On Musical Time and Drummers’ Brains

In a recent article by the always interesting Bikhard Bilger in this week’s The New Yorker (April 25), we learn about David Eagleman’s research on the brain and time perception.  Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College, wants to understand how we experience time, an especially interesting question considering how subjective time can feel in those moments when it seems to race ahead, or stand still, or slow down.  How much is our perception of time regulated by our brain structures, and how much is shaped by external forces?

In early 2011, Eagleman conducted a research project on musical time in London at the studio of music producer Brian Eno.  Eno was curious to know whether or not drummers’ timekeeping acuity is evidence of unique brain structures or brain functioning.  Eno wanted Eagleman to answer the question: “Do drummers have different brains than the rest of us?”  Eno, an adventurous thinker himself, was inspired by an experience he once had while recording the band U2 in the studio. During one studio session, the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen Jr., claimed that he couldn’t play with the computer-generated metronome click track because it was ever so slightly off–a tiny tad behind the beat, to be precise.  To Eno’s surprise, Mullen was right: the click track was in fact clicking behind the beat–by a mere 6 milliseconds.  How could a drummer know and perceive this?

Eagleton had a number of professional drummers and percussionists visit Eno’s studio to take part in a series of timing tests while hooked up to wireless EEG monitors clamped to their heads (!).  The tests were conducted on a laptop computer, with a software program asking the musicians to do four things: 1) keep a steady beat, 2) compare the length of two tones, 3) synchronize a beat to an image, and 4) compare rhythms to one another.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the initial results demonstrated that the musicians excelled at keeping a steady beat, wavering on average by less than 10 milliseconds as compared to the 35 millisecond variance of non-musician control subjects.  But I’m curious: Is this ability with musical time the result, as Eagleton says, of “something anatomically different about them [drummers]”, or is it the result of a body-mind skill set cultivated through years of specialized rhythmic training?  Neither Eagleton nor Bilger (nor Eno for that  matter) comments on this.  However, Bilger does speculate on what it might feel like to possess a drummer’s sense of timing, or even to have “perfect timing”–a rhythmic blessing analogous to so-called “perfect pitch”–that “may just make a drummer more sensitive to the world’s arrhythmias and repeated patterns.”

If I may weigh in here as a drummer: I think there is some truth to the idea that drummers sometimes hear rhythms in everyday soundscapes that others may not notice.  (I’ve had my own pleasurable moments of picking out a rhythm in the sound of subway train, or even in the pattern of my dog drinking water . . .) But what’s more interesting to me is that one of the qualities Eagleton’s test overlooks is how a good drummer generates a sense of kinetic, forward-moving musical motion–colloquially called a good “groove”–by not being perfectly steady, but rather by being subtly elastic.  Metronomes and click tracks, just so you know, are never elastic (unless they are tempo-mapped to subtly speed up or slow down over time).  So as I write this I’m starting to wonder why I once spent so many years dutifully practicing to metronomes . . .

Likewise, if you’ve ever wondered why some electronic music sounds “stiff” it’s because instead of a human drummer incorporating little pushes and pulls on the time (or what the ethnomusicologist Charles Keil once called “participatory discrepancies”), the groove is machine-generated and locked in or “quantized” to a rigid temporal framework that squares off notes to the nearest sixteenth- or eighth-note.  It’s the exact opposite of elastic: stiff.  And we hear stiffness as being “cold” or even as a kind of deadness–as if a chilled rigor mortis has set in on the music.   So, perfect timing is not really the thing for musicians.  In fact, good timing for a drummer means to be imperfect, albeit in a reliable and groovy way. It’s a difficult dance to master, maybe because, as the late Senegalese cultural theorist Leopold Sedar Senghor once observed, “rhythm is the most perceptible and least material thing”–and immaterial things are hard to grasp, let alone master.  At any rate, great drummers make the task of making good rhythm with good time look and sound effortless while lesser drummers make it look and sound as if something is subtly but oh so deeply wrong!

Here, then, are just a few examples of excellent musical timekeepers in action:

From India, the great tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain:

From the USA, the great jazz drummer Tony Williams:

From Puerto Rico, the great conga drummer Giovanni Hidalgo:

From the USA, the great frame drummer Glen Velez:

On The Most Human Human

In his book The Most Human Human, an engaging account of competing in the annual Turing test, Brian Christian ranges far and wide through the literature of AI (artificial intelligence), linguistics, computer science, philosophy and even poetry to figure out what exactly makes us distinctly human and distinctly different from machines.  The Turing test was conceived by Alan Turing, an English mathematician, in 1950.  The test is whether or not a computer can fool a human into thinking that it–the computer–is also human through interrogation only.  If a computer can fool us, then it could be said to “think.”  Today, the Turing Test pits both computer software programs and human “confederates” against one another, each trying to convince a human judge that they are human and not machine.  The catch is that each interaction has a 5 minute time limit.  The winner in the human confederate category, of course, is deemed “The Most Human Human.”
One of the more interesting of the book’s digressions is Christians’s discussion of chess playing, specifically the different ways humans and software programs approach this decision-making terrain.  Chess is a space for thinking about what makes humans human precisely because the game offers such a vast array of possible moves to get one’s brain around.  And the amazing thing–at least from the perspective of a non-chess player such as myself–is that the very best chess players can navigate the terrain of possible moves by intuitive means.  What this means is that not only can a Gary Kasparov draw on vast experience but he can also make unusual choices as to how he proceeds.  Case in point: making a somewhat random opening move is a great way to stymie a computer software opponent like Deep Blue, who, of course, proceeds through the game only by crunching millions of possible moves per second.  The human player has the poetics of randomness and intuition on his side, against which the machine can only number crunch the relative merits of the next move.  Here Christian hits on an important point about human creativity: on some level it requires the practitioner/artist to not know exactly what he or she is doing.  Or in the words of Donald Barthelme, one of the interviewees in Christian’s book: “Not knowing…is what permits art to be made.”  Barthelme is referring to that aspect of the creative process that is  inherently random, accessible only by our vaguest of intuitions.
This discussion of randomizing one’s opening moves had me thinking about how I begin working on a new piece of music on the computer.  For some time now I have fretted over the sheer number of possibilities open to me as I try to decide how to proceed with a piece.  The software programs on my laptop are like a chessboard in that they invite millions of possible creative moves from me.  It’s a deeply exciting prospect but also potentially paralyzing.
In the past, I would try to systematically think my way through the “best” option: maybe I’d start by searching for a nice pad sound and then…The problem is that my systematic thinking would always be interrupted by a rogue sound, an unexpected by-way, or an accidental juxtaposition that would instantly charm me, as if asking: “But have you considered this?”  Well, no, I hadn’t considered that because I was under the impression that I was doing something else.  And then I would fret some more about having let myself be undermined by my own digressions . . .
After reading The Most Human Human, I decided to try applying the idea of randomizing an opening move to writing music.  What I did was just jump into making sounds–any sound that seemed interesting–so that I could get the music “game” underway and remove from the equation my anxiety about having too many options.  Randomizing my opening move–“Let me just build a little pattern using this drum sound…”–let me get on with the more satisfying business of interacting with and building a new sonic organism that could grow.

Remixing Is A Curious Thing

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” – Igor Stravinsky

To a composer used to putting together notes on a page (or notes on the virtual page of a music notation program), the craft of remixing can seem like a curious thing.  Its original meaning, in the context of Jamaican dub music, was to literally re-mix reggae songs, usually taking out the vocal tracks and foregrounding the drum and bass tracks to make a spectral instrumental version of the original.  Since dub’s heyday through the work of Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, the remix art migrated to disco DJs and electronic dance music remixers.
Today, remixing is ubiquitous and we seem to be in the midst of what Kevin Kelly calls a “recombinant” moment.  In fact, remixing is a creative option for anyone with a computer and some cheap audio recording software.  Sounds can be recorded onto one’s cellphone, dumped into the computer, stretched, cut and pasted, superimposed, pitch-shifted, played backwards and filtered to an inch of their original acoustic lives.  It’s almost too easy, with too many options ready at a mouse click.
So why is remixing a curious thing to a pencil-paper composer?  For one thing, it challenges the notion that a piece of music needs to be a linear thing–beginning with a premise that develops systematically towards a conclusion.  Remixing makes music cyclical and it’s comfortable with non goal-oriented repetition.  Put more colloquially: remixes tend to groove pretty hard, and this is a good thing for almost any music.  But by making music comfortable with its loopability, remixers threaten the kinds of rigorous thinking composers like to think as their privileged domain.  Remixing mixes up our cherished musical narratives, making endings new beginnings, turning basslines into melodies, giving the voice a whole new set of clothes.  Remixing reveals new meanings and spins new stories from what were once thought to be finished statements.  And so the composer’s sense of “This is what I feel at this point in time” modus operandi is undermined and shown to be provisional, grist for some mill in the future.  How equalizing!  How destabilizing!  How dangerous!
Another threatening thing about remixes is that they can take a piece of music so far from its original version that it gets homesick.  Remixes can also mutate sounds so that they can’t even recognize themselves.  And remixes bring us into strange new sonic territories where the composer’s old constraints–meter, scale, tonality, the timbral palette of acoustic instruments–are not necessarily enough to keep us oriented. But these moments of confusion in the face of new soundscapes are potentially liberating too, for they remind us that music always wanted to be free of our imposed constraints, and perhaps remixing helps us loosen those chains that shackle its spirit.

On David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand

They don’t seem to make books like David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand anymore, but then, Sudnow, who died in 2007, was no ordinary explorer of musical experience.  Trained as a sociologist, Sudnow took a turn inward in the late 1970s and wrote Ways Of The Hand (1978/2001), a remarkable insider’s phenomenological account of learning to improvise jazz piano that was based mostly on his own introspection.  The book attempted to articulate the lived experience of what it feels like to move one’s fingers about the piano keyboard, tracing exploratory paths and going for notes to make jazz.

Here’s a passage from the book’s preface:

“I’ve found that thus far unanalyzed aspects of the body’s ways can be closely depicted, for all to see, by the performer, and perhaps no one but the performer, especially one who self-consciously takes up a complex activity with as strong an intention to master its accomplishment as to try to reflect rigorously upon the experiences of doing so. Guided by neither an introspective, mentalistically inclined consciousness nor the methods of analytic science but only by the concrete particular problems faced in the course of learning jazz piano, I’ve pointed to various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (2001:3).

Ways Of The Hand is not afraid to attempt a comprehensive cartography of the terrain the jazz pianist must traverse to make jazz.  And contrary to what I imagine most jazz musicians would think about learning jazz–that you learn the “right” way, the jazz way, by just listening to the jazz greats, by mysterious osmosis in other words–Sudnow proposes an approach to grasping a (graspable) set of jazz moves.  If that weren’t audacious enough, in its intricate, rigorous, and poetically rendered details about the deep connections between the musicking body, cognition, feeling, and creativity, Ways Of The Hand also sets an example for a kind of writing about music that has had few followers since.  In 2001, Sudnow even revised the book (Ways Of The Hand: A Rewritten Account) further distilling its already austere descriptive language into something even more crystalline.

We need more books like Ways Of The Hand–books that look inward for answers, books that approach (and achieve) rigorous thinking through intuition, reflection, and practical experience in things musical.  Many great musicians never write about music, and many great critics and academics seek deep answers far outside the relationship between musician and his/her instrument.  But Sudnow proposes that the way can be simple: it’s right in our hands.  We just need to think about it.

On Information, Musical Memes And Earworms

For James Gleick, author of the recent book The Information, information has a life of its own independent of us.  In a recent interview on On Point radio he says::

“We live in a world where information passes from machine to machine.  We know that when it’s stored in material forms and when one machine talks to one another, something is happening there that doesn’t need human intervention.  And so it makes sense logically to speak of information as independent of us.”

“Then you start thinking: That snippet of music has a life of its own (…)–when you can’t get a song out of your head or when an idea takes hold of you…”

Gleick then goes on to describe these little pieces of information that can self replicate as “memes”, a term he borrows from Richard Dawkins (who coined it in his book The Selfish Gene).  Memes, says Gleick, have “a living stability and the ability to mutate.”

It’s interesting to think about information and memes in the context of those little bits of music that somehow lodge themselves in our heads every once in a while.  Recently, I had a song by Bruno Mars pop into my head one morning.  I didn’t ask for it, and I like to think I don’t even like this song and can’t remember when I last heard it, but no matter: there it was on loop mode in my head.

There’s a name for these kinds of cognitive itches: earworms.  Any music can become an earworm and I suppose that constant exposure to a song might help the earworming process along, but oftentimes earworms just appear full blown.  Also, earworms are kinds of (sonic) memes and as such are intensely contagious.  In fact, it has often happened to me that I have “caught” an earworm from simply hearing my wife sing a snippet of a song at home.  Moments later I find myself humming the same song without knowing why.  I only realize what has happened when she rightly accuses me of “stealing” her song (!) But as Gleick points out, that’s in the nature of information/memes/: it’s independent of its hosts/transmitters.  In the case of earworms, perhaps we are all just nodes in a vast network helping musics circle the world.

You can read an article on earworms here.

On a different note, Gleick also weighs in on the challenges posed by the flood of information that’s easily accessible with our digital devices. He makes an incisive point when he notes:

“It’s harder than ever to be original when you can instantly find out
what everybody else is doing.”

On the other hand, as connected information-breathing citizens, we have responsibilities too:

“We need to think of ourselves not just as passive consumers of information, but also as its creators and its guardians.”

On Kinesthetic Sense In Musical Experience

In his engagingly perceptive 2006 article on tennis virtuoso Roger Federer, the late David Foster Wallace discusses the idea of “kinesthetic sense” and its importance in successfully returning a hard hit tennis serve, a situation where one has just a split second to react and do the right thing.  For Wallace, kinesthetic sense comprises:

“the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks.  English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on.”

As in tennis, so in music: any musician who has learned to play an acoustic instrument with a high level of skill has undoubtedly spent many years practicing–usually various kinds of patterns (scales, rhythms, melodies) in an effort to train his or her body to do things (play melodies, nail rhythms with aplomb, improvise freely) in the heat of performance–smoothly, effortlessly, accurately, with feel and without thinking about it.  Expressive finesse.  In music performance, as in a tennis match, stuff happens and players are required to react, letting their body-minds move the appropriate way without deliberation.

The idea of kinesthetic sense and the skilled body trained over many years faces a new kind of competitor in the case of digital music making: the laptop running a software program.  Here, the musician with a dog’s lifetime of embodied, kinesthetic know-how is confronted with a strangely cool opponent, who, unblinking, offers a world of possibilities but with a catch: this is a disembodied game and we won’t be needing your kinesthetic sense, thank you very much, just
you’re decision-making.

I am, of course, exaggerating a bit, for electronic musicians use midi controllers (and now ipads) with their knobs, buttons, and faders to control their music.  It’s getting interactive.  But for the most part, performing music on a laptop is a whole new game that remains a strange sonic sport.

What interests me lately is how the attributes of kinesthetic sense–what Wallace described as “feel, touch…grace, control, reflexes”–are manifest in the electronic musician’s interaction with a laptop computer-based musical system.  What are the components of this sense, considering the skilled musical body is not so much in play (to continue the sports analogy)?  Is it even appropriate to use such a body-centric concept when most of the electronic musician’s labor consists of decision-making?  And anyway, can this decision-making be mapped in way English ethnomusicologist John Baily (1977) mapped the motor patterns of dutar lute players in Afghanistan, or the way American sociologist David Sudnow (1978/2001) traced the finger paths of the jazz pianist?

I leave you with two video clips of virtuosic kinesthetic sense in action.  The first is the great jazz drummer Max Roach (1924-2007)  taking a solo on a set of hi hat cymbals.  The second is the experimental electronic music duo Autechre (who can’t be seen in this clip because there are no stage lights!).  Same sport, but entirely different games!

On The Digital Versus The Physical In Music

In a recent interview on Tom Ashbrook’s On Point radio program, sci-fi novelist William Gibson began his discussion of his book Zero History by pointing out that in so many ways today, “the digital has colonized the physical.”  I want to interrogate this interesting idea with regards to musical life as it can be observed in 2011.

1. Slow Death Of The Musical Artifact
Since I was a kid in the 1980s, I have bought music on 7 inch singles (my first music purchase!), LPs, cassettes and CDs.  But for a while now, I buy most of my music in the form of MP3 downloads (as do you, most likely…or do you just download stuff willy nilly for free?).  While I still like CDs for their extensive liner notes (helpful when the music comes from a locale foreign to me), increasingly my record collection just consists of an ever-expanding virtual space on my computer hard drive.  Score: Digital 1- Physical 0.

2. Growth Of The Musical Controller
But while musical recorded artifacts are going all virtual, musicians still have bodies (surprise, surprise) and still very much want cool, tactile and tangible ways with which to make music.  After all, musicians want to play instruments, not fiddle with them.  And so in 2011 you can find all kinds of musical controllers that engage us on a physical level–maybe not exactly like a violin or a piano does, but still require a degree of hands-on fluidity with an object.  Score: Digital 1- Physical 1.

3. The Circulation Of Music
With music assuming a virtual life as data, it has fully and irrevocably entered into what Kevin Kelly aptly calls our “recombinant era.”  All sounds are fungible, remixable, and mash-up-able.
Score: Digital 2 – Physical 1.

4. Music Performance
But we still perform music, whether with acoustic instruments or laptops (or increasingly, both) and we like to see others engaged in performance because it validates the physical, spatial, and spiritual here and now.  Score: Digital 2 – Physical 2.

And so, at least in terms of this blog post, the virtual hasn’t colonized the physical just yet…