Slowing Down and Paying Attention: Dick Slessig ComboAug 12th, 2015 | By Mark Sullivan | Category: Reviews, What's Moving Me
When “long playing” records supplanted singles as the listening format of choice in the 1960s, many musicians took advantage of the added playing time. Jazz artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, along with rock artists like the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead could now play a single song for a whole album side, sometimes two.
On his classic 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul, R & B artist Isaac Hayes expanded Glen Campbell’s 1967 hit single “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” from 2:42 to 18:42. Over three decades later, with the even longer playing time afforded by the CD format, Dick Slessig Combo stretched another of Glen Campbell’s Jimmy Webb-written hits, “Wichita Lineman,” much further, from 3:05 to 43:00.
I chose the verbs “expanded” and “stretched” very carefully in the last paragraph. Hayes added to the song, expanding upon it both musically and, especially, lyrically. He jammed slightly on the song, improvising on the melody in much the same way a jazz musician might. He also added a lot more detail to the story Webb’s lyrics merely sketch. On the other hand, Dick Slessig Combo adds little to the song in their instrumental cover. They simply play the song very, very slowly, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the same notes over a much, much longer time span.
This is the difference between duration — how long a work lasts — and stretching — manipulating a work to make it last longer. This is the difference between Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993). Both films run the same amount of time, but where Marclay’s literally counts down real time in its montage of clips from a wide variety of films, referencing every minute throughout the duration of an entire day, Gordon’s stretches Alfred Hitchcock’s 109 minute classic thriller to last 24 hours.
Just as slowing down Psycho‘s FPS highlights the film’s construction by exposing each individual cut and even frame, downshifting a record’s RPM calls attention to a song’s composition. There was a time when I slowed down many of my 45 RPM records to 33 1/3. Most sounded better at their intended speed, but a few — including Loop’s “Black Sun” 12″, Captain Beefheart’s “Hard Workin’ Man” 7″ and Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” 12″ — sounded quite amazing at the “wrong” speed. I soon realized it was the records with very distinctive, repeating structures that best survived this sort of transformation.
Dick Slessig Combo’s prolonged version of “Wichita Lineman” exposes just how good the song’s “bones” are. Jimmy Webb is indeed a “tunesmith” (as he titled one of his songs, as well as his guide to songwriting). Yes, portions of the song repeat, but this is far from jazz interpretation. These repeated phrases are not variations, but more like playing a particularly interesting part of a song over and over to properly appreciate it before moving on to the next part of the song, similar to rewinding a cool scene in a movie before moving on. Or maybe the closed loop just evokes a stuck record.
Like film, music is a temporal medium. Although spending more time with a painting or a sculpture often leads to a much deeper relationship with the work as additional detail is absorbed, the detail was all there the whole time. A piece of music, on the other hand, is realized over time, doling out its details in increments. Slowing down a tune forces us to focus more on the moments as they come together. Dick Slessig Combo’s diffuse rendering of “Wichita Lineman” makes us more mindful of each individual note, but enough of the melody drifts in and out that we never entirely lose track of the whole of which the notes are a part.
However, this is a balancing act. If a piece is slowed down too much, the overall structure can be lost. Don DeLillo’s novel Point Omega opens and closes with a man standing in an art gallery watching Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. He stands there for hours studying the very slowly changing images on the screen, but few others linger for more than a few minutes. Slowed down that much, the suspense the movie is justly famous for is completely lost. The plot is also unintelligible unless the viewer is already familiar with it, has previously seen the movie at regular speed and can recognize where the individual shots fit within it. So what is left? A series of random frames. Putting them together calls for more focus than most of us can summon in this time of short attention spans.
Unfortunately, this is also the problem with the other track on this CD, a slowed down, 28:54 version of David Crosby’s “Guinnevere.” First of all, the track must be turned up louder to even hear anything beyond the (slow) metronomic beat. It’s not that the bare beat is so loud, but that everything else is so faded; it sounds like it was recorded through a wall. But even when the other sounds are loud enough to hear, they never gel. Even knowing the Crosby, Stills & Nash 4:39 original very well and listening very closely, I still find it very hard to pick up even a hint of what song is being played. I can’t imagine anyone being able to identify the song without foreknowledge. If you want to hear a long version of “Guinnevere,” I’d advise listening to Miles Davis’ 21:07 interpretation on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions instead.
ps — If you would like to compare, I have posted videos of most of these versions at Societe Anonyme Inc.
- Artist: Dick Slessig Combo
- Title: “Wichita Lineman”/”Guinnnevere”
- Year of release: 2004
- Year of first hearing by writer: 2010
- Label: self-released
- Format listened to: CD