brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Month: November, 2012

Haruki Murakami On Repetition


Haruki Murakami, master novelist and enthusiast of long distance running, makes this observation about the repetition of writing, and the experience of repetition itself as a perceptual tool for tweaking the senses:

“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.

I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

On The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes The Mind

Seth Horowitz’s The Universal Sense is an exhaustive, lucid, and entertaining neuroscientific foray into the many ways hearing, listening, and sound shape the mind–how sound affects the way we think, feel, and act. Horowitz is a professor of neuroscience at Brown University who specializes in studies of comparative and human hearing. He’s also an enthusiastic sound generalist, driven by a conviction that “much of the inner life of sound dwells beneath conscious thought” and gleefully sharing story after story on a dizzying array of topics related to human and animal perception of sound and music. Among these topics: Horowitz explains why some sounds are irritating (nails scratching on blackboard) or ominous (buzzing wasps), the unsettling effects of subsonic and infrasonic sound, movie soundtracks and jingle music, and the vibratory phenomenon that causes us to fall asleep while driving on long and straight roads. In sum, The Universal Sense is an inspiring read that further confirmed my own conviction that music and sound-making are very special ways of knowing the world indeed.

The more Horowitz explains it, the more our sense of hearing and sound perception seems very remarkable. Sound is the swiftest of emotional triggers, and our hearing is a faster sense than vision (“vision maxes out a fifteen to twenty-five events per second, hearing is based on events that occur thousands of times per second”). And hearing outpowers taste, touch, and smell by allowing us to perceive the world around us at great distances. But with this speed and power come vulnerabilities as well. Horowitz explains the many ways sound can “hack” the brain, and how we can engage sound or silence to deliberately hack our own minds. We can, for instance, limit the sounds that reach us to increase our focus (hello noise canceling headphones!) or voluntarily expose ourselves to loud sounds to give up control–as if under the spell of a hypnotist. I don’t know about you, but by these measures I am most definitely a mind hacker.

Horowitz also explains how sound can have particularly powerful effects on us when it makes deep perceptual demands. In one passage that reminded me of the challenges of perceiving polyrhythms (more than one rhythm sounding simultaneously), Horowitz explains that a key to musical entrainment is having multiple sonic inputs that are diverse yet also acting together: “To get massive amounts of brain entrained to a single rhythm, you need complicated input from a number of sources all acting in concert. One method is to use binaural beating…”

From here, Horowitz details how we perceive two pitches that are tuned slightly different from one another–like the gongs in an Indonesian gamelan tuned closely but not exactly the same–as having a “beating” effect. As we are reminded over and over again in this book, sound, even though immaterial, has very physical effects: the acoustic has affect.

Finally, Horowitz reminds us that affect is all important in how we understand sounds–whether the sounds of our favorite music or the sounds our own voices. Indeed, “the emotional basis if communication relies not on what is said but on the acoustics of how we say something.” Consider saying, Horowitz tells us, the word ‘yes':

“Now say it as if you had just found out you won the lottery. Now say it as if someone had just asked you a question about something in your past that you thought no one knew about. Now say it as if this is the fortieth time you’ve answered ‘yes’ in a really boring human resources interview about how much you love your job […] What you changed was how you said the words: overall pitch, loudness, and timing.”

Inspired by Horowitz’s discussion of “yes” I remembered a humorous video called “50 Shades Of Hey” in which an actor demonstrates dozens of different ways to say the word “hey.” The video demonstrates the musical and affective qualities of everyday speech and how easily we can discern shades of meaning out of slight variations of tone and delivery. From this perspective, making and listening to music is just one of the ways we make sense of the world through hearing sound.

Microthought: A Santoor And Tabla Duet

Tensioned melody

over rhythmic cycled drum–

Pandit strings motives.

On Listening With Sympathy

Sitting at the kitchen table
listening to a mix
playing from the other room–

excited sounds
flying around corners
and down the hallway,
partly muffled,
half exaggerated,
out of proportion,
out of breath,
and weakened upon
their diminished arrival
at my ear

–a thought appears:
listening with sympathy
makes the music doubly resonant
by giving it the benefit of doubt.

Yet the music
doesn’t ask
or encourage
such sentiment

only appreciating
its generous goodwill.

On Microthoughts

Autumn by airport,

hearing sounds of flight and roar,

far away pleasure.

Headphones As Fashion Fetish: A Beats By Dre Exhibit In Times Square


It was here and gone in a day, but I couldn’t quite figure it out: a promotional tent for Beats By Dre headphones for which people were lining up to get inside. What was inside? As far as I could tell, an opportunity to try on headphones in different colors and have your photograph taken while doing so. Here’s the warning sign alerting the public:


I tried to get in but was stopped by large man with a small head who told me I had to get in line. But the line was way to long so I left.

I have written on this blog previously about the popularity of Beats headphones, citing their extended bass range as one of the qualities that makes them appealing for a lot of listeners in large noisy cities like New York. But it hadn’t occurred to me that wearing headphones could be a fashion statement and an opportunity to be photographed.  The “be seen” aesthetic has become de rigeur in Times Square over the past few years as giant LCD billboards have multiplied at alarming rates. Some billboards even cover entire skyscrapers:

And there is one clothing store that encourages customers to have their picture taken inside and then go outside to see themselves displayed on a gargantuan billboard for a few moments.

I don’t know what Beats did with all the photos they captured of folks smiling and wearing their headphones. But the exhibit is a reminder of how stylish music technology threatens music itself as a main object of our attention. As listeners we’re simultaneously technology consumers, fetishizing our gear.

On Modular Grid Structures: Thinking Through Sol LeWitt’s Cubes

I recently saw a striking cube-based structure by Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) at the MoMa. When you stand in front of it and take it in, the work works on multiple perceptual levels. Here are few things that I noticed:

one large (about 5 by 5 foot) and shallow three-dimensional square;

twenty-five smaller (1 by 1 foot) three-dimensional cubes;

moving from any corner towards the center: five nested cubes, each larger than the previous one (1 by 1, 2 by 2, 3 by 3, 4 by 4, 5 by 5);

and a twenty-five square foot wall space divided by a superimposed grid.

There’s nothing hidden here: you can see not only the metal structure, but also right through it too–to the spaces inside the cubes (on whatever scale you see the cubes on) right onto the cube shadows on the wall itself. As art, it’s not trying to represent anything but itself. It is what it is: solid yet transparent.

LeWitt’s work also reminds me of structures I see (and hear) a lot in electronic music circles, specifically the grid matrix used on drum machines, sequencers, and samplers–instruments which, by the way, are increasingly one and the same piece of hardware. Consider the classic Akai MPC drum machine/sampler

or the more Novation Launch

or the Monome

or Native Instruments’ Maschine

or Ableton’s Push

We can move in other directions too. LeWitt’s cube structure also reminds me of beloved (musical) games from my childhood, including Mego Corporation’s Fabulous Fred (1980)

and Parker Brothers’ Merlin (1978).

LeWitt, widely regarded as the founder of both minimal and conceptual art, began making what he called his open and modular “structures” in the 1960s and the cube form was the basis of much of this work. Thinking analogically about LeWitt’s modular cube piece as I look at it, it feels like an early sign of the repetitive and grid structures of minimal and electronic dance musics (not to mention the grid structures of electronic music controllers). No, there probably isn’t a chain of direct influence here–though LeWitt was an influence on some minimalist composers, some of whom may in turn have influenced various electronic dance musicians. But maybe the significance of the modular cube as art idea lies in its calm anticipation and representation of the digital world many artists inhabit today.

On Flavors, Tastes, Sound And Perception: Thinking Through Ruhlman’s Twenty

“Clear your way. Always be thinking.” – Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman’s Twenty

First, let me say the obvious: if you like to cook and want to know more about the science and craft of cooking, you’ll probably enjoy Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty. The book provides much to think about by explaining fundamental techniques and ingredients in a sensible and accessible way. Having said the obvious, there are other interesting things happening in Ruhlman’s Twenty. In the midst of the cooking theory, tips, instruction, and recipes, Ruhlman spends a fair amount of time talking about taste perception. Here are two examples:

“The complexity that comes from the intense sourness offset by a parallel sweetness goes especially well with…” (100).

“Does this sauce have the depth of texture and satisfying nature that I’m after? If not, fat may be the solution” (134).

Complexity. Sourness. Sweetness. Depth of texture. The overarching theme of this book is how we create and perceive specific tastes, and Ruhlman wants us to “always be thinking” about what affects what in the alchemical world of the kitchen. As it turns out, in the world of cooking, everything affects everything else. In the chapter “Acid” Ruhlman writes: “When you taste anything, ask yourself, What would make this better? Often the answer is acid.” He then discusses the effects of adding a drop of vinegar to a spoonful of soup. Ruhlman describes the taste as brighter: “Bright is an element of flavor that takes some imagination. I don’t mean literally brighter, but synesthetically brighter: vinegar has a brighter flavor–clear, clean, crisp” (92). Similar discussions ensue in chapters on salt, sweetness, and other tastes.

In the end, cooks work with essentially six distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, metallic, and umami–a Japanese word that roughly means “savoriness.” And while it may be difficult to put into words what these different tastes do and the complex ways they interact with one another, good cooking can’t happen without their presence in various ratios. Think about a favorite daily sauce: vinaigrette. Oil (fatty umami), vinegar or lemon juice (sharp sourness), a pinch of salt (saltiness), and maybe some honey (sweetness). That’s four of the six essential flavor components. No wonder salad is so tasty!

***

As in cooking, so too in music?

Just as food presents us with a range of tastes, music presents us with a range of heard and felt vibratory perceptions. In music, we speak of low-, medium-, and high-range pitches or registers. Low-pitched sounds vibrate at a slower rate than do high-pitched sounds. Moreover, low-pitched sounds are often considered to have a “dark” tone quality or timbre (think of a low note bowed on a double bass, or the sound of a deep gong softly struck) while high-pitched sounds have a “light” quality–or like Ruhlman’s vinegar taste, are “brighter” (think of a shrill piccolo sound). A musical instrument’s design, its mode of vibration, and the material it’s made out of also affect its timbre. It’s for this reason that a flute and a violin sound different and distinctive even when they play the same pitch. When composers score works for different instruments (violins and brass say, or electronic sine tones and pad sounds) they create new hybrid timbres that are more than the sum of their parts. In music as in cooking, one can mix and match to create new depths of perception.

I’ve been thinking about Ruhlman’s book as I’ve been working on some electronic music pieces. I’m in the mixing and balancing stages of a project, listening through to make sure all the sounds are sitting in the right proportion to one another to create a pleasing soundscape. As I listen it strikes me that sounds are like flavors–each one has a different taste. I don’t mean to say that there are six basic sounds that correspond to sweet, salty, and so on. But I do mean to say that different sounds, like different flavors, affect us in many different ways. Put another way, sounds have a feeling dimension just as flavors have a taste dimension.

The five electronic music pieces in my project each have over a dozen parts–including marimba samples, sine tones, Rhodes, glockenspiel and celeste, tom toms and cymbals.  There are a lot of layers and each layer has a distinctive pitch register and timbre profile. The parts were improvised and recorded many months ago: chord progressions were worked out, harmonies, basslines, and rhythmic counterpoint among the percussion added. Then everything was put into order so the pieces have a basic arc shape (each is some 20-plus minutes in length). Now I’m experimenting with different combinations of these layers, tweaking their volume, their tone, their pitch, and adding bits of delay and reverb effects to augment and change them. It’s a lot to think about and the possibilities for tweaking can feel endless.

But like Ruhlman’s story about the effect of a drop of vinegar on the taste of a spoonful of soup, I’m finding that small changes can have large effects on the overall feel of the music. For instance, tuning tom-toms to the tonic note of a section adds a deep euphony. Or pitching a hi hat sample up one octave makes it feel more metallic, crisp and brittle. Or maybe one part needs an EQ scoop (lowering the volume of its middle-range frequencies) to make it flatter, softer, and more transparent. Of course, the sound really isn’t any of those things–it’s basically a sawtooth wave sound–yet that’s how it feels as I listen and so I adjust parameters according to this imagined profile. All this tweaking is done intuitively, until the sound of the music feels right.

Finally, I’m surprised at how different the pieces sound as I return to them day after day. Same headphone volume, but a slightly different listening me, I guess. Taste is like that: it’s not entirely in the flavor, the ingredient, or the sound, but neither is it entirely in our perception of these phenomena either. It’s a combination of the two and that’s what makes the intersection of flavor, taste, and perception so interesting: it’s an unstable and ever-changing encounter for our senses.

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