On Less Is More: El Fog’s Rebuilding Vibes

I don’t quickly absorb music that’s new to me. As a listener I’m inherently suspicious of what I’ve not yet come to know (and this includes my own works in progress!) It takes me a while to get–let alone trust–a music. Because of my tendencies, there’s not a ton of sound on my iPhone. In fact, hardly any: usually just a recent release or two and few older ones that have made it to the inner circle. I keep meaning to load up the phone’s hard drive with songs, but it never happens. Anyhow, how would I ever have enough time to listen to all those gigabytes of sound? And I’m not a particularly patient listener either. An initial listen will be a final listen if the music isn’t compelling. After that, I’ll return to particular bits here and there, but only to re-confirm (and try to figure out) my initial intuition that there was something enchanting there.

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One quietly enchanting recording that I’ve had with me for a while is Rebuilding Vibes (2009) by el fog. el fog is the electronic music alias of Masayoshi Fujita, a Japanese vibraphonist and composer based in Berlin. On his website (http://masayoshifujita.com), Fujita writes that the el fog project “combines the vibraphone and analogue/digital electronic sound and textured noises using diverse experimental methods”, drawing influence from “the silence and deepness of the fog and the mountains and the gravity within.” Dig around a little at the artist’s website and you’ll also learn that he makes one-off wood prints too. Very cool.

Rebuilding Vibes sounds like it’s built around a series of vibraphone improvisations. The vibes (with motor on) are front and center, sounding out unresolved chords that resonate and float, occasionally enhanced by touches of effects processing (delay and reverb). Supporting the vibes is a small collection of other sounds: there’s a sine tone bass, and some minimal digital percussion consisting mostly of muted bits of electronic static and hiss. To my ear, it sounds like Fujita recorded his vibes improvisations and then went about “rebuilding” them on the computer. The result is an understated and subtle collection of music that sounds both acoustic and electronic. Stylistically, the pieces are a brand of hushed electronica. They sound static in that they’re in no hurry to go anywhere. The chords repeat with tiny fluttering variations, and overall not much happens. But the lack of stuff happening means there’s space for silence here too. In the spaces between the decaying vibes chords and the delicate electronic textures you have the sense of hearing and feeling the texture of silence and emptiness.

I’m reminded here of the Japanese concept of ma. Ma (間) means space or the gaps between things. The Japanese Zen rock garden (like this one in Kyoto) illustrates ma,

so do Japanese flower arrangements (Ikebana),

and shakuhachi flute performances.

In its own way, Fujita’s Rebuilding Vibes seems to draw energy from ma aesthetics as well. Here is a piece called “März”:

On The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics II: Maroon 5’s “Move Like Jagger”

Almost everywhere you listen in mainstream American popular music today you hear bands coming to terms with electronic dance music’s most thumping contribution to 21st-century sonic entertainment: the “four-on-the-floor” bass drum pulse. This is the pulse that drove (and still drives) disco, electro, techno and house, as well as all kinds of derivatives of these pioneering electronic dance music styles. Precisely calibrated around a tempo between 120-130 beats per minute, the pulse is insistent in its insistence on moving people to dance. As long as you have a strong four-on-the-floor kick drum, you hardly need much else in the mix.  But combine a relentless beat with a catchy pop hook and you’ve got a seriously infectious musical artifact.

Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”(2011) has just this blend of four-on-the-floor and simple and contagious melody. The song is built around a repeating 8-bar sequence of two chords: b minor for four bars, and then e minor for four bars. Repeat, repeat, and repeat. The beat and melody mix works to scary perfection and not surprisingly the song has hit the top of the pop music charts in 17 countries.  Here it is:

Two comments about the sound of this song. First, listen on headphones and note the timbre of the kick drum.  It’s a real drummer playing the kick, of course, but the drum sound’s envelope and tone contour evoke the kick sound on the Roland TR-808 drum machine (a key instrument of early electro and techno). This sound referencing is not accidental: it’s what makes”Moves Like Jagger” electronic dance music, rather than pop-rock-soul music. Or if not being dance music, then certainly capable of functioning as dance music. (Is there a difference?) With the kick drum sounding crystalline and perfectly steady, the other instruments (the disco guitar, pulsating synths, and the bass on the off-beats) fall in step. Second, listen at 3:16 when Christina Aguilera enters with her cameo vocal. Here you hear something else from the DJ world: a full frequency filter sweep that makes the music sound likes its gone underwater for a time. Again, this is a deliberate referencing of a classic mixing technique from electronic dance music: the filter sweep brings us down somewhere and then returns us to the surface, revitalized, like we’ve been holding our breaths and need to gasp for air just as the chorus hits.

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But “Moves Like Jagger” isn’t as convincing when it’s performed live because without the sound processing required to make a drumset sound like a drum machine or a mix sound like it’s being tweaked by a DJ, Maroon 5 is just a band playing a strange rockified electro pop. What is interesting to me is how the recorded and processed sound artifact continues as a gold standard for musicians to re-create/emulate in their performances.  Given the surgical technological tweaking that goes into making a pop music beast like “Moves Like Jagger” (which will surely continue to replicate itself in DJ mixes for years to come), it’s not always easy for a band to copy themselves onstage, note for Auto-Tuned note. Here’s a clip from Maroon 5’s recent performance on SNL, doing their best to make themselves sound like their electronic dance music selves:

In a Billboard interview, Maroon 5’s singer Adam Levine talks elliptically about “Moves Like Jagger”: “It was one of those songs that was definitely a risk. It’s a bold statement. We’ve never really released a song like that. But it’s exciting to do something different, do something new. I’m just glad that everyone likes it.”

You can read more about the trickle down of electronic dance music aesthetics here.

On Evanescent Materials In Solid Containers: The Flaming Lips’ “7 Skies H3″

The Flaming Lips recently released a 24 hour-long song called “7 Skies H3.” I’m actually listening to a stream of it right now on a website (http://flaminglipstwentyfourhoursong.com/) as I write these words. I like this music. So far–30 minutes in–it’s been a lot of long feedbacking tones on guitars, washes of cymbals, and vocal wails that periodically resolve together on a chord change. It sounds very loose and improvised and all about the slowly evolving long drone.

What’s equally interesting about this release is its packaging. “7 Skies H3″ comes on a hard drive encased in a real human skull (!) and costs $5000.00 to purchase. The catch is that the band only made thirteen copies of their release and surprise, surprise, they’ve already sold out.

“7 Skies H3″ is quite a gesture in our era of evanescent MP3s and 99 cent Apple iTunes downloads. If you were to actually get your hands on this release you’d have yourself a very permanent physical momento as well an entire day’s worth of sound. It’s hard to ignore this kind of artistic gesture because it’s so lavishly physical and imposing, flying in the face of the essential disposability and interchangeability of many popular songs today whose contents we can easily browse/shuffle/add/delete on our digital devices. And because of its size, “7 Skies H3″ is probably impermeable to this kind of toying around. For that matter, how would a remix DJ ever decide where to start taking the music apart?  It’s just too colossal and that’s the point: “7 Skies” isn’t a song, it’s a slow-moving weather system.

I’m Yours: On Jason Mraz’s Reggae And Cultural Tourism


In my experience the best time to write about something is the moment you notice that you’ve been noticing it. Take for example those ever proliferating rickshaw/bicycle taxis in that congregate outside Broadway theaters in Times Square awaiting tourists actually crazy enough pay money for a ride in them. Predator-like, one way the rickshaw drivers attract your attention–besides seizing on even your briefest glance in their direction–is to pimp out their rides with cushioned seats, colored lights, and, most importantly, booming music courtesy of giant bass bins installed beneath the seat. Music: the great sonic seducer.

For many months now I’ve noticed myself noticing that one of the rickshaw “theme songs” as it were–the song that I hear more than any other–is Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” (2008). Do you know this song? You probably do. It’s a relaxed reggae-infused, feel-good folk-pop tune that spent over a year on the Billboard charts, has been downloaded over five million times on iTunes, and watched a staggering 114 million times on YouTube. Here’s the song:

One of the things I think about whenever I hear this song is the awesome stylistic reach of reggae. Mraz, of course, is no reggae artist, but he draws on the idiom’s off-beat rhythmic feel in this song. The off beats are those spaces between the main pulses–the “ands” between beats 1,2,3 and 4 of each bar of music: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. Mraz strums these off beats on his guitar throughout the entire song. It’s really just a four- chord song at a medium slow tempo with a patter-like sweet vocal melody (and even sweeter lyrics), but the constant off beat guitar strums gives the music life through a reggae lilt.

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It’s amazing how influential reggae has been. The term first appeared in 1968 with the rocksteady hit “Do the Reggay” by The Maytals:

Reggae grew out of rocksteady (and before that, ska) and into its own by the 1970s, especially through the work of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Here is Marley singing “Stir It Up”:

And the off-beat groove can certainly be traced back further. My friend the percussionist Junior Wedderburn tells me that the off-beat in reggae and rocksteady and ska has affinities with Burru, a Rastafarian drumming tradition with roots in West African drumming. In Burru music, the lead drummer plays a drum called a kete or “repeater.” The kete drummer’s two-note pattern–“–dum-dum–dum-dum–“–repeats heartbeat-like on the off-beats and is the basis for the guitar or keyboard parts in reggae.

You can hear this off-beat/heartbeat-like drumming pattern on this piece by Count Ossie:

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The off-beat aesthetic serves both musical and social agendas. Musically, off-beat patterns are an effective way to create a steady and repeating sense of unresolved tension that keeps things interesting and kinetic. This, by the way, partly explains what went wrong (if you ask me) with the advent of (white) rock and roll: the syncopation died (or was driven elsewhere, eventually re-surfacing in hip hop and electronic dance musics . . .). But back to off-beats. By keeping a sense of rhythmic drama in the music, off-beats also supported lyrical agendas–especially in classic reggae music. As Junior keeps reminding me whenever I pick his brain about such things, the guiding spirit in this music has always been what he calls “protest and resistance.” In the service of resisting injustice and colonization, off-beats assume a greater urgency than they may first seem to have. In this sense, we can think of the Burru-Ska-Rocksteady-Reggae contiuum as music that resists by refusing to settle by choosing the path of off-beats instead of marching in step to the (European) on-beat.

And so it’s funny how today it’s easy to think of reggae music as “laid back” due to its easy tempo, effortless groove, and sense of cool. Perhaps it’s this laid back cool that Mraz chose to gesture with in his hit song? In this sense, “I’m Yours” can be read as submitting to reggae’s deep comforting reach, with or without really knowing–let alone engaging with–the extent of its struggles. Also significant here is how Mraz’s video effectively erases the song’s reggae debts. It was shot on location in Hawaii (not Jamaica) and depicts the singer and a group of friends hanging out on the beach, at a waterfall, and curiously, at a skate park. (They may as well be in California.) In depicting the young tourists cavorting on their own about an exotic locale to the song’s soundtrack, the video is a fair representation of the cultural tourism going on the song itself.

But having said all this, I like the song!

And the song continues to circulate too. Here’s a reggae version of “I’m Yours” by Carlton Hylton (aka “Ghost”). Hylton probably isn’t paying royalties to Mraz, but then Mraz doesn’t pay royalties to reggae either, right?

Stewie Griffin On Music Theory

There are as many reasons to be a fan of some parts of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy as there are reasons to be annoyed by it. For me, the best reason to watch is to take in Stewie Griffin’s worldly wisdom. But who knew he knows something about music too?

In one clip available on YouTube, “Music & Lyrics by Stewie Griffin”, Stewie falls for a fellow baby living next door and decides to compose a song for her on the guitar. The song, however, quickly goes meta. Stewie’s improvised lyrics simply describe what it feels like hang out on a G Major chord (“it’s like your cozy house where you live–that’s where you start your journey”) and follow the music as it shifts to C Major (“then you poke your head out the door with a C chord…”) and D Major chords (“whoa!–walking around outside, looking at all the stuff out here…”). Then Stewie switches to a minor key, playing A minor (“it’s getting a little cloudy out here, looks like we might have some weather…”) and E minor chords (“definitely got some weather, things are a little more complicated than they seemed at first”) before returning to C major (“and then we go back to my house!”).

And that’s the song.

Not a small number of Western music theory books have described tonal music–comprised of the major and minor scales and the chords that are built upon them–in terms of a “tonic” note or chord that functions as a stable planet around which other notes or chords orbit like moons. So, for example, if we’re in the key of G Major (as Stewie seems to be), the note G and the G major chord (made of notes G, B, and D) function as the stable tonic. Other notes and chords besides the G and its chord are defined in their relation to it. To return to the planets and moons analogy, the G exerts various degrees of gravitational pull on other notes in its orbit. Thus, Stewie moves from his G Major chord to C Major, D Major, then A minor and E minor chords, before finally being pulled “home” to C Major.

What I like about the clip is that Stewie explains music theory in affective terms that make sense to us: how the tonic G Major chord feels comfortable and stable, how moving to the C and D Major chords (a classic I-IV-V chord progression) feels like taking a trip outside, and then how the A minor and E minor chords feel like bad weather approaching. (In case you were wondering, the association of major chords with “happiness” and minor chords with “sadness” has been around in the western world for centuries.) In a sense, Stewie’s lyrics are a real-time articulation of how a chord progression can guide us through a series of feelings.

Stewie’s song–brief as it is–is interrupted by Brian the dog who calls his baby brother “an unbelievable douche bag.” Stewie uses this insult to fuel the next version of his song. Here he keeps the same chords but speeds up the tempo and strums the guitar in a folk style. The lyrics are based on Brian’s insult and reflect on how that insult is shaping the song’s unfolding. Again, pretty meta. By the time we arrive at the A minor and E minor chords, Stewie is on fire, channelling a young Bob Dylan-esque singing style (“Why are you bringing me down, man?”).

The remarkable thing about this song is how economically (not to mention humorously) it explains not only basic western music theory but also how musicians–even cartoon musicians–put this theory into action as they write songs about their experiences.

On The Nature Of Blogs

Metaphorically speaking, a blog is

a garden

a laboratory

a pulpit

a node in a network

a diary

a moving vehicle

a multimedia artwork

an x-ray

an idealization

a set of roots

a mixing board

a sympathetic vibration

a perishable good

a consciousness

a web of desires

a memory for tomorrow

a map of a landscape

a mirror

an obsessive list

a gymnasium

 and a radar.

But practically speaking, this blog is

more for me than for you.

On “Going Classical”: Popular Music Played With Orchestras

It seems as if there always comes a time in the life of a rock band or pop artist to team up with a symphony orchestra. Usually this involves re-arranging songs for strings, winds, and percussion. Move over electric guitar, bass and drums: we’re going classical.

Recently I saw Peter Gabriel perform with an orchestra on David Letterman. Gabriel was singing an old hit “Red Rain” (1986) and as I listened I tried to find something in this new version that improved on the old. The original track, by the way, had been meticulously assembled in the studio with top flight musicians to create a dense soundscape that was unusual for pop music at the time. The new orchestral arrangement seems a little stiff in comparison.

Here’s the original song:

Here’s the orchestral remake:

Sting has also had some of his songs arranged for orchestra:

And the hard rock group Metallica dialed down its volume a little for performances with the San Francisco symphony:

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These kinds of rock/pop-orchestral collaborations highlight two musical facts. First, pop melodies are generally different beasts from classical ones. They tend to be short and simple in structure, and rely on insistent repetition to achieve their affect. Also, they’re not usually polyphonic or lushly harmonized. This means that the orchestra’s vast instrumental resources are often wasted on pop melody’s more austere demands. Second, the orchestra and the pop music outfit are entirely different timbral beasts as well. The sonic profile of say, a string section playing unison long tones of fourths and fifths is different from an electric guitarist playing a “power chord” of fourths and fifths through a distortion pedal and an amplifier. And so timbre is not merely a musical parameter: the same notes played on different instruments can make us feel very differently. Maybe this is why pop music played by orchestras can sound limp.

So, here’s a question: why do popular artists keep returning to the orchestra–especially at later stages of their careers? Is the orchestra just a novel soundscape waiting to be explored? Or are some popular musicians on a (secret) quest for high culture legitimacy, trying to situate their songs alongside the canon of works by the classical greats? In a 2011 interview, Gabriel acknowledges the cliché of the pop musician gravitating towards the orchestra. He also thoughtfully describes the challenging process of working with one:

“The most difficult part of the orchestral project is to get it funky. You don’t have a natural James Brown rhythm section. [The orchestra] has a certain gravity to it and you’ve got to (a) nail the arrangement, and (b) nail the conducting and the playing to get it to groove in a way that I’m used to underlying my songs.”

Here is the full interview:

What we come away with after listening to these pop-classical encounters is that, whatever the musicians’ motivations, it can only be a good thing for the popular and classical idioms to continue to get to know one another, revealing each other’s sound tendencies, aesthetics, constraints and ability to make us feel something.