brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Month: April, 2012

A Silent Palette Cleanser

Walking down Main Street without music in my headphones, I Iook up and see three balloons–one red, one yellow, one white–tethered to a string, hanging just above a store awning, moving. As I watch the balloons I wonder just who the string attaches to: Someone flying the balloons like they’re a kite? What celebration might they colorfully announce?

Then I notice the balloons are floating ever higher–further above the store awnings now, gaining height and speed, pushed by the wind to bobbling assent. The piece of string to which the balloons are tethered, I see, is itself attached to nothing and no one. Yet the balloons celebrate their own motion by accelerating ever upwards, and as I watch the buoyant balls ascend into the pure blue sky and become like two-dimensional cardboard cut outs, an unexpected wave of joy passes over me, cleansing the moment. The balloons are doing musical work without making a sound, suggesting a narrative with only motion to tell the tale.

Go for it!

Go for it!

Release and expand,

drift towards the bird’s-eye view,

weightless and coasting,

silent,

free.

I keep looking up, straining, but lose track of them. There’s still no musical soundtrack, and the red, yellow, and white balloons are now gone.

On The Musicality Of M.C. Escher

“Order is repetition of units.  Chaos is multiplicity without rhythm.”

“My work is a game, a very serious game.”

“Are you really sure that a floor can’t also be a ceiling?”

– M.C. Escher

I’ve long been curious about M.C. Escher’s (1898-1972) drawings and woodcuts because of their precision, their order and symmetry, their use of repetition and optical illusions, and the way they seem to point towards what could be called the infinite. Lately I’ve been thinking about what these qualities in Escher’s art have to offer those of us working in music (whether making it or writing about it). Let’s take a look.

First, Escher incorporated tessellations into his work, a technique he picked up in his study of tile mosaics while visiting Alhambra, a Moorish palace in Spain in the early 1920s. (Which reminds me of an article on the advanced geometry of 12-century Islamic art.) Seeing the tile mosaics inspired Escher to use geometric grids as the basis for his art as a way of gaining precision. Tessellations, by the way, are the composite result of geometric shapes that are repeated without overlaps or gaps. Honeycombs and interlocking pavement tiles are examples of tessellations. We see tessellations in Escher works such as these:

Second, Escher depicted in his work transformation/transmutations where we see one shape becoming another. These transformations appear most clearly in Escher’s tessellation pieces. In his woodcut Sky and Water, for example, we see birds becoming fish/fish becoming birds.

Or in this piece, Day and Night, a whole landscape shifting:

Third, Escher was fascinated by so-called “impossible constructions” or visual illusions such as the Necker cube and the Penrose triangle that take advantage of quirks of perception and perspective. You can see impossible constructions depicted in Escher’s famous “Relativity” piece that depicts people simultaneously ascending and descending stairs in an infinite loop. Are the figures moving up or down, sideways this way or that way? I like to rotate this piece onto its different sides to see how it holds up. Miraculously, Escher makes the work cohere no matter what viewing perspective we try to bring to it:

Fourth, and speaking of infinite loops, Escher’s works illustrate the idea of recursiveness—that is, something feeding back upon itself in a never-ending cycle. Relativity, above, depicts such infinite loops, as does the work Drawing Hands:

And this one that depicts lizards crawling to life/becoming tessellations:

These works and others present the viewer with a visual chicken/egg dilemma: Where does it all start and end? I like that.

Fifth, it’s been said that Escher’s art demonstrated an “intuitive” understanding of mathematical order and symmetry and perhaps this is the reason why his works are so pleasing to look at? What’s remarkable is that this intuitive understanding was so accurate that in the late 1950s the Canadian mathematician H.S.M. Coxeter said of Escher’s hyperbolic tessellations (regular tilings of a hyperbolic plane): “Escher got it absolutely right to the millimeter.” Here is his Circle Limit III:

This notion of Escher’s intuitive mathematical understanding reminds me of a quote from the philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Lebniz (1646-1716) that always made intuitive sense to me: “Music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul, which does not know that it is counting.”

Finally, there’s an intangible quality to Escher’s work that some critics have described as an interest in exploring infinity. The repetition, the tessellations depicting nature’s transformations and evolution, the impossible constructions playing with our perceptions, the infinite loops feeding back upon themselves—all of these characteristics of Escher’s art suggest an artist trying to represent that which can’t be represented, a reality beyond, a time-space outside our everyday experience of space-time. You even see it in tiny details, like when Escher draws a reflection of himself. In his work The Eye, for example, the reflection is twofold: there’s the mirror-image close up of his face where we see the folds around his eye, and there’s also that next level reflection deep in his eye’s pupil where we see Escher post-Escher–he’s already a corpse! It’s these kinds of little details that suggest that Escher was always somehow thinking beyond the Now even as he had intricate, and serious fun (“My work is a game, a very serious game”) constructing its beguiling representations:

***

For me, Escher’s work has musical resonances and looking at his pieces reminds me of the work of various composers, especially that of the American minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Over the years I’ve spent much time thinking through their work (you can read more about their work here; and you can view a Ventrilo-Dialogue with Reich here). Escher’s tessellations remind me of minimalist music that is similarly built out of small repeating units of sound strung together to make long rhythmic tapestries. (Now that I think of it, a lot of electronic dance music fits this bill as well.) Escher’s transformations/transmutations remind me of how minimalist music changes over time through subtle additive or subtractive procedures—adding or taking away a note here and there to transform one motive into another before our ears. (Ditto for electronic dance music.) And Escher’s impossible constructions remind me of minimal music’s perceptual artifacts—where as a listener you’re not sure if you’re listening to three groups of four beats or four groups of three beats, for example. Like Escher’s Relativity, a piece like Reich’s Drumming allows the listener to hear both perspectives at once. As for recursiveness, a lot of classic minimal music really does have an endless quality about it: a sense that it could, and just might, go on forever—or at least long enough for the listener to stop worrying about where it’s “going.” (It’s not going anywhere, just being something for a time.) Finally, to return to Escher’s intuitive understanding of math: Aren’t composers kinds of mathematicians too in that in one way or another they’re concerned with numbers and quantity, structure, space, and change? Like Escher, most composers frame what they do not in clinical terms (“I spend a lot of time exploring e-minor…” or “I do most of my compositional work in 5/4 time…”) but in intuitive and emotional terms (“In this song I was trying to capture the sadness of my break-up with a girlfriend…”)  And isn’t music a good example of a kind of equation in sound that presents not an argument or a “proof” but rather shares the results of a procedure, solving itself and bringing us along for the ride?

On Teaching Music: Visiting A Friend’s College And Elementary School Classrooms

A few weeks ago I traveled to Boston to visit my friend Fred at his college and elementary school music classes. Fred is an ethnomusicologist, musician, and craftsman (primarily an instrument builder) who spends his mornings teaching college students and his afternoons teaching kids at a Montessori elementary and middle school. Teaching the two different groups five days a week has Fred drawing on all his musical and social skills to keep everyone in the zone–listening, thinking and talking about music, as well as playing and singing it.

On Monday morning, we were up at the crack of dawn to beat the traffic and make our way out to the University Of Massachusetts-Boston. On the leisurely drive we discussed what I might teach as guest lecturer for the day. I had decided the week before that I would speak to the college students about some of the musical remix work I’ve been doing on my laptop, re-fashioning some older music of mine into new pieces. As Fred negotiated the south Boston traffic, he asked me what relationship my composing work might have to his class–an ethnomusicology theory and methods class as it turns out. I thought about it for a moment and then told him that I could present my material as a kind of auto-ethnography. After all, I said, not only was I working on a remix project, but I was writing about it too in an effort to document and better understand the creative process. I told Fred that I wanted to bring the class through the steps I had taken so far to transform an old piece of music into something new, as well as demonstrate how the computer software (Ableton Live) was shaping and enabling my work. But beyond that, in the spirit of Fred’s interest in improvisation, we agreed to keep things loose. Besides, we were basically out of time anyhow. “Cheer up Tom, it’ll be great!” Fred said exuberantly, staring at the road in front of him as I watched the traffic around us inch ahead.


When we arrived at the school, Fred brought me into the windowless classroom and we connected my laptop to a large video screen. Students tricked in as we got set up, and by the time I began 15 minutes later the class would be about half full. I improvised my 45-minute presentation, playing my original music, explaining how I sampled parts of it, and then playing excerpts from the new tracks in progress. Fred sat off to the side and listened.

It struck me as I was talking–and my ideas usually occur to me while writing or talking–that the project was an opportunity to revisit and recycle my own musical past. I also told the class that the most challenging part of making music with a computer is somehow limiting the staggering number of possibilities the machine makes available. “I’m always looking for constraints” I told them a few times, as the students looked up at my piece’s Ableton Live file projected onto the screen behind me. Near the end of the presentation, after I had spent some time pointing to the various parts of my virtual mixer, I grew frustrated. I wanted to convey some sense of the keyboard improvisation underlying these new pieces, but pointing to waveforms on the screen felt clinical and it was hard to gauge student interest in my pointing to what may as well have been an x-ray. “What I usually do” I said as I opened the lid of the grand piano sitting at the front of the classroom, “is just play the looped samples and then improvise on top of them until I find something that sounds good.” Then, just before the class ended, I improvised a descending sequence of piano chord clusters to let everyone hear what I meant. It felt good to have a real instrument in the room–though I realize that saying that says something about my view of computers in music.

After the class there were a few questions from two students who were also budding electronic musicians. One student asked me about why his music sounded so strange on his headphones. “What do you use?” I asked, and he pulled out his tiny earbuds to show me. “You”ll probably want to get some neutral phones that don’t accentuate any frequencies too much” I said upon seeing the buds. Another student asked me whether he should master his music himself. After all, he said, “all these great mastering plug-ins come with my software.” “You’ll probably want to get a professional to do it” I told him. “It’s good to have another set of ears listen to your stuff.”

After the two budding electronic musicians thanked me and left I waited for Fred downstairs in the coffee lounge. Sipping my drink it occurred to me that all the questions for me after class had been gear-related. And that’s the somewhat frustrating thing about playing in the electronic music universe: there are so many nuts and bolts, so many moving parts, so much gear–from headphones to mastering software– to potentially distract us from the more essential questions of whether or not the music conjures emotion, fascinates and holds our attention, and maybe even speaks to others. After a few minutes Fred emerged to break my reverie and we headed for his car and a quick lunch on the way home.

***

After lunch we headed over to Fred’s other job–teaching music to children at a Montessori elementary school. Fred’s classroom at the school is pretty scenic, its large windows opening out onto the school’s tree-filled yard. Today Fred would be teaching second and third graders and I would be watching. One of the tenets of Montessori education (founded in the early 20th-century by the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori) is that children and young adults are given opportunities to develop a sense of self through meaningful sensory interaction with their environments. With this in mind I suspected that Fred would use his classroom to create some kind of environment for the second and third graders to explore, though I really had no idea what he was going to do.

“What are you going to do?” I asked him, imagining that the answer would probably have something to do with improvising or creating opportunities for it to flower. As a musician, Fred is a veteran performer of a Turkish end-blown flute called the ney, and great players excel at making extended melodic improvisations called taksim. Not surprisingly, Fred brings his interest in taksim wherever he goes, choosing a few topics for the hour and treating them like melodic tones on which to improvise an entire class. “Well Tom” he answered my question of what was on the afternoon’s agenda, “I thought today we might organize the kids into these little instrumental sections.” As he spoke he began moving wooden benches and instrument stands into formations. “Let’s make a triangle shape for the kotos here” he said as we moved the furniture around the quiet room. “Did you make these benches Fred?” I asked. “But of course Tom!” Fred had also built the wooden kotos (Japanese plucked zithers) and the stands that we were placing them on. Off in the corner we then set up three more Fred-made instruments: a Chinese erhu two-stringed fiddle, a violin, and an acoustic guitar. “And Tom, why don’t you put that little marimba over on the other side.” In a few minutes we had set up a small chamber ensemble for seven young musicians:

Fred decided on a D pentatonic scale and we checked the tuning of all the instruments against the marimba. I detuned a few strings on the guitar and removed a few keys on the marimba (the F and B keys) while Fred made last-minute adjustments to the violin:


Soon the kids were arriving, one by one, breathless and excited. Fred greeted them individually and asked a few of the more winded ones a question: “Did you just run here?” (A quiet assenting head nod.) “Okay, I would like you to go back out, get a drink of water, and walk back into the room calmly. I need you to be focused like an arrow.” Once everyone was in, accounted for, and as focused as they could be, Fred introduced me (“Today I brought my friend Tom to watch our class. Tom is a professional musician and he might even play with us today”) and then got down to business. Each child chose an instrument and then waited for further instructions. Fred picked up his homemade acoustic bass, and then, like a Charles Mingus of his Montessori band, explained in simple terms what he wanted to try today. “I’m going to introduce a three-note pattern” he said, “and you can play your own version on that…If you feel the need to change your pattern after a time, you can do that too if you wish.”

With that the class was off and running, each student playing a repeating pentatonic pattern on his or her instrument with focused concentration while Fred plucked out low tones on his bass to mark time. The resultant sound was like a slightly unsteady old watch with layers of gears interlocking, sometimes clean, sometimes clunky-squeaky, yet it all held together. After a while, Fred stopped the class and asked the kids what they thought of the music. One girl said she couldn’t hear her koto. Fred used this as an opportunity to make a suggestion to his band: “I would like us all to play softly enough so that we can hear everyone around us.” The children thought about this advice for a moment and then Fred invited further layers of musical participation. “If the music so moves you, you can even raise your voice to sing a song to go overtop of the music if you feel to do so.”

Then the pentatonic music started up again, and this time I joined a girl on the small marimba. Our hands went out of phase a few times, but each time they did she snapped to focus, slowed down, and regained sync with me. After another few minutes, another girl who had been playing guitar began to sing softly over the music. I couldn’t make out her words and none of the other six children seemed to mind, focused as they were on playing their repeating patterns. After another interval, Fred asked the girl what her song was about. She told him it was about a bunny and explained the bunny’s back story as the other students listened while sitting at their instruments. “Putting our emotions into song is one of the most magical things we can do” Fred said as the girl who sang the bunny song beamed.

At the end of the class, the students excitedly lined up at the door to play a quick round of Exit Games before they left for the day. One by one, Fred asked them a skill testing musical question: “How many quarter notes on a whole note?” The boy thought for a moment, then responded “Four?” before dashing out the door. “The note between Mi and So?” asked Fred. “Fa” said the girl, grinning, and one by one the seven children disappeared and class was over.

***

As we walked out to the school parking lot and I prepared to get back to New York, Fred and I discussed the day’s events. I told him that after attending both classes it struck me that a major difference between the two groups of students (besides their age differences, of course) was how open they seemed to be to new ideas, to doing new things in the moment, to embracing the special ways of being that music makes possible. The college students were always polite, but also visibly reserved and reticent. Teaching them–and I say this having spent time over the years watching Fred teach as well–sometimes seems like a matter of convincing them that the musical topic of the day is inherently fascinating. In other words, there is always a bit of inertia in the college students that needs to be overcome. In contrast, the second and third graders seemed to find everything in their school music room fascinating, eagerly embracing whatever it was they were asked to try (even singing a song about bunnies in front of one another if they felt so moved). No reservedness, no reticence, just unselfconsciously going with the musical flow. “I’m glad you noticed those qualities in the young ones, Tom” Fred told me. “They’re amazing in that way.” With that, Fred and I made our goodbyes and I was off, racing towards the I-95 to head back to New York.

I’m always glad to have made the 190-mile trip to visit Fred’s music classes. Not only do I get to see his ever-changing groups of students, but my trips are also opportunities for us to continue our Long Conversation about music (we started talking in 1996)–what’s essential about it, what’s at stake in its various styles, and how it can help us live our lives more, well, soundly. The main thing I bring away from my visits is a renewed sense that all of Fred’s classes, his musical activities, and even our conversations are essentially all part of a single educational-investigative cloth. In Fred’s world, there’s minimal differences between teaching at a college, grooving on pentatonic riffs with second and third graders, playing a taksim on his ney with a band of Turkish music aficionados, or talking about music with me on the phone. It’s all about music. Music, in the end, may not be a universal language, but talking about it and making it has a way of tying everything together.

On Vocal Frying

“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people, and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.”  – Mark Liberman, linguist, University of Pennsylvania

The image is impossible for me to prevent in my mind’s eye: spoken and sung words and phrases immersed like Lego blocks into the boiling oil of a deep fryer, one letter at a time, melting and losing their form while crisping away. But the phenomenon known as vocal frying has nothing whatsoever to do with heat. Rather, it describes the low-frequency creaking (or frying) sound we make when we speak or sing in our lowest vocal register. In essence, frying is the sound of our vocal chords vibrating irregularly at a very slow rate of speed, producing a pitch that is low (on average about 36 Hertz or vibrations per second) and on the verge of breaking up.

Vocal frying has been around as long as we’ve been speaking and singing and the technique can found across musical cultures. Most often it’s used as a way to reach low notes otherwise unreachable and to communicate a particular kind of affect. But in recent years, vocal frying has floated to the surface popular awareness, partly thanks to American celebrities including pop singer Britney Spears and that famous-for-being-famous reality TV star, Kim Kardashian.

Back in 1999 Spears had a breakout hit song called “Baby One More Time” that launched her career. At the beginning of each line of the verses and especially when she sings the repeating “Oh baby, baby” hook you can pure vocal frying. Spears was never the strongest singer, but she has undoubtedly been helped by recording technology and the production techniques of her main producer/songwriter, Sweedish pop maestro Max Martin. Just as refinements in microphone technology paved the way for the laid back and close-up crooning of Frank Sinatra, so too has computer music production encouraged vocal frying to join pop’s lexicon of cool sounds.

Here is Spears:

Going beyond Britney, you can hear another kind of vocal frying in Louis Armstrong’s singing. Here the fry was part and parcel of Armstrong’s famously precise vocal phrasing and warm appeal:

There’s also audible frying at the beginning of phrases sung by male country singers where the fried twang signifies a heartfelt, good old, down-by-the-country-fair kind of feeling. Here is country star Brad Paisley frying the word “I” at the beginning of each line he sings:

In musical cultures further afield, frying characterizes the glorious sound of Tuvan, Mongolian and Tibetan overtone singing (singing in which both fundamental and overtone pitches can be heard simultaneously). In Tuva, for example, the low-pitched style of singing known as kargyraa has a heavily fried fundamental pitch rich with overtones. Here is the late Aldyn-Ool Sevek singing:

***

The vocal fry got a promotional boost outside of the music world when Kim Kardashian–she of Keeping Up with the Kardashians reality show–started talking and we, for some mysterious reason, started listening. Kardashian’s fry is in a way an update of the 1980s California “Valley Girl” way of speech. Valley Girls, incidentally, started the trend of “uptalking” or making statements sound like questions? and using the word “like” for like, emphasis. In this clip of Kardashian encouraging us all to be glamorous, you can hear the fry on the words “shoes”, “squad”, and “equinox”:

Valley Girl speak was a way of signifying a particular brand of harmlessly annoying girl privilege–in essence, the sound of a kind of ennui. Kardashian’s vocal fry similarly functions to signify ditziness and reassure Kardashian listeners that the star is a harmless (yet desirable and unattainable) bombshell, easy to dismiss yet nevertheless kind of fascinating too.

Reading about the widespread use of vocal frying among young women (there’s an informative article in the NYTimes here) I’ve learned that the sound plays two roles at once. On the one hand, notes linguist Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, the fry is a way for women to lower their voices to sound more authoritative and assume a more powerful sonic stance. This connects to findings about early use of frying as far back as the 1960s among British men wishing to indicate their “superior social standing.” So in a way, the vocal fry may be a kind of modern female way of speaking appropriated from an old male way of acting haughty. On the other hand, the fry is simultaneously used to create a sense of lightness and harmlessness–the exact opposite of what we think of as being authoritative. As linguist Mark Liberman notes, women use the vocal fry “when they’re relaxed and even bored, not especially aroused or invested in what they’re saying.” But again, this perhaps connects to those stodgy British men who use their voice to act like they’re above it all. These research findings not only help explain Spears’ and Kardashian’s use of the vocal fry, but also point towards the endlessly interesting ways all of us socially construct our identities through the sounds we make.

On The Rise Of Cultural Populism: We’re All Musical Experts Now

“Obscure knowledge was once a kind of currency.” – Alexandra Molotkow

I recently came across a resonant NYTimes article by Alexandra Molotkow titled “Why the Old-School Music Snob Is the Least Cool Kid on Twitter.” The article describes how file-sharing, first introduced in the late 1990s with Napster, made Molotkow and her friends’ esoteric insider music knowledge–the kind of knowledge once held by nerdy record store clerks back in the day and portrayed in Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity– irrelevant. “Thanks to the Internet”, Molotkow writes, “cultural knowledge was now a collective resource. Which meant that being cool was no longer about what you knew and what other people didn’t. It was about what you had to say about the things that everyone already knew about.”

I think Molotkow is right. Today we see the evidence of what looks to be a pretty seismic cultural shift set into motion by the digitization of our musical-social life via the Internet, music blogs, and music downloading. Digitization and downloading aren’t new, of course. But the shift is: the rise of a cultural populism in the place of that old guard, a grouchy cultural elitism, which, as Molotkow points out, had been guided by the strange notion that the fewer people who like a music the more valuable it seemed to be. (Remember the title of that 1958 article in High Fidelity magazine by composer Morton Feldman that sums up well the elitist ethos: “Who Cares If You Listen?”)

Perhaps it goes without saying that the notion of a music’s value being directly proportional to how many people don’t know about it is passé. It’s quite easy now to know something about all kinds of music. Thus, also passé is the notion of knowledge-hoarding: for who can hoard specialized, insider’s knowledge when facts are free to all on the Internet, just a click away? We share knowledge with one another because knowledge is so easily circulated these days. (And was what we know ever really “ours” to begin with?)

In relating her pre-Internet experiences tracking new and unknown and therefore cool musics, Molotkow relates how the old paradigm (all the way back in the 1990s when she was growing up) was that knowing a lot about a single subject area was the name of the game. Now, knowing a little about a lot of things seems to endow us with more cultural capital–which in turn enables us to stay a part of the cultural conversation, to know what’s New and Exciting and Hot and Now. As Molotkow observes, knowing everything there is to know about a narrow slice of experience (William Blake’s “To see the world in a grain of sand” approach) doesn’t necessarily help one keep up with the conversation of the moment. Indeed, if you get deep into something–become an expert of a particular music, say–you “just have to accept that most of your findings will have no social value.” Notice Molotkow didn’t say “little” social value but “no” social value.

Really? Zero value? That’s tough for me to accept, though perhaps Molotkow has a point in that it seems that to be socially relevant these days means to stay on the surface of one’s experience so as to more easily make (shallow and numerous?) comparisons between different social worlds. I admittedly did this last week when I explored in a surface-y kind of way some of what I heard in contemporary country music like the band Lady Antebellum. I came away from my experiment with some useful knowledge about country’s soundworld, but I could have gone much deeper. Clearly, country music is a whole way of life, a sonic representation of a habitus informed by acquired sensibilities and a set of tastes. I observed these tastes from afar, sure, but didn’t get inside them or try to understand them on their own terms.

In sum, Molotkow’s article may articulate a cultural trend, namely that being knowing about something threatens to replace actually knowing something. Being knowing is how we might describe someone who knows a bit about a lot of cultural things, but who isn’t necessarily committed to any of it. Knowing something on the other hand, involves not only a commitment of time and energy to dig and play around in the details but also, and inevitably, a turning away from a whole lot of things one doesn’t have time for. I know a little about country music, but knowing a lot more would undoubtedly open up answers to why country musicians make the music the way they do.

I’m not sure then that I agree with the idea that having expertise is synonymous with having little to contribute to the cultural conversation of the moment. But I do think that the cultural formations of digital/connected social life allows many more of us to comment on the “action” as never before. Which brings me back to Molotkow’s notion of how it matters what we have to say about a music that everyone and their grandmother has already heard/seen on TV or YouTube. It matters what we say precisely because there is so much opinion already circulating out there in the ether which all of are free to peruse, distill, refine, and interpret.

***

In her survey of online music culture brokers like music blogs, Molotkow mentions in passing Richard Beck’s article “Pitchfork, 1995–Present” in the critical journal, n+1.  I’m glad I checked it out! This outstandingly informative essay traces the origins and rise of the music review website pitchfork.com from well, 1995 to the present. The history of this influential website is important because it parallels the rise of so-called “indie” popular music through the same time period and with which it has had a symbiotic relationship. Beck argues that Pitchfork perfected a kind of musical criticism as cultural capital accrual–its record reviews explaining to readers why a band or a recording is important to know about. He writes:  “A Pitchfork review may ignore history, aesthetics, or the basic technical aspects of tonal music, but it will almost never fail to include a detailed taxonomy of the current hype cycle and media environment [...] Pitchfork’s writers became the greatest, most pedantic fans of all, reconfiguring criticism as an exercise in perfect cultural consumption.”

Beck and Molotkow are coming from the same place–both of them acknowledging the complexities of consuming music in the 21st-century. There’s so much available but so little real context and too little time to listen; there’s so many influences but so little daringly new and original material (see my review of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania for more on this); there’s so much signifying and quotation but so little concern about radically changing meanings; and perhaps too there’s an abundance of knowingness and perhaps less genuine knowing. Finally, Beck articulates a situation that many music fans face yet rarely talk about: “Today, almost every person I know has more music on his computer than he could ever know what to do with. You don’t need to care about music to end up like this—the accumulation occurs naturally and unconsciously. My iTunes library, for example, contains forty-seven days of music [...]In the 21st century, we are all record store clerks.”

After reading Molotkow and Beck I wondered about the reasons anyone should read or write about musical experience. And the best reason I can come up with is that we should read and write about music (and sound more broadly) because they’re vital forms of social action, sites of cultural formation, and most significantly for me, entryways into the limitless dimensions of the human imagination. Yes, we get the gist of music within seconds of hearing it (and forming an opinion of it), but there’s so much to discuss regarding the interface of listener and sounds listened to! Writing about music then, should begin and end by describing the feel of an encounter between the writer/listener/musician (I am certainly all three) and the musical experience in which he/she is so feelingly immersed.

On Charles Duhigg’s “The Power Of Habit”: Exploring Music Listening Habit Loops


“Listening habits allow us to unconsciously separate important noises from those that can be ignored.” – Charles Duhigg

In his best-selling self-help psychology book, The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, Charles Duhigg examines the structure of habits and the ways they shape everyday life for individuals, businesses and communities, and societies as a whole. Through a series of case studies, Duhigg reveals the unstable ground beneath what we think are the free and unencumbered decisions we regularly make regarding how we spend our time, where we focus our attention, and the actions we take. “The choices we make every day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making” says Duhigg, “but they’re not. They’re habits.”

A habit is a powerful kind of groove, and every habit has three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Cues can be almost anything–like say, the smell of peanut butter–that functions as a “trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.” Similarly, a routine “can be physical or mental or emotional.” Routines are the habit action themselves such as eating that peanut butter. Finally, the reward is the pay off for your routine–in this case, the gustatory pleasure you’d derive from eating the peanut butter. The reward part of the cue-routine-reward habit loop is key, says Duhigg, because it “helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.” (In the case of my appreciation for peanut better, I would say that this habit loop is a keeper.)

With repetition over time our habit loops become automatic which is another way of saying that our brains stop taking an active (conscious) role in our decision-making. In its place, cue and reward become connected to the point that “a powerful sense of craving and anticipation emerges.” Thus, that feeling that overcomes me: I must have that peanut butter!

***

Reading Duhigg’s book it struck me that as music listeners we often approach our favorite musics as kinds of habits with their own cues, routines, and rewards. Music can give us a kind of “fix” of our favorite sound combinations. What’s more, it’s also excellent at creating desire within its own structures–setting up stimulus cues through melody, harmony, and rhythm and then prolonging our wait for the reward—like that huge chorus, the cathartic chord cadence, the infectious hook, or the massive beat. But the way music constructs desire through change and repetition is the subject for other blog posts. Reading Duhigg got me thinking specifically about our listening habits themselves: how some kind of desire to hear music functions as the cue, how listening to a music is the routine, and how pleasure (or something else along the same sensory continuum such as catharsis maybe) is the reward. Have you ever thought about your music listening practices as habit loops? And have you ever wondered how mutable your listening habits actually are?

I have particular musics that I return to from time to time for reliable and repeatable listening experiences. For instance, when I want a “logical” experience I often reach for J.S. Bach. Or when I want an interaction” experience where I can hear musical dialogue I reach for jazz or maybe duets such as the musical conversations between kora player Ballake Sissoko and cellist Vincent Segal on their excellent album Chamber Music (which I have written about here). When I want a “static” experience I might reach for some drone-oriented sound such as Hildur Guðnadóttir (whom I have written about here). Or when I want a “filmic” experience I reach for something like the electronic duo Deaf Center. Or when I want a “nostalgic” experience I turn to music I first heard when I was a teenager (progressive rock, 80s synth pop). These are just some of the ways I habitually organize my listening. I check out new stuff too, of course. And I always listen to new mainstream pop just for its novel sounds.

I’m sure I’m not alone in organizing my listening depending on what kind of experience I wish to cultivate. But it’s not a science. There are many, many ends to which we can put our listening means, and the same music can serve multiple agendas. J.S. Bach may be “logical” music for me but merely pleasant polyphonic ambient background sound for someone else not into Baroque rigidity. Music always depends on its listeners for its meaning.

But how do we get out of our music habit loops? How do we cultivate novelty in our listening habits? The challenge with experiencing new musics, of course, is that as listeners we get used to a familiar set of cues to indicate to us whether or not we’re “interested” or we “like” the music enough to keep listening. But Duhigg tells us that we can change our habits if we change the routine while keeping the cues and rewards the same. So: how might we keep our already accepted cues for listening to our go-to musics and their perceptual rewards while opening ourselves to new musics? Can we apply Duhigg’s model to cultivate new listening habits?

***

One day a few weeks ago, my friend Gary, a bass player and producer, suggested that I listen to the contemporary country band Lady Antebellum. “The production is incredible, man” he told me, as if you could separate production from the music, “and all the layered guitars are very deep.” Wait a second. This was just the kind of opportunity for a listening experiment I was looking for. Could I modify my listening habits and actually get into country music like Lady Antebellum? I decided to try. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? I’d become a diehard fan and renounce all other music? As if.

The plan was simple: set up a “Lady Antebellum” station on my Pandora Internet Radio app and just start listening for one whole week. The rules of the listening experiment were equally simple, yet severe: whenever I felt like listening to music (and usually this would be while I was riding the subway), I could only tune into my Lady Antebellum Pandora station and let country music do its Good Work. The goal was to stiff-arm my listening routine so that I only listened to country. So off I went, headphones on, to hear what would happen.

***

Pandora kicked off the listening re-enculturation party with Lady Antebellum’s ” “Love’s Looking Good On You” and my first reaction was to laugh uncomfortably–not at the music, but at how uncomfortable I was with the whole idea of actually listening to it. I was self conscious—as if I was being watched. But no turning back now so I just let the music play and the feelings of self-consciousness soon subsided. My first impression was that this music wasn’t trying to surprise or challenge me, just comfort me, as if saying, “It’s okay, we won’t bite. We just wanna talk.”

Gary was right: Lady Antebellum do indeed have some nicely layered guitar things going on. As their song came to a close, I debated whether or not to press the Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down icons on Pandora’s interface to tweak the app’s algorithm to give me more or less of what I just heard. Pandora generates its station playlists by drawing on millions of pieces of music that have been categorized by their musical attributes and then uses these data as a means of figuring out the contours of our listening tastes. If you click on the “Track” button as you listen to Lady Antebellum’s “Love’s Looking Good On You” you can read Pandora’s classification rationale set forth in a list of musical style attributes:

“We’re playing this track because it features country roots, acoustic rhythm piano, extensive vamping, intricate melodic phrasing, paired vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, major key tonality, slide guitars, vocal duets, romantic lyrics and many other similarities…”

The idea is that if you like this particular song that has these musical attributes, you’ll probably also like this other song by a different artist whose music shares similar attributes and thus probably has a similar sound. Clicking the Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down icons then, allows you to nudge Pandora towards more songs like the ones you’re liking. (You can read more about Pandora here.) I chose not to press the Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down icons and just leave Pandora to her own devices.

Next up was Deirks Bentley’s “Come A Little Closer”, then onto Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and others. Over the next few days, I stuck to my listening regimen, listening to whatever Pandora would throw at me. And she was relentless, playing lots of Lady Antebellum mixed with tunes by other artists—every single one of whom are white artists, by the way–who fit the contemporary country musical mold. Some of the tracks I heard included Antebellum’s “Here Comes Goodbye”, “Need You Now”, “When You Got A Good Thing”, “One Day You Will”, “I Run To You”, “Perfect Day”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, “Heart Of The World”, “Things People Say”, “Wanted You More”, “Hello World”, “Home Is Where The Heart Is”, “Our Kind Of Love”, “Stars Tonight” and “American Honey”; Deirks Bentley’s Long Trip Home”, “I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes” and “Settle For A Slowdown”; Rascal Flatts’ “Here”, “Love You Out Loud”, “Stand”, “Fast Cars And Freedom”, “These Days” and “Every Day”; Keith Urban’s “Sweet Thing”, “Making Memories Of Us” and “Stupid Boy”; Brad Paisley’s “She’s Everything”, “Little Moments” and “Remind Me”; Colbie Callat’s “I Never Told You”, “Bubbly” and “Out Of My Mind”; Tim McGraw’s “Just To See You Smile” and “She’s My Kind Of Rain”; Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar”; Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Laughed Until We Cried”; The Band Perry’s “All Your Life”; Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You”; Carrie Underwood’s “So Small” and “I Just Can’t Live A Lie”; Faith Hill’s “I Need You”; and Zac Brown Band’s “Free” and “Whatever It Is.”

***

One morning several days into my country music listening my wife Natasha asked me, “So how’s your experiment going?” “Okay” I said, sounding a little dejected. “It’s harder than I thought and I’m struggling.” I was a committed listener, but it was hard to shake the feeling that the songs were too wordy (I like instrumental music) and the chord progressions too predictable (I like harmonic adventure). Not only that, my sense of musical taste felt immune to country music’s pleadings. I was staying the course though and Natasha found my self-imposed struggle humorous. “Why does it have to be an experiment anyway?” she asked, laughing.

I guess it had to be an experiment so I’d have an excuse to learn something about country music as a genre with its own conventions of expression. And I was learning something. I have to say, the music on the Lady Antebellum Pandora station was sometimes moving and always heartfelt–or at least it constructed and performed heartfeltness very, very effectively. It did this lyrically and musically. Lyrically, the songs’ subject matter was mostly about love, longing, memories, loss, religious faith, cars and pick up trucks, the experience of small time America, promises, and comparing a “good woman” to lots of valued things like say, a well-worn pair of tennis shoes (no kidding: see for example Brad Paisley’s “She’s Everything”). Most importantly, the songs told simple stories embedded with life lessons. It’s easy to follow a country song’s lyrics, but before my experiment I had never bothered trying.

Musically, country songs hammer home their heartfelt stories through a kind of sonic sentimentality. All of the songs I listened to featured twangy expressive vocals, slow tempos, a good solid backbeat on two and four, simple and reassuring chord progressions, acoustic piano, layers of guitars (especially slide guitar–that singular signifier of country wistfulness), and pleasantly predictable arrangements that always have a breakdown (rhythm section sits out for a few measures) before the final chorus returns to take us to the end, full throttle. The music has the effect of framing whatever you’re doing (I’m riding the subway, listening as I type on my phone) to create the sense that you’ve stepped into a middle-of-the-road Hollywood movie–specifically the montage section where someone is say, looking over old letters and reminiscing about good times past. The kind of movie you might watch while on an airplane because you have nothing else to do. I know it sounds like I’m making a judgment here, but the music really sounds like a film soundtrack.

As I kept listening to my country station, Pandora was making assumptions about me too, bombarding me every thirty seconds with pop up ads for Busch beer, a dating site called Christian Singles, and DeVrie University, among other things and services. Clearly there is a country music demographic that advertisers have access to through pinpointing and then catering to their musical taste profiles. The lesson here is that our musical tastes can help advertisers identify our broader socio-cultural identity profile.

***

In one section of The Power Of Habit, Duhigg touches on our habits of music listening. Drawing on a study of what makes Top Forty hits so popular, he observes that the songs we like tend to correspond very well to our everyday listening habits. We like our favorite songs, in other words, because they’re a lot like other songs we’ve liked. Says Duhigg:

“Much of the time, we don’t actually choose if we like or dislike a song. It would take too much mental effort. Instead, we react to the cues (“This song sounds like all the other songs I’ve liked!”) and rewards (“It’s fun to hum along!”) and without thinking, we either start singing, or reach over and change the station.”

So after a week of pretty constant listening and not changing the station I took stock of my progress. It turns out, you’re probably not surprised to hear, that my experiment didn’t re-wire my listening habits. Why is this? Why haven’t I been able to change my listening habits and love country music as something cool? One possible answer is that I haven’t spent enough time with it yet. Maybe I need a few years. But therein lies the catch: we tend to only spend time with musics we actually like, deepening out appreciation for them even more. When we don’t immediately like a music, we tend to stand clear of it. All this to say that it’s difficult to re-wire ourselves to love a music because it’s difficult to stick with something that you don’t really love. It’s clearly a catch situation.

To sum up: I’m glad I ran the experiment, but even after some deep country immersion, I still find myself only finding a narrow bandwidth of all the music I’ve heard “cool” and this fact alone may say a lot about my own limitations as a listener. Yes, there are some lady Antebellum songs I like (I kept whistling “Need You Now” at home and passed the sonic virus to my wife who started singing it too within seconds of hearing the melody!). But overall I don’t love contemporary country music and probably won’t seek it out for a while. Having admitted this, I’m not scared of country music anymore (!), and in fact quite open to its expressivity and its direct, plain-spoken qualities, appreciating it as a way of constructing a way of being in the world as valid as any other.

And anyway, who is to say what’s good music is?

In Praise Of Slowness: On Writing On Cellphones

It stuck me recently that I might say something about how the blog posts at bretttworks.com are written. So here goes:

I write them on my phone.

***

Most of the writing happens in those moments that could otherwise be wasted moments–while waiting for the subway, standing in line somewhere, sitting on the subway, sitting in the pit. I’m often outside while I write, often under neon lights, often just waiting for something else to happen. Sometimes I even write while walking–yes, making me one of those people you really hate seeing on the street: eyes glued to the glowing orb in their hands, a body not looking where it’s going. (But in my defense: it’s usually late at night while I’m walking home on deserted streets, you see …)

The point is, I usually write the posts either while waiting for transit or while in transit, and what makes this possible in the first place is the fact of the phone itself. Let’s unpack this a little more by asking a question: What does it mean to write on a phone?

For one thing, the screen is quite small and the letter keys even smaller. This makes whatever I’m writing literally feel and look, well, quite tiny. No matter how expansive I hope the thought might be, its material expression is, for the moment, just tiny text on a tiny two-inch screen. And this is comforting to me. I like it because the micro-smallness of everything creates a kind of intimacy. It feels like writing in a diary–albeit one with a bright screen and a perpetual Internet connection!

The tinyness of the phone’s screen and keypad has another, perhaps more important effect: it slows me down. It’s really hard to write fast on the phone because you’re reduced to one-finger typing (or in my case: a left thumb and a right index finger). Trying to type fast while being constrained by the phone leads to missed keys and letters, which in turn leads to the phone’s strange auto-correct kicking in. In that sentence before last, for instance, I was offered “wired” instead of “write” and then, in the next sentence, “steam” instead of my intended “strange”. (And just now, “intense” for “intended”!) Dealing with this further slows me down and frustrates me, sure, but in the process of backing up for a moment–“of” not “if backing up”!–to correct the auto-correcting, I buy myself a few seconds that I have come to believe are used on some level as time to think about the next sentence, the next thought.

Writing on the phone then, seems to slow thoughts down to the glacial pace of one letter at a time, one auto-corrected word at a time, the message and message-writer having to wait for the medium to catch up. Overall this is a good thing, for me anyways. Why the rush anyway?

And of course, once I’m done, I can email the post to myself and then copy that email directly into WordPress and we’re off and running. This alone continues to impresses me: the fact that at no point does oxygen ever hit this text. It’s all digital, all virtual, but then so is almost everything else these days.

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