thinking through music, sound and culture

Month: January, 2012

On Recorded Music’s Last Gasp: More On Evanescent Materials In Solid Containers

Walking the aisles of a neighborhood drugstore I came upon a strange sight: a small, sad rack of CDs. From top to bottom were eight different releases I could identify (see pic above), including works by Santana, Aerosmith, Hall and Oats, Sade, Earth, Wind & Fire, Elvis, Bob Dylan, AC-DC, and a Michael Jackson compilation (which didn’t make it into my photo). All of these CDs–the Sade and AC-DC notwithstanding–were greatest hits and priced at a reasonable 9.99 each. As it goes, the selection on the drugstore rack is a fair representation of mainstream American popular music mostly (minus Elvis and Dylan) from the 1970s and 80s. All of the artists have sold many millions or tens of millions of recordings and their music continues to live on the radio and in television commercials where it earns royalties. (Case in point: last year there was a Walmart Black Friday commercial that used the first two pounding and anthemic measures of AC-DC’s “Back In Black” which must have cost a fortune to license.)

The selection of music also illustrates what happens to music the artifact: it ends up somewhere, far from the time and place of its creation, far from its original context of meaning and popularity, far from all the invisible social and cultural codes and discourses and heavy promotion that made it work so well as a sonic glue that brought people together and feel so special back in the day–whether we’re talking about Sade’s “Smooth Operator”, EW&Fire’s “Shining Star”, or Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.” And even as the musical artifact languishes on drugstore racks, the sounds of these artists are kept alive on oldies radio or on Walmart commercials. When we hear the music we feel stuff in different degrees and ways depending on our age and stage. The music cues times past and sometimes even vague memories.

The rack of CDs also reminds me of the workings of the popular music industry itself. We didn’t begin to see its tissue and sinew revealed until peer-to-peer digital downloading became a big deal in the late 1990s. This free sharing of music led to a widespread realization that the music industry had been manufacturing all this material stuff–78s, LPs, cassettes, CDs–but now MP3s and the Internet had crashed the money-making party by doing away with music’s former material containers. That’s what makes the rack of CDs so pitiful: it reminds us that we don’t really need music on a piece of plastic anymore, only hard drives to store our collections. Or wait, not even that: there’s cloud computing now. Maybe in this way music is at last returning to the ether where it belongs. Anyways, music was always promiscuous–it always wanted to be free.


In 1999, I attended a conference in San Francisco called “MB-5: The Future Of Music.” Among the speakers was John Perry Barlow, former lyricist of The Grateful Dead who had recently published in Wired magazine a manifesto about intellectual property in the digital age called “The Economy Of Ideas.” The article turned out to be prescient in anticipating issues that continue to animate the production and circulation of creative work online. The main issue for Barlow concerned the nature of information. Information, he says, “wants to be free”–it always seeks movement and fluidity–despite our attempts to control and regulate it through regimes of copyright and material packaging. In the pre-Internet era, Barlow observes, “the bottle was protected, not the wine.” But the Internet changed that:

“Now, as information enters cyberspace, the native home of Mind, these bottles are vanishing. With the advent of digitization, it is now possible to replace all previous information storage forms with one metabottle: complex and highly liquid patterns of ones and zeros. Even the physical/digital bottles to which we’ve become accustomed– floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and other discrete, shrink-wrappable bit-packages–will disappear as all computers jack-in to the global Net. While the Internet may never include every CPU on the planet, it is more than doubling every year and can be expected to become the principal medium of information conveyance, and perhaps eventually, the only one.”

At the MB-5 conference, other speakers predicted that in the future we would pay for our music as a monthly fee–like a utility bill.  Fast forward to 2012: surprisingly, despite the popularity of the Apple iTunes store and the I-can-own-any-one-song-for-99 cents business model, the music-as-utility future is already here in the form of services like Spotify. For ten dollars a month you have millions of pieces of music to listen to whenever and wherever you wish. Sounds pretty good to me (if only I could listen to millions of pieces of music per month).

So, where are we today? One wonderful thing about music free of its material containers is that it moves about so easily. And despite all the naysaying about the reduced sonic quality of MP3s, it turns out that most of us don’t really mind. It turns out that our interest in music these days is not all about sound resolution or fetishizing the musical object. It’s about being able to choose freely and juxtapose and listen to all eras and styles at once. If most of us are confined to the locales of where we live, then at least we can be cosmopolitan in our musical lives, finding alternate ways of experiencing the world through sounds from elsewhere available in an instant. Any young person who has grown up knowing only a Internet-connected world pretty much lives their music listening life according to this logic. Case in point: when I taught music to 9th graders I was always amazed at the wild variety of music on their digital devices–composers and bands from all eras and styles and cultures crammed up against one another in one glorious Musical Present. Like YouTube. And it didn’t matter where the music came from or how it was once packaged or marketed to a listening demographic. Maybe it was heard on a commercial (AC-DC on a Walmart ad perhaps?) or sampled on someone else’s song or discovered via YouTube surfing. The only thing that matters today, it seems, is whether or not the sounds speak to you in some way.

But back to that rack of CDs. Not only has the music industry long bottled music as 78s, LPs, cassettes and CDs that we must get our hands on and own. It has also long used bands to brand and bottle musical style for us to align our tastes and identities with. But if information, as Barlow says, truly wants to be free, then perhaps so does musical style and our tastes and ways of self-identifying with musical style. Instead of buying this musical product rather than that one, we have the option of learning to identify with all music. I realize that this is a naively idealistic and relativistic critical stance. But it’s also what reveals the choice between Michael Jackson, Elvis, or AC-DC and the other “classic” artists available for sale in the drugstore as so dismal. To be a truly free listener is to be reminded of how much music is out there that we haven’t yet met and said hello to.

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With Arvo Pärt

Chant: “(Advocatam) Llibre Vermell de Montserrat”

Arvo Pärt: “Da Pacem Domine”

Arvo Pärt: “Mein Weg”

Aphex Twin: “Rhubarb”

(Note: If you are looking for further musical juxtapositions, press play on the chant clip and when it arrives at 0:05 press play on the first Pärt clip [and turn up its volume slightly] and listen to the mix.)

On Spam Feedback

One of the curious things about maintaining a blog–or maybe just my blog–is that most of the “feedback” I get is in the form of spam. My dashboard settings tell me that so far I’ve been “protected”, thank goodness, from some 1600 spam messages (and counting) that keeping hitting the blog like bugs splattering on a moving car’s windshield. Some of this spam, however, manages to trickle in past my protective spam filter and kind of impress me. The spam is computer generated and this, presumably, is the source of its strangeness–real people don’t speak like this–that occasionally manages to speak in grand profundities. Or if not in grand profundities, then at least in humorous terms. Here are some examples of spam feedbacks that made me pause and think for a moment about what I’m doing and the massive sea of spam-generating machines out into which I broadcast:

“I will allow this because it seems that the only way to communicate with the white world is through the dead, dry leaves of a book.”

“Yes this paragraph is in fact nice and I have learned lot of things from it concerning blogging.”

“It’s not my first time to pay a visit this website, I am visiting this site daily and take good data from here all the time.”

“Sketches are genuinely nice source of teaching instead of passage–it’s my familiarity. What would you say?”

“Thanks for informative post. I am pleased, sure this post has helped me save many hours of browsing other similar posts just to find what I was looking for. Just I want to say: Thank you!”

“Your YouTube video lessons are well-known in whole globe, because it is the leading video sharing web site, and I turn out to be too cheerful by watching YouTube movies.”

“The YouTube film that is posted at this place has in fact a fastidious quality besides with a nice audio feature.”

“It’s just that their faith in humanity has been shaken, and they need a little help getting unstuck.”


On Drumming, Primitiveness, Wood, And Overtones: Michael Gordon’s “Timber”

You could make the argument that percussionists are as defined by their musical actions as by the objects of those actions–by the fact that they percuss on whatever can be percussed upon. And they don’t just play snare drums, timpani, and xylophone either. Partly thanks to the influence of “world” percussion traditions (of Indonesia, sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Caribbean) on the aesthetics of twentieth century classical composers like Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, and many others into our current century, there is by now a substantial body of music for percussionists hitting everyday and unusual objects (not to mention indigenous instruments from musical cultures outside the western classical canon) to make music. As long as the object–a flowerpot, a brake drum, a plastic tube–is somewhat resonant and sounds good, you’re in business and ready to make music.

It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that percussion a played mostly decorative role in orchestral music–marking the tonic and dominant on the timpani, cymbal crashes at climactic moments of symphonies, and so on. It seems like it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that percussion in classical music was allowed to come into its own, be itself, and not have to play, umm, second fiddle to anyone else in the orchestra. As Nicole V. Gagné points out in her fine essay, “The Beaten Path: A History Of American Percussion Music”, by the early twentieth century percussion in European classical music was “valued for its association with an idea—or rather, an ideal, be it mechanical prowess and progress, or non-industrial freedom and innocence.” So it was primarily those American composers such as Cowell, Cage and the others mentioned above (plus a few from overseas: Frenchman Edgard Varèse, and the Greek Iannis Xenakis), who helped expand the palette of what “counts” as a percussion instrument and as percussion music.


American composer Michael Gordon’s Timber (2011) is scored for six wooden 2 by 4s mounted on stands and amplified by small contact microphones. The pieces of wood have ancient precedents in the semantron, a long piece of resonant timber of Greek origin.

Pre-dating church bells, semantrons have been used for over a thousand years to call worshipers to prayer; indeed, versions of them are still used today in monasteries across Eastern Europe. So common are semantrons in monasteries that the historian Edward V. Williams describes them as “aural icons of orthodoxy.”

In light of semantrons’ ancient roots, it’s perhaps not surprising how often the word “primitive” comes up when Gordon and some of the percussionists who play Timber discuss the piece for six 2 by 4s. Here’s Gordon in an interview about the sound he was after: “I was almost imagining something primitively electronic.” And Michael McCurdy, percussionist with the Mantra percussion group: “There is a bit of a primitive feel when you’re playing this.”

So here we are in 2012 and Gagné’s primitive ideal is still with us: simple, ancient percussing, percussion instruments and percussive sounds signifying “non-industrial freedom and innocence” and marking a path of musical escapism. I don’t know the source of the primitive-drumming connection, but if I had to guess: drumming is an inherently more violent action than say, bowing the strings of a violin or blowing across a flute. Or maybe it’s that drumming is the most ancient of the instrumental musical arts. Or maybe we still unknowingly carry with us traces of the Eurocentric mindset of early European explorers and missionaries in distant (colonial) lands, unable to make sense of the “noise” of the “primitive” musical cultures they encountered. Suffice it to say that the percussive field–to use a phrase from John Mowitt in his book Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking–is still contentious and still has great social and psychological depths in need of comparative cultural study. After all, if we don’t think of ourselves as primitive, how can we continue to talk about music in such terms?


Nonetheless, Gordon’s Timber is neither primitive nor simple in its musical design and sound. The composed piece’s score gives precise directions to the performers, it has five movements, and runs for almost an hour (in this regard recalling Steve Reich’s four-part, hour-long 1971 piece, Drumming). Timber‘s structure makes use of repetition, shared rhythmic motifs and gestures passed among the players (e.g. moving from the outside edge towards the middle section of the 2 by 4s, or vice versa), and forms that audibly expand or contract. All of these elements help propel the piece forward and keep it interesting. In all, Timber is a pretty rapturous though at the same time austere piece of music that makes for challenging listening.

But the real star of Timber is its timbre or sound quality. One of the most compelling acoustic qualities of so-called “indefinite-pitched” percussion instruments such as cymbals, gongs, most types of drums, and semantrons is the complexity of their sounds. This complexity derives from the fact that the instruments produce not only a fundamental sound (the main pitch you hear) but also an array of overtones or harmonics (multiples of the main pitch that can also be heard). It’s these overtones that make a gong sound so mysterious and ineffable; indeed, overtones are the main reason why no two gongs sound the same.

So while Timber is not really a pitched piece with clear melodies and harmonies, those resonant 2 by 4s produce a complex field of overlapping, swirling and humming overtones that steal the show. If you attend closely to them you can perceive slow-moving, cloud-like melo-harmonic apparitions. In this way, Timber is spectral, ghostly music. Mantra percussionist Michael McCurdy again: “Part of the beauty of this piece of music is the harmonic chorus that floats out into the audience and creates an absolutely rich timbre and texture and this amazing sound palette.”

Here’s a video about the piece:

Click here for another clip featuring a performance in the lumber department of a Lowe’s hardware store.

On Perception, Presence, And The Creative Process: John Berger’s “Bento’s Sketchbook”

“I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world. I do have all the time in the world.” – John Berger

John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook (2011) is a meditation on the connections between seeing, feeling, and drawing, and how these connections shape how we perceive and make sense of the world. The book takes its inspiration from the writings of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza worked as an optical lens grinder by day, and in his free time wrote monumental philosophical tracts on rationality that helped pave the way for the Enlightenment. (Is there is a better argument for having a humble day job so you’re set up to do serious work in your spare hours?) Among Spinoza’s assertions: that God and Nature are one and the same, that body and mind are unified, and that there are three kinds of knowledge–opinion, reason, and intuition (only the intuitive type is “eternal”). Spinoza is widely considered to have made significant (and early) contributions to our understanding of how the mind works.

Spinoza–”Bento” to his friends–apparently kept a sketchbook, but it was lost to history and no one seems to know what was in it. Berger (1926-), an eminent English art critic (author of the classic Ways Of Seeing, among many other works of criticism and fiction) and a painter himself, was inspired to use Spinoza as his muse when a friend gave him a beautiful leather-bound sketchbook. This sketchbook got him wondering: What did Spinoza’s sketchbook look like? Bento’s Sketchbook dovetails around excerpts from Spinoza’s writings, and Berger’s own included sketches–of plants, people, paintings in galleries–are a kind of reply to Spinoza’s missing ones. These drawings are the starting point for Berger’s engagement with Spinoza’s thought through the reflections, inquiries and stories that comprise this brief book.

There are many amazing little ethnographic vignettes in Bento’s Sketchbook that demonstrate Berger’s wizardly powers of observation and writing. But my favorite sections are those that zoom in on the creative process–and I don’t use that phrase as a cliché either. Berger can really unpack things as only a practitioner (who can write) can. For example, near the beginning of the book he describes, and shows sketches of, a small flower in front of him that he’s in the process of drawing–a series of lines that question what is observed, accumulating “the answers” (8). And here is the fulcrum of the process: “At a certain moment…the accumulation becomes an image–that’s to say stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence…This is when your looking changes. You start questioning the presence as much as the model” (ibid.). Then the refining begins. “You stare at the drawing…at what is radiating from [it], at [its] energy” (ibid.). You take in, in other words, its presence. The accumulative process continues as you add and subtract bits until the work feels finished and right.

No matter what artistic field you work in, there are a lot of sound observations in Bento’s Sketchbook to mull over. The challenge, as any artist/composer/writer/Maker of Things knows, is getting to that point where the thing’s presence starts to assert its energy back at you. You know when this is happening (“this is where the looking changes”): the music starts to play in your head when you’re somewhere else, or the ideas from the page keep repeating themselves silently. That’s presence asserting itself.

Berger also articulates some of the more ineffable aspects of artistic craft. In this passage he describes the intuitive naturalness (for lack of a better phrase) of his craft: “When I’m drawing…I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function…a function that is independent of the conscious will…in something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning” (149).

And even though this is primarily a book about seeing and drawing, in synesthesia moments Berger uses tactile and sonic metaphors when describing the search for the right color: “You search touch by touch for a timbre…and then you discover whether or not when applied…the color matches the ‘voice’ you were searching for” (22; italics added).

In sum, there’s a quiet magic to Berger’s writing–the way he says the right thing with the least amount of fuss and filigree, leaving clear prose that rings in your mind like a bell long after it’s struck. By noticing the things that count–and making things count by noticing them–Bento’s Sketchbook invests simple gestures, everyday transactions, and common moments with massive grace and resonance.

On Motion, Repetition, and Transformation: Robin Harvie’s “The Lure Of Long Distances”

It is not down in any map; true places never are. – Herman Melville

At the core of Robin Harvie’s The Lure Of Long Distances: Why We Run (2011) is a disturbing yet intoxicating idea: that you’re not really free in any endeavor until you no longer feel the gravitational pull of wanting to return to the safety of “home”–however you may define it. In this page-turning, literary memoir, Harvie, a fluid writer and adept runner of ultra-long distances, explores the experience of endurance exercise, its pains, and its transcendences. Along the way he learns about himself, his family’s histories, and the appeal of long distance running.

The book is powered by a simple question: Why do we run? If you’re a runner of considerable distances you probably have your reasons: maybe to stay trim and license generous eating habits, to escape, or to generate those feel-good endorphins. But there are other, slightly more intangible–and for me, more important–reasons to run too. There’s the joy of motion, of turning your body into a playful vehicle of kinetic energy. There’s also the mystery of what happens to your mind as you run–all those little (endorphin-induced?) perceptual shifts, how your thinking moves into another gear as if in an exercise-induced critical trance. If you go long enough and conditions outside and in are just right, you can lose yourself through motion. Running, like good repetitive music, affects all kinds of cognitive changes. As you get lost in an ergonomic flow, your body, your mind, and the landscape around you all fuse into one.

Harvie explores the sources of long distance runners’ “deep visceral need” (146) to do what they do and experience “the power of liberation through movement” (168). He comes by his subject matter honestly too. He ran his first marathon in 2000 and then spent years training to race faster only to find that his times weren’t improving. The solution? Run further. Harvie entered the extreme sporting world of ultra running, running races more than twice the length of the 26 mile marathon. The Lure Of Long Distances chronicles his preparation for the biggest race of them all: The Spartathlon, a 152-mile race in Greece, from Athens to Sparta. Harvie doesn’t quite finish the run, quitting at the 85 mile mark. But the story he tells about his journey reveals much about the human condition.

Throughout his narrative, Harvie returns often the subject of mapping, topologies, and cartographies. Running allows us to explore physical landscapes, sure, but what it really does is tell us about ourselves–the geography of our psychologies, our thoughts, our imaginations, our strengths and frailties. In the course of revisiting the place of his childhood summer cottage on the coast of Denmark or running along the river Thames, Harvie excavates a web of memories and life stories.

Yet as much as running triggers thoughts, Harvie is equally interested in its tendency towards autonomy, its capacity to represent nothing but itself–a one step at a time, rhythmic locomotion. We need to “rid ourselves of all the symbolism and metaphor” he says, “to become pure kinetic energy” (77). Harvie is interested in motion. Motion, he notes, ” has a meditative quality, an ability to slow down the rhythm of our lives” (187), sometimes gracing us with what feels like an awareness “of the world right down to the atomic level” (198). In running great distances, ultra runners are graced with a transformation of awareness that “involves a merging of consciousness and landscape” (198). What transforms them is the motion of running itself.

Part of this transformation is really a breaking down of body and mind and this fact leads Harvie to discuss creativity. He compares running ultras and the disintegration they wreak on body and mind where “the mind empties itself of all habits” (223) to the creative process as described by Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act Of Creation. Koestler coined the term “bisociation” to describe how the mind links disparate ideas to create new hybrid forms. Out of the creative act–or running long distances, as Harvie argues–”is generated a new topography of the individual, and, by extension, the world” (223). This is an elaborate way of explaining how new ideas frequently appear to us while running.

But what, you ask, has all this running business to do with music? (This is after all a music blog.) Harvie draws on sound and silence to describe the experience of running, noting how “there would always be a gap between what it sounded like and what it felt like” (224). Interestingly for me, running has no outer soundtrack, unless you count the sound of shuffling feet over pavement.* But this relative outer silence masks a rich inner world of triggered thoughts, memories, and affect. And the way to access these sensations is through silence. As Harvie notes, the key is “to learn to be silent in a world of noise, and to discover that silence has no narrative. Silence intensifies sensation–by turning the body inward” (227).

Where running really resembles music though, is in how difficult it is to actually talk about it.  Not about what it means, but about the elements of its unfolding–its processes, its presence, and its capacity to seemingly be a world unto itself. So it is in this book that running remains an invisible presence: where are those thousands of evanescent miles Harvie ran in training? And this is precisely the point: like musical experience, running is something you can only “get” by throwing yourself into its unfolding over time. No “theory” of running or music ever adequately renders their energized lives as energized “affecting presences” (to quote anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong). To experience affect–whether in running or musicking–you have to participate in real-time in their presences.

In sum, The Lure Of Long Distances is an absorbing study of perception. It’s about the feeling of consciousness and what it means to go further physically than you thought you ever could. Through his Spartathlon effort, Harvie manages to exceed all his prior limits of endurance, and his hope was that this colossal, running-induced state of “self-obliteration” would remain with him permanently, lifting him “above the grubby banalities of everyday life. That didn’t happen” (252). Harvie may or may not have become truly free. But lucky for us, he’s written a narrative that renders his transformation into a Runner through repeated, perpetual motion.


*Equally interesting is how the tempo marked by my shuffling feet will occasionally trigger phantom playback of music in my mind’s ear. The rhythm of my feet, in other words, becomes a metronome that sets the tempo for the imagined music. Sometimes the running tempo is a tad too fast and I notice that the music has sped up to match my stride. Who needs an iPod when you have such seamless body-synced music playback!

From The Hard Drive: Backing Up Old Voices

This is supposed to be a funny post.

As I was dutifully backing up and copying thousands of old files from a dusty desktop computer on New Year’s (I’m preparing to bury the computer in my closet—which, by the way, is starting to resemble one of those small cars out of which an implausible number of clowns are packed in), I came across an MP3 that made me laugh. The piece is called “Have You Any Thoughts.”  It’s part of a trio of compositions I wrote ten years ago based on voice messages left on my answering machine.

Does anyone remember answering machines?  The little plastic box kind that sat next to your phone?

“Have You Any Thoughts” features the talking voices of a few different folks who encountered music I had recorded onto my answering machine as a greeting message.  (I was trying to be cool.) I thought the music was okay–it was an excerpt from some electronic thing I had been working on–but the callers had varying opinions. This just goes to show how one set of sounds can inspire wildly different reactions in different listeners. It may also say something about the kinds of friends I keep.

There are a few humorous things about his piece. The voices are extracted from their initial contexts (the answering machine), their judgements–good, bad, or indifferent–revealed, sampled, and repeated. The voices are fun to listen to because each one captures a different kind of humor: unintentional humor, vicious humor, deadpan/dry humor, sarcastic humor, and plain strange, out-there humor. Each voice is sure of itself, sure of its perspective and what it’s saying, so juxtaposing all of the voices together heightens the overall humor quotient. The music I wrote around these voices is humorous too: you could call it cheesy, faux funk. All the parts–the piano, the organ, the drums, the horns, the twangy guitar–were played on a MIDI keyboard using generic preset sounds.

By the way, one of the voices on “Have You Any Thoughts”—the voice that asks, “Thoughts, have you any thoughts?” and then breaks out into spirited solfege singing—is that of my friend Fred, a teacher and ney player in Boston. To Fred’s credit, he’s figured out a way to use this music (as well as two other compositions of mine) as pedagogical tools in the college classroom to inspire discussions on voice, affect, humor, and other topics that only someone like Fred can conjure, taksim-like, out of thin air.

Here is the piece:

You can read more about the Answering Machine pieces here.


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