brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Month: May, 2012

On The Sounds Of Justice

A few weeks ago I was part of a jury for a criminal trial. The trial took nine days, and I had ample opportunity to listen–not just to all the legal stuff, the arguments, the evidence, but to the sounds of voices in the courtroom and in the jury deliberation room. Court proceedings are like musical performances in that they’re special kinds of rituals with repeated actions done in deliberate ways to achieve specific ends. In the courtroom, almost all of the action is verbal, and proper legal etiquette and protocol are everything. All is articulated, all is verbalized, all is sounded and noted for the record, all is compressed and captured into heard and felt words.

***

We the jury, coming from our deliberating room, are about to enter the courtroom.

Court Officer: “Jury about to enter.”

We enter and take our seats in the jury box.

Judge: “Do the people and the defense agree to the presence of the jury in their proper seating?”

Attorneys: “Yes your honor.”

Judge: “Very well. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back …”

I heard this exchange many, many times over the course of the trial, and the formality of the procedure to mark our entrance always kind of entranced me.

Sitting in our chairs, we heard the lawyers make their cases. Though arguing for different sides of the same coin, each lawyer used his/her voice to convince us right off the bat of the reasonableness of their side. The defense was particularly adept at sonically shifting gears, going into pseudo-casual tones or incredulous tones or confident swagger tones–all these shifts within moments of one another. I thought it was a compelling vocal display that felt like watching a virtuoso musician tear it up and amaze me with his instrumental skills. But it also reminded me of the work of magicians in that something about this facility with tone–ultimately a musical skill, really, right?–bordered on being an aural sleight of hand. Of course, I may just be overstating the case (pardon the pun), attuned as I am to sound of things. At any rate, it was a challenging task to clearly separate what the lawyers were actually saying from how they were saying it. Again, a musical analogy: there are many ways to play the same note and make it feel differently.

We the jury listened to witnesses too. And the judge advised us beforehand to pay attention to not only what they said but to their voices and body language too. And so we watched and listened to the stoic police officer whose small voice didn’t match his hulking body, the professional ballistics expert who sounded professional and matter of fact thank you very much, the emotional family member who sounded conflicted and distressed, and a witness who sounded, well, frankly erratic and unreliable.

***

After both sides had made their cases, we the jury retreated to deliberate. Up to this point, I hadn’t really heard the voices of my fellow jury members, nor they my voice, and so we began to talk. What soon became apparent was almost cliché: that the loudest voices in the room aren’t necessarily saying the most sensible things. But everyone had a voice, had a say, and we deliberated for two days. At one point, some of the quieter voices made their case to one of the louder voices–a quiet Have You Considered? sound in dialogue with I’ve Already Made Up My Mind sound. To my astonishment, I’ve Already Made Up My Mind gradually began to change her tune, morphing into a Well I Hadn’t Considered That and eventually into Well, Ok, I Hear What You’re Saying. It was like a musical improvisation, with tones of voices as much as reasoning acting upon one another to steer our deliberation along a path towards eventual (and necessary) unison agreement.

One of the reasons we the jury entered the courtroom so often was to receive clarification on legal matters from the judge. I didn’t realize that everything would be read to us only–no notes allowed, nothing written down. In the tradition of a true oral tradition, we had to listen and try to remember our terms and definitions from the judge’s performance. Interestingly, the judge didn’t make use of affect in his voice as he slowly and carefully unpacked layers of meaning for us. It was clinical and up to us to apply the judge’s definitions to our deliberations.

But while we the jury worried about remembering the sounds we had just heard, a silent woman sitting in front of the judge was capturing every word spoken at the trial. She of course was the court reporter working on her small and mysterious stenography machine, translating heard words into typed shorthand. I was enchanted by her too. She was like a silent keyboardist, translating in real-time the verbal flow into a music score for posterity. And I wondered, even if stenographer’s shorthand uses just a single letter in place of a word, how could she keep up? (Stenographers, I subsequently learned, must pass stenography typing tests of 225 words per minute (!) and have the fortitude to deal with what would seem to be an element of tedium in their chosen métier.) But keep up she did and we the jury heard the constant gentle thumping of her fingers marking the passing seconds and minutes of the trial.

The performance of the trial as a whole had a rhythm too. Its tempo felt glacial (matching the frigid air-conditioned temperature of the room), change happening slowly and almost imperceptibly, noticed only at those turning points when someone new was called to the stand, say, or when a piece of verbal testimony seemed to clash with another bit heard earlier. Fortunately, there were verbal syncopations too that accented and broke up the otherwise glacial pace:

Defense: “ObJECTion your honor!”

Judge: “OverRULED!”

One could hear this as a syncopated call and response–

ba-DA-boom ba-DA-boom (call)

bada-BOOM (response)

–that happened many times, and each time opened with the same rhythm.

When matters warranted further discussion, the lawyers and the judge would huddle up by the judge’s perch, whispering quietly among themselves. It reminded me of an operatic recitative section, that moment where a character stops singing and starts talking in speech-like tones to convey a lot of information, except in this case, we the jury were not supposed to hear what was being whispered. Still, it was fun to try.

At the end of the trial we the jury read our verdict on the various charges. Or rather, our foreman read our verdict on behalf of all of us. At this point, I thought we were finally done, but the defense lawyer wanted a word with the judge. More huddling and whispered recitative up at the front of the room, then the judge turns to us and announces that we will be asked to repeat our verdict on one of the charges, only this time we will give the court our verdict individually.

Gulp.

It takes all of thirty seconds, but in that short time each of we the jury get our micro-moment as a musical soloist, uttering a single word of judgement for the ears of the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant. They want to hear our voices to make sure we’re all on the same page. In a way, all of our deliberations feel compressed into these little vocal solos: we are being asked to speak.

On Beginnings And Anywheres: A John Cage Aphorism


I see the words on an inspirational magnet in a shop window.

“Begin anywhere”

the late American experimental composer John Cage (1912-1992) tells us.

But what was the point of this telling?

Cage in fact walked the walk of his talk, relying on rolling dice, consulting the Chinese I-Ching book of hexagrams, and even scrutinizing the minute imperfections of music staff paper to define anywhere for him and assist in making the decisions (or free himself from the decision-making) required to construct his music scores.

But again, what was the point of this telling?

A quick and perhaps unreliable Internet search reveals that Cage might have meant his words as advice for those facing the psychological paralysis brought about by not knowing where to begin their project, their work, their book, their art. Perhaps–and now that I think of it, Internet searches themselves can often be exactly like this as well–the problem is having too many options, too many links, which brings about a flawed question to oneself: Where’s the best place to begin (my search, my project, etc.)?

It’s a flawed question because there is no best place to begin. From the standpoint of creative work, all places are good enough and all places are beginnings.

Finally, something else comes to mind when I think about that inspirational magnet. Begin anywhere, certainly, but once begun with whatever it is that you’re doing, be deliberate about your going. Cage walked the walk of his talk in this respect too. Whatever methods he used to help him make musical decisions, once he set up the system, so to speak, he rigorously adhered to it, letting it take him and his compositions somewhere (and these somewheres didn’t always make for engaging listening either). In other words, it takes a great discipline to grant oneself the freedom to begin anywhere and then let that anywhere run its course.

Here is Cage’s “Sonata V” from his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948) for prepared piano:

On The Trickle-Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics IV: Usher And Diplo’s “Climax”

“We are in a place now where fans don’t have conviction to one sound.”

- Diplo

This song caught my ear the first time I heard it: I recognized Usher’s R&B falsetto singing, of course, but what really got me was the sparse electronic backing track comprised of little more than a sequenced bassline, kick, snare, hi hat, plus bits of piano and a string arrangement by Nico Muhly.

The backing track is by Diplo, a globe-trotting DJ/producer/cultural broker who is also a respectfully inspired seeker and popularizer of dance musics from around the world. Diplo, by the way, produced the excellent documentary Favela On Blast, an inside look at the culture of electronic music making and dance parties situated in the favelas in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. (You can read more about the documentary here.)

What makes Usher and Diplo’s song “Climax” compelling to me is how it makes the most of so little. First, the song’s 138BPM tempo does double duty, suggesting a fast speed with its quick ticking hi hats while keeping a half and quarter time feel with a snare drum that hits once a measure and a kick drum on the downbeat once every two measures. Second, the song’s sequenced baseline is simultaneously its chord progression. The baseline/chord progression pulses away at an eighth-note speed while subtly morphing in timbre via its frequency cut-off setting. Diplo talks about the origins of the song:

“The production actually started as a house thing with a chord progression that I wrote, but with some time in the studio alone I was making a sort of ‘wildfire’ beat out of it. The idea of pushing cut-off on a synth used so much in progressive house music but pulling back. I was making something like a minimal techno record with Atlanta strip clubs in mind.”

So what about this “wildfire” beat? “Wildfire”, it turns out, is the name of a track by UK electronic musician SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”). Not only does Diplo’s “Climax” have pretty much the same tempo and rhythmic profile as “Wildfire”, but it’s in the same key too. Ah the ecstasy of influence! Still, “Climax” is a powerful track that makes maximal use of minimal means, yet another example of the trickle-down of electronic dance music aesthetics into the pop music cauldron.

Here is SBTRKT’s “Wildfire”:

And here is Diplo and Usher’s “Climax”:

On Vintage Fetishism And Rustic Analog Appeal: From Urban Outfitters To Bon Iver

While waiting for some take out food I dashed into the clothing store Urban Outfitters to have a look around. Founded in Philadelphia in 1970, Urban Outfitters specializes in hipster aesthetics–specifically, making clothes that look vintage and of an older era. Originally a single store in lower Manhattan, the company now has retail outlets in 38 states as well as in Europe, bringing the out-of-date-and-therefore-cool look to the suburban masses everywhere. As I walked around I passed racks of t-shirts that were replicas of ones from the 1970s and 80s depicting cartoon images of boomboxes and turntables, Mr. T, the Star Wars and Atari logos, and so on. This is the kind of clothing which, if you grew up in the 70s or 80s like I did, you might have actually worn. Even if you didn’t, the iconography of these brands and personalities still resonates deeply (I have fond memories of the audio and video game technology in particular). This resonance triggers a nostalgia (nostalgia is Urban Outfitter’s fashion currency) for the past and you find yourself thinking: “That time was pretty cool wasn’t it?” Of course, back in the day, the stuff wasn’t vintage, it was just youth fashion or leading edge technology. This all reminds me of my fashionable sister exhorting me in the 1980s to explore the real vintage/second-hand clothing stores to search for real old stuff–like plaid shorts. (Which I did find and I did wear. Thanks MEB–but that’s for another forum!)

***

Urban Outfitters also sells vintage-style technology. By the front door of the store I spotted the Lomokino 35mm movie camera, a new machine designed to look and function like the 35mm cameras of old.  Who, you ask, would use this when we have cell phones that ably do the job?  I don’t know, but here it is:

I also saw the Music Hall USB-1, a turntable with a USB wire to connect to your computer. What would I do with such a machine? For one thing, if I were a vinyl collector I could dub those vinyl sounds off the vinyl and into a hard drive. So maybe this old-new technology could be useful:

Finally, I saw a small and carefully chosen selection of recent-ish recordings re-released on vinyl. Even in our digital era it’s not unusual for musicians to release limited vinyl editions of their work. DJs like vinyl for its supposed superior sound quality, and some non-electronic musicians who release music on vinyl think the format is cool because that’s how all recorded music once existed (which is a kind of vinyl/analog fetishism if you ask me). And why does Urban Outfitters sell vinyl? Maybe because, like the Atari t-shirts downstairs, vinyl signifies the past.

One album that I recognized on the rack because I listened to it a few years ago was Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) (see lower right hand corner in photo).

Iver (Justin Vernon) is an indie folk-rock musician who famously recorded For Emma by himself in a Wisconsin country cabin over the course of a three-month retreat (he was recovering from a relationship plus a bout of mononucleosis) using very low tech (vintage, really) means: an acoustic guitar, some drums, an amp and a mic, and an old computer. Here’s Iver: “I had a very light set-up, a basic small recording set-up: a Shure SM57 and an old Silvertone guitar. I had my brother drop off his old drums… some other small things–things I would make or find lying around.”

Iver’s overdubbed vocals are imperfect, ragged and rustic, his foot stomping percussion gritty and ad hoc, and his guitars noticeably out of tune. The sound conjures a timeless, worn, and definitely vintage aesthetic. Here is Iver’s song “Skinny Love””:

“Look What I Found!”: On Music And Mushrooms

Having recently spotted some mushrooms that were growing in an unlikely place I thought (loosely) about some of the similarities between mushrooms and musical life. Here is what I came up with:

Both mushrooms and musics grow in very particular conditions, thriving particularly well in cool, dark, and hidden places.

Mushrooms are fungi and musics are fungi-like, both thriving off of other things. In the case of mushrooms, things like rotting logs or wet leaves. In the case of music, thriving off of sound-sensitive and musically-oriented people who devote their hours to making it.

Both mushrooms and musics bear spores of one kind or another. These spores are the reason new species of mushrooms and music can seemingly appear from nowhere overnight, expand rapidly, and colonize a natural or man-made environment.

Both mushrooms and music are ingestible–one through the mouth, the other through the ears. Both mushrooms and musics have healing properties too. Having said this, however, mushrooms and musics can be toxic if you consume the wrong type, and even hallucinogenic if you consume the right type.

Fear of mushrooms (fungophobia) relates to a perception of their being abnormal and strange, growing in odd places, and being potentially dangerous. Similarly, musicians have historically been viewed as a somewhat abnormal and strange species (think buskers mostly ignored on the street or even a Paganini or a Hendrix revered for his super-sonic skills), just a rung up the social ladder from jugglers and clowns, yet with powerful and widely admired healing powers too.

A final comparative observation: mushrooms are often foraged by trained individuals known as mycologists who have specialized knowledge in such things. Similarly, music aficionados known as record collectors (or crate diggers) forage for rare vinyl finds in second-hand record stores and thrift shops. For both mycologists and record collectors, I imagine the joy is in the moment of discovery, surprise, or recognition: “Look what I found!”

Real/Fake Drumming On A Fake/Real Keyboard: Thinking About Virtual Musicianship

The photo is me–playing a percussion part on the keyboard. This is one of the stranger wonders of the digital turn in music over the past quarter century: triggering sounds with instruments or controllers that themselves have nothing to do with those sounds. I don’t mind playing drums on the keyboard though. In fact, I’ve become pretty adept at it–learning to play snares, kicks, tom toms and cymbals by switching among those plastic black and white keys. Sure, I could get a fancy controller with squishy rubber pads to drum on (and maybe I just will and report back to you on that), but squishy rubber pads are still not real drums now are they?

I took this photo while in the middle of working on a project precisely because I was so immersed in the moment, experimenting with different tom-tom patterns. Like a deep sea diver coming up for air, I suddenly gasped at the strangeness of me drumming away on a plastic MIDI keyboard and not really caring about it one way or another, so focused I was on the sounds and the patterns. How far I’ve come in my electronic music enculturation! Or should I say: How low I’ve fallen! Whichever it is, how did I get to this musical place and is it a good thing or a bad thing or a neutral thing that I’m here?

Having been a percussionist for a fairly long time now, I still filter any music I hear or make through whatever skills and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike. Here’s a simple example: When I listen to the drum/percussion part of a song, I imagine the physical moves required to play this rhythmic pattern on an instrument like a drum set. It makes little difference if the part I’m hearing is human- or machine-generated–either way I hear it as a physical possibility. In this sense, I resonate as if in sympathy to the pattern, trying to feel it as I might execute it.

This is as it should be: acquired music making skills shape how we listen to music. But there are limitations here too. Indeed, how hard it is to free ourselves of thinking through our existing musical skill sets to imagining worlds beyond them! This, of course, is one of the reasons why musicians practice all the time: to keep expanding the range of what is possible to do at an instrument (and therefore imagine at an instrument). Practice is one way to expand. But what my plastic MIDI keyboard points towards is ways of accessing putting together rhythms that have nothing to do with the experience of drumming.

I find this prospect both fascinating and dismal. Fascinating because just about anything is theoretically possible when patterns can be programmed instead of played. Dismal because I wonder if the Royal Order Of Musicianship is ultimately under long-term threat from the programmers. I’m kind of joking with all that haughty capitalization, of course, but I’m serious about some kind of oral tradition lineage ultimately being endangered. (Seriously: What are the stakes for our using electronic simulacra of acoustic musical instruments?)

What is ironic is that I’m negotiating this landscape of worry myself as I make music on my computer, thinking about how my musical skills are simultaneously atrophying in some ways while truly expanding in others. And I can feel the tension as I cling to older ways of making music. For example, I still build my patterns “by hand” as it were, playing them one note at a time on the keyboard, because it’s only in the process of playing that I feel like I can exercise my musical sensibility. I could draw the notes in or cut and paste them around, I suppose, but these processes don’t feel real enough for me. It’s easier to just play and see what I can come up with on the spot. Playing also encourages me improvise and build phrases that lean towards longer than shorter.

This, finally, is why I took the photo of my finger drumming on the keyboard. It’s just a lot more fun to play something than to turn a knob, or tweak, filter, or process a sound. And so that’s what I was doing in that musical moment: playing a pattern, one note at a time.

On The Beastie Boys And The Hip Hop Enculturation Of 1980s Suburbia

With the news last week that Beastie Boy member Adam Yauch (aka MCA) had died, I thought about the seismic impact hip hop had when it first burst the bubble of kids living in suburbia all over North America and beyond during the 1980s. As the producer Rick Rubin noted in a recent interview, “The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs. As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

Indeed, when I was in high school in Canada in the late 1980s, there was a definite, turning point moment when hip hop music ignited the collective mind of our mostly white suburban school. As I remember it, there was a pre-hip hop era, and then a post-hip hop era. In the pre-hip hop era, most kids listened to a lot of white bands and idioms–like rock and UK synth pop–partly, I think, because these were just the sounds that were around us, accessible and marketed to us, and considered cool. (I added Glenn Gould, New Age music, and jazz fusion to the listening mix, but then again, I wasn’t cool!) Then, as if out of nowhere, the soundscape was changing with the sounds of Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, KRS-1 and Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, and the Beasties too. I remember this post-hip hop era well because I made mix tapes (yes, cassettes) of a friend’s record collection (yes, vinyl LPs), soaking up all these new sounds from far away urban milieus. It struck me that while rock and synth pop were about constructing certain kinds emotion and a sense of what even back then I thought was an overly self-indulgent moodiness, hip hop worked by way of a different mechanism. I felt different listening to this music but wouldn’t have been able to describe to you what exactly the feeling was. All I knew was that the sounds were hard-hitting, but unlike rock music, also infectious, syncopated, and poly–with lots of different rhythms going on at the same time. In a phrase: hip hop was cooly energized music. And even if the lyrics didn’t necessarily speak to our immediate experiences in the suburban northern latitudes the music and the beats made you feel like a cool insider just for listening to them.

The Beastie Boys were part of this wave of hip hop culture that hit our school. They were, of course, three middle-class white guys from Brooklyn who had appropriated the hip hop habitus, sound, and fashion sense, but they put their own spin on everything in an honest way, recording for Rubin’s Def Jam record label, gaining the respect of their musical peers (Chuck D. of Public Enemy once said that the Beasties “had the best beats”), and selling millions of records too. Of the three Beasties, Yauch had the most raspy and grainy voice that set it apart from his band mates’ more whiny-sounding vocal timbres. His was a breathy, soulful voice.

***

One of the Beastie Boys’ releases that made an impression on me was their 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique. Produced in collaboration with a pair of sound-hound producers from California who go by the name the Dust Brothers, Paul’s Boutique features over a hundred samples from other songs (which cost the Beasties around a quarter of a million dollars in licensing fees, this just before all the big lawsuits that would considerably drive up the cost of sampling others) to make an intricately layered and funky sound. My favorite track was the irresistibly funky “Hey Ladies” on which you can hear among numerous other samples, the voice of James Brown chuckle-intoning “Ain’t it funky now?” every now and then. I re-listened to the song recently and it still sounds good.

Free Of All The World’s Heaviness: Karl Pilkington On Sound And Listening

I recently watched a few episodes of the animated HBO series, The Ricky Gervais Show (based on the popular audio podcast of the same name), on which Gervais and fellow comedian and writer Stephen Merchant chat with their perfectly round-headed friend Karl Pilkington on any topic they feel like just to hear what Karl might say. The voices of all three are engaging, but it’s that regular bloke Karl who steals the show.

Karl has a simple yet startlingly original take on life. Gervais and Merchant ask him for his opinion on a variety of topics with the aim of making fun of him, yet Karl always manages to surprise and elicit delight both because and despite what he says and the monotone way in which he says it. Karl’s voice is small, tentative, and deadpan, but he is always strangely thoughtful.

Here are some Karl Pilkington quotes that pertain to sound and listening:

“Normally you can’t hear you’re own voice because you’re talking over it.”

“They say it all started out with a big bang. But, what I wonder is, was it a big bang or did it just seem big because there wasn’t anything else to drown it out at the time?”

“Every noise has been used at least 5 times, because there’s only so many noises in the world. It’s like a piano, and there’s only so many notes. There’s just so much stuff, the same noises are being used again.”

“Noise stresses me out. I wonder if less deaf people die of stress than people with working ears do.”

“I might talk to some people on the phone, but then I get bored with that… About 5 minutes in, I realise I’m not listening anymore.”

“I’ve tried earplugs to drown out background noise. I didn’t like it ‘cause I could hear my heartbeat.”

“All I’m saying is, bird noises are relaxing…but not for the worm.”

“If you just talk, I find that your mouth comes out with stuff.”

“I mean, the whole beauty of radio is that you can listen to it in the dark.”

“You don’t whistle when you’re fed up. Whistling’s a happy thing.”

***

These videos are a little raunchy, but here’s a clip where Pilkington elaborates on his whistling practice:

And here is Pilkington on limits to the world’s noises:

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