brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

On Endless Beginnings

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Some twenty years ago the professor for my Psych 101 class once said “Never be afraid to be a beginner. Because you’re going to be a beginner over and over, all your life.” It was good advice, and it came to mind recently as I was browsing through old music files on my computer. In a series of vaguely titled folders (“chords and beats”, “ambient” etc.) I found a series of what one might call endless beginnings–ideas for pieces of music that someday might become something or (probably, most likely) not. “Ideas” might be giving too much credit. Some of the pieces are just a series of rhythms, a few chords, or an interesting sound. All of the files sit quietly, with their workaday titles (day, month, and year), waiting for my further direction and refinement. The music varies in quality, yet all the files share a sense of being unafraid of, well, being beginners. Sitting on the computer hard drive, they wait for someone–me–to revisit them and re-listen to hear if they might have anything worth saying. I keep putting off this re-listening, but here’s one that caught my attention enough to write this post:

For more on beginnings, go here.

Krista Tippett On Listening

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Listening to a podcast, my ears perked up when I heard the day’s guest, Krista Tippett, talk about what it means to listen. Tippett wasn’t referring to music listening per se, yet her words had me thinking anew about what listening in a musical context might entail. Here are some quotes, along with elaborations on them:

Listening is a spiritual technology.
We don’t often hear those two words together. Yet listening is a way to tap into what many people believe music indexes: some parallel affective realm in which patterns of sound give rise to patterns of feeling. Combined together, sound and feeling can feel pretty deep.

Listening is an ordinary, everyday virtue.
We hear and make sense of things all time–ambient noise, conversations–and so each of us has a finely tuned apparatus ready to take on music. It’s a virtue to be able to listen because listening has built-in moral component: at minimum, by listening we engage with others.

Listening is an essential way that we can reach across the mystery of the Other.
This is a fundamental principle of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology: that informed and open listening is a way to understand the cultural value of all the world’s musics–no matter how different they may seem from what is familiar and local to us. Listening literally connects us to other ways of hearing and making sound.

There aren’t many things that we do in our lives that are more important than listening.
Making music with others can’t exist without close listening. In fact, effective/affective music is defined by how closely its makers interact with, and respond to, one another. It’s the interaction among musicians and their sounds that makes the music compelling. In this, listening is the most important thing.

Listening is an essential tool that we need to cultivate in a noisy, busy world.
Listening, inside or outside of musical practice, is a way to focus and block out distractions.

Listening is about presence.
When we listen we accrue a special kind of presence as listeners. Our best selves rise up as our senses hone in on the importance of sound.

Listening is about being open to being surprised and amazed. Listening is about being vulnerable.
Brought about by listening, our best selves are open to the world, ready to be guided into unfamiliar territory. There is risk involved because we’re not entirely sure where we’re going. But we listen anyway, wondering what will come next.

Notes On Fredrik Sjoberg’s “The Fly Trap”

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“Know that then everything flies, absolutely everything. A thousand commentaries. An entire apparatus of footnotes.”
- Fredrik Sjoberg

Fredrik Sjoberg’s delightful The Fly Trap is two books in one: a story of the author’s experiences catching flies–specifically, hoverflies–on a remote island in Sweden, and a life history of the expeditions and writings of entomologist, naturalist, explorer, and art collector Rene Malaise, inventor of the fly-catching “Malaise” net. Deftly moving back and forth between the two narrative threads so that they hum as one, Sjoberg’s writing is plain and personal, clear and direct, without need of references to the scholarly literature of entomology. Sjoberg has caught so many interesting ideas in his net that our reading pleasure is just accompanying him on the many tales, memories, and experiences he recounts in the book’s eighteen brief chapters.

For Sjoberg, hunting for flies has poetic dimensions, including “anticipation, repose and slowness” (31), and the activity also satisfies the author’s need for seizing a terrain of specialization. “Everything fell into place with the flies” he says. “In exercising control over something, however insignificant and apparently meaningless, there is a peaceful euphoria” (49). Sjoberg is an expert, and we learn that over the years he’s discovered numerous hoverfly species on the island. He wears his expertise lightly though: “You never know in advance what knowledge may be good for, however useless it may seem” (65).

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The most interesting aspect of The Fly Trap is Sjoberg’s claim that the book’s deeper theme concerns a single idea: limitation. “The hoverflies are only props” he says. “Here and there, my story is about something else…Some days I tell myself that my mission is to say something about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation” (12). Indeed, Sjoberg is somewhat obsessed with limitation, finding in it the reason why he doesn’t care much for travel and chooses instead to do all of his research on a tiny land mass he calls home. Limitation focuses his energies: “Nothing promotes concentration like a known limitation of time, sometimes of space as well. If you don’t know where the limit lies, then it’s chatter as usual” (111). Ironically, as he teaches us about Malaise’s far-flung travels and exceptional adventures, Sjoberg simultaneously keeps returning to his own little patch of terra firma where he does his work. The contrast is intentional and makes for good reading. Maybe the point here is that there are many ways to be worldly.

Asked by summer visitors to the island why he collects flies, Sjoberg tells them that “my fly collecting was a method of exercising slowness” (188). It sounds fitting, and Sjoberg explains how over time he began elaborating upon his slowness theme for the benefit of his island’s seasonal guests. Yet a few pages later Sjoberg concedes that he doesn’t entirely buy his own grand theory of why he does what he does. In fact, just to be contrary, he makes a case for speed: “If you think the torrent–of pictures, messages, people, whatever–goes too fast, then in nine cases out of ten you can turn it off or just close your eyes and breathe your own air for a while” (190).

The point is that Sjoberg is open to complexity. On the next page he keeps theorizing but now we’re not sure what to believe. “Next summer I think I will say that my fly collecting is a way of exercising concentration. A focus so intense that I forget myself” (191). Even after some eighty pages after we first heard about Sjoberg’s interest in limitation, we’re still not sure where lies the core of his concern. Part of the issue here is Sjoberg’s patience with following the trail of his (and Malaise’s) thoughts–writing like he has all the time in the world. Maybe the idea of limitation just informs his book in a general kind of way? Only on the last page of the chapter does Sjoberg admit the deeper truth about his interest in limitation: that maybe he does what he does because of “a genetic inability to deal with choice.” In the end, fly collecting is not about concentration or slowness–even though each these on their own do give the collector peace of mind. No, fly collecting embodies the art and experience of limitation:

“All that’s required is the courage to see your own mastery in actual life size. Some people see only flies, or certain flies, in a certain place, for a certain time. It’s only a starting point, or a fixed point, but it is a point. That’s all it is” (198).

It’s as if Sjoberg is saying that fly-catching keeps him grounded. And that’s in fact what he loves about it. Collecting flies is a way get to know nature: “I go collecting with my net in the here and now and read my landscape in the present tense” (218). In other words, by chasing flies Sjoberg seeks a nature literacy: “let us consider the ability to read the landscape as if it were a language, to understand nature almost as if were literature, experience it the same way that we experience art or music” (219).

There is a lot to learn from The Fly Trap. It has a singular voice, humor, it weaves together two sets of stories from There/Then to the Here/Now, and it engages in Big Ideas like the idea of limitation. Most interestingly, the book isn’t a definitive statement on the state of fly-catching, but does say everything about the nuanced experiences of one fly catcher on a small island in Sweden. In the end, The Fly Trap soars probingly and patiently through its own incompleteness.

On Twitter And Thinking

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You may well know this already, but I’ll say it anyway: Whether you broadcast or receive, Twitter can be a compelling tool for thinking. Reflecting on its virtues, a few points come to mind:

Twitter is brief.
One hundred and forty characters is just enough of a text allotment to say one thing and then be done with it.

Twitter is open-ended.
Depending on how you’ve set up your feed–do you follow one person or a thousand?–Twitter can grow along with you, as if mirroring the connections you make in your mind with ones in your feed.

Twitter invites you into the brains of others.
You follow a friend, but who is he or she (or it) following? You scan their list of who they’re following, and wonder why. If one or more seems interesting enough, you follow them too, tagging along down a new stream of information.

Twitter invites you to garden and curate.
As you follow one friend or a thousand disparate sources, you notice how often those tweets are appearing. Some pop up too often, like weeds. Others blossom once in a while, like flowers. You might choose to unfollow someone here and there, because they’re not adding much to your garden. And depending on who you follow, the cumulative weight of your feed can be striking–like the works of different artists hanging side by side in the same gallery.

Twitter invites surprise and serendipity.
Depending on who you follow, neat things pop up and here and there–a recommended article, an interview, a new blog post, a photo, a video link. These neat things popping up increase in impact as they’re read side by side other, unrelated tweets. This nudges you to reconcile your own diverse interests within some kind of broader thematic frame. In this way, Twitter can illuminate a kind of cognitive diversity.

Twitter promotes a bee hive mentality.
This isn’t a bad thing. Attending to your own little garden and curating your own part of the gallery, you become part of a larger, non-stop information-sifting and sharing organism. Buzz Buzz!

Twitter promotes thinking about pacing.
Sure, Tweets are brief, but how often do we need to be broadcasting? As you notice the rate at which others are tweeting, it prompts you to think about how often we need to be saying whatever it is we’re thinking. In this way, Twitter foregrounds the distinction between signal and noise: sometimes “talk is cheap” for a reason.

On Hiromi’s The Trio Project

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This past Sunday I went to see the jazz pianist Hiromi and her Trio Project play at the Blue Note Jazz Club. The pianist’s bandmates were Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on electric bass. The musicians’ playing was virtuosic and as an ensemble they were super tight–almost telepathically so.

I sat behind Hiromi and couldn’t see her two bandmates–until I realized that if I looked towards the mirrored far wall across the room I could see the head of Jackson and Phillips’ hands–but nothing else, obscured as the drummer was by his giant cymbals. Not bad, but who knew that seeing makes listening to live music that much better? I wanted to see what the musicians were thinking with their faces. So it goes sometimes.

Given my interests, I was particularly moved by Phillips’ drumming. Playing matched grip, his sound was at once booming and crisply articulated, moving easily and instantly from rock time feels to double time swing. His cymbal work was a highlight here. From jazz time on the rides to the symphonic crashes, the cymbals sounded pristine every time he struck them–like important events marked with panache. It was hard to imagine this trio’s music functioning at all without Phillips’ rhythmic verve and presence. It’s in this regard that good drummers are so much more than steady “timekeepers.” The good ones can slice and dice time to the point that the drumming becomes the time.

Unfamiliar with Hiromi’s music, I wondered while listening to the trio perform their airtight set just how much–if any–of their music making was improvised. It sounded composed. Most of the pieces had numerous clearly demarcated sections that dictated exactly how long anyone’s solo might last, ever-shifting odd meters marked by repeating piano riffs, as well as three-way unison flourishes, stops and starts. The grooves were without seams, and downbeat accents were never missed. Indeed, the set seemed a performance of pieces pre-worked out in their details, giving the trio a commanding ability to bring the audience on a calibrated musical trip.

A day after the show I listened the group’s recent recording, Alive, and realized that the music was exactly the set I had heard at the Blue Note. One of the standout tunes is the angular and odd-metered “Dreamer”, which begins and ends with a moody four-chord piano sequence, accompanied by a delicately brilliant drum pattern that evokes Steve Gadd’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” rudimental gear shifting. Like Hiromi’s Trio Project show at the Blue Note, “Dreamer” and many of the other pieces on their recording is an organized, fully thought through adventure that keeps changing and packs a wallop. In jazz does it even matter anymore if the music is composed or improvised?

Here is the trio performing another powerful piece, “Alive”, in the studio:

Reflections On Several Musical Projects: Thinking About What Worked (For Now)

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Reflecting on some recent musical projects of mine, I noticed a number of techniques and strategies I used to build them:

I used my own (sampled) sounds. I’ve written here before about my frustrations with making electronic music. But using my own sounds makes the process personal and somehow more sensible.

I improvised a performance rather than composed a piece. For me, performance still means something. And by performance I mean making musical decisions in real-time–without stopping, without going back, only going forward–and living with them. In his classic psychology of music textbook, The Musical Mind, John A. Sloboda talks of composing and improvising being the same process, only taking place at different rates of speed. True enough, but with composing you can always go back and change something. Improvised performance doesn’t allow for that. And this is a good thing.

I stayed in one key (per section or for the entire piece). Depending on the effect you’re going for, sometimes key changes are overrated. Sometimes we don’t want change and surprise, just an extended moment in one tonal place.

I used percussion sounds. This relates to my point about sampling above. Percussion sounds are the ones I know best because I’m around them a lot–my hands touch percussion instruments every day so they feel familiar.

I avoided steady beats. At least when I’m mediated through controllers and computer software, I’m not crazy about my own beats, so why use them?

I kept the pieces brief. The brevity of the pieces is a function of my performances, which raises the question: Why are my performances brief? Maybe it’s a matter of paying attention for just a few moments before things return to their everyday scatter.

I used software to copy, transpose, and time-shift. As far as I can imagine, this is the best use for software: having it carry out tasks that would otherwise drain the moment of its intensity.

I followed a process. (See point above.) In general outline, the process was: perform, play with the materials of that performance, and edit. It’s like writing, actually.

I made a series of pieces in the same style. There’s a few reasons for this. First, making multiple variations of a thing helps reveal what that thing is. Second, making multiple variations frees me from thinking about the process so I can just get into the moment. Third, an accumulation of pieces takes pressure off any individual piece to represent the bunch. Some may be–and were–cast aside after a few listens, since not all performances are equal. Equally valid, sure, but not equally compelling to listen to.

I stopped once I felt I had explored the process enough and before I knew exactly what it was I was doing. As the saying goes, the key is knowing exactly when to stop. In this case, I wanted to stay somewhat surprised and one step behind myself.

On Musical Analogies: Notes On Design

There’s a lot to think through in this video that features the designers Dieter Rams of Braun and Jonathan Ive of Apple. In the first part we hear Rams enumerate his ten principles of good design. Good design should be:

innovative,
essential or useful,
aesthetic,
understandable,
honest,
unobtrusive,
consistent in every detail,
long-lasting,
environmentally friendly,
and have as little design as possible.

It struck me that these principles are useful for thinking about making music, designing music, improvising music, composing music. In fact, thinking about some of the opposites of these qualities–opaque instead of understandable or inconsistent instead of consistent, say–brings to mind musics that don’t work so well as music. Running through the list, you can probably think of your own examples!

In the second part of the video Ive discusses the understated design of Apple computers (e.g. smooth contours, lights that disappear when not lit) and how the machines are assembled out of single slabs of aluminum that provide materials for multiple parts. At one point Ive says that the company’s design team’s goal is more about staying faithful to a particular process than achieving a particular design per se. He sounds like a purist–like a music composer, actually. Speaking about the MacBook Air, he notes:

“The design of this in many ways wasn’t the design of a physical thing, it was figuring out a process.”

Another thing I like about this video? Its soundtrack features a wonder of process and good design–a drumming pattern (RLRRLRLL) called the paradiddle. As Rams talks, listen in the background to the percolating keyboard part floating along on its own paradiddle rhythm.

On Philippe Petit’s “Creativity: The Perfect Crime”

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“When is something worth pursuing?
I think when the outcome advances the efforts of humanity.”
- Philippe Petit

In his recent book, Creativity: the perfect crime, Philippe Petit reveals the elements, flows, techniques, and routines of his very long career as an artist. Petit is high-wire walker, juggler, magician, lock-picker, and all around street entertainer, perhaps best known for his walking between the Twin Towers of World Trade Center in the early 1970s. He’s currently (and intriguingly) artist-in-residence at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. At once a mix of memoir, how-to manual, and an empirical-phenomenological exploration of the kinesthetic foundations of craft, Petit’s Creativity is inspiring and informative, revealing the inner life of a most interesting individual.

Petit brings the reader into his world by drawing on his various performances or artistic “crimes” from over the decades, especially his wire walks, which require meticulous planning–from staking out locations, making plans and organizing equipment, rehearsing and setting up, to taking that first step out into the unknown. Each component of each performance is an opportunity to engage creativity and think rigorously through the act soon to be, to “toy with an idea until it becomes a fixation” (20). For Petit, a performance is a crime in the sense that it’s an opportunity to find “imperfections in the system…as tiny portals through which…to explore, to understand, to create” (22).

One of the book’s many charms is the extent to which it conveys its author’s sensitivity to his environment. Petit believes that “the tactile experience provides a tangible link between what I formulate and the solid creation I must achieve” (26). Among the things he notices is the influence of his immediate surroundings on his work, including what he calls “negative space” (57), and the importance of maintaining an intimate connection with one’s artistic tools. Explaining a difficulty he once had with a juggling trick, Petit describes perceptual sleights of mind in which he imagines himself becoming the moving balls, and then transforming himself “back into being the juggler” (83), setting his senses “into a state of wild openness” (97). Passages like this recall the work of philosopher-ecologist David Abram, specifically Abram’s discussion of training in East Asia. (See my notes on Abram’s Becoming Animal here.)

Petit notices his environment because his attention is constantly fluttering about, observing, remembering, and interrupting. But Petit always goes with his own flow. The problem with paying attention, he tells us, is that “the seriousness of it will rarely allow for uncommon intellectual detours, for mental demultiplication” or what he translates as a reduction in gear ratio (97). The key is to trust that order will eventually emerge out of the chaos of deep perception. Petit even suggests the term sensefulness to describe blending one’s senses to make a new, composite meta-sense. Elsewhere, he encourages his readers to experiment by questioning their own work–and questioning the questioning–to create openings and provide connections (145), to experiment with “the mirror image of a concept” (163), and to notice the aliveness of seemingly inanimate things. “Inside the most ordinary objects” Petit says, “hide the richest creative opportunities, waiting to be awakened” (197).

There’s a lot of detours in this book too. For instance, every so often Petit has a word in blue type (boldface on my Kindle edition) that leads, like a secret portal, to a mini essay on the topic elsewhere in the book. He also includes hand drawn illustrations of his idea lists, schedules, tools, performance and living spaces, and so on. The idea lists are particularly compelling, especially as Petit explains how he cross links the concepts and re-writes them to reveal new relationships. And yes, Petit talks about–and talks to–his tools (juggling balls, floppy hat, among other props), all as part of maintaining his life at a particular pitch and allowing it to be an ongoing ritual full of hidden meanings, his projects ongoing explorations of epiphany and getting into the zone.

These are just the highlights. By turns maverick, playful, serious, and fearless, Creativity is a book to remind you how art can be a very, very special kind of intellectual and physical adventure story.

On Pacing, Saying Something, And Music

I’ve been thinking about pacing. In running, pacing is a matter of speed: take the wrong pace–a pace that’s too fast or too slow–and you’ll soon be in trouble. Good pacing is a matter of listening to your energy level and adjusting accordingly. As you warm up, your pace can increase considerably, as if in tune with the exuberance of swift motion itself.

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In blogging, tweeting, and with social media in general, pacing is a matter of interval–how often one speaks and broadcasts to others. Talk too often and you can become annoying; talk not often enough and your activity loses its presence. These two poles of pacing inform sharing content via the web. What’s the optimal pace?

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In music, pacing is not the same as the tempo or speed of the piece. Nor is it a matter of density–how beats are subdivided into say, eighth- or sixteenth-note slices. As I’m thinking of it, pacing in music is more amorphous–it has to do with saying something and also the rate at which this saying changes over time. Pacing, in other words, is the speed and quality of growth as measured by our sense that something has been stated.

What exactly is this something stated? It can be a melody, a rhythmic insistence, a harmonic tension, a set of proportions or relations, a timbre. Or–even more interestingly–it can be a general feeling that is conveyed: a sensation felt and remembered even after the music has stopped sounding. The important thing is that whatever seems to have been said makes perfect sense in the context of the sounding music. Put another way, the music’s content and form are in synergetic balance.

Here’s a piece I’ve been enjoying lately. It’s “OH” by the electronic duo Plaid. The piece throws out a few perceptual curve balls, beginning as it does in what feels like an unstable 4/4 meter at 98 bpm, which then reveals itself to be a 6/8 meter at 144 bpm. Soon the numerous oscillating layers of the music are revealing their relationships, and the piece settles into saying its own something:

 

On Music For Thought: Dub (Re)Mixing As A Metaphor For Mindfulness

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After reading Paul Sullivan’s excellent Remixology (Reaktion Books, 2014), a history of dub music and dub aesthetics from Jamaica to their infection of electronic musics in cities and scenes around the world, it struck me that remixing is an interesting metaphor for cultivating mindfulness.

Dub pioneers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, The Scientist, and others innovated ways of creating instrumental versions of popular songs. In the recording studio, these producers and sound engineers dismantled tracks and put them back together in altered forms known as “versions” or “dubs.” The technology they used in their work was the standard equipment of the studio from the late 1960s until quite recently: the multitrack mixing console, magnetic tape, and effects processing units. What Perry and others achieved with their best versions was nothing short of game-changing, especially for anyone interested in electronic music, groove, and remixing. In a way, those Jamaican dub pioneers were the first modern music hackers.

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The notion of “life-hacking” is popular these days insofar as our interest in quantifying and optimizing ourselves physically, cognitively, and otherwise increasingly seems like a useful and progressive thing to do. It’s in this spirit that I suggest thinking metaphorically about the processes of the dub remixers as containing concepts that can be applied to our lives.

To start, consider some dub remixing techniques and aesthetics:

stripping things down.
The remixer mutes parts, silences voices, and reveals the essence of the music.

substituting one element for another, recontextualizing.
The remixer plays with different sounds, re-arranging and having them play new roles.

foregrounding groove.
Stripping down the music the remixer reveals its bass and drum rhythmic backbone.

EQing to emphasize or shape sounds.
The remixer brings out various frequencies to reveal sound colors or timbres that were in the mix all along, just hidden.

creating space by adding reverb and delay effects.
The remixer builds a huge, immersive environment for the music, letting it bounce off virtual surfaces at various rates of speed and play.

noticing malleability, fungibility.
The remixer finds every musical element flexible to the nth degree, capable of shape-shifting and mutation.

engaging creativity, imagination, audacity.
The remixer uses the music–as much as the music uses the remixer?–as an experiment in re-design and thinking anew.

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Practically speaking, how exactly would one apply these dub concepts to one’s life? I’m not sure. Scanning through the list though, I notice that they’re all fundamentally oriented around perception and altering elements–of music, of consciousness–with the goal of changing how they appear to our senses. This alone is music for thought and maybe useful advice in other realms too.

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