brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

On Less Is More: Lorenzo Senni’s Music

Lorenzo Senni has an interesting musical thing going on. On his recent recordings Superimpositions (2014) and Quantum Jelly (2012) he makes a kind of electronic trance music that does away with the beats, leaving only pulsing, echoing, and arpeggiating synthesizer chord sequences. Without the metrical context of the relentless 4/4 thump, the synth chords are like bird formations against a clear blue sky–darting up and down in sync, careening en masse, tracing large arcs against nothingness. It’s a repetitive music, yet it manages to stay interesting.

In a YouTube video, Senni talks about his interest in understanding the structure of trance music, especially its dramatic build-ups and breakdowns–those moments just before the beats drop back in. He also talks about his interest in laser light shows to accompany his work.

All in all, Senni’s aesthetic is compelling for at least three reasons. First, it’s a dance music denied its beats–but intriguingly, not its rhythm–perhaps so it can gain entry to art gallery performance spaces. Second, it sounds like nothing else around in electronic music. Third, it demonstrates that sometimes you have to take away stuff to reveal the shape of a thing.

For the curious, an incisive piece on how Senni’s music may illustrate philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “pointillistic time” can be read here.

 

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

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1. An article about the resurgence of vinyl records.
“People still want objects with personality…”If it’s just a nostalgic or hipster-elitest thing, where does that leave us in 10 years? It might be the last gasp of an expiring culture before we all get sucked into the [digital] cloud.”

2. An article about the relationship between bass in music and the sensation of power.
“Experiment 1 found that music pretested to be powerful implicitly activated the construct of power in listeners. Experiments 2–4 demonstrated that power-inducing music produced three known important downstream consequences of power: abstract thinking, illusory control, and moving first. Experiments 5a and 5b [...] found that music with more bass increased participants’ sense of power. This research expands our understanding of music’s influence on cognition and behavior and uncovers a novel antecedent of the sense of power.”

3. An article about the relationship between music training and educational achievement.
“People have to actually play an instrument to get smarter. They can’t just crank up the tunes on their iPod.”

Notes On Ed Catmull’s “Creativity, Inc.”

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“The uncreated is a vast, empty space” – Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. is a memoir that explores and analyzes the history and creative life of Pixar, the American computer animation company. Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, its current president, and an accomplished computer scientist, untangles the complex business of how to build a sustainable creative culture (xiv) that thrives by continually asking questions about its work and how to do it better (64). Creativity, Inc. brings a scientist’s rigor to the problem of how a group of creatives collaborate to make compelling animated art.

The most striking aspect of Catmull’s narrative is the strange joy the author takes in recognizing and solving problems with a clear head. Catmull seems to thrive on problems small and large, because problems indicate not only new idea terrain, but also opportunities for improvement. It’s almost as if problems are themselves kinds of creative ideas, waiting for deeper understanding, one step at a time. At Pixar, ideas don’t come out of thin air–they’re “not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions” (75). In this way, creativity is about problem-solving and takes time. Pete Docter, director of Pixar’s film Up, tells Catmull that he simply makes lists of problems: encountered in his work “Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong” (151) he says. Good advice.

A persistent theme in Creativity Inc. is proceeding in the face of uncertainty, randomness, and the unknown, and it’s in this regard that the book might resonate with many readers. For Catmull, the key is recognizing the complexity in what we don’t know and what we can’t predict. In fact, the “unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs” (148). He urges us to embrace the unknown, but not to do so with blinders on “in the interest of keeping things simple” (157). Sometimes–oftentimes–new situations are complex and layered.

Catmull revels in complexity and figuring out better ways of doing things as Pixar creates its films. One strategy used by the company is to focus on what Catmull calls microdetails–tiny elements that inform the look and feel of a work on an almost subliminal level. Microdetails are “a hidden engine” (198) of creative work that lend it authenticity and conviction. Pixar employees go to great lengths to acquire such details. For example, they take field trips to research places and things (i.e. the kitchens of French restaurants for the film Ratatouille) to build a vocabulary of mircodetails that will inform their future work. Other strategies used include self-imposed limits and tricks of perception. Catmull spends several pages explaining some drawing exercises inspired by Betty Edwards’ classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. One technique is to place an object we want to draw upside down so it can be looked at “as a pure shape and not as a familiar, recognizable thing” (212); another is to focus on the negative space around the object. These lessons are intended to help us “see shapes as they are–to ignore that part of the brain that wants to turn what is seen into a general notion” (ibid).

There are some general notions here that extend beyond the act of drawing. Catmull observes that a trained artist “is able to capture what the eye perceives (shape, color) before their ‘recognizer’ functions tells them what it is supposed to be” (212). In short, trained artists–and here I don’t think Catmull means just animators–have “learned how to turn off their minds’ tendency to jump to conclusions” (213). Catmull is getting at a technique for altering the limits of perception that could be useful to anyone who makes things: “to learn to suspend, if only temporarily, the habits and impulses that obscure your vision” (214). Speaking of vision, given Pixar’s track record of hit films, a peculiar challenge they face is how to stay fresh and nimble despite their successes. Building on the Betty Edwards drawing exercises, Catmull mentions a few pages later the Zen notion of “beginner’s mind” (222)–carrying on as if you don’t know anything, paying attention to the present moment and “trying to set up our own feedback loop in which paying attention improves our ability to pay attention” (222). When a beginner’s mind isn’t feasible, having useful mental models is. It doesn’t matter what metaphor you use. What matters is having “a mental model that sustains you” (224).

What makes Creativity, Inc. such an engaging read is that its meta-theme is ecological: the sustainability of a creative culture. To keep our work vibrant, Catmull reminds us, “we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty” (295) and the fact that “complex systems respond in nonlinear, unpredictable ways” (310). In other words, we’re surrounded by chaos. But isn’t part of the fun of creativity figuring out how we might make some sense out of it all?

Notes On FK twig’s “LP 1″

One of my ongoing frustrations with popular music–and the problem may be with me–is that the music doesn’t always keep my attention. So I was delighted when I heard FKA twig’s debut, LP1, an at times stunning release, both musically and production-wise that the Guardian called “the UK’s best example to date of ethereal, twisted R&B.”

On its sounding surface FKA twigs’s voice reminds one of the late Aaliyah or even Ciara. Her voice is clear and sweet in that contemporary R&B way, but without pyrotechnics. For me, though, the interesting action is in the production by the Venezuelan DJ Arca. There’s little that’s straightforward about the arrangements–each sound choice and each layer adding surprise, texture, and dimensionality. It’s both experimental and listenable.

“Two Weeks” is the first single and features an unusual half-time feel beat, heavily weighted with 16th notes on the first and third bars of each four bar percussion phrase. The beat is typical of the production touches and flourishes on LP1 that keep my ear interested.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

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1. An article by drummer Michael Barron about the latest creation of my favorite instrument designer, Roger Linn. The article also includes YouTube videos of several other new multi-touch expressive musical controllers.

“In fifty years’ time I think people will still be playing piano, guitars, and violins, but I also think they will be playing electronic instruments — actually performing virtuosic work upon them. What these will look or sound like, I don’t know.”

2. A review of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age Of Connection.

“Our challenge is not access to information; it is the challenge of paying attention.”

3. An hour-long performance by German musician Phelios. Phelios uses a number of Elektron instruments as well as a Roland TR-8.

“Electronic music across genres often strays from traditional instrumental performance. The very nature of the technology means you’re often not playing every note. But you can make the process of assembly a performance, and something that involves audience participation, and surprise.”
Peter Kirn, Create Digital Music

On Soft Fascination And Music

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While reading Wallace J. Nichols’s book Blue Mind, I came across a passage explaining nature’s capacity to clear our minds. Stephen Kaplan uses the phrase “soft fascination” to describe the involuntary sensation of being effortlessly caught up in the sounds, sights, scents, and feels of nature. He then explains how this experience gives our minds room to roam:

“Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish” (Kaplan in Nichols: 213).

Moreover, according other studies cited by Nichols, urban environments don’t share nature’s cognitive-enhancing effects.

***

Music is a man-made environment, distinct from nature. Yet Kaplan’s phrase got me thinking: What would a music that “modestly grabs attention” sound like? Would it be like ambient music?

Would it be quiet? Slow? Would it have a drone? Would it be microtonal?

Would be an unfolding process?

Would it leave space for nature to creep in?

Would have many layers, sometimes moving both fast and slow simultaneously?

Maybe we need to keep studying nature for the answers…

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

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1. An article about CD baby. “It might not be ideal for somebody like Bruno Mars, but I can gauge what I want to do and you get to control everything, which is cool. You’re giving yourself a chance when you put your stuff up and pay that fee, because you never know who will hear it.”

2. An interview with sound recordist Chris Watson. “We’re all damaged by noise pollution psychologically as much as anything, and we’re just not aware of it. You ring your bank and they play music at you down the phone, it’s so invasive. Because of that we waste so much energy in shutting things out, we don’t get the chance to listen. I do find it really quite annoying and disturbing. I’m saddened that people have to battle through this or seem to ignore it. It’s a stressful thing to deal with it, that you spend most of your time and energy shutting things out rather than listening.”

3. An article about music and exercise. “Research has shown that music can be most effective when played at the point when workers reach a plateau in work output. When devising your own music playlist for training, it is important to take into consideration the type of mindset you want to achieve for a particular workout.”

Notes On Elizabeth Margulis’s “On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind”

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I began reading this book like a runner hitting a downhill, rushing forward with exhilaration and abandon, carried along by the gravitational pull of my interest in its subject. My initial read-through was quick, and I’ll certainly be returning to its pages, walking back up the uphills to take in the details. To say the least, I’ve been waiting for a book like this for a long time!

Elizabeth Margulis’s On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind is an expansive and scholarly investigation of repetition in musical experience. Drawing on the literature and approaches of music psychology, neuroscience, musicology, and linguistics, Margulis explores what it means that repetition is so deeply a part of music and our musical lives. “Why is it that we accept, even enjoy, degrees of repetition in music” the author wonders, “that would be repugnant in almost any other domain?” (4) This fascinating question guides On Repeat to unravel how repetition both works within music and works on us through music.

There are two kinds of repetition in our experience of music. The first exists within pieces of music themselves. On the micro-level, sound is vibration, and vibration is repetitive oscillation. On a more macro-level, there is repetition within all kinds of musical patterns (e.g. a drum beat, a guitar riff, a piano vamp) and among sections of music, such as theme and variations, recapitulations, verse-chorus refrains, and so on. A second type of repetition resides in the fact that “we tend voluntarily to re-expose ourselves to familiar pieces, again and again and again” (4). Here and elsewhere in the book, Margulis cites some of her own research that shows how when we listen to a piece of music repeatedly, that repetition triggers “an attentional shift from more local to more global levels of musical organization…so that the music doesn’t seem to be coming at the listener in small bits, but rather laying out broader spans for consideration” (9). In other words, we return to favorite pieces of music to understand them better through “a heightened sense of orientation and involvement” (ibid).

Among the many insights of this book, I was intrigued to learn that repetition is one of the things that suggests how communication cannot be music’s primary function (13). “Imagine” says Margulis, “hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony once, and being done. Or hearing a five minute summary” (ibid). The repetitive aspect of music then, is not to convey information, but rather seems bound up with the aesthetic function of non-linguistic sound (14). Or put another way: the pleasure we find in musical repetition “might stem less from increasing knowledge about the piece than from a growing sense of inhabiting the music: a transportive, even transcendent kind of experience” (15). Listening to a piece over and over again affords “a changed sort of orientation toward the work” (15). And the fascinating thing about great music is how it seems to afford endless re-listenings.

On Repeat is full of insights like this as Margulis explains layer after layer of repetition’s power. In another of her case studies, we learn how repetition added to any piece of music elevates “people’s enjoyment, interest, and judgements of artistry” (16). Something about repetition’s intrinsic declamatory quality reassures us that a piece with repetition is more forceful and effective–as if the music has something to say. “As musical phrases repeat, listeners gain access to more nuanced, communicative aspects of the sound” (21). Maybe as we return to favorite pieces of music, we gain (an illusory?) sense that we understand what it’s trying to say to us. Such is one of the charms of music’s ambiguous relationship to meaning. Margulis also considers the relationship between musical repetition and memory. As bits within a piece repeat, or as we repeatedly listen to musical bits, repetition serves as “a kind re-presenting, a kind of prosthetic memory, whereby past events are put once more before the ears” (21). Repetition then, helps us recall what just happened in a piece, or in the case of musical “earworms”, is the presence of a piece that simply won’t leave our minds.

Reading On Repeat as a practicing musician I was particularly struck by passages that point towards some of the deeper perceptual effects of repetition. Repetition is a kind of engine that reveals hidden qualities in music, “driving attention to otherwise perceptually inaccessible qualities of the sonic surface” (80). This is interesting, right? Drawing on examples ranging from Brahms to sampling in hip hop, Margulis shows how repetition has the power to transform our experience of music’s very fabric. As we repeat any musical segment what was once perceptual background becomes foreground. To take an example from speech, repeated hearings of the same nonsense word has the effect of making the word’s nonsense “replaced by a sort of super-salience of the component parts”–as if “speech had magically been transformed into music” (17). Likewise, music repeated can become almost speech-like in its capacity to conjure felt meaning. In this regard, repetition is sly and subtle: by revealing new aspects of music’s sonic surface, it can create “some impression that registers as an expressive quality, rather than as explicit recognition of repetitiveness” (35).

There’s much theoretical and empirical richness and subtlety in On Repeat that will reward repeated readings, and Margulis has amassed a giant corpus of scholarly work with which to cast her inquisitive net. Music is the canonical domain of repetition (4), and On Repeat explores the myriad reasons why this should be.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

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1. An article about the role of innate talent in achieving musical expertise.
“The idea that anyone can become an expert at most anything isn’t scientifically defensible, and pretending otherwise is harmful to society and individuals…”

2. An article about an obsessive Brazilian vinyl collector.
“I’ve gone to therapy for 40 years to try to explain this to myself…”

3. An article by Daniel Levitan about the benefits of rest–including music listening–for resetting the mind.
“Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.”

“Music…turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.”

 

Two Reviews Of Books On Electronic Music Making And Remixology

My reviews of DJ Culture in the Mix (Bloomsbury 2013) and Remixology (Reaktion Books 2014) are available here and here.

 

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