Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: R. Luke Dubois' "Timelapse Phonography"

06 March 2008

R. Luke Dubois' "Timelapse Phonography"


Add one to the list of Things We Somehow Never Realized We Were Missing:

Everyone in my generation, and most of the people in the generation before it, grew up in a spacetime remix. When we weren't busy telescoping through every perceptible level of order in films like Powers of Ten, we were flickering past the growth-blossoming-and-death of a dandelion, or the decomposition of a fox, with time lapse photography. (Here's a link to an excellent gallery of time lapse movies.)

Unimaginable fifty years ago, this kind of zippy rollercoastering is the water in which all of us interneters now swim. Hell, even my cheap digital camera takes time lapse movies.

But innovations that focus on one sensory modality don't always cross to other senses (to my knowledge, we still don't have any taste samples in magazines). One restrospectively obvious omission from our history-compression fad has finally been pioneered by R. Luke Dubois, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University's Computer Music Centre. His 2006 album, "Timelapse," squeezes all 857 Billboard #1 Hits from 1958 to 2000 into 37 minutes.

That's right, 37 minutes. Pressing each song into one second for each week it topped the charts, Dubois' "time lapse phonography" offers a totally unique view of musical history, a kind of Earth-from-space pass over pop music that bears no resemblance to the world we know. Gone are the uptempo headbobbers and tender ballads, and in their place stretches a panoramic wash of anonymous tone (although listening along with the enhanced-CD allows you to attach a song title to each grain of sound). Here's Dubois' explanation:

"I thought it might be interesting to try to find a way to compress sonic time, not simply by speeding it up, but by using statistical averaging of the sonic information in the sound in a way that preserves what I feel to be many of the cues we need to appreciate sonic detail... This process generates an overall impression of the sound fed into it, blurring and fusing its features into singular, sustained, and very rich tones."

It's the difference between walking with dinosaurs and gazing across present-day badlands at a cliff of eroding strata, millions of years of life and death laid bare and abbreviated in a single gesture. This is musical archeology.

And no music is safe. The soundtrack to Casablanca and Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier are both rendered in the same way on this album (the former is cleverly titled "Time Goes By"). Dubois also time-lapsed Handel's Messiah on a separate compilation.

You can listen to excerpts from the album at Cantaloupe Music's website, which I highly recommend if you have a taste for the strange or enjoy cultivating a deeper temporality.

Ian Mathers wrote a florid review of the album for Stylus Magazine, in which he summed up Dubois' work pretty perfectly:

"Some of the tones sound vaguely choral, some like ghosts trying to harmonize; others like far off ringing rotary phones, dental drills — but nothing too unpleasant or harsh, as you'd expect from the hit parade.

As Mathers continues, time lapse phonography is "more interesting as a thought experiment or teaching tool than as music." But wow. Wow. As thought experiments go, it's pretty magnificent, a humbling work of sound that pulls listeners out of our unreflexive immersion and lifts us to a grand vista where cultural realities ebb and flow in tidal time.

(Written for iggli.com)