Air Flows: The Sound of Breath on Recordings

The following is a presentation I gave at the 2014 meeting of the U.S. Branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. I am currently preparing this presentation for publication as an article. However, I am publishing this presentation here as a kind of “working paper” in advance of the article. For copyright reasons, images and sound clips have been omitted.

Air Flows: Breath, Voice, and Authenticity in Three Recordings

Gregory Weinstein IASPM, 14 March 2014

In his 2007 outline of a “musicology of record production,” Simon Zagorski- Thomas framed a discussion of recording’s editing possibilities as a problem of embodied perception. He suggests, “If, at a subconscious level, the perception of music involves hypothesizing what it would feel like to produce that sound, it would be useful for both music and musicology to study the grey area between edited performances that are perceived as possible and those that are perceived as impossible or unnatural.” He goes on to ask, “How much room for breath needs to be left in a spliced performance before we perceive it as an activity that is impossible to generate, and therefore artificial” (2007, 1974)? Zagorski- Thomas argues that we, as listeners, breathe along with recordings and that our (often subconscious) awareness of a recording’s breath space contributes strongly to our overall awareness of the recording as artificial (or not). This suggests a striking move away from the notion of authenticity in recording as a dialectic interplay of mediated performances and their immediate counterparts, and towards an understanding of recordings as not just representations of a performance, but as constructions of musical bodies.

For Paul Sanden, this awareness of the body in music recordings has long been latent in the concept of liveness: the notion, articulated by Philip Auslander, that describes the perception of a mediated performance according to characteristics of live (or co-present) performance. Sanden calls this subcategory of liveness “corporeal liveness,”  where “music is live when it demonstrates a perceptible connection to an acoustic sounding body” (2013, 11). The voice is an obvious example of corporeal liveness, a product of the unique and identifiable properties of the singer’s body. Sanden explicates the case of voice through the example of Glenn Gould, S whose singing throughout his piano recordings Sanden finds indicative of Gould’s mental processes. The obvious presence of Gould’s body on recordings is evidence of the hegemony of the disembodied musical work—although for this reason, I wonder if Gould is not the most productive case through which to study the notion of corporeal liveness. His approach to performance is simply too idiosyncratic, while his underlying musical values align too strongly with the longstanding notion of the pure musical work in Western classical practice.

Instead, I suggest that we follow Zagorski-Thomas’s suggestion, turning away from voice and towards the idea of breath. These are related, of course, but in ways that are not always obvious. For while breath might appear an index of voice, the inverse is more accurate: where there is voice, there must also be breath. The association between these has been largely overlooked by theorists of the voice, and a perfunctory search of the musical scholarship indicates that breath has been written about almost exclusively by instrumental pedagogues. Mladen Dolar positions voice as “the link which ties the signifier [i.e., language] to the body,” but he does not address breath in his analysis (2006, 59). Roland Barthes does recognize the role of breath, but he laments that “the whole of musical pedagogy teaches not the culture of the ‘grain’ of the voice but the emotive modes of its delivery—the myth of respiration” (1977, 183). Even Sanden, in his delightful analysis of Gould, largely excludes breath from his exploration of corporeal liveness.

But if breath is a necessary prerequisite for voice, what role does it play in a non- vocal context? We can think of breath as an embodied act of musicking in the way that it prefigures the production of sound, but breath is more than a precondition. Just as Gould’s singing is part of his musical expression, so should breath be considered expressive—even in the context of instrumental music. Breath can be rhythmic, as when the Guarneri Quartet, in their recording of Beethoven’s massive Grosse Fuge, use breath as a structuring device, S allowing them to begin phrases as a unit, to emphasize simultaneous stress points, and to signal the beginnings of their individual phrases. S Breath can also represent the physicality of playing, as when we hear cellist David Soyer loudly inhale before several of his sustained notes near the end of the work. Consider the passage at 14:30 in the recording. Sober inhales audibly before each note and, most intriguingly, his last breath in this passage flutters, apparently partially obstructed in the nasal cavity. This sort of corporeality points not only to the recorded performance as embodied, but even more specifically to the body of this specific performer. We not only learn about Soyer’s particular method of phrasing and attacking notes; we also learn about the imperfections, unique both temporally and bodily, in his sinus cavity on the day this recording was made.

If I let the recording continue playing for a few moments, we hear Soyer’s inhaling and vocalizing turn to grunting, matching the aggressive attacks of the subsequent short, forte notes. Here we have vocalizing of a somewhat different sort that Gould’s: Soyer’s voice does reflect his apparent conception of the musical affect, but it does so through its energy, through the force of the air that reflects the sheer physicality with which he draws the bow across the strings at that moment in the recording. It is a truly stunning moment: nearing the end of one of the most monumental works of the string quartet repertoire, we hear evidence of the supreme physical effort with which Soyer bring this performance to life. How appropriate that this is a recording of Beethoven—the great masculine “hero” of Western music—and not of Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, or any number of “lighter” composers whose music seems not to require such brute strength in order to render it into sound. The recording thus becomes a record not only of a work, or even of a performance, but of a moment in time; and more to the point, it is a record not only of the musical minds of the performers, but also of the musicking bodies that produced this performance— complete with respiratory (if not musical) imperfections and extramusical evidence of the work’s physical and psychological demands.

It is not coincidence that I have selected a recording for this analysis that dates from 1969, well before the advent of digital recording and all of the editing and processing capabilities that developed subsequently. My own fieldwork in Britain’s classical recording studios indicates that while performers still produce a comparable range of vocalization and other apparently non-musical noise in the studio, they seem to have less tolerance for these noises on recordings. Instrumental musicians consider vocalization to be undesirable on a recording because it interferes with the purity of the musical work, or perhaps because they simply are embarrassed by it. For these individuals, today’s recording studio makes it possible to extract virtually any unwanted noise without altering the “music istelf.” However, when the Guarneri Quartet recorded their Beethoven set, such possibilities did not exist, beyond retaking any section with offending corporeality. If the performance was deemed compelling enough, the decision might be made to simply let those embodied imperfections remain—a lasting testament to the moment of the performance, and the sort of documentation of authenticity that may be lost to recordings today.

Colin Stetson (source:

Lost, at least, as a matter of chance, although not as a deliberate act, as the case of Colin Stetson indicates. A member of indie band Bon Iver, Stetson has recently made a name for himself with his intensely physical solo saxophone recordings. His performances are whole-body affairs, as he slams the keys of his instrument, alters his air stream to create multiphonics, sings along, and circle breaths in continuous, lengthy performances. It is exhausting just to think about, even before one considers that many of his songs are played on a bass saxophone, an instrument weighing 20 pounds and requiring massive amounts of air. Like the classical virtuoso, Stetson’s performances seem to defy the physically possible. S Stetson is acutely aware of the skepticism that might appear in response to recordings of his extraordinary technique; each of his records, within their minimal album notes, contains the preemptive response to critics: “All songs written, performed and recorded live without overdubs or loops by Colin Stetson.” He insists, essentially, that his recordings—and his musical body—are real.

Of course, these recordings contain as much studio technique as any other. Stetson carefully mics his instrument: S contact microphones on the back of the saxophone amplify the sound of the keys; a collar on his throat captures his voice. Many of the sounds that we hear on Stetson’s records would be only minimally audible in an unamplified co-present performance, and among these, of course, is Stetson’s circular breathing. Thus, artful miking is essential for listeners to perceive the expressive value of Stetson’s body. In an NPR interview, he remarked, “Everything that I do is intended to be music. The breathing is all part of that.” He elaborated on the origins of his circular breathing: “I learned when I was about 15. My teacher at the time, he taught it to me as a means to perform string pieces. So string players don’t have to breathe. When we would play them, our phrasing would always be interrupted by our breath. So he taught me this… Your brain just figures out how to do it and your body follows along.”

Like Gould, Stetson positions his body as an extension of his musical mind. Yet unlike Gould, Stetson emphasizes the resulting corporeal techniques. For example, in this opening bit of “Hunted” from his recent New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, Stetson constructs a work that proceeds in alternating phrases of four long beats. Over a constant low ostinato, Stetson sings a descending melodic line, picked up by his throat microphone and paralleled in the multiphonic counterpoint of the saxophone. In a consequent phrase, Stetson maintains the ostinato while loudly inhaling four times through his nose. This pattern of antecedent and consequent phrases repeats throughout the song, complete with rhythmically and timbrally identical breath patterns in the consequent phrases. In the song’s middle portion, the overall dynamic level decreases, allowing Stetson to double the length of the antecedent phrases. Nonetheless, in the consequent phrases (which are the same length as at the opening) Stetson’s breathing pattern is identical: three long nasal breaths and one short one.

Here is a video of Stetson playing “Hunted” live in concert:

Compared with David Soyer, the distinction between these musicians may be less obvious than it initially appears: two musicians for whom breathing relates intimately to their musical performances, albeit with breath that serves different functions. Foyer’s breathing connects to his sense of phrasing, dynamics, and so on; it simply does not do so as a matter of deliberate physical sound production. Stetson, in effect, wants to transcend the necessity of breath that has traditionally marked a limitation for players of his instrument. And not only does he transcend that limitation through circular breathing, he makes the transcendence into a virtue, an aesthetic feature of his performances. As with Soyer, Stetson’s audible breathing serves to mark the extraordinary physicality of his musicking; but unlike Soyer, Stetson consciously controls, places, and records his breathing in order to enhance the rhythmic and timbral features of his performances.

Which brings me to my final example. I mean, of course, the audible breath taken by Miley Cyrus before the final chorus of her 2013 hit song “Wrecking Ball.” Here we might be at quite a distance from the Guarneri recording—but only maybe. Both the Guarneri and the Stetson recordings seem to speak directly to Zagorski-Thomas’s question of “how much breath needs to be left in a spliced performance before we perceive it as an activity that is impossible to generate, and therefore artificial” (2007, 197). The audible breaths in the Guarneri Grosse Fuge “verify” the embodiment of their performance, even though the breathing is not functionally necessary for the musical work. Stetson’s deliberately audible circle breathing points to his awareness of recorded performances that might be perceived as physically impossible—particularly when heard against the album note that proclaims his performances to have taken place in real time.

Here is the “Wrecking Ball” video. The breath in question is at 2:52.

Cyrus’s breathing in “Wrecking Ball” seems to be acutely aware of its function of validating the body on the recording. I isolated only one of Cyrus’s breaths, but her breaths throughout the track sound almost identical. Identical, and rather unnatural. The breath has been subjected to quite a bit of compression and equalization, boosting the high end and emphasizing its dynamic contour. In isolation, the breath sounds to me something like the famous backwards cymbal effects on the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” albeit here produced with a range of digital tools. However, taken in context, the sound of this processed breath fits very comfortably with the overall level of compression and other processing that has been applied to Cyrus’s voice throughout the track. A quick and unscientific comparison between the album version of “Wrecking Ball” and a live performance unsurprisingly confirms that Cyrus’s voice has been fairly heavily EQed and probably flattened out by Auto-Tune, her vibrato greatly reduced in the recorded medium. The sound of the breaths in the live performance, moreover, are fairly minimal, lacking the compression of the recorded version to give them substance. A more “natural” breath would actually sound quite out of place in the context of a recording that features such a processed vocal.

Yet despite its heavy processing, the breath still serves an important authenticating function in the recording of “Wrecking Ball.” So much of the critical discussion of this song revolved around Cyrus’s mildly racy music video S that I could hardly find any commentary on the song itself—and of course, none of what I did find addressed the question of Cyrus’s breathing. (One reviewer, apparently confusing Cyrus’s nakedness with the emotional vulnerability conveyed by the recording, did note that there are S “no trendy production tricks to be found here!”) Yet the staging of the breath in this manner was clearly a conscious decision. Nowhere else on Bangerz does Cyrus’s breath appear so prominently, and moreover, as with Stetson’s circular breathing, Cyrus’s breath could not have sounded so prominent without specific production techniques to make it so.

This breath, it seems, is hiding in plain sight. As in the other cases I have examined, the breath here is not simply “extra.” The recording features not only Cyrus’s inhaling, but also several points where she apparently exhales in despair. If critics have not remarked specifically on the breath, they have certainly commented on the power of her singing and the intensity of emotion conveyed by this song. Cyrus’s highly processed breaths should be understood firstly as a marker of Cyrus’s body on the recording—by which I do not mean the body that has become a ubiquitous topic in the mainstream press, but rather the body that is sonically constructed in the space of this recording. After all, what are music recordings if not the construction (or perhaps reconstruction) of performers’ musicking bodies through the mediation of the recording process? The sonic intensity of Cyrus’s breath closely corresponds with the passion that she conveys in the song. We experience her respiration almost immediately; we understand that these breaths signify her sadness and feelings of loss. Ultimately, Cyrus’s breaths do no more and no less than do those of David Soyer or Colin Stetson: they point to the uniqueness and the openness of the recording, the timelessness of the bodies that these recordings construct and represent.

Now I must catch my breath.

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