Soundpainting Paradise

Over the past week Iʻve been steadily digitizing LPs. I finally bit the bullet and dove headlong into those 1960s and 1970s boxed sets of easy-listening stuff produced by Readerʻs Digest and the Longines Symphonette Society.

. . . oh wow . . . blast from the past, yeah? Those mail-order offerings hawked on TV and in direct mail catalogs promised carefully assembled collections of songs dressed up in heavily orchestrated arrangements.

But who among Hawaiian music fans took those Hawaiian-themed box sets seriously? How can we know who was buying these boxed sets? I can say this:  I have encountered tons of copies in thrift shops, antiques & collectibles shops, collectorsʻ shows, used record stores (yessiree bob, those still do exist!) and on ebay — on the mainland!! Has anyone actually encountered these boxed sets in Hawai‘i homes? I wonder . . .

Well, the experience of digitizing turned out to be an enlightening one, because I sat through track by track, side by side, disc by disc, as these sounds floated by. And I listened. Many expectations were fulfilled. But along with the numerous instances of wincing–one of the worst was a chorus singing “on the beach at Waikaki”–there were many surprises along the way, many “ah hah!” moments, and much insight into what mainlander producers thought would sell to mainlander consumers.

Check out this song description, from Readerʻs Digestʻs 1970 box set Hawaiian Paradise. The song is titled “Sea and Surf.” And hereʻs what we are told:

The soft, sibilant sounds of the sea endlessly caressing the sandy shore are vividly realized in this musical portrait by Johnny Gibbs, a piece especially written for this album. [Note to self: no wonder I never heard of this one before.] Using layer upon layer of musical sound, he has found some of the essentials of the vast, open music of nature. The full, rich, cushioning tone of an organ is the foundation over which a steel guitar rises and falls, envisioning waves with a little lift of whitecap at the end of each phrase. The long, feathery brushing of a cymbal carries the waves purling onto the welcoming sand, and all the glistening rills and highlights, the depths and lights of shading in the gracefully moving water, are reflected in the gentle ring of a vibraharp behind the organ, in the flute runs that appear at the beginning and the end, the tinkling swoop of a harp that mingles with the singing of the steel guitar–an evocative palette as constant and yet as varied as the very sea and surf themselves.

Whew! Aside from needing a dictionary–who has ever used or heard the word “sibilant” in conversation??–well, what a description of how effects are produced through the choice of instruments. Organ plus steel guitar plus brushed cymbal.

This is a fascinating look into the way the easy listening segment of the music industry painted paradise sonically. We can take an analytical stance and point out that with the exception of the steel guitar, those instruments have never been part of the sonic core of Hawaiian music as produced and consumed by Hawaiians. And yet these productions have reinforced how paradise sounds to those who purchased and listened to these recordings.


© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman

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2 Responses to Soundpainting Paradise

  1. Zakk Toepfer says:

    After reading that description, all I can say is: What was he/she smoking? I think I will just stick to my old Haunani Kahalewai albums. No guess work with them.

  2. Pingback: Jack de Mello presents Emma Veary | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure

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