Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Tom’s Ghost

In the development of the MP3 sonic compression format the voice of Suzanne Vega was used as a test for the quality of the sound. Vega warbles “Tom’s Diner” a capella on her album Solitude Standing. If you listened to “Tom’s Diner” and couldn’t tell the difference between an MP3 and a loss-less version, the MP3 must be doing a good job. An MP3 takes up a lot less space in your computer’s memory so if it’s works for you as well as a more memory intensive version, you can use that computer memory for important things, like more MP3s. 

I remember Kent found an MP3 version of the original “Tom’s Diner” being presented next to another compression version and a loss-less recording. I listened carefully. But I think I ended up choosing the MP3 as the best-sounding. Maybe it was the fault of the so-so speakers we were using. Maybe I just don’t have a sensitive ear. (You can test yourself at NPR.)

I bought Solitude Standing back in the 80s, mainly because I liked “Luka,” a disturbing story about an abused child set to a sprightly tune. There’s something about unhappiness you can dance to that works for me. The rest of the album was fine, but “Tom’s Diner” didn’t really register until a few years later when DNA released a remix/cover version which not only added extensive backing music to Vega’s unaccompanied voice but recut her vocal so that a passage in which Vega sings da-da-da becomes the chorus and the song ends a few lines short of the original. 

DNA was not the only one to essay a new version of the song. Suzanne Vega gave permission for other artists to alter “Tom’s Diner,” and she ended up with enough interesting versions to compile a CD she called Tom’s Album. Besides the DNA take I really like the one that incorporates the theme music from the old sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. The lyrics are rewritten, too. It grabs the backing music from DNA. It is so weirdly magic in its layers of theft.

Kenneth Goldsmith in his book, Wasting Time on the Internet, writes about 

a project called “Ghost in the MP3” in which [doctoral music student Ryan Maguire] took all of the audio that was removed from the MP3 compression on “Tom’s Diner” and re-presented it … The overall feeling of Maguire’s piece is indeed ghostly, like listening to the inverse of Vega’s song or perhaps an avant-garde ambient remix of it.

I barely hear “Tom’s Diner” in “Ghost in the MP3.” I suppose I have heard ambient remixes of songs that sound about as little like the song they were, um, inspired by? I like this, though. I think my favorite parts are where you hear Vega’s intakes of breath. 

quote source: Wasting Time on the Internet by Kenneth Goldsmith

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