Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Breakfast Wars: Pink Floyd vs. Nico Muhly

For almost four decades Pink Floyd's 1970 album Atom Heart Mother has reigned as the undisputed champion of breakfast sound effects. The thirteen-minute opus that concludes the album, "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," raised the bar so high in terms of the sounds of sizzling bacon, butter knives scraping on bread, and cereal crackling under freshly poured milk that it seemed pointless for other aspiring breakfast afficionados and musical freaks to even attempt to match its magnificence.
But I realized, after reading Pitchfork's review of NYC avant-garde composer Nico Muhly's new album Mothertongue, that someone had at long last launched a serious challenge to the Floyd breakfast hegemony. Reviewer Jayson Greene writes:
You know you're in trouble when the audio sample of a burbling coffee machine or the sound of a knife scraping butter on toast exerts as great a hold on the listener's interest as everything that preceded it.
The four-movement piece lights briefly on some promising notions in its twenty minutes-- found-sound samples of mundane morning routines (the crunch of breakfast cereal, muttering during the shower), for example-- but flits away distractedly before anything interesting is allowed to materialize.
There it was. Nico had thrown down the gauntlet, taking direct aim at the heart of Atom Heart Mother. Nico, you may recall, also employs the sound of raw whale blubber slopping around in a bowl on this album, which is pretty cool in and of itself. Just not for breakfast. And so I limited myself to apples-to-apples and bananas-to-bananas comparisons. Would the brash newcomer unseat Rogers Waters and company from the breakfast stool? Would the Floydians slip from the top Breakfast Sound Effects rung? Or would the grizzled veterans hold off the inspired challenge? It was time for a head-to-head comparison:
Coffee Brew -- Winner: Nico Muhly. It's the satisfying hiss of steam that does it. I'd like to think that a French press was involved here, perhaps a burr mill grinder, although the recording itself leaves the mystery unexplained. In comparison, Pink Floyd's Psychedelic Alan sounds like he's making tea.
Bacon Sizzle -- Winner: Pink Floyd. To his credit, Nico doesn't even attempt to match the sublime grease spatter that can be heard throughout the middle movement of "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast." You can't improve upon perfection.
Cereal Crunch/Crackle -- Winner: Pink Floyd. Nico comes on strong here, closely mic-ing the sound of chewing jaws. You can almost hear the saliva at work. But Pink Floyd gets the nod by focusing on the satisfying crackle and pop of freshly poured milk on particularly effervescent cereal, perhaps Kellogg's Rice Krispies.
Butter Scrape -- Winner: Nico Muhly. Nico's butter scrape has a rhythmic, almost percussive effect that nicely augments the music. Pink Floyd's Alan goes for more of a freeform, improvisational scrape that never quite connects.
Breakfast Mutter -- Winner: Pink Floyd. Again, Nico knew better than to mess with a breakfast epiphany. Two-thirds of the way through his revelatory breakfast, Alan mutters, "Marmalade. I like marmalade." Nico has the good sense to shut up and say nothing at all.
Overall Winner: Pink Floyd. But nice try, Nico. It was about time somebody challenged the complacent Brits. In non-breakfast-related musical news, the rest of Nico's album is weird as hell, and pretty great, just like Atom Heart Mother.


Natsthename said...

This has to be the funniest premise for a music post ever.

Grant Wentzel said...


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