brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

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1. An article by drummer Michael Barron about the latest creation of my favorite instrument designer, Roger Linn. The article also includes YouTube videos of several other new multi-touch expressive musical controllers.

“In fifty years’ time I think people will still be playing piano, guitars, and violins, but I also think they will be playing electronic instruments — actually performing virtuosic work upon them. What these will look or sound like, I don’t know.”

2. A review of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age Of Connection.

“Our challenge is not access to information; it is the challenge of paying attention.”

3. An hour-long performance by German musician Phelios. Phelios uses a number of Elektron instruments as well as a Roland TR-8.

“Electronic music across genres often strays from traditional instrumental performance. The very nature of the technology means you’re often not playing every note. But you can make the process of assembly a performance, and something that involves audience participation, and surprise.”
Peter Kirn, Create Digital Music

On Soft Fascination And Music

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While reading Wallace J. Nichols’s book Blue Mind, I came across a passage explaining nature’s capacity to clear our minds. Stephen Kaplan uses the phrase “soft fascination” to describe the involuntary sensation of being effortlessly caught up in the sounds, sights, scents, and feels of nature. He then explains how this experience gives our minds room to roam:

“Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish” (Kaplan in Nichols: 213).

Moreover, according other studies cited by Nichols, urban environments don’t share nature’s cognitive-enhancing effects.

***

Music is a man-made environment, distinct from nature. Yet Kaplan’s phrase got me thinking: What would a music that “modestly grabs attention” sound like? Would it be like ambient music?

Would it be quiet? Slow? Would it have a drone? Would it be microtonal?

Would be an unfolding process?

Would it leave space for nature to creep in?

Would have many layers, sometimes moving both fast and slow simultaneously?

Maybe we need to keep studying nature for the answers…

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

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1. An article about CD baby. “It might not be ideal for somebody like Bruno Mars, but I can gauge what I want to do and you get to control everything, which is cool. You’re giving yourself a chance when you put your stuff up and pay that fee, because you never know who will hear it.”

2. An interview with sound recordist Chris Watson. “We’re all damaged by noise pollution psychologically as much as anything, and we’re just not aware of it. You ring your bank and they play music at you down the phone, it’s so invasive. Because of that we waste so much energy in shutting things out, we don’t get the chance to listen. I do find it really quite annoying and disturbing. I’m saddened that people have to battle through this or seem to ignore it. It’s a stressful thing to deal with it, that you spend most of your time and energy shutting things out rather than listening.”

3. An article about music and exercise. “Research has shown that music can be most effective when played at the point when workers reach a plateau in work output. When devising your own music playlist for training, it is important to take into consideration the type of mindset you want to achieve for a particular workout.”

Notes On Elizabeth Margulis’s “On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind”

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I began reading this book like a runner hitting a downhill, rushing forward with exhilaration and abandon, carried along by the gravitational pull of my interest in its subject. My initial read-through was quick, and I’ll certainly be returning to its pages, walking back up the uphills to take in the details. To say the least, I’ve been waiting for a book like this for a long time!

Elizabeth Margulis’s On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind is an expansive and scholarly investigation of repetition in musical experience. Drawing on the literature and approaches of music psychology, neuroscience, musicology, and linguistics, Margulis explores what it means that repetition is so deeply a part of music and our musical lives. “Why is it that we accept, even enjoy, degrees of repetition in music” the author wonders, “that would be repugnant in almost any other domain?” (4) This fascinating question guides On Repeat to unravel how repetition both works within music and works on us through music.

There are two kinds of repetition in our experience of music. The first exists within pieces of music themselves. On the micro-level, sound is vibration, and vibration is repetitive oscillation. On a more macro-level, there is repetition within all kinds of musical patterns (e.g. a drum beat, a guitar riff, a piano vamp) and among sections of music, such as theme and variations, recapitulations, verse-chorus refrains, and so on. A second type of repetition resides in the fact that “we tend voluntarily to re-expose ourselves to familiar pieces, again and again and again” (4). Here and elsewhere in the book, Margulis cites some of her own research that shows how when we listen to a piece of music repeatedly, that repetition triggers “an attentional shift from more local to more global levels of musical organization…so that the music doesn’t seem to be coming at the listener in small bits, but rather laying out broader spans for consideration” (9). In other words, we return to favorite pieces of music to understand them better through “a heightened sense of orientation and involvement” (ibid).

Among the many insights of this book, I was intrigued to learn that repetition is one of the things that suggests how communication cannot be music’s primary function (13). “Imagine” says Margulis, “hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony once, and being done. Or hearing a five minute summary” (ibid). The repetitive aspect of music then, is not to convey information, but rather seems bound up with the aesthetic function of non-linguistic sound (14). Or put another way: the pleasure we find in musical repetition “might stem less from increasing knowledge about the piece than from a growing sense of inhabiting the music: a transportive, even transcendent kind of experience” (15). Listening to a piece over and over again affords “a changed sort of orientation toward the work” (15). And the fascinating thing about great music is how it seems to afford endless re-listenings.

On Repeat is full of insights like this as Margulis explains layer after layer of repetition’s power. In another of her case studies, we learn how repetition added to any piece of music elevates “people’s enjoyment, interest, and judgements of artistry” (16). Something about repetition’s intrinsic declamatory quality reassures us that a piece with repetition is more forceful and effective–as if the music has something to say. “As musical phrases repeat, listeners gain access to more nuanced, communicative aspects of the sound” (21). Maybe as we return to favorite pieces of music, we gain (an illusory?) sense that we understand what it’s trying to say to us. Such is one of the charms of music’s ambiguous relationship to meaning. Margulis also considers the relationship between musical repetition and memory. As bits within a piece repeat, or as we repeatedly listen to musical bits, repetition serves as “a kind re-presenting, a kind of prosthetic memory, whereby past events are put once more before the ears” (21). Repetition then, helps us recall what just happened in a piece, or in the case of musical “earworms”, is the presence of a piece that simply won’t leave our minds.

Reading On Repeat as a practicing musician I was particularly struck by passages that point towards some of the deeper perceptual effects of repetition. Repetition is a kind of engine that reveals hidden qualities in music, “driving attention to otherwise perceptually inaccessible qualities of the sonic surface” (80). This is interesting, right? Drawing on examples ranging from Brahms to sampling in hip hop, Margulis shows how repetition has the power to transform our experience of music’s very fabric. As we repeat any musical segment what was once perceptual background becomes foreground. To take an example from speech, repeated hearings of the same nonsense word has the effect of making the word’s nonsense “replaced by a sort of super-salience of the component parts”–as if “speech had magically been transformed into music” (17). Likewise, music repeated can become almost speech-like in its capacity to conjure felt meaning. In this regard, repetition is sly and subtle: by revealing new aspects of music’s sonic surface, it can create “some impression that registers as an expressive quality, rather than as explicit recognition of repetitiveness” (35).

There’s much theoretical and empirical richness and subtlety in On Repeat that will reward repeated readings, and Margulis has amassed a giant corpus of scholarly work with which to cast her inquisitive net. Music is the canonical domain of repetition (4), and On Repeat explores the myriad reasons why this should be.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

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1. An article about the role of innate talent in achieving musical expertise.
“The idea that anyone can become an expert at most anything isn’t scientifically defensible, and pretending otherwise is harmful to society and individuals…”

2. An article about an obsessive Brazilian vinyl collector.
“I’ve gone to therapy for 40 years to try to explain this to myself…”

3. An article by Daniel Levitan about the benefits of rest–including music listening–for resetting the mind.
“Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.”

“Music…turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.”

 

Two Reviews Of Books On Electronic Music Making And Remixology

My reviews of DJ Culture in the Mix (Bloomsbury 2013) and Remixology (Reaktion Books 2014) are available here and here.

 

Notes On Marsen Jules’ “Beautyfear”

Have you listened to the music of Marsen Jules? Jules is a German electronic musician whose music I first came across some ten years ago. His sound is a kind of abstract yet atmospheric minimal wash of slow-moving and multi-layered ambient chords played using analog synthetic string timbres.

Having recently found Jules latest recording, Beautyfear, on Spotify, I was delighted to find that the musician is still holding forth on his musical terrain. My favorite track is “Beautyfear IV.” It’s a deceptively simple construction, sounding like a major scale, mi-re-do descent happening over and over again. But other tonal layers and ambiance add depth and ambiguity to the music. Does this piece have a key? Does it go anywhere? Somehow its repetition keeps putting the answers to these questions on hold. Here’s the track:

You can read more about Jules here.

Notes On Toggling Between (Disparate?) Musics

Lately I’ve been thinking about toggling.

I think about it as I switch among various go-to apps on my phone–email, news, Twitter, blog, music player, Wikipedia, calendar, amazon.com–back and forth, quickly, seamlessly, without thinking much about it. The process, made possible by the technology of my phone, feels like the essence of thinking itself: continuous zigzagging among ideas, always weighing and assessing, always seeking connections, always toggling from one bit to another.

And there’s toggling within these individual activities too. Take music listening, for example. I often toggle back and forth between stylistically different musics just to remind myself of their essential (and maybe shared yet overlooked) qualities and also to see how they affect me in tandem. A while back, I toggled between American composer John Adams’ “String Quartet” and UK electronic musician Darren J. Cunningham’s (aka Actress) “Ivy May Gilpin.” Even though these musics may not have much in common, I kept toggling!

Here is the Adams piece:

Here is the Cunningham/Actress piece:

Toggling between the two pieces of music I also thought about what the musics may say about their respective creators. And then came this (perhaps unfair) musing: Based on their music, which composer would you most like to hang out with?

Notes On Oval’s Voa

One of the most interesting aspects of Oval’s recent recording, Voa (2013), a collaboration between German electronic musician Markus Popp and a series of singers from South America, is that its instrumental parts don’t necessarily do the things you might expect them to do. In a recent interview Popp explains his interest in acoustic instruments: “I like acoustic instruments, I like this kind of micro dynamics, I like the nuance and details…” On Voa, all of the tracks feature what sounds like sampled electric jazz guitar playing, as well as bits of drumset and bass. But the parts and bits move in unexpectedly delightful ways. Popp says that his musical goal is to “come up with a new style that is kind of reminiscent of something…I wanted to do something else, more like songs. It’s just that these songs were composed from very unlikely parts, the building blocks I was using for this music were very irregular.” It’s the unlikely-ness and irregularity of Popp’s materials and their arrangements that makes the music what it is.

Here is Popp’s piece “Emocor”:

A probing interview with the musician can be found here.

On Endless Beginnings

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Some twenty years ago the professor for my Psych 101 class once said “Never be afraid to be a beginner. Because you’re going to be a beginner over and over, all your life.” It was good advice, and it came to mind recently as I was browsing through old music files on my computer. In a series of vaguely titled folders (“chords and beats”, “ambient” etc.) I found a series of what one might call endless beginnings–ideas for pieces of music that someday might become something or (probably, most likely) not. “Ideas” might be giving too much credit. Some of the pieces are just a series of rhythms, a few chords, or an interesting sound. All of the files sit quietly, with their workaday titles (day, month, and year), waiting for my further direction and refinement. The music varies in quality, yet all the files share a sense of being unafraid of, well, being beginners. Sitting on the computer hard drive, they wait for someone–me–to revisit them and re-listen to hear if they might have anything worth saying. I keep putting off this re-listening, but here’s one that caught my attention enough to write this post:

For more on beginnings, go here.

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