brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Month: February, 2012

On Reading Online Consumer Reviews

I’m fascinated by consumer reviews and I read them regularly on Amazon.com. You could even say that review reading is a hobby of mine. What’s fascinating about reviews is how they illuminate people’s thinking by expressing their passion and enthusiasm, a high level of analytical detail, and a steadfast belief in themselves. No matter what the product–books, headphones, salad spinners (yes, I’ve searched for all of these)–there’s a community coalescing around it, arguing over its magical merits or its serious shortcomings.

It’s remarkable how much detail people include in their reviews. They write about the product’s packaging, the ritual-like experience of opening it (!), how it compares to similar products, how it works (or ceases working) after a few hours, months, or years, the texture and feel of its design, and how it’s loved or hated for these and many other reasons. Reviewers go on for paragraph after paragraph rendering the product’s Quality–not so much how well it’s made, but quality in its holistic and philosophical sense (hence the capital Q): how the product has presence and enhances our lives. In the products we review we find our values manifest in tangible things. As reviewers we describe and rate the Quality of products to explain them to ourselves and alert others of what to expect.

Consumer reviewers also tend to be quite sure of themselves. In their single-mindedness and belief in their opinions, reviewers remind us that there’s no single right way to see the world. The same product can inspire a wide range of assessments from one to five stars, each convinced of its perspective. Over and over again you’ll find the same product both “great” and “terrible.” And, impressively, most of the reviews provide evidence for why the product is great, terrible, or somewhere in between.

***

Consumer reviews of music recordings are particularly insightful, especially if you read about music you already know well. In the course of thinking through music fandom, I’ve been reading a lot of reviews of familiar recordings and what’s most striking about them is how descriptive, impressionistic, and metaphoric the average listener is when trying to put into words the experience of listening to a particular piece of music. As with reviews of other products, music reviews achieve their analytical detail through floridly associative description. Thus, a music is never just good or bad, but usually about something–reminding the listener of something else non-musical.

In fact, if you read music reviews you’ll be convinced of music’s ability to communicate quite specific things with its communities of listeners. And different musics build their own kinds of consensus too. What I mean by this is that most people who take the time to review a music are fans of it and want to broadcast their fandom to others. So it’s not surprising that most reviews are positive rather than negative.

Consider a few of the Amazon.com reviews for electronic musician James Blake’s eponymous debut album released in 2011. In three of the twenty-nine reviews we see a cross-section of writing approaches that are by turns analytical, associative, and even advice-oriented. For example, Scoundrel (Sept 28, 2011) writes:

“Blake’s interest leans on the possibilities of the manipulation of his own voice [...] takes familiar R&B tropes and converts them into a quiet, creeping sadness that builds upon its silences while slowly filling the empty spaces with buzzing layers of sound.”

Then D. King (July 22, 2011) talks about how the music “evokes a mournful, elegiac feeling, as if it’s an album recorded by a soul in transition…mourning the loss and mistakes of one life, with a glimmer of hope for the next.”

And finally, G.Gillen (August 9, 2011) gets practical with some sound listening advice:

“Play this on a real system. With a sub. Otherwise, you’re just robbing yourself. You gotta have the sub on for dubstep.”

Sound Decisions: On Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”


“Instinct puts us in the moment, intellect is slower.” – Robert Fripp

“The proof that you truly understand a pattern of behavior is that you know how to reverse it.” - Daniel Kahneman

Sometimes while working on writing new music I’ve noticed how I oscillate between two frames of mind. One frame feels spontaneous and intuitive. Within this frame I work quickly to put sounds together guided by what feels like nothing other than the task at hand. Typical thoughts: “Oh, that sounds cool! Do more of that! Do it again!” (And again!) When I’m in this frame the work feels easy and unencumbered; I’m confident in knowing what sounds “right” and proceed accordingly. The other frame of mind feels more encumbered. Within this frame I’m deliberate and cautious, working slowly and always wanting to “weigh the options” and get a bird’s-eye view of how everything works and connects. Within this frame I want to know where we’re going before we get there rather than just being thrilled by the ride itself.

I worked for many years with a vague awareness of these two frames of mind. But all that changed recently when I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a comprehensive dissection of our patterns of intuitive and deliberate thinking and the tendencies of each. Kahneman is a an Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Laureate with expertise on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. According to Kahneman, human thinking can be characterized in terms of two types. To help the reader get a sense of their differences, Kahneman refers to these types of thinking as System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is the intuitive type. It is by definition impulsive, jumping to conclusions based in limited evidence. System 1 generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; and when “endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions” (105). System 2, on the other hand, is the deliberate type. It is by definition cautious and capable of reasoning (48), and also somewhat lazy in that it needs to be kick-started into action. No matter what we think we may believe about how we think, Systems 1 and 2 are always engaged to various degrees, as well as in conflict–battling it out for our attention and engagement.

But most of the time, it’s System 1 that steals the show due to its quick reaction time and sureness in its judgements. Consider a musical example. Let’s say you hear a particular chord progression and you just can’t help feeling a particular feeling comprised of a series of emotional associations. It’s as if the music made you feel a particular way, and darn it, this is what the music means. It’s obvious! Your emotional reaction to the chord progression is what Kahneman might call “associative activation” and pure System 1 at work: “ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain” (51). This cascade of associations is just one of the many reasons why System 1′s workings can feel so right and intuitive. By contrast, to get a sense of System 2 at work consider being asked to multiply 24 times 17. System 1 is of little use here (and anyway, it’s doubtful much in the way of particular emotions will cascade out of this task). You need to slow down and deliberately work through the problem to solve it. This slow-moving deliberateness is the strength of System 2.

The main theme of Thinking, Fast and Slow is that we should be very skeptical of our intuitions and not let ourselves believe whatever comes to our minds (153). This is difficult to do because “following our intuitions is more natural, and somehow more pleasant, than acting against them” (194). Moreover, intuition is unreliable because it’s susceptible to all manner if influence, including what psychologists call “priming”–an idea presented to us in a subtle or not so subtle way that influences our actions. There are dozens of case studies in Thinking, Fast and Slow that illustrate the shortcomings of System 1 intuitive thinking, including discussions of narrative fallacy (how creating a flawed story about ourselves in the past shapes the illusion that we understand our future), how we exaggerate the coherence of what we hear, focusing illusions (our tendency to overstate the impact of certain circumstances on which we focus our attention), cognitive illusions (such as the illusion of the “hot hand” in basketball), the dangers of confidence and optimism (!), the strengths of using algorithms to guide decision-making, the limitations of the “insider’s view”, the folly of risk-management and forecasting, theory-induced blindness, the power of loss aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, how memories can be wrong, how to spot cognitive minefields–and on and on. In this exceptionally rigorous book the detailed case studies are many and the evidence solid. As rational beings, we are hard-wired for error, “prone to exaggerate the consistency and coherence” of what we experience (114). To make matters even more sobering, it’s difficult for us to truly change ourselves, to re-set how we see the world and our place in it. We have, says Kahneman in a phrase that sums up well our predicament, an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance” (201).

***

So what has this to do with me making music? Well, as I sit at the computer working on a project, Kahneman’s book has me imagining the dialog between my Systems 1 and 2 and how my System 2 thought processes have been helpful to the project’s progress. I began over a year ago, working willy-nilly on five different tracks that were related in that they all use audio samples of the same earlier work of mine. There were some convincing moments on each of the five pieces-in-progress, but the material was all over the place. 

What I now think of as System 2 demanded some overriding order, so I started to boil the pieces down to just a few sounds and made sure each piece had exactly the same sound palette. While this decision to boil the pieces down felt arbitrary–for how could I ever decide on the sounds when there are so many interesting ones out there?–it also seemed, practically speaking, necessary. And shockingly to me, the boiling down process took several months of arguing with what I now think of as System 1 which always just wanted to get down with playing and having fun. (“System 2, Why do we have to be so organized?”) But System 2 insisted on the constraints, knowing that without them System 1 would flounder and I’d get frustrated–like an archer without a target. Finally, with the sound palette and an overall direction in place courtesy of System 2, I could get back to playing, attending to the (fun) details of building patterns, linking parts, editing, and assembling structures until they sound right.

There remain some uncertainties about this work-in-progress, especially concerning the qualities that can make the music hum when they’re in place but drag when they’re missing. In other words, I’m not sure the music will work until . . . it does or doesn’t. But what I learned from Thinking, Fast and Slow is that questioning one’s intuitions with slow, big picture deliberation (quick–24 times 17!) can ultimately be energizing. It certainly helped me get around what felt like a block with no clear cause besides the unreasonable expectation that intuition is the solution to all musical problems. At the computer, I still work in spurts of what feels like System 1 intuitive forward momentum, and I still don’t quite know where I’m going or how exactly I have come to know what I know. But that’s okay, because I proceed with a confidence born from realizing that uncertainty is part of the musical game and I can still make sound decisions in the face of it.

On Piano Lessons: Tricia Tunstall’s “Note By Note”

“An instrumentalist is an athlete.” –Tricia Tunstall

For many people, taking piano lessons is an initial gateway to learning to make and understand music for themselves. Knowing that 88-key terrain of black and white tones and semitones is a giant step towards understanding the pushes and pulls of tonal music, and piano playing makes mind and hands dexterous, connecting the physical with the emotional through sound. Last but not least, taking piano lessons–probably, it’s safe to say, more so than taking guitar or drum lessons–is a marker of social class and badge of having a well-rounded education. If you’ve learned and practiced your scales, played Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, some atmospheric Debussy maybe, or even mastered a clinical Bach invention or fugue, you’ve partaken in the canon of western classical music–that grand 1000 year-old behemoth that continues to inform and influence so much other music around the world even as it risks becoming a museum piece itself.

In her book Note By Note (2009), Tricia Tunstall explores the experience of teaching piano, that “weekly session alone together, physically proximate, concentrating on the transfer of a skill that is complicated and difficult” (3). Tunstall, a veteran teacher of children and teenagers of all ages and stages, conveys well the relationships among herself, her students, the piano, and the notes on the page in this fluid, insightful, and eminently readable memoir. Every student has different needs, interests, and abilities, yet each must learn how to really listen to sound and learn how “to rescue music from its ubiquity–to pull it from the background to the forefront, free it from its uses” (7). Piano lessons, Tunstall says, are about (re)situating music as an autonomous practice–to save it from being merely a thing downloaded and listened to as a soundtrack for something else. Note By Note captures the piano lesson itself as a kind of autonomous practice. It’s a space to learn about the development and limits of skill, concentration, and the musicking body.

Young children especially seem to intuitively understand music as an object of inherent pleasure, taking delight in finding the right keys and “enjoying pure sonority” (18). But as their piano lessons progress over time and make music increasingly a process of serious study, the lessons also discipline the students in ways that will curtail that intuitive enjoyment of pure sonority. As Tunstall notes, sometimes the acquisition of a musical skill comes at the expense of a musical impulse” (18). For example, for many piano students, learning to read notes on a page entails “the death of the improvisatory impulse” (21). Tunstall admits to being uneasy about this fact of western music enculturation: on the one hand, one needs to learn how to read in order to have access to all that great music; on the other hand, as our eyes become adept at interpreting notes on the page as “music” some of the subtle connections between the ear and the “improvisatory impulse” are muted. Tunstall addresses this fact by having all her students improvise at the end of their lessons. It’s not a perfect solution, but it reinforces the idea that music is a living activity and not just an acquired skill of note-decoding.

Not surprisingly, popular music is of great interest to many of Tunstall’s students, and some of the more interesting sections in Note By Note chronicle the author’s assessing the musical qualities of rock, jazz, pop, and especially hip hop musics as she helps students figure out how to play their favorite songs on the piano. Many sample-based hip hop songs are, of course, impossible to render (for how does one render spoken word and a rhythm track on a piano?) and it’s fascinating to learn how Tunstall negotiates the terrain of rhythm-based musics while her students look at her expectantly with a please help me figure out how to play my favorite song look.

But for all her attempts to engage with popular music, Tunstall’s allegiances are firmly in the classical world, which she considers “still the most eloquent and compelling manifestation of the musical language we all know” (85). (A minor quibble here: Who is this homogenous “we” Tunstall addresses? “We” don’t all know this musical language–many of us speak in alternate tongues…) And, remarkably, as her students “use their iPods to construct their own musical neighborhoods out of the vast territory of what’s available” (117), somehow classical music finds a way into their listening lives, over and over again. Tunstall marvels at this, but doesn’t take it for granted; she’s receptive to students wanting to learn music that they once heard somewhere and were hooked. For Tunstall, this is simply evidence that the canon of classical piano music has a power “to move those spirits that are open to being moved” (82).

Which brings us to Eddie, one of the dozen or so students whose progress Tunstall carefully maps over the course of her book. Eddie is smitten by Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor) and desperately wants to learn to play it. Tunstall worries that Eddie has neither “emotional experience nor aural image to guide him” (129), yet Eddie is undeterred, driven by a musically-triggered desire to make Beethoven’s music his own, to get it into his fingers and embody its notes. And so student and teacher embark on the slow process of learning the sonata together. Eddie eventually learns to play it, note by note, and play it well too. “Through playing” Tunstall observes proudly, “he was actually learning a new way to feel” (130).

On The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics III: Acousmatic Sound And Authenticity At The 2012 Grammy Awards

“All cultural change is essentially technology-driven.” – William Gibson

This year’s Grammy Awards featured the first ever performances of live electronic dance music, showcasing the DJs David Guetta and deadmau5 with R&B singer Chris Brown, rapper Lil Wayne, and the rock band Foo Fighters in what the Los Angeles Times aptly called “a confused, if well-meaning, picture of dance music’s place and influence in current pop.”

There were two catches to the performances. The first is that they took place outside the Staples Center in a tent designed to resemble a 1990s rave–complete with lazers and audience members wielding glowsticks. Evidently, turning the main auditorium into a club space wasn’t going to happen; better to keep “serious” popular music safe (for the moment) from electronic enchroachment. The second catch to the performances is that both DJs–Guetta and deadmau5–were paired with other artists, telegraphing the message that manipulating digital turntables still does not quite constitute a “performance.” What are we supposed to look at? And where exactly is the demonstration of instrumental virtuosity? So as Guetta worked his turntables on his infectious song “I Can Only Imagine”, Chris Brown and Lil Wayne stalked the stage in Auto-Tuned perfection to reassure viewers that this was pretty much like a traditional show—except that Guetta’s DJ rig replaced the whole band. The TV cameras occasionally showed close-ups of Guetta’s hands moving fast over wheels, buttons, and sliders. But unlike a typical epic DJ set, the song lasted just 3 minutes.

Next up were the Canadian producer deadmau5 and the Foo Fighters. deadmau5 had remixed the Foos’ song “Rope” in 2011 and their collaboration at the Grammys was a demonstration of how remixing works. First, the Foos performed one-and-a-half minutes of “Rope” in the song’s original rock incarnation. As the song’s finishing chords rang out, deadmau5 entered with a quantized (and slightly slower-paced) four-on-the-floor stomp, and the Foos played along as if resigned to the metronomic pulse. This collaboration lasted all of 55 seconds (hey, it’s for TV after all) and seemed to drain the song of its original energy. Then deadmau5 played one minute of dubstep from his song “Raise Your Weapon.” It was probably the most musical moment of the whole 6-minute performance–just pure dubstep groove–though Deadmau5 is known more as a house music producer than as a bonafide dubstepper. And just as Guetta had Chris Brown and Lil Wayne on hand to provide visual spectacle, deadmau5 wore his tradmark giant LCD-lit headpiece to give us something to look at. Unlike the Foos’ hands which could be seen picking away on those electric guitars, deadmau5’s hands and his DJ rig were hidden from view.

And it’s precisely this that’s at stake when people talk about what makes rock/pop music authentic and electronic music lacking in authenticity: we can see rock/pop musicians generating sound, while the techniques of electronic musicians are either hidden (we can’t see what they’re doing to make sound) or diffuse in the sense that their music making was done over the days, weeks and months of a solitary and private production process that assembled a track bit by bit. So when it comes to time to “performing” an electronic music mix, it’s not always clear to the concert-viewer what the DJ/producer is doing besides playing back a track and tweaking a few elements here and there. (Was Guetta doing anything substantial to “I Can Only Imagine” or were his rapid hand movements just to convey a sense of musical busyness?) This is most of all a problem of what the French musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer in 1955 called acousmatic sound: sound one hears without seeing its source, sound emanating from a loudspeaker without a musician in view who is the unmistakable creator of that sound. Even today, this makes some people in the popular music establishment nervous, especially considering that electronic music seems to be eating rock and pop music wholesale, one song at a time.

The complete Grammy performance of all five artists is here:

On Bass Culture: Beats By Dr. Dre Headphones

If you look around the streets of New York you see a lot of folks wearing Beats by Dr. Dre, those giant black and red (or white and red) plastic over-the-ear headphones with their iconic red cables. The Beats headphones are the result of a collaboration between Monster, an audio cable manufacturing company, and Dr.Dre, the hip hop artist, producer, and impresario. The headphones are expensive, but they also provide a whole lot of bass frequencies and low-end excitement.

Here is Dr. Dre. on the Beats website, making the pitch for his headphones:

“People aren’t hearing all the music. Artists and producers work hard in the studio perfecting their sound. But people can’t really hear it with normal headphones. Most headphones can’t handle the bass, the detail, the dynamics. Bottom line, the music doesn’t move you. With Beats, people are going to hear what the artists hear, and listen to the music the way they should: the way I do.”

Notwithstanding that vaguely threatening last sentence where Dre admonishes us to listen to music the way we should which is the way he does (gulp), the strange thing about this assessment of the Beats’ sound quality is that it gets it wrong. To my ear, the headphones have a ton of bass yet seemingly at the expense of detail and dynamics; they sound somewhat muffled–like someone cranked the bass dial all the way up and just left the treble in the middle. These headphones, then, certainly aren’t “normal”, but rather EQ’d in a way that accentuates their low frequencies at the expense of a balanced response across the full frequency spectrum. I’ve listened to music on them and heard the low-end of kick drums actually crackle and distort because they’re so accentuated.

Yet this assessment is not necessarily a criticism. Because if you like to listen to your music loud–which many people do–the thing that literally “moves you”, as Dre. puts it, is precisely those low-end frequencies. In fact, if you’re listening to a really loud playback in the studio control room or in a club, your body can take low-end at punishing decibel levels as long as the high-end isn’t too prominent and harsh. (But if the high-end is loud, then it won’t be long until your ears start ringing and that, my friend, is not at all a good thing–and is your cue to put in those foam earplugs.) So, making a set of headphones with an exaggerated low-end frequency response is actually a good thing if your goal is to simulate the (kinda thrilling) experience of listening to your music played back powerfully loud in the studio or in a performance space whose subwoofers can easily rattle your ribcage. In a way, the Beats headphones are a part of the global diaspora of bass-heavy sound system cultures characterized by what Steve Goodman (who is no stranger to bass frequencies through his musical work as Kode 9) calls “bass materialism” whose aim is nothing less than a sonic “rearrangement of the senses” (Sonic Warfare, The MIT Press, 2010, p.28). Wearing Beats is like having a soundsystem right around your head.

How to explain the popularity of the Beats? One explanation is that our bass-heavy musics–hip hop and also other varieties of electronic dance music especially–really shine and thrum with the bass turned way up. It just feels good to listen to those musics like this. Riding that slow oscillating wave of bass throbble goodness it can almost feel like you’re floating. Another more pragmatic explanation is that the noisy soundscapes of the city require us to either plug our ears, wear noise-canceling headphones, or otherwise compete with booming bass.

From what I see around me, a lot of listeners are choosing the bass option.

***

(Triumphant New York Giants returning home after their Super Bowl Victory. Their choice of headphones? Beats By Dr. Dre . . .)

On (Making) Recordings Versus (Living) Live Music

“Record stores”, a friend of mine once memorably observed as we drove past one, “are where music goes to die.” And with the demise of record stores, music recordings–and by recordings I mean CDs–have had a tough time surviving since MP3 downloading became the primary way most people get their music. For musicians, it used to be a big deal to make your own recording. Once upon a time you needed money to go into a studio and record, and you needed more resources to have your music mastered, packaged and promoted. If you had distribution, your recording might even find its way into a bin at Tower Records, where it would sit and be mostly ignored. But these days any musician with a computer and an Internet connection can make a recording and distribute it around the world to anyone who may want to listen (and getting people to listen is harder than it may seem). So our recordings don’t go to die in record stores anymore; they just languish in relative obscurity among the billions of other bytes of sound swirling out there in cyberspace.

***

In his recent New Yorker article “Flight Of The Concord”, classical pianist Jeremy Denk artfully describes the process of recording and editing a piece of solo piano music. The music is Charles Ives’ “Piano Sonata No.2″ (1920), also known as the Concord Sonata, an eclectic piece in whose transcendentalism-inspired polytonal and polyrhythmic juxtaposition of musical styles–from marching band music to quotations from Beethoven all mashed up together–one hears a musical postmodernism well before its time.

In explaining the process of recording Ives’s difficult music, Denk conveys the challenges raised in a typical studio session–from the way microphone placement affects (and often misrepresents) an instrument’s sound, to matters of musical interpretation and fidelity to the piece’s printed score. There are so many moving parts to capturing a live performance that it’s a minor miracle that any studio session ever goes right, especially considering what Denk calls the “tragedy” of recording itself. As busy as the musician (and the sound engineer, the producer) is “engaged in a task of reproduction, you keep coming up against the irreproducible.” In other words, what makes music music is very hard to capture and reproduce on a recording.

In pointing towards this ineffable quality of music as the source of its mystery, Denk gets to the core of the dilemma of recordings for performing musicians. Recordings are not the real thing, they’re simulacra, “manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away.” And I imagine lots of musicians reading Denk’s article will have a good idea of the considerable physical and mental effort involved in learning a piece to the point that the music is internalized and can be performed (for those listening microphones) convincingly. Recordings may capture performances, to a degree, but they’re also entirely different beasts. They circulate one’s music, sure, but what is circulating is not the sonic-social transaction of the performer and his/her audience but rather an edited snapshot of a pseudo event that is the recording session.

It’s no wonder, then, that Denk concludes his finely tuned article–with his finished CD in hand, by the way–anticipating his next live performance of Ives’ Concord. Next time, he assures us, it will be totally different…

You can read Denk’s writing here.

On Nostalgia And The Voice Of Michael McDonald

I’m in the grocery store, staring at the fish offerings, when a subtle wave of melancholy washes over me. I’m restless and keep moving, eyeing products on the shelves, looking for a particular milk brand–but I just can’t shake this feeling. Since when is grocery shopping such an emotional experience? The milk and some odds and ends (OJ, cheese balls, bread, but no fish) secured in my basket, at last I’m standing in the checkout line when I figure out the source of my feelings: why it’s the soulful sounds of Michael McDonald!

McDonald has been in the popular music business a long time. Beginning in the 1970s he worked extensively as a background vocalist on countless studio sessions (including records by Steely Dan), and was a singer, keyboardist and songwriter with the mega-million selling Doobie Brothers from 1975-1982. From there he went on to release solo records, re-recording soul music classics and collaborating with many other musicians. He still collaborates too–most recently contributing back up vocals to the track “While You Wait for the Others” by the indie rock band Grizzly Bear. Here’s McDonald observing the arc of popular music since his heyday:

“When I was with the Doobies, the style of music was that we all went over the falls with chord progressions, trying to make things as complex and interconnected as possible. The punk movement swung towards being as primitive as possible, but now it’s back to where these guys are good musicians. I never thought that would come back around, but it has.”

McDonald has a distinctive voice that is key to his success. Essentially he’s a “blue-eyed soul” singer (in the form of a very bearded white guy). McDonald’s voice has a powerful grain to it and when he reaches for high notes he can make listeners feel as well as any singer. This voice has been circulating for many years now too. It’s kind of ubiquitous–a sound that finds its way onto radio, television, and supermarket soundtrack playlists. McDonald seems aware of his voice’s easy-listening ubiquity too, having fun with it and making cameos in various places. There is an episode of Family Guy where McDonald plays a kind of one-man Greek chorus role, urgently echo-singing every word spoken by Peter Griffin and his friends because, as Rob Harvilla of The Village Voice observed, “it all just sounds better—sweeter, smoother, more soulful—when issued from his lips.”

Urgency is the key to McDonald’s vocal sound. The song I heard while shopping at the supermarket was “On My Own”, a duet McDonald did with Patti LaBelle in 1986 that hit number one on the billboard charts. The hook and chorus of LaBelle’s song is, surprise, surprise, the phrase “on my own” that rises by just a few tones. The melody isn’t elaborate, merely traversing the interval of a minor third, but such is the urgency of McDonald (and LaBelle, of course) that he can transform these three pitches into something movingly nostalgic. Interestingly for me, though, the nostalgia is without an object: McDonald’s voice doesn’t make me long for anything specific, it just seems to embody the state of longing itself.

What a voice! Easy to parody, perhaps, but still enough to make you freeze in the checkout line and start paying attention to the source of your feelings.

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