A preview of Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight and Structure. by Julie Skaggs
As one of the most popular, influential and enduring rock bands in the world, Pink Floyd has inspired a cottage industry of interpretive works related to over 40 years’ worth of recordings, live performances, and artistic statements. Thus it is only fitting that an academic conference devoted to an interdisciplinary examination of the band’s legacy is now forthcoming, to be hosted by revered Ivy League institution Princeton University, with events taking place April 10th – 13th.
Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight and Structure is the brainchild of Princeton graduate students Gilad Cohen and Dave Molk, whose academic and musical focus may differ in some areas, but their respect and affection for the music of Pink Floyd provides the relational passion which led them to organize this event. The conference itself is a full day’s slate and will take place on April 13th, at Taplin Auditorium and McCosh Hall, consisting of live music to open the conference and five thematic presentations as well as a keynote address by award-winning producer/engineer James Guthrie, an associate of the band for over thirty years, providing recording and production collaboration for both Pink Floyd and solo projects, live performance engineering, as well as mixing and mastering of all archival projects. A question-and-answer session and panel discussion will follow Guthrie’s talk. In addition, an ongoing 5.1 demonstration of The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, as well as the world premiere of the 5.1 mix of Roger Waters’ landmark 1992 release Amused To Death, is scheduled for April 12th at McAlpin Hall in the Woolworth Music Center.
I had the opportunity to correspond with the organizers – both PhD candidates in Composition – in regards to the topics and themes presented at the conference and insight into their own musical development, as well as fellow presenter Ryan Sarno. All are enthusiastic in regards to their intellectual curiosity of the Floydian realm – and given that all the participants in the conference are musicians – a unifying perspective can be gleaned from this selection of individuals.
The title of the conference illustrates an appraisal of the work of Pink Floyd from a liberal arts perspective which is in keeping with the band’s conceptual aims as they were also three-pronged – musical, visual, literary – and all three of these objectives are generally combined either in a literal or figurative fashion within the band’s oeuvre. Pink Floyd invented, in collaboration with other artists and technicians, an aesthetic all their own, a quality which fans and pundits alike define as “Floydian.” Gilad Cohen explained how the theme will embody a literal interpretation in the topics of the presenters.
“The aspect of structure will be addressed in my talk as well as in Ryan Sarno’s, while sight and sound will both be discussed in Troy Herion’s talk about different interactions between sound and visuals as well as in Dave Molk’s talk about the role of the slide guitar in David Gilmour’s guitar solos. The music and lyrics themselves will be addressed in many of the talks, including Nigel Smith’s and the introduction to the panel discussion by Shaugn O’Donnell.”
Each of the academic presentations will feature the debut of a compositional re-imagining of Pink Floyd music. Written especially for the occasion, these will include acoustic, amplified, and electronic pieces, performed by musicians from New York and the Princeton environs.
Gilad Cohen is a native of Israel and related how crucial the band’s music was to his own musical evolution. “As many Israelis, I was exposed to their music as a teenager, largely thanks to my older brothers, and was immediately smitten by the unique sound world, the original songwriting methods, and the architecture of their music. Pink Floyd has a unique place in the heart of Israelis, and it has always been one of the most popular bands there. The influence of Pink Floyd is evident in both my rock music–several sound choices in the debut album of my band Double Space were directly influenced by the band–and my concert compositions, which often quote Pink Floyd motifs or textural ideas and integrate them with influences from composers like Ravel and Shostakovich. Additionally, my doctoral dissertation at Princeton is about the Pink Floyd’s approach to large-scale structure. Likewise, an article I wrote about the band will be published in the summer in a collection of essays in Hebrew about the band, so you can say that the band takes a significant part in my musical life.”
Cohen’s presentation, “The Shadow of Yesterday’s Triumph: ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ and the Stage Theory of Grief” is an examination of Pink Floyd’s most well-known elegiac composition: “My talk will address the form of the piece and the way different sections evoke different moods that I find match different reactions, or stages, of grief. My Ph.D. dissertation discussed the way Pink Floyd’s large-scale pieces are constructed out of little material and how this material is developed and keeps a momentum throughout; thus, I will be pointing out how motivic developments and arrangement design contribute to the overall piece and its impact, both in itself and as part of the album. I’ll be presenting my own musical transcriptions of elements from the song including guitar solos, the same way I did with ‘Dogs’ in an article that will be published soon.”
Dave Molk studied music at Berklee College and Tufts University before entering his doctoral studies at Princeton. He became a Pink Floyd fan as many of us did, through cultural osmosis and hence to a more specific appreciation of the band’s musicality and emotional resonance: “I started getting into Pink Floyd in high school when I got more serious about playing guitar, having heard of the band before that but not realizing until then that I already knew a significant number of their songs based on radio play. Sitting down with their albums, headphones in hand and tea on desk, I devoured their catalogue, wondering what set them apart and made the music ‘work.’ I have fond memories of jamming in basements for hours on their tunes and driving around during the summer, blasting ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’.
Molk’s presentation, “Space and Repetition in David Gilmour’s Guitar Solos,” will address stylistic elements of Gilmour’s work with the band. “I’m going to talk about David Gilmour’s solo technique, focusing not on the gear (at least, not in the processing/pedal sense), but rather on the role of the slide guitar within his arsenal. The slide helped to create a distinct ‘Floyd’ sound early in the band’s history but then receded from the forefront of the mix. I’ll be exploring how and what aspects of this earlier type of playing can still be heard in his later playing.”
Ryan Sarno – who describes himself as “an independent musician and poet with a tropidelic DJ hobby” – is also a guitar player, categorizing his style thus: “I play wild, ‘fingerstyle’ guitar that contains strains of Indian classical, John Fahey and Ornette Coleman, but is mostly just idiosyncratic. My own playing is more Syd than David.” His love of the band was fostered by a time-honored source: “I inherited an interest in Pink Floyd from my parents, and vaguely recall my dad introducing Dark Side of the Moon to me on a car ride. I found the music to be ominous and wonderful. In high school, as I am sure many thoughtful people do, I became aware of the thoughtlessness and vanity with which many people live. Pink Floyd hit a chord with my younger self since they did not shy away from challenging people to behave more conscientiously. My favorite albums are usually Meddle, Animals, and the live half of Ummagumma. Only recently have I developed a fondness for The Final Cut, which I find to be almost as good, and somewhat more focused than The Wall.”
Sarno’s presentation, “Past as Material Object in Pink Floyd’s Work,” provides a unique view of Floydian history: “I’m very excited about the upcoming conference, and I remain grateful to the organizers for giving a non-academic an opportunity to participate. My presentation is about the codification of the past in the post-Barrett era Pink Floyd. I will argue that 1967 Floyd relied on Syd Barrett’s primordial, past-less spontaneity for purpose, and that lacking Barrett’s instant creativity, the band needed new structures to give its music meaning. Thus, the music gradually transitions from being ungrounded, space rock, psychedelia (which has its own political potential) to being a grounded, historical music that manipulates the past to offer more direct social commentary. Under the architectural vision of Roger Waters, the music of Pink Floyd gradually developed a system of musical codes and lyrical themes that relied upon the past. Musically, the use of echo, portamento, drones, repeated intervals, sound effects, and performance decisions (such as Roger’s live raptor screams and the consistent structure of Gilmour’s solos) slur time and point the listener back toward previous experiences. Recurring lyrical themes, such as Barrett’s disappearance and Water’s inherited memory of WWII are used to express broader concerns over social alienation. I hope that this discussion of the codification of the past in the music of Pink Floyd will encourage people to consider the social relevance of Water’s-led Pink Floyd, the anarchic, spontaneous potential of Barrett-led Floyd, and perhaps the irony of such a thing as a popular Pink Floyd.”
As with his colleagues, Sarno’s musical explorations will be aired as part of the schedule, “On the day of the conference, I will be performing a version of ‘Echoes’ with my group Sant Saens Seine, featuring two well-matched female vocalists and myself on guitar.”
In regards to the sound aspect of the theme, James Guthrie’s participation is a very important element of the conference for Cohen, who noted: “One of the purposes of this conference is to emphasize the unique role of the sound and the people who are in charge of it in regard to Pink Floyd’s music and legacy.” Guthrie’s keynote speech will provide his invaluable insight into the band’s history and working methodology, from his perspective behind the board having recorded and mixed many classic performances both live and studio and as one of the guiding forces behind The Wall in all its iterations, a work considered part of Pink Floyd’s “Big Three” – the most successful albums of their storied career.
The 5.1 presentation, one of the highlights of the conference, emphasizes the group dynamic of music appreciation and specifically the connection between all presenters and attendees: their admiration and enjoyment of the music of Pink Floyd. “We’re especially excited about playing James Guthrie’s celebrated surround mixes of The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here,” Cohen enthused. “In our era people experience music more and more as an individual phenomenon. One of our goals is to remind us of the communal aspect of music, especially rock. When was the last time you set for 45 minutes and listened to an entire album from beginning to end? Now imagine doing it in a hall with a state-of-the-art sound system and dozens of people around you, experiencing a whole new take of some of the best music of the 20th Century. Just as in Pink Floyd’s original quadraphonic concerts, Guthrie’s award-winning surround mix will wrap you from all directions, the way the band always intended their music to be listened to. What can be better than that?” The playback session will be produced by Guthrie himself together with his team, broadcast via a monitoring system provided by ATC Loudspeaker Technology Ltd., the manufacturer endorsed by Guthrie and utilized at his studio das boot recording for all Pink Floyd-and-related archival projects.
In further emphasis of the event’s various levels of interest, also scheduled is a showing of Pink Floyd The Wall sponsored by the Princeton Film Society and a jam session open to any and all musicians at the Small World Cafe. “I initiated this conference as an opportunity for fans, artists, and scholars to have a weekend-long conversation about the band’s music and explore new facets about it,” Cohen stated. “For Dave Molk and I, who co-organized it together, it is crucial to have an event that is not only academic; we aim for a celebration in which people will be talking about, listening to, playing, and watching Pink Floyd on screen. We hope to hear enthusiasts arguing about their favorite David Gilmour solo at the local bars through the weekend.”
Pink Floyd as collective and cultural touchstone represents many things to many people, and Sight, Sound and Structure hopes to remind all who attend of the band’s genius in comprising a multi-faceted artistic experience which provokes serious consideration as well as sheer delight.
For further information regarding the event and registration, please visit: https://pinkfloydconference.princeton.edu/
My thanks to Col Turner for his assistance and to Gilad Cohen, Dave Molk, Ryan Sarno and James Guthrie for their time and responses to my inquiries for this article.