Listening To & Describing Aqueous Transmission by Incubus

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Aqueous Transmission by Incubus, off of their album Morning View
It can be heard here:

Music is a vital part of many of our lives and has been for centuries, not just in our own culture but in most every culture of the world. Music has a way of transforming us with its lyrics. When we hear the lyrics, they often times allow us to see our world in a different light, through someone else’s eyes, or possibly in a way we wish we had seen it all along. Other times the lyrics are just lyrics that plant themselves in our heads with a catchy tune. However, many people fail to notice that lyrics are not everything there is to a song, although they may have a function in it. If one truly listens to a song, their favorite song even, they will more than likely receive an amazing new perspective on how they hear this song, as well as other songs in the future. 
One of my favorite songs came along after some experimentation with a Chinese stringed instrument known as a pipa which was lent to the lead guitarist of Incubus, Mike Einziger, by Steve Vai. The first thing I thought when I heard this piece for the first time was, “This is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.” It captivated me with the first five notes of its continuous 17-note progression and continued to pull me in with its relaxing aura and peaceful sound.
An instrument that sounds kind of like sitar, in this case, the plucked Chinese pipa, begins the song with an ostinato. The line ascends melodically, pauses, and then descends. The ostinato is consistent throughout the piece up until the beginning of the last minute. The strings enter with a sliding gesture (a glissando), which reminds me of something one may hear in an Asian culture song. A breathy, nasal timbred wood flute enters with a freely flowing solo that utilizes a large range of the instrument. Bells begin to keep the rhythm, as in Native American dance. A basic scratch on turntables (a way of mixing Western style into this seemingly Eastern styled song) usher in a drum beat that gives a slow simple rhythm, also reminiscent of the Native American traditional music. The beat is simple and heartbeat-like, which to me, serves a purpose of reminding the listener of their own heartbeat to add to the relaxation aspect of the piece. The flute solo is very lyrical and ornamental, telling a story about beautiful and natural things and emotions, while making birds fly freely behind my eyelids. The strings fade in with harmonics, creating an atmosphere that resembles the serenity of untouched nature.
The flute and strings drop out and a single male voice (lead singer Brandon Boyd) comes in over the ostinato and drum beat. His voice is very easy and soft. The first words are, “I’m floating down a river” and this phrase is repeated many more times throughout the 7 minutes and 47 seconds of the song. The first verse ends with “I marvel at the stars and feel my heart overflow.” After “overflow” is sung, the strings come in, starting in unison and then gradually some of the strings glissando up to build dissonance. The dissonance creates an emotional rush that leads into the first chorus.
The chorus consists of the phrase, “Further down the river” repeated four times. This phrase is also a story of its own, and fits perfectly with the rhythm, especially the way Brandon’s voice emulates the motion of a wave on the second and fourth repetitions.  In the second verse, Brandon sings “I’m in this boat alone,” a simple call, which is followed by a short solo flute response, suggesting that the flute symbolizes the man. Later in this verse, Brandon refers back to the river, singing, “floating down a river named Emotion,” suggesting that emotion, like a river, is winding, constantly in motion, and alternates between being predictable and unpredictable. The verse ends with, “Will I make it back to shore or drift into the unknown?” which is followed by a break in the ostinato where a cello enters with a pedal tone and we hear birds call (the ones from behind my eyelids!). The last verse begins with “I’m building an antenna,” and sounds of indecipherable words, like a transmission, can be heard in the background amongst the natural atmospheric sounds created by the high string harmonics, the low string pedal tones, the ostinato, and the drum beat. The last phrase of the verse is, “Maybe we can meet again further down the river to see what we both discovered and revel in the view.” After “revel in the view,” plucked strings in octaves and unisons take over the ostinato, which produces an even stronger emotional rush that leads into the final chorus.
After the chorus, the phrase “I’m floating down a river” reappears, echoing the first line of the song. This phrase is repeated a number of times and eventually fades out as the strings overlap with increasingly more layers and then seamlessly replace the vocals. The string layers interact with one another like ripples and waves and bends in the river. On top of this rippling string texture, one flute comes in with a melody in the same simple and free-flowing style as the previous flute solos, then a second flute joins in with the same style, like the two are “meeting again further down the river.” The two flutes play off of one another in a call-and-response form and add to the full texture of the strings, ostinato, drum, and bells. This full texture lasts briefly, and then the many “voices” gradually drop out. The string voices drop out one-by-one, revealing less and less complicated phrases. Eventually all of the strings drop out, and finally the ostinato drops out. We are left with the two flutes weaving in and out of each other over the drum beat and bells. Then the two flutes become one flute, the bells drop out, the drum beat stops, and the flute makes a last small gesture that ends with a relax in pitch as the sound of many frogs chirping fades in. The frog chirping lasts for a full minute and then fades out, leaving me with a smile on my face and the urge to hit “play” again.



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