On The Musicological Juncture

Words are not going to get us there,
are they?
Words won’t bring us
to music’s promised land.
They weren’t given the right directions,
the right coordinates for finding
where exactly music resides.
Words reach,
but unlike music,
they don’t touch.

The “musicological juncture”
was Charles Seeger’s phrase,
coined long ago to describe
the situation we
–musicologists all of us–
place ourselves in
when we talk about music.

“Gaps found in our speech thinking
about music” he said at one point,
“may be suspected of being areas
of music thinking.”

We’re still in that gap–in that space
between thinking about music
and music thinking.
“Interpret music’s mediations!”
says anthropology,
“Look to the brain!”
says neuroscience,
“And don’t forget the notes themselves!”
urges music theory.

We reach to fill the interpretive space,
all the while
musicians keep playing,
talking another talk among themselves,
using sounds, not words
to craft their touch.

Curating The Week: On Audiophiles, Canadian Speech, And The Film Modulations


1. An article about the culture of audiophiles.

“The old line about great hi-fi making it feel like the band’s in the room with you isn’t quite right. It doesn’t sound like live music: it sounds better. Clearer, more pure. The weirdest thing is that the music doesn’t appear to be coming out of the speakers: it seems to be happening in a space just in front of you. It feels like it’s in 3D: you could walk around it, you could reach out and touch it. It’s astonishing.”

2. An article about the sounds of Canadian speech patterns, word use, and accents.

“The best-known feature is ‘Canadian raising’, which affects two specific diphthongs before voiceless consonants: the first part of the diphthong is higher in ice and out than it is in eyes and loud. The out raising makes the vowel sound more like ‘oot’ to American ears. This feature is present across much but not all of Canada. It may be influenced by Scottish English (many British emigres were Scots), or it may be a relic of Shakespeare-era pronunciation.”

3. The 1990s film about electronic music, Modulations, can now be viewed on Vimeo:

Reading Analogically: Thinking About Music As A Landscape

“Landscapes like ours were created by and survive through the efforts of nobodies. That’s why I was so shocked to be given such a dead, rich, white man’s version of its history at school. This is a landscape of modest hardworking people. The real history of our landscape should be the history of the nobodies.”
– James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life:
Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape
(2015, p. 19)

Brett’s Sound Picks: Four Tet’s “Morning Side”

Four Tet’s “Morning Side” from his Morning/Evening is a 20-minute track that presents a gentle techno beat as a backdrop for a sample of legendary Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar singing “Main Teri Chhoti Behana Hoon” from the 1983 film Souten. The music unfolds gradually with a slow-moving chord progression, chattering hi hats, floaty synthesizer lines, and subtle echo effects on Mangeshkar’s plaintive melodies.

Here is the original:


Notes On Musical Popularity And Critical Respect


On the one hand, music that is popular (though not necessarily critically respected) has earned the affection and admiration of its fans because they have found a use for it. The uses of musics are many–as numerous as music’s endless styles–including using music to show others that you like the same music they do. On the other hand, music that is respected and praised (though not necessarily popular) has earned the affection and admiration of its critics who have found it in some way(s) smart. The ways in which musics can be smart are many, including pushing, defying, or re-defining conventions of style and idiom, mixing up old elements in novel ways, and more rarely, offering the world a new and distinctive voice.

Whatever the reasons for a music’s earned popularity or critical respect, once afforded a measure of one or the other the music is granted entry into a feedback loop of attention. As we focus on the music–because it’s popular, because it’s significant–it becomes more and more established as something we should continue considering and thinking about. And yet the maker of the music has no control over whether or not anyone likes what they do. They can’t make their music earn anything–certainly not fans or respect. The music is powerless to make any arguments on behalf of itself besides simply being what it already is.

All of this to say that after its liminal moment of creation or performance the trajectory of a music is very much outside the control of its maker.

Curating The Week: On Stagefright, Jeff Porcaro’s Timing, And Futurism In New Dance Music

1. A New Yorker article about stagefright.

“The crux, of course, was the invention of sound recording and then of film, in the late nineteenth century. These things did not create stagefright, but they fostered it, by enabling performers to do their work without having to appear in front of an audience.”

2. An article about the fractal qualities of timing and dynamic variations in Jeff Porcaro’s drumming in a song by Michael McDonald. A summary of the article is here.  (Thanks to Tristan Marzeski for alerting me to the article.) The original scientific study is here.

“Although drummers often ‘wander’ around the click track intentionally, our example does not resemble such behavior. This finding is in line what has been commented by Grammy Award winning musician, producer, and recording engineer Jay Graydon, who has recorded with Porcaro: ‘When playing with Jeff, better not to use a click since he played inside the cracks and his time float is what made him great.'”

3. An article about futurism in new dance music.

“But even when certain elements of the music have clearly traceable lineages, nothing about the final product sounds quite like anything that has come before. With their jagged rhythms, glassy timbres and resolutely digital aspect, these new tracks couldn’t be confused with the music of earlier decades. At their most extreme, they can convey, at least upon initial listens, the same sort of brain-rearranging rush that accompanied a first encounter with jungle or grime (or, indeed, Aphex Twin). As beats come undone from conventional timekeeping and notes twist in the artificial winds, the brain struggles to catch up; you can practically feel new paths being blazed through your cortex, new neural networks congealing around unfamiliar tropes.”

Notes On A Sample In A Song By Drake

In 1972 a Miami-based R&B keyboardist and singer-songwriter named Timmy Thomas had a hit song with “Why Can’t We Live Together” which topped the charts and sold several million copies. Two notable things about Thomas’s song are its instrumentation and structure. Alongside Sly and The Family Stone’s “Family Affair”, “Why Can’t We Live Together” was one of the first pop hits from the 1970s to feature a drum machine. Thomas used an early machine (possibly a Korg, Rhythm Ace, or one of their numerous imitators) to provide a generic percolating bossa nova beat to accompany his funky Lowrey organ playing and singing about racial injustice. On this song the instrumentation shaped its structure because there are only two instruments sounding–no bass line, no guitars, no strings or background vocal harmonies. In a way, “Why Can’t We Live Together” is austere and ultra-minimalist and in saying more with less it was pathbreaking–years ahead of hip hop and EDM–in showing how a rigid yet hypnotic electronic groove could power a whole song. Here it is:

In 2015, the Canadian rapper and R&B singer Drake used a very sizable sample of Thomas’s hit as the basis for his “Hotline Bling.” Drake’s song opens with Thomas’s bossa beat, albeit considerably sped up, and wastes no time adding the requisite modern hip hop touches in the form of overlaying a snaky sub bassline, double time hi hats, and hand claps on two and four. The structure of Drake’s piece is guided by Thomas’s, even including his predecessor’s original chord progression twist that marks the choruses/ends of phrases.

To my ear, Drake’s appropriation of the 43-year-old song is pretty straightforward in our age of seamless software sampling. Depending on your perspective on such practices, it’s pretty savvy too—in the same wheelhouse as Puff daddy’s wholesale taking of Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” for his unoriginal “I’ll Be Missing You.” Similarly, the feel of Drake’s piece depends almost entirely on the wistful, minimalist mood of Thomas’s original. But it works. We could listen to Drake rap-singing about choosing ice cream or deliberating over his choices on a restaurant menu and he’d keep us interested in the subtleties of his ever-changing emotional state. The guy is sensitive.

It also struck me while listening to both songs how far their lyrics are from one another. Back in the day Thomas was making a plea for us to all get along, bringing himself and his listeners together in a collective “we” in the same of a shared social cause:

“No more wars, no more wars, no more war
Umm, just a little peace in this world
No more wars, no more war
All we want is some peace in this world.”

Drake, on the other hand, situates us right inside his personal world. He’s confessing to us and in this song we the listeners become the (presumably female) individual he’s addressing in his lyrics. Fitting the times we live in, Drake tells us how he feels:

“You used to call me on my, you used to, you used to
You used to call me on my cell phone
Late night when you need my love
Call me on my cell phone
Late night when you need my love
I know when that hotline bling
That can only mean one thing
I know when that hotline bling
That can only mean one thing.”


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