Die Dinge singen hör ich so gern
[I so wish to hear the singing of things]
First I must admit I wrote this piece backwards. I loved the Rilke line, and then I had to look around for musical moments that might answer to it.
Here’s the challenge: we sing, and things don’t. Musical instruments are the magical exception to this rule, but their Dinglichkeit becomes transparent to the music we make with them and almost disappears. Some instruments are on the borderline between sound-tools and independent things, like a woodblock or a tubular bell. But a really thingy thing that isn’t a musical instrument can’t sustain a musical tone, because if it could, we’d be playing it. So if a thing ever gets to sing as a thing, there will be an element of surprise; we’re getting ambushed or outwitted.
If you hear a thing as a thing in a music recording, you’re probably hearing a “sound effect”—a glass breaking, a factory whistle, a chopper overhead. The thing is called on merely to illustrate a narrative. It “sings” under duress as something typical that we can easily recognize. The revving motorcycle in “Leader Of The Pack” is a canonical example for rock.
Speaking of revving, I love the Volkswagen sound that starts each album side of Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. It embodies the personality of the band. But I’m not choosing it for this topic because it’s not actually in a song, and anyway, I’ve always thought of Volkswagens as people.
Everyone who’s live-recorded music has stories of serendipitous noises made by things. Knowing the stories, one can enjoy hearing those sounds as belonging to those things. But the sounds generally don’t present themselves that way, so we can’t say the things are singing.
All things considered, I come down to two finalists:
(1) Yes it’s cliché and yes it’s narrative illustration, but dash it all, that jet engine noise at the end of “The Letter” by The Box Tops really does lift off with a brash airplane joy that wonderfully amplifies the singer’s optimism. It’s also a song-ending event on your car radio that strengthens the summertime cruising feeling more than any other song ending I can remember.
(2) I’ve already written on this track from another angle and am almost ashamed to double-dip, but I do want to cite the cash register in Pink Floyd’s “Money” as one of the greatest of all thing-hooks because it really sings—or rings—and rings not just by itself but for all the commodities in our crazy capitalist world, which is to say, for absolutely everything, including your labor or mine, as a saleable thing. It rings and it chatters, as if to supply its own neo-Marxist interpretation.