brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Month: August, 2012

On Four Tet’s Good Taste

“It’s very rare for me to use instruments or synths or anything like that.” – Kieran Hebden

I have long felt that the electronic musician Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) has good taste. He makes what critics once labelled “folktronica” music, a term that probably came about in an effort to describe how Hebden deftly combines the best of the acoustic and electronic worlds. What gives him good taste though, is something more subtle. It’s his sounds, sure–nothing too exotic, and always invigorating. But also his arrangements that lean towards song forms, as well as the proportions within them–how, for instance, things repeat, but repeat just enough. Things don’t exactly loop Hebden’s world, but rather continue for a precise time. In a word, the music is considered.

For example, in “She Just Likes To Fight” from his 2010 recording There Is Love In You, we hear a 4/4 kick drum, some cymbals, languid electronic guitars (that sound like a gentle take on Malian popular music), a little analog synth and faux strings/pad sounds, an African gankogui iron bell playing in 12-beat meter and a few stick drum samples (maybe a Ghanian kidi drum sample?). There’s at least seven sounds in the texture, yet everything stays unified, understated and calm like a happy sports team on their way to a big game, their positive tension building. You hardly notice that the African 12/8 bell pattern doesn’t line up with the 4/4 kick until after the kick has played twelve hits.

“Circling” is another satisfying Hebden track. It too has a 4/4 kick, but this time with harp, more electric guitar (loops played backwards and forwards from the sounds of it) arpeggiating away, plus a few more abstract pulsating synth sounds. Hebden does little things to make the track hum and stay interesting. For example, the guitar loop is six bars long (instead of the expected eight)–long enough to be compelling, but slightly truncated to keep you on your toes. And once that six bar loop has been in motion for a while, Hebden further plays with its length by repeating just sections of it. As you listen you sense a logic of considered musical decision-making in play, making it feel that nothing is ever plain old repetition. Maybe the key here is that Hebden plays with his materials meaningfully, not relying on technology to make things easy but rather to make possible interesting shifts of texture and proportion.

The other unusual thing about “Circling” is its meter: the piece has a 12/8 meter feel (like the African bell in “She Just Likes To Fight”), each main beat divided into three instead of four pulses as would be the case in electronic dance music’s more conventional 4/4 meter. So even though there’s that steady 4/4 kick thumping away, it’s the three-ness of all the other sounds that gives this aptly titled track its circular vibe.

In this YouTube clip, someone has assembled some old footage that makes for a nice visual counterpoint to Hebden’s piece:

If you are intrigued by Hebden’s music, check out this video from Future Music magazine where he describes his use of the Yamaha Tenori-On, a portable sequencer:

On Musical Texts: T.M. Wolf’s “Sound”

T.M. Wolf’s Sound is a novel that merges writerly form and narrative content to approximate the ambiguities and instabilities of how we think and talk–not in books but in the real world. Content-wise, Sound‘s story is simple enough: Cincy Stiles, a disaffected philosophy graduate school drop out, returns to his hometown on the Jersey shore to take a job at a boatyard as a supervisor of a small crew of new hires for the summer. During this time, things happen: Stiles explores the shore and its old haunts, hangs out with his housemate, Tom, a musician, and falls for a mysterious woman named Vera who keeps disappearing from his life and then showing up weeks later. Meanwhile, the boatyard is being watched by Jersey undercover police, who eventually bust one of Cincy’s new hires on drug charges. By the novel’s end, Cincy is no closer to a career path or the mysterious Vera, but he has begun to write and tell us his story.

That’s the essence of Sound‘s plot. But it’s the form of the book that is complex and resonates strongly for musically-inclined readers, for much of Sound is laid out like a musical score. Taking inspiration from the verbal wordplay and flow of hip hop as well as the graphic scores of experimental composer John Cage, Wolf places all of his book’s dialogue within sets of horizontal lines that function as a simplified musical staves. These staves allow the reader to see Wolf’s dialogue “orchestrated” in different vertical slots, from high to low, as well as in various horizontal positionings that convey the timing and rhythm of the voices as they interact, overlap, question and answer one another. Wolf also uses various typeface styles and sizes to represent and convey the different voices, affects, and personalities of his characters. In short, the use of graphic techniques make Wolf’s writing literally a kind of musical object–an object fueled by the musicality of speech as much as by its meaning.

Positioning the story’s dialogue on musical staves has a lot to recommend it. Most importantly, it lends the voices a precise temporality: as you read, you experience the uneven tempi of characters speaking as they respond to one another in conversation, pause, and sometimes even go silent for a stretch (which Wolf indicates by using empty quotes: ” “). It’s fun to read voices on a staff because they draw you along their rhythm–which tends to move at a fast clip. The layout of the dialogue also allows its underside to sing in the form of characters’ un-voiced memories and contradictory thoughts that co-exist and appear simultaneously with the voiced conversations. There is something strikingly realistic about this juxtaposition of the words spoken and ideas thought; indeed, Wolf has captured how most of us think most of the time. We might sound coherent to one another, but our minds are constantly playing with a multitude of ideas and juggling our thoughts behind the scenes. In some places, Wolf incorporates ambient sounds into the dialogue as well. For instance, we see the voice of the baseball announcer giving a play-by-play of a Red Sox game, or the lyrics of the rap song that booms on the radio in a car. These radio voices are a backdrop to the main dialogue, but they also dovetail with it to create counterpoint, fill in spaces, and frame meaning. As you read, you can’t help but wonder how the characters might be influenced by what they hear as they talk.

There are, however, limitations to notating all of Sound‘s dialogue on staves. For one thing, the flow of the reading experience is broken because as we read we need to start and stop, go back, vertically scan the staff from top to bottom to make sure we haven’t missed anything. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were only listening to the voices. But reading this way–polyphonically, like reading a fugue–is laborious because we don’t read the way we listen.

But this is a small shortcoming. If you stick with Sounds, the reading gets quicker and the density of Wolf’s polyphonic dialogue begins to sing. I appreciated, for instance, how the different typeface styles and sizes he uses convey what the ear would easily hear without needing an explanation. Case in point: one bit of whispered talk is rendered in a microscopic font and the effect–helped by how easily our eyes can interpret physical smallness as acoustic quietness–is more affective than simply telling us that a character has just whispered something. In other places, Wolf tries other tactics: he includes a list of few dozen search terms from Cincy’s Internet search free-floating without a musical stave for support which makes them stand out in an unusual, clinical way (260); he depicts a flurry of memories as short phrases written slightly crooked over a huge, 21-line stave (247); he shows the noise of a character’s conflicting thoughts by superimposing layer upon layer of word streams to the point of being unreadable (343); and near the end of the book, he graphically represents the sound of a house party’s booming sound system through large grey blocks that look like maxed out sound waves (304-312). If there is a meta-theme throughout Sound, it’s that coherent meaning is always on the verge of getting fuzzy, always on the verge of being swallowed by noise.

In sum, there’s a lot going on in Sound besides the story, and much of what’s going on is quite musical. For it’s not only the borrowing of staff-style notation as a structural device that alerts us to Wolf’s sonic leanings. He’s also a fan of musical loops and intrigued by the ways in which our memories are engaged by music. Loops, in a hip hop context, consist of audio samples of older recordings–a snippet of a voice, a shard of a drum break–that play over and over again. The repetition transforms the loop into something Other (and usually something groovy) by revealing meanings not heard in the once-played-through original. Similarly, our memories are like loop players that constantly revisit the past–from a few minutes ago to decades ago. And when we replay in our minds, like Cincy does, the stuff of our immediate and deep experience, we transform that too–like a kaleidoscope remixing a scene into new combinations of colors. All this to say that what is ultimately most impressive about Wolf’s novel is how he renders the musicality of the everyday by depicting our talking and thinking as the strange loops that they truly are.

Peter Coviello On Musical Talk That Does Something

sympathetic resonance –a harmonic phenomenon wherein a formerly passive string or vibratory body responds to external vibrations to which it has a harmonic likeness (Wikipedia).

In his article “The Talk That Does Not Do Nothing” in the July/August 2012 issue of The Believer (The Music Issue), Peter Coviello writes about fighting with a friend over the merits of Steely Dan’s music. Their rambling discussions take place over the course of twenty years, and one of the issues they argue over is whether or not there is a recurring character portrayed in Steely Dan’s lyrics. As it turns out, there may well be such a character and Coviello expertly parses the textual connections among different songs to make his case. Along the way he also renders the experience of his Steely Dan discussions to show what being a devoted music fan is all about.

One of the ways fans express their fandom is by talking about the stuff they love with their friends, explaining and arguing over its virtues, what makes it work so well (or not so well), what makes it important to them, and so on. In the second half of his article, Coviello shifts into deep analytical mode and provides us with an excellent overview of the nature and purpose of criticism in general:

“I’d like to say, then, that what you’re doing when you’re fighting about slight, useless, beautiful things you love, is, in effect, criticism–if we can torque the idea of the critical enterprise hard enough so that it takes seriously the joyousness, the inflooding sense of richness and abundance, by which we are sometimes possessed both in the presence of an object and also in and through the talking with others about the object and its captivations. (…) Criticism might also be understood as the making of a language–and with it the making of a special, precious kind of sociality, fractious and lovestruck–whose roots are in ardor and captivation, something kindled by those moments of exhilaration that songs so commonly produce. (…) Talking [is] the mode of joy’s enlargement, its enactment” (10).

There are a number of exciting points here. I especially like the idea of criticism as a special kind of talking about that which captivates us in something, as a “precious kind of sociality” that frees us to create a unique language for our talking/writing, and also the idea of criticism as a way to enlarge the joy we have already experienced through say, music, art, or in a book. Taken together, these ideas on the functions of criticism reinforce a notion that I’ve had for a while: the critic–amateur or professional, it doesn’t really matter–as someone who puts into words the texture of his/her co-resonance with whatever it is that seems worth writing about. To use a sound analogy: we’re vibrating in sympathy with a tone that has already sounded and now we want to extend that resonance, amplify it, and let it keep ringing through ourselves and hopefully out towards others too.

On Capturing Thoughts In Formation: Notes On Listening

It would be a blog post about listening.

***

It would be about the relationship between what we listen to and what we create as musicians.

About the tension between wanting to listen to many (new) musics briefly and listening to one (older, familiar) music repeatedly. Is one approach “better” than the other? Or–as it’s more PC to say–are they just “different”?

About how and how much we remember what we listen to. Where exactly does that remembering reside? In our minds or in our limbs, or in both? Do we in fact register some of our favorite sounds and patterns in our muscles, remembering by trying out little copped moves–a half-recollected riff, a personal remix of something we liked a lot? How does musical remembering work?

About what happens in the spaces between our listenings. Is there an optimal spacing here? A day? A week? An hour? Do we synthesize in the days off, or just atrophy?

About whether or not we’re listening even when we aren’t “paying attention.” It turns out that playing Mozart for your baby never did make her smarter–even if she was paying attention. Now then, does being half-attuned to music do anything to us, for us?

If we “pay” for our attention, what currency do we use? Is it just physical energy we expend while listening, or do we somehow deplete reserves of imagination as we venture outward to meet the music halfway, waving hello and inviting it inside us for a spell?

***

And it would be a blog post about listening-food analogies.

Can listening “feed” us?

Can music be a toxin? (The composer Arvo Pärt says there are musics that can heal and musics that can kill.) Does its “bad taste” tip us off to its toxicity or its health benefits?

What about overly sweet musics? We call them saccharine, sentimental, New Age-y. Might they be empty sonic calories? Will they make us fat?

About the possibility of binge listening, or conversely, starving ourselves from a lack of nutritious music. Either way, how do you know when you’re in the midst of an extreme listening situation, drowning in excess or devoured by deficit?

***

It would be a blog post about listening.

On Leanne Shapton’s “Swimming Studies”

“Swimming is my disembodied youth, yet I am rapidly becoming the embodied present.”
Swimming Studies, (187)

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton is one of the more poetically precise and evocative non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. It’s a meditative memoir consisting of a series of autobiographical vignettes, illustrations, and photographs that explore the author’s experience swimming competitively as a child and recreationally as an adult in pools around the world.  Shapton, an illustrator and author, qualified for the Canadian Olympic trials as a teenager, and much of her book looks back on this time in her life through its textures of experience. Over the course of thirty brief (6- to 15-page) chapters–“Practice”, “Etobicoke”, “Goggles”, Swimming Pool”–she dissects a personal past and present in and around swimming and water, chronicling a life by remembering an old self through the prism of the present.

Swimming Studies is a celebration of many small yet acute observations–such as noticing tile designs on a pool floor, the look on someone’s face, a frozen landscape seen from a moving bus, the feeling of hearing a piece of music while being driven to early morning swim practice, or the sensation of moving through water. Here, for example, is Shapton explaining what it means to have a “feel” for the water: “It’s a knowledge of watery space, being able to sense exactly where my body is a what it’s affecting, an animal empathy for contact with an element–the springing shudder a cat makes when you touch its back” (210). Elsewhere, Shapton elaborates on what she calls the “metaphysical” aspect of swimming. “The body immersed” she says, “feels amplified, heavier and lighter at the same time. Weightless yet stronger” (188).

In celebrating small observations, much of Swimming Studies examines how memory–that force that links the past with the present–can be triggered by sights, sounds, and especially, scents. In the chapter “Fourteen Odors”, Shapton provides an inventory of over a dozen different odors through thumb-sized watercolor designs and short text descriptions. For example, number 13 (an orange-ish blot) reads all of seven words: “Fingernail: Chlorine, barbecue potato chip, wool mitten.” At first glance, such brief observations seem pithy. But then you find yourself trying to recreate the nexus of scents in your mind as you read. (I do remember wool mitten scents, actually.) A good deal of Swimming Studies‘ minimalist approach works like this: revealing just enough to get the reader imagining along.

Shapton’s inventories pop up again in “Size”, a chapter that features a series of photographs of bathing suits the author has purchased and used over the years in various places. The suits are displayed, one by one, on a mannequin torso–photo of the suit on one page, detailed description of the circumstances of its acquisition on the facing page. It’s here that Shapton’s artistic approach is felt in how she systematically dissects a physical artifact taken from her life. After fifteen pages or so, the photos and descriptions begin their work, drawing you into Shapton’s lived history while maintaining a kind detached objectivity. The catalog-like layout works precisely because it’s at once personal yet distant. Kind of like an art exhibit.

***

I enjoy books that grow out of a writer’s deeply felt understanding of an activity, a process, a craft, or way of experiencing the world. (For example, see Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, Matthew B. Crawford’s practical-philosophical Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, and David Abram’s ecstatic phenomenology of perception and the senses, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology.) For me, the key in these kinds of autobiographical non-fiction works is how the author renders his or her experiences on the page as well as the clarity of the descriptions, reflections, and analyses. By these measures, Shapton’s Swimming Studies is pitch perfect, its content matching its form and vice versa. I came away from it not only feeling that I gotten to know a thoughtful stranger with interesting things to say (“You can’t choose what you’re good at, but does that mean you should do it?”, p.252), but that I had also learned something about our potential for understanding with all of our senses the worlds we live in. Meaning: if you can’t write it, draw it, or take a photograph. Just capture it, somehow. In sum, Swimming Studies conveys the sensibility of someone well attuned to the resonances of her own life and that’s what makes the book well worth reading.

And oh yeah: What exactly, you ask, is the music connection here? Well, I thought that with a title so tantalizingly close to Drumming Studies (just substitute “dru” for “swi”) and a book cover image (of a blue swim cap) that looks, to my biased eye, like a drum head already, how could this book not be musical in some way?

On The Sounds Of Finance

I had been meaning to make a field recording of an ATM for a while, so last week, mid-transaction and realizing that I had forgotten yet again to hit record on my phone/recorder, I set a reminder for this week. When this week arrived I was ready to go!

On this recording you hear me approaching an ATM, one of eight in the ground floor lobby of a bank. I insert my banking card, type in my pin number, select an account, select deposit, insert a check, confirm the check amount, select further transactions, select transfer money, select from which account, type in the amount, select a receipt for the transactions, crumple the receipt in my hand, and then leave the lobby and head out to a busy street.

If there is a theme here it’s that my banking transaction consists, sound-wise, of a lot of beeping and zero talking. Listening to my recording and thinking about it now, it occurs to me that ATM manufacturers–actually, any maker of commercial electronic equipment–would do well to think about the sounds its machines make. Instead of just clinical, fixed-pitched beeps, how about other, more adventurous sounds? Sounds like chimes, crickets, or maybe giggling (for whenever you make withdrawals)? Carefully chosen sounds can create very different “user experiences.”

***

Speaking of user experiences: I remember some years ago Amtrak had an automated telephone operator with voice recognition who you could “talk” to and who would “listen” to your Amtrak-related queries. Typical conversation:

Operator: “Okay, where would you like to go?”

Me: “Boston.”

Operator: “I think you said, ‘not sure.’ Is this correct?”

Me: “No.”

Operator: “Okay, let’s try again.”

Me: “—” (sigh).

And on the  awkward conversation went, with me speaking in ever exaggerated tones.

Operator: “If you require assistance, say “Operator.'”

Me: “AH-PURR-AY-TOR!”

Finally, I was understood.

But the best part came next, when the automated operator, feigning comprehension of my verbal request, would say “Hold on while I check that for you” and then make this strangely rhythmic percussion sound. It was kind of like woodblocks played with chopsticks–sixteenth notes at about 140 beats per minute. This charmed me when I realized that the operator’s mouth percussion was intended to represent the sound of someone thinking. Brilliant! I occasionally make this percussive sound myself, just for fun, when I’m not thinking about much at all.

***

I don’t know if Amtrak still uses this “thinking” sound, but the ATM manufacturers could take a page out of that sonic playbook. In the meantime, here is the field recording from the bank:

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