Record Production and Narrative Meaning: Two Recordings of Camel’s The Snow Goose (1975, 2013)
Ryan Blakeley, University of Ottawa
ABSTRACT: British progressive rock band Camel’s third studio record, Music Inspired by the Snow Goose (1975), is an instrumental narrative concept album that musically mirrors the story of author Paul Gallico’s novella The Snow Goose (1941). Despite the absence of lyrics, the band implement a number of strategies throughout the album to effectively convey a cohesive narrative; these include the use of paratexts, recurring musical material, the musical representation of events and emotions, as well as segues between the tracks. In 2013, nearly forty years after the album’s original release, Camel re-recorded The Snow Goose from scratch; while relatively faithful to the original record, this version features changes to orchestration, extensions to certain tracks, and a vast difference in production values.
In this paper, adopting a hermeneutic approach and drawing upon the work of Simon Zagorski- Thomas (2014) on meaning in record production, I interpret how certain aspects of the The Snow Goose’s production afford meaning to the music and investigate how these meanings may differ between the two recordings. Further, I conduct a comparative analysis of these two recordings of The Snow Goose in order to explore differences in production that largely arise due to technological advancements. Ultimately this paper seeks to not only indicate some significant changes in the record production process over a nearly forty-year timespan, but also to demonstrate how the production process itself can play a key role in providing narrative meaning to – and ultimately enriching – an instrumental popular music album.
Zagorski-Thomas, Simon. The Musicology of Record Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Ryan’s categorises two types of concept album – connected narratives around a concept (e.g. Woody Guthrie) and specific linear narratives (e.g. Pink Floyd’s The Wall). The Snow Goose is the latter category – it tells the story of Paul Gallico’s 1941 novella.
The original album was Camel’s third full-length recording, and it was re-recorded from scratch in 2013, ostensibly due to mastering issues with the reissue of the original album [JB note – I speculate there may be a master recording/copyright motive here – e.g. Blondie’s later re-recordings of their hits in order to own and re-licence the masters].
For form analysis, Ryan breaks categorises his analytical methodology by paratexts, recurring musical material, segues, and music as metaphor (for events and moods). We see notation for the opening notation from “Rhayader” and “Rhayader alone”.
Like many ARP researchers, Ryan makes use of Allan F Moore’s ‘soundbox’ 3 spatial dimensions – laterality, prominence and register.
We now see a detailed table of the technical and musical characteristics of the entire album, followed by a discussion of the use of space. The use of volume in ‘Fritha Alone’ conveys distance and isolation; Ryan observes that the 2013 re-recording is louder and cleaner, but arguably less evocative in this respect. We see A/B spectrograms (from Sonic Visualiser) and hear both recordings (YouTube version below is from the 1975 version).
Ryan argues that while the differences may be subtle, in this context they are significant, because this is instrumental music trying to tell a specific and linear narrative story. We hear an excerpt of ‘The Great Marsh’ (with background geese noises) and the sense of distance is discussed further. Interestingly, ‘Preparation’ features a bubbling synthesiser to simulate water/waves in the 1975 version, but a literal sample of water in the 2013 version. Ryan suggests that this decision changes the way the listener might interpret the metaphor and narrative of the work.
Our next example is the ringing bell in ‘Epitaph’ which occurs in the story immediately after the death of a key character [no spoilers here!]. The military snare and bass drum in ‘Dunkirk’ has military connotations, and we hear spectrogram-supported audio of each version; Ryan notes a different approach to the 2013 version of the snare EQ and guitar part, both of which, he says, make a narrative difference. [1975 version below]
What are the large-scale implications? The research highlights the importance of record production in conveying musical [or any other] meaning, and may help improve our understanding of how listeners infer meaning and possibly how producers learn the craft of constructing narrative meaning.