brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Month: June, 2012

Content, Form, And Versioning A Song Everybody Knows: Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know”

Sometime not overly long ago, Gotye’s song “Somebody I Used To Know” went very viral–becoming a song meme that was (and still is) hard to escape, whose video on YouTube has been viewed an astonishing 259 million times (or by some 518 million ears!). At least two or three of those views were mine, the first of which took place a few months ago while I was waiting on some take out fish. Curiously enough, I remember that I was at the fish place that afternoon because I was so impressed by the simplicity and contagiousness of the song. Plus, it features a child’s play xylophone part as one of its musical hooks. Hook, line, and sinker–I picked up my fish while glued to my phone watching and listening to the catchy song.

Born in 1980, Gotye (Wouter De Backer) is a Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter. In July 2011 he released “Somebody I Used To Know” as the second single from his record Making Mirrors. The song has an old-fashioned twang about it, built around just a few acoustic guitar chords in d minor, with some small Theremin-like electronic flourishes, bits of flute, some bass, and that dry-as-sand staccato xylophone refrain. Gotye shares the singing duties with New Zealand singer Kimbra. But perhaps most significantly for a pop song in 2012, “Somebody I Used To Know” is without a drummer besides the guitar part slapping the strings on beats two and four. Despite having a partial rhythm section, the song unleashes itself in the chorus as Gotye pushes his voice from a mumble into vintage Sting-like high reaches of affect. That’s the main charm of the song: it’s mellow and dark for the most part, but then takes off in the choruses. The other charm of the song is its timbre. Gotye’s motley collection of instrument sounds (some of which may or may not be samples: see the KCRW performance below where a laptop is in play) have a vintage aura about them–like they have been run through the audio equivalent of the Instagram photo app. Gotye, by the way, records and releases his music himself.

Perhaps because of its instrumentation, its catchy chorus, its vocal performances, or its subject matter, “Somebody I Used To Know” slowly grew on listeners even without much radio play in Australia or anywhere else. Something about it resonated authenticity–real music as opposed to industry-created fodder. And then, thanks to few celebrity Tweets and some television appearances, Gotye’s song exploded, eventually reaching number one on the Billboard charts in not one but twenty countries. Talk about a hit song.

***

When a song becomes popular, people not only talk about it but record cover versions of it too. This is the ultimate musical compliment–it’s as if your fellow musicians recognize the endless capacity of your sturdy song to withstand alternate versions. Sometime this summer, I noticed a version of Gotye’s hit booming from the bass-heavy stereos in cars slinking around my New York neighborhood. In full nerd-sleuth mode, I would stand still as the booming car drove by, looking like my dog sniffing the air for answers, trying to register the audible differences: the tempo is faster, there’s an electronic drum part…Is this a remix? Why yes, yes it is a remix by DJ Mike D. This version packed more dance punch that Gotye’s original, thanks mostly to its added electronic drum track. But perhaps because it’s a remix, the vocals seemed a tad more out of place: happy to be along for the ride in the new machine, sure, but from a different place.

Another Gotye cover is Mike Dawes’ remarkable instrumental rendition on acoustic guitar. Using fingerstyle techniques, strumming, hammer-ons, and harmonics, Dawes effortlessly coaxes all of the melodic and harmonic details of Gotye’s original version out of his six strings. His groove is impeccable too.

***

Something that comes to mind as I think through the popularity of Gotye’s song is the friction between an artist’s original statement (the “content” as it were) and its absorption into the public music sphere (the alternate “forms” as it were, such as cover versions and remixes, etc.). Simply put, when a piece of music widely connects with many, many people, it suggests not so much the machinations of the music industry at work (though industry is always at work) but of the labor of an artist–and in Gotye’s case, quite an independent artist–who has said something singular in a way that resonates honestly. And even when it’s possible to digitally mix and match anything with anything, like add an electronic beat to a Gotye song or do an instrumental cover version, this isn’t the same thing as making that original statement–saying something singular that resonates for many folks and gets ball rolling. That for me, is why songs like “Somebody I Used To Know” are significant: they remind us that there’s always room at the top for thoughtful and new quirky creative stuff.

On The Filtering Of World Music: A Nexus Percussion Performance

Formed in 1971, Nexus is a Toronto-based percussion ensemble that has been making hard to classify music using a massive array of instruments for over three decades. Their repertoire spans experimental free improvisation, West African and North Indian drumming, contemporary classical pieces (including commissioned works from the likes of Toru Takemitsu and Steve Reich), original compositions by the group’s members, and George Hamilton Green’s early 20th-century ragtime music for xylophone and marimbas. Nexus’s debut concert, by the way, was entirely improvised.

While extensively trained in classical music, the members of Nexus also came of musical age at a time of profound change in North American “serious” or “classical” musical culture–a time when it was beginning to open up to influences from vernacular traditions, instruments, and sounds from far outside the walls of music conservatories. Specifically, it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that so-called “world music” traditions from Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Indonesia, and Japan first became entrenched in a few American colleges and universities, largely thanks to pioneering graduate degree programs in ethnomusicology (the cultural study of music making) at schools such as UCLA and Wesleyan. So if you were a student at say, Wesleyan in the early 1970s, you could take lessons with master performers and learn North and South Indian classical music, traditional drumming pieces from Ghana, and play in a Javanese gamelan percussion orchestra. (Actually, you can still do this today.) Several of Nexus’s members did just that. And as they were inspired by their studies of global percussion traditions and their curiosity about these traditions’ complex rhythmic designs, the group also gradually amassed a huge collection of percussion instruments from all over the world, helping to expand and re-define the very notion of what a “classical” percussionist does in the first place. In a way then, the history of Nexus is in part a story of how “world music” traditions–from Africa, from India, from Indonesia, among many other places–have influenced and shaped the practices of Western percussionists and percussion music in general. Once upon a time, this kind of cultural encounter would have been called fusion, but the work of Nexus reminds us that all music is world music, blendable and blending together in one big sonic stew.

To illustrate, consider Nexus’s hour-long, non-stop set at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City earlier this week. They began with Fra Fra, their adaptation of a sequence of Dagomba rhythms from Northern Ghana played on talking drums, gun-gon (a buzzing bass drum), shakers, and a whistle. Then it was off to Zimbabwe for a rendition of a traditional Shona mbira (thumb piano) piece called Nhemamusasa, accompanied by African iron bell, gourd shaker, and a bass marimbula. The mbira piece faded into a long stretch of free improvisation, with each musician playing a small collection of instruments ranging from gongs, cymbals, and shakers to mouth organs, woodblocks, and bird whistles. It was during the bird call moments especially that Nexus’s subtly deep musicianship reminded the audience of the startling things that can happen when we listen and allow ourselves to be lead past technique and exotica and novelty towards micro sounds, quiet sounds, overlapping and uncertain sounds in close dialogue with one another that seem to surprise even the performers themselves as they’re making them. That’s a musical lesson I really want to remember.

The free improvisation and bird soundscapes segued into a rendition of Steve Reich’s early minimalist classic, Piano Phase (1967) played not on pianos but on custom-made wooden akadinda-style xylophones. For me, this was a particularly significant moment in the set as it was a beautiful example of Western and non-western musical traditions colliding and resonating together. On the one hand, we have a piece by Reich, one of the most significant of living classical music composers, who has made a career around repetition-heavy music. In his writings and in interviews, Reich has acknowledged the influence of West African drumming and Balinese gamelan on his composing. Indeed, in Reich’s repeating and hypnotic “phasing” processes you can hear rhythmic relationships, interlocking parts, and perceptual artifacts (weird echoes, doublings and resonances) that are also found in traditions from West Africa and Indonesia. On the other hand, we have Nexus’s custom-made akadinda (one of the group’s members, Gary Kvistad, is also an accomplished instrument designer who makes Woodstock Windchimes) which is originally an indigenous percussion instrument from Uganda. In its traditional setting, the akadinda is played by several musicians whose interlocking parts allow them to play at super fast tempos. Not only that, but in akadinda music you can hear the same kinds of weird perceptual artifacts (one ethnomusicologist once called them “inherent rhythms”) that grow out of Reich’s music (which Reich once called “resultant patterns”). All this to say that even though Reich never found explicit inspiration in traditional Ugandan music, the similarities are most definitely there. And as if to literally hammer home the point, Nexus then continued Piano Phase on a set of horizontally positioned tuned wind chimes and then, changing from mallets to ping-pong paddles, on a vertical set of tuned plastic tubes to make a more . . . wonky sound. The audience could be forgiven for thinking this was a page out of Blue Man Group. But what was happening is that we were hearing a demonstration of how rhythms are ever portable from one tradition and set of instruments to another. Music may not be a universal language (or a language at all), but its structures are like DNA–easily reproduced far from their native habitats.

And finally, as the Reich on wind chimes faded, its motif was picked up on the (western) xylophone, modulated a few half steps, and with that Nexus dove into a series of frenetic yet note-perfect early 20th-century ragtime pieces from the golden age of dance bands when the xylophone was king. When they were done, the audience was on its feet, cheering for encores as if surprised and wondering: Who knew that percussion could do all this?

***

Here are some YouTube clips of musics mentioned above:

“Nhemamusasa” performed on Shona mbiras:

Steve Reich’s Piano Phase:

Akadinda xylophone from Uganda:

Xylophone music composed and performed by George Hamilton Green:

Still Centers: On Harold Budd’s Piano Music

“I realized I had minimalized myself out of a career. It had taken ten years to reduce my language to zero but I loved the process of seeing it occur and not knowing when the end would come. By then I had opted out of avant-garde music generally; it seemed self-congratulatory and risk-free and my solution as to what to do next was to do nothing, to stop completely.”- Harold Budd

Born in Los Angeles in 1936 and raised in the Mojave Desert where he found early musical inspiration in the humming tones caused by wind blowing through telephone wires, Harold Budd is a singular American ambient composer who makes spacious and meditative music. In the four and a half-minute piece “Haru Spring” from his recent recording In The Mist (Darla 2011) we hear Budd arpeggiate wide open five-note chords and let them ring very, very long. The space between chords ranges from five to over fifteen seconds and this isn’t really silence per se, but rather the sound of the piano slowly diminishing and fading to almost nothing. Listening to Budd you’re reminded of the famous Rorschach ink-blot test

where you stare at it and see what comes to your mind’s eye. With a piece like Budd’s “Haru Spring” something similar happens to your mind’s ear as you listen to one chord decay and wonder when the next one will appear and where it might go. In that space of wonder various non-musical thoughts and impressions come to the foreground and then recede like images triggered by an ink-blot.

The fact that Budd’s music can trigger this kind of perceptual experience is part of what makes it so good. It’s a kind of music that hides its musicality–making you forget it’s composed/improvised out of just a few tones. In doing this it reminds you that one of the very best things music can be is not a demonstration of a particular technique or theory but a realization of a special kind of affective space, a conjurer of mood.

On Amateur Cultural Critique

In the Sunday New York Times magazine a few weeks ago there’s an article by Sam Anderson, “How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap”, that explores the pioneering work of French literary critic Roland Barthes (1915-1980) as well as the importance of consumer-generated cultural critique. Anderson writes:

“To my mind, the thing that’s exploding into relevance in our era is not mass culture but the critique of mass culture — the Barthesian dissection of everything, no matter how trivial. This happens everywhere now, often in real time. And this critical analysis is often as vital and interesting and consumable as the culture it discusses. Consider, for instance, the way the TV recap has evolved into a nearly independent creative form. So the critical analysis of pop culture has itself become a kind of pop culture. We seem to be approaching some kind of singularity — a collapse of creativity and criticism into one.”

I think Anderson has it right with his observation on the pervasiveness and importance of amateur cultural criticism in the mix of our everyday media consumption/production. Online it’s so easy to find communities of affinity for just about anything you have an affinity for, and there’s a lot of interesting blogs that do a fine job of sifting through cultural stuff and then feeding back on what it all means. And what makes amateur cultural criticism important is that first, it isn’t done for any reason other than the joy of trying to get something right, and second, this kind of enthusiastic writing-just-because-one-cares is a useful and accurate barometer of the value of today’s cultural stuff. After all, it’s in the talk about stuff that we recognize its social value. Whether it’s commenters on YouTube, bloggers, or participants in online forums, there’s a lot of critique and interpretation floating out there, ready for our further reading and thinking through.

On The Strange Sources Of Blog Traffic

One interesting thing about keeping a blog is that as you post on various topics and include keywords relating to those topics in your post headings, your material gradually enters the ocean of searchable data on the Internet. So when someone is looking for something that you’ve posted on, there’s a decent chance they could descend and land on your post if one or more of their search words matches your blog post title.

I began thinking about this when I looked at the data relating to who is visiting my blog and why. What I realized is that folks out there are looking for very specific things and as I happen to post on some of those things I’m privy to the keywords those folks are using to cast their search nets. For example, it wasn’t until I posted on the Dutch artist M.C. Escher that I realized how hot a search topic his art is. In the weeks after I posted, I noticed among the always interesting search terms and phrases (e.g. “anti Rihanna”, “percussive field”, “how a drum teacher can sell”, “proprioception exercises”) the fact that people are also hunting–pretty feverishly too, it seems–for information about M.C. Escher or Escher-related stuff. Here are some of the Escher-related search terms: “mc escher”, “m.c. escher”, escher art”, “escher drawings”, “mc escher eye”, “escher eye art”, “escher lizard”, “escher stairs”, “illusion pictures”, “perceptual illusions”, “morphing architecture” (a good definition of music, right?), “hand drawing another hand”, “escher tesselations”, “tesselations in nature”, “how to make cool tessellations”, “exotic tesellations”, and “tessellations for kids.”

And not only have I seen the stats for these searches, but the searches now account for most of my blog traffic! The reason for this is that images are searchable and since I used a few Escher art images in my post, those images are now appearing in the searches of others. In fact, if you go looking for one of the Escher self-portrait pieces in which the artist is reflected in a ball he’s holding, that image brings you to my blog. Strange, but I guess this is how the Google search algorithms works their magic.

Because of all this, hundreds of strangers in search of images by a famous Dutch artist are landing on brettworks each day, probably baffled, and then move on.

On The Nature Of Blogs II: Matching Form And Content To Capture Meaning

As I have said elsewhere, practically speaking this blog is more for me than for you, sure, and tries to ask questions about musical things as I encounter them. And by things I mean: musical sounds, instruments, artists, aesthetics, technologies, codes and systems of signification, compositional techniques and performance practices, and so on.

But metaphorically speaking, this blog is like a tuning fork, trying to get its forms and contents in tune with one another–to get them in sympathetic vibration, so to speak. It’s not that the topics presented aren’t of vital interest, because they are–at least to me. But what’s equally at stake is how well-proportioned the posts are in relation to the material about which they speak. This is a pursuit and a discipline that I find fascinating because, depending on what I’m talking about, it’s possible to say too little or too much, miss the right tone, harp on insignificant details while missing the main point, come across as haughty or too neutral, and on and on. Sometimes the subject matter benefits from the inclusion of photos, animation, or video clips in the post, yet at some point there’s always a prose description that’s a compression and distillation of what it all seems to mean to me, right here and right now.

And saying what something means
in just the right way
can make all the difference.

On Running, Time, And The Flow Of Non-Thinking Thinking: Running With The Kenyans

Among the joys of Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans, a succinct and engaging tale of the author’s experiences long distance running training at high altitude in the East African countryside, is the realization that there aren’t really any secrets to East African running prowess besides constant training, continuous pushing of body boundaries, as well as what I imagine is some kind of awesome capacity to endure the pains that comes with this kind of excruciating endurance exertion. As I read I found myself thinking of that phrase “there’s no there there.” For the runners–no special shoes, no special eating regimen, and even no special precision practice routines and post-run analyses. Just run, rest, eat, and run some more, over and over again. A repetitive monastic running groove, you could call it, powered by a desire for international athletic success.

Finn’s trajectory as the visiting runner is predictable but also insightful. Over the course of his several month stay in Kenya, he gets fitter and faster through his training with a running club and eventually runs an impressive sub 3-hour marathon. Along the way, he observes his Kenyan colleagues as they train and realizes that their method revolves around a minimal and simple approach to training that works to effectively bypass over-thinking it. In one of the most fascinating passages, Finn compares Western and African approaches to using a watch while running. It turns out that the watch, that enduring symbol of the Western conception of time, can be used in ways other than just quantifying experience. Finn observes:

“while in the West we time everything so that we can measure and analyze it afterward, or keep track of our running pace so we can calculate whether we need to slow down or speed up, Kenyans use their watches in a completely different way. By running their intervals according to the regimented beeps of their watches, Kenyans are actually taking the thinking out of their running. When the watch beeps, they speed up. When it beeps again, they slow down.[...] Each session is forgotten as soon as it is done. The timing is just a way of structuring the training, of telling them when to start and when to stop.”

What struck me about this passage was how it conjures a kind of empty mind mindset of those Kenyan runners with their beeping watches which they mostly ignore except as a sonic cue. Without regular recourse to the numbers of pace timings, the runners often use only a sensed bio-feedback from the feeling of what happens (to borrow a phrase from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s book) to their moving bodies as guidance.  In this sense, the runners seem like really good listeners to the feeling of what they’re doing as they’re doing it.

***

I found this really interesting, both because I sometimes like to measure and time and document things (running included, of course) and because I just as often “zone out” and really have no idea of what I’m doing (while running, obviously, and in many other activities!). In other words, I like precision as a self-imposed game, but often just go by feel.

And as per usual with things I read, I found myself thinking analogically, trying to find links between running and musical practices. One memory that came to mind upon reading about the beeping watches was my once upon a time endless practicing with metronomes, letting the machine take care of the steady quarter note pulse–click, click, click, click–while I busied myself with playing different subdivisions of those clicks: 123-123-123-123 (a triplet), or 12345-12345-12345-12345 (a quintuplet), and so on. (If you’re wondering: yes, percussionists and drummers can find this kind of activity fun…) Thinking about it now, the metronome, like the watch, took the conscious thinking of out of the activity, turning it into a game for the hands to try to fit their subdivisions into the allotted space of those steady quarter note clicks. (Sidebar question: Does playing with a metronome ever really improve one’s sense of time? Isn’t time sense–like running pacing, maybe–a more internalized, body-generated mechanism?)

This non-conscious thinking while doing also reminded me of a conversation I had with a composer schoolmate years ago. He had just listened to my performance of a piece I had written for vibraphone and said: “It sounds like you really like the Dorian mode.” I was puzzled because in his question was an assumption that I had consciously known what I was doing when I put the music together, thinking about scales and Dorian modes and whatnot. From my perspective though, I didn’t know what I was doing, but my hands did manage to find things that sounded right, working with the constraints posed by the layout of the vibraphone to narrow down possibilities and then structure the piece around these constraints. Thinking about it now, the layout of the instrument, like the beeping watch for the runners, took the conscious thinking of out the composing process, turning it into a game for the hands.

But back to the lessons of running. In sum, I took away from Finn’s book a sense that we might do well to structure some of our activities so that we can take out conscious thinking to better get on with the flow.

Musical Appropriation Or Just A Shoe That Fits? : Dirty Loops’ Pop Reversioning

“Hey, we’re on to so much knowledge and the music industry won’t let us use it in a creative way.”
– Aaron, drummer for Dirty Loops

“Could you please make a cover of every song in existence?”
- Dirty Loops YouTube viewer comment

There’s a lot that’s interesting going on when you watch and listen to Dirty Loops, a trio from Sweden, blaze trough their über-funky cover versions of pop songs by Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Adele, and others.

First, you’re surprised to see, well, three very young-looking Swedish guys making such a funky and soulful sound that draws so heavily on the harmonic conventions of jazz and gospel. Plus, the keyboardist also sounds like Stevie Wonder. But I’m setting myself up here. I was going to say that as far as stylistic appropriation goes, Dirty Loops pulls off a virtuosic feat. This might be unfair though because why should we say that Dirty Loops are appropriating anything? Don’t their clear musical skills suggest a kind of ownership of the musical idioms and eras they’re working in? Does it matter if those idioms– like the jazz-funk fusion on display in Dirty Loops’ pop song covers–have been around since the 1970s? And does it matter that the members of Dirty Loops were not even born until well after the heyday of these musics? I think the group’s airtight playing makes such questions moot.

A second interesting thing going on when you listen to Dirty Loops is that you get to revisit some very well-known pop songs that have been transformed through re-harmonizing and intricately syncopated arrangements. Part of the pleasure here is hearing how light pop hits like Bieber’s “Baby” can be transformed to yield so many riffs, off-beat unison hits, big spacey jazz chords, spirited Wonder-esque vocal runs, Jaco Pastorious-esque bass solos, and drum clinic drum fills. But as you listen with not a little astonishment at Dirty Loops’ instrumental virtuosity, you also wonder if it’s really true that the tune is most important thing in music (the quality of the tune is what makes a song valuable), or whether what matters is what the musicians do with/to the tune (the quality of the musicianship is what makes a performance of a tune valuable). In the case of Dirty Loops, I’m not sure I know the answer.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers