The sound men swept in on their once-a-year visit
to listen to the show, to hear
the orchestra’s sounds with outsider ears.
Could I hear that percussion part again?
one of them asked through a microphone,
wanting to inspect an African drum in isolation.
The drum played solo,
self-conscious of its double sound
of bass boom and snare buzz.
There’s a strange noise to that drum
the sound man declared with the certainly of judgement,
that doesn’t sound right he said,
his voice launched from afar.
A moment of perceptual shift:
background becomes foreground,
a rhythm becomes clear,
the sound man is the colonizer,
the drum the colonized,
misunderstood, almost ashamed
of its kente designs and noisy roots.
If the instrument had a chance to throw back questions through patterns—
what do you know and how do you know it?
and how do you come by your listening stance?
—it would speak and get even,
but for now its silence was submission.
Musical instruments have resonators
to amplify and project their sound
out to the musicians
and to us, the listeners.
But we resonate too
along with the music,
in sympathy with its aims,
in tune with its mood,
oscillating to its rhythms.
gives depth to music’s meaning:
picture this circuit
where sound is the current
and we are its wires,
allowing songs and symphonies,
raps and ballads
to travel through us,
powering our inner life,
granting us zing.
I’m listening to organ–
soft attack, pulsating sustain,
transparent like stained glass,
letting the light through
but only enough to paint a scene.
She listens to Bachata–
hard angles, syncopated starts,
stop and turns,
booming bass tickling the body,
enough to choreograph
an imagined party.
They were listening to pop–
sharing headphones, shoulders touching,
love songs and style,
enough to accessorize adolescence.
The infant will listen to something unknown–
long after us, a prescribed sound
of regulated bpm and modal mood,
doses of feeling to remind him
that music is still a strange tool,
enough to optimize a life.
“I don’t think people learn technique any more. There are no great jazz-fusion bands. I grew up seeing Weather Report, and I don’t see anything remotely like that now. There’s nothing to copy from, because you can’t go and see a band like Weather Report. Al di Meola, the guitar player, he’d just stand in the centre of the stage, soloing, until everyone gives him a standing ovation. Those were the memories that I grew up with and that made me want to play.”
“Nosebleeds at festivals, trance states at dance clubs, intimidation by car audio—multiple subwoofers have their place in the various physical experiences people seek from music…sound pressure is energy, and communicating energy can be a large part of what music is about.”
3. A short film by Nelson George about the Roland TR-808:
The concert was over
and the musicians filed out
glad to be done with the sounds
they were paid to provide.
One musician stayed behind
and decided to keep playing
and with all the time in the world,
continuing to make sounds
only this time for free.
Music sings differently
are unattached to its sense.
“As new musical publics took shape and old ones were transformed, and as they entered into rivalry and dialogue, what we seem to discover is a musical language becoming denser and richer.”
– Michael Chanan, From Handel To Hendrix (Verso, 1999, p. 135)
From the first few seconds of the new Coldplay song “Adventure of a Lifetime” you know something is up–not just something with the band’s expected usual concise tunefulness but with their subtle integration of an electronic/sampled music aesthetic that is increasingly giving their music an EDM sheen. The song opens with its hook–a descending electronic guitar arpeggiating thing that repeats for three and a half bars before adding a variation quirk at its end of phrase. Already my critical spider senses are tingling: Is this, you know, a live guitar riff or a loop recorded by the band? (Does it matter?) In the eight bars in which the guitar repeats for the song’s intro you also hear bits of vocals but they too seem chopped up and processed to sound just beyond intelligible but seriously catchy. It sounds like computer handiwork that has turned a vocal snippet into an instrumentalizing line. (This was also the case in a recent Justin Bieber-Diplo-Skrillex collaboration. Their song “Where Are U Now?” features an instrumental hook fashioned out of processed vocals.) During the second four measures of the intro a keyboard pad chord slides underneath to provide us with the song’s three relentlessly repeating chords–i, IV, v–that will guide our listening over the next four minutes. All this to say that top flight modern pop wastes not a millisecond setting up calibrated grooves for our attention.
When the full band kicks in the EDM signposts multiply: the just under 120 bpm tempo, the four on the floor kick drum beat, the jangly syncopated percussion, the thick hand claps on the “and” of every other beats 3 and 4, the disco bass riff and Nile Rodgers-worthy rhythm guitar, the frequency sweeping pre-chorus synth swell, and just below the surface of the mix, a keyboard part whose ostinato is similar to the one that anchored another of the band’s danceable anthems, “Sky Full Of Stars.” (Read me about it here.)
“Adventure of a Lifetime” is instantly catchy but one aspect of the song that may not be apparent on a cursory listen is its essential modularity. It’s as if all of its elements–from the brief vocal melodies to the bassline, beat, and rhythm guitar–were conceived as loops for software. Pop genre conventions make this a four-minute song, but if you imagine the music broken up into its component parts it seems equally suitable as bits readymade for an epic dance floor mix.
Why make music this way? The simple answer is that such a move in tempo and style (Wikipedia calls the song “disco rock”) opens the music up to the broadest possible audience. “Sky Full Of Stars” remember, has like 120 million YouTube views and a similar global trajectory could be in store for this song. The more complex reason for groovifying rock is that as musical style conventions shift musicians simply shift with them–sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not. In the case of “Adventure of a Lifetime” Coldplay collaborated with the Norwegian production team Stargate who are programmer-songwriters known for their futuristic brand of synth R&B. Maybe this is just the tip of the iceberg of how rock music will eventually dismantle itself: by joining the pulse of other musical styles.
Part of the point of these posts I’ve written on the trickle down of electronic dance music aesthetics is to map some of the audible stylistic shifts in popular music over the past few years. I enjoy noticing these shifts because they get me thinking about where music in general–popular music, global music, vernacular music–might be going. Great grooves have the potential to earn serious dollars, of course, but I can imagine other shifts happening for other reasons too. The pop music landscape is a flexible terrain that adapts to our tastes as much as it models them; with music you just never know where it will go. Maybe one day everyone will ditch digital and go totally acoustic. (The hipster stance: “I only listen to live acoustic music…”) Maybe I-IV-V songs will suddenly blossom into crazy complexity. Maybe jazz chords will become the rage again. In the meantime songs like “Adventure of a Lifetime” are like these little crystal balls given to us as we try to hear the future.
The music began as music
but then became something different.
He had hoped to create
a grand construction
in considered sounds,
but the moment steered itself
towards other destinations.
The screen in front of him held clues–
a mountain range screensaver,
colors of a kaleidoscope sunset,
an imaginary landscape.
Then the mountains began to speak:
give us a soundtrack instead,
the sound we’d make
if we could sing
instead of speaking in colors.”
The composer held a chord,
forgetting what it was supposed to be.
“Imagine being among our depths,
an echoing off our stone,
a breeze through our pine,
a figure against our horizon.”
He moved to another chord,
surprised that forgetting
what the notes should be
could let them loose to do their work.
“We love stillness, not action,
resonance not attack,
getting you lost in our silence.”
As he played and forgot
what the chords should do
the music used the moment
to be what it wanted to be–
a song to remind the composer
that sounds are therapy.