Guest Blog: Trace Repeat Talks Cross-Referential Sounds in 20th Century Music

PHOTO CREDIT: Nathan Lu Photography

PHOTO CREDIT: Nathan Lu Photography

Oakland-based funk band Trace Repeat are building a career on reviving the sounds of classic Motown while channeling the smooth vibes of legendary artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations.

Fresh off the release of their new album The Oaktown Sound, today Trace Repeat's trombonist David Kaiser-Jones shares a guest blog about how artists, both in the past and present, combine all kinds of sounds from the world around them to leave their own unique stamp on the music world. Read his thoughts below:

"In 1907, Gustav Mahler told Jean Sibelius that “a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” This was a statement of Mahler’s symphonic ambitions--addressing enormous existential questions--but also of his particular aesthetic.

Mahler threw all sorts of crazy sounds into his symphonies. My first encounter with Mahler was with his Symphony No. 1 in D major. In the first movement, the oboes introduce a motif that isn’t just meant to evoke the sound of a cuckoo in the woods near Mahler’s childhood home, but is rather meant literally to sound like a cuckoo. To replicate the sound of brass bands who marched through the street outside his house, three trumpets fanfare offstage. Symphony No. 1 pulls melodies from Liszt, Wagner, folk tunes, and no fewer than three of Mahler’s own previous works. Other Mahler symphonies are orchestrated for deep tubular bells, posthorn, and, famously, a giant hammer.

Mahler’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink orchestrations solicited open ridicule during his life. Take for example this cartoon, published in 1907 in the Austrian magazine “Die Muskete.” The caption translate to something like, “My God, I've forgotten the motor horn! Now I shall have to write another symphony."

The symphony doesn’t hold the same place it once did as a dominant long musical form--my friends measure greatness in albums. (In part due to the rise of streaming, full albums are having their hey day. There’s evidence more people are listening to full albums than in the recent past.)  The sounds in Mahler’s symphonies were early entries into what has become an enormously popular tradition of 20th century popular music, from the ringing alarm clock in “A Day in the Life” at the end of Sgt. Pepper to the sirens that open “Formation” at the beginning of Lemonade.

As the symphony lets an artist sound deeper emotional and intellectual depths than a song, an album lets an artist dive deeper into an idea than they could ever in a single track. It may not be a coincidence that Mahler’s popularity resurged at the same time in the 1960s and 1970s as concept albums.

I play trombone for an Oakland-based soul and funk band called Trace Repeat, which released our new record in September. We were cocky enough to name our album The Oaktown Sound, but of course the record has a lot of sounds from Trace Repeat’s Oakland experience. You can hear footsteps down the street in Chinatown and an agbe like you might here in a drum circle by Lake Merritt. You can hear water boiling in our studio’s kitchen and a snare sample built from the shutter of a camera our bandmate Wesley brings to shows.

Mahler, a composer who died more than 80 years before I was born, helped me think about the way artists include cross-referential sounds in 20th century music, including Trace Repeat’s own process of throwing a lot of Oakland sounds on our record and keeping what stuck. Our album is meant to embrace and sound like our world. And for fans of the cowbell in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor, our record has plenty of that, too.

Trace Repeat's The Oaktown Sound is now available to stream and download on digital music platforms.

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