Metasinging: Jeff Beck, “Over The Rainbow” (2010)

Whammy-Bar
I try to become a singer.
—Jeff Beck[1]

We celebrate players who make their instruments sing. Jeff Beck makes his guitar sing, for sure, but I think he does something interesting beyond that.

For starters, what’s up with singing?  I think we sing to enjoy the physical power of unleashing tone and timbre and rhythm on the world along with the expressive power of flexing in all those dimensions. Often we revel in the social power of summoning listeners and leading them around at will in a musical and mental landscape, perhaps in a relatively brief “song” that will be remembered as a telling intervention in our common life. Adding these powers of singing to the thought-content of words, juicing and publishing the words musically, can be a great gain for music and language alike.

But language is not always wanted. Wordless or melismatic singing can elude the constraints of conventional articulation to achieve more of a sense of a pure essence of sounding. Here we value a supple freedom to strike up any sort of resonance at any moment, in any situation—to wrap one’s arms around things or take up residence inside them, even as things change. The wordless singer can take the very existing of things to heart. Within their physical limitations, instrumentalists too can sing with this intimate engagement.

Jeff Beck’s guitar has the bass warmth and treble bite and subtle variability of the most captivating human voices; just as importantly, his playing embodies that desirable freedom to vibrate in any sonic persona together with the existence of anything else. His sound in “Over The Rainbow” goes all over the sky and through walls and around corners. It purrs inside my head, swells inside my chest. I’m raised and lowered, turned this way and that, subject to an exceptional multilayered control. Who—what kind of who—am I dealing with here? The great electric guitarist seems somewhat like an alien from a planet that has stronger gravity or thinner atmosphere than Earth’s. He’s like Superman not misusing his strength, tactfully submitting to his place among us while working his wonders.

What is extra interesting aesthetically is that Beck does this with his fingers on knob and lever, like the chief engineer on the steamship of singing. He chooses not only his notes and timing but everything about starting and stopping (he can go for the regular pluck attack of pick on strings or bring out the sound gently, as though from an underground spring, using his volume control) and pitch change (as by means of his whammy bar he can bend notes and migrate from one note to another more smoothly than any human voicebox). In this observable technique of managing the singing of his guitar there is an artistry, an additional engagement with his audience specific to the added layer of intervention. He’s singing the singing.

One enters the extra dimension just listening to the recording Beck made for the Emotion and Commotion album. That’s where I started. But then it makes great sense to see the metasinger in action.[2]

________________________________________________________

[1] In a 2010 NPR interview, “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Sings and Shreds.”

[2] The Harburg-Arlen song “Over The Rainbow” is a great study in itself; here is a nice piece Rob Kapilow did on it for NPR.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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