song’s recording could only have been created in the studio, utilizing the various forms of technology available at the time; the song was no standard piece but instead a sonic landscape, a mini aural film that took the listener on a surreal journey of the mind.

Viewers of Soundbreaking are reminded of the weighty influence that 1967’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had on musicians and music listeners alike. To this day the record is cited by older and newer artists as an album to compare all others albums to, an album impossible to surpass in power of influence. A particularly poignant interview in the series features Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters recounting when he heard the seminal album played on the radio for the first time, and how he had to pull his car over on the road to stay still and listen to it – and just be wowed.

Other geniuses whose effects on the legacy of recorded popular music discussed are out-there men Phil “Wall of Sound” Spector and Brian Wilson. The Beach Boys’ healthy competition with The Beatles during the 1960s is examined as well: Pet Sounds was an answer of sorts to Rubber Soul. The competition at play helped to amp up the quality of output form both legendary bands. Ample credit is given to Brian Wilson for playing the role of his band’s producer completely on his own. The Beatles had each other and Sir George Martin after all, while Brian largely pulled a solo effort in recording studio ringmaster.

soundbreaking-02At times while watching Soundbreaking, one is almost overwhelmed by the number and variety of visual and aural clips of artists and bands that span decades, genres, and cultural eras. In episode one the ongoing Sir George Martin discussion is begun, and the Rick Rubin-Jonny Cash relationship is examined – and so is the influential and powerful role that Dr. Dre played in the production and recording of hip-hop music. But what other way could the impressive recording industrial phenomenon be properly narrated upon than this? Soundbreaking articulates the unification of the effects that music has had on cultures and individuals, over time – the process has remained the same level of creative – but it has evolved tech-wise. The people are more or less the same in their earnest drive to create.

Radiohead, Bon Iver, and TuneYards are some of the twenty-first century artists covered in the beginning of Soundbreaking. These bands are shown to use modern technology to their advantage during both live performance and album-making, recording portions of their performances live and performing in conjunction with their ultra-recent recordings. These efforts are a modern spin on an initiative led by by Les Paul and his vocalist-wife Mary Martin, in which they debut the latest – as of the 1950s – technology that allows the musician to record a track and then record over that to build a multi-track recording easily and effortlessly. This clip is utilized well in Soundbreaking.

The DOC NYC screening featured several special guests, all of whom verbalized their support of the project on display, and of their belief in the power of music. On hand were series producer-directors Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff, record producers Hank Shocklee and Russ Titelman, and Giles Martin, son of Sir George – and himself the Grammy award-winning producer of the wowtastic Love soundtrack album. During the post-screening discussion, all of the guests exuded intense enthusiasm about Soundbreaking and the albums addressed and examined during the course of the series. Martin, in particular – perhaps there has never before been a second-generation artist who has so intelligently and lovingly dealt with and carried forward into the future as weighty a legacy as Sir George Martin’s. To hear Giles positively and succinctly articulate his father’s remembrances and viewpoints was an incredible experience.

Jude Warne is the music columnist at Red Paint Hill Journal and a jazz critic at CMUSE. She has written numerous reviews for The Vinyl District, Live for Live Music, No Depression, Journal of Popular Music and Society, Film Matters, andSenses of Cinema. She earned her BA (Cinema Studies ’11) and MA (Humanities and Social Thought ’15) from New York University. Her Master’s Thesis, “Let the Broken Hearts Stand,” explored and examined the disappointed American characters in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Jude’s original teen fiction series is scheduled for publication in 2017 through Epic Press.

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