thinking through music, sound and culture

Brett’s Sound Picks: Second Storey’s “Reserved”


I found the artist Second Storey while browsing through a huge BBC new music playlist put together by DJ Mary Anne Hobbs. Second Storey’s track “Reserved” has a few compelling things going on: tightly syncopated percussion sounds playing individual start and stop patterns that dovetail; a sense of ambiance created through a combination of dry and echo-y in the mix; a bass part that is all sustain and volume swells; and best of all, a beguiling four-chord progression played on a strange hollowed-out pad sound that glues everything together.

Are you listening on good headphones?

Here is a video interview with Storey who describes how he works with Ableton Push:

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff Online


1. An article about the inspiration for a Max for Live device (software for use within Ableton Live) that injects realistic timing into multiple computer generated parts.

“The timing of each individual note is dependent on every single note that both players had already played – a minor timing hiccup near the start of a piece will continue to affect every single note after it, up to the last notes. And when you play a duet every note your partner plays affects your playing, and every note you play affects your partner: a two directional information transfer is happening.”

The software is inspired in part by a study of the general properties of musical interaction and how musicians synchronize their rhythms.

“Some neuroscientists think that rhythm – not just in music but in movement and speech – is how we spot the ‘uncanny’, the unnatural, even how infants recognise other animals of the same species. In short, human timing is very important.”

2. An article about misophonia, a condition in which certain sounds can drive someone crazy.

“So, will misophonia exist decades from now? As knowledge of the brain improves, sensitivity to sounds may be included among other psychiatric or neurological conditions. But for now, the diagnosis remains a godsend to many.”

3. An article about drones in and outside  of music.

“A drone in music is a sustained note held for most or all of a piece. It’s an essential part of musical traditions around the world, from the continuous bleat of a bagpipe, to the om-like hum that gives Indian ragas their spacious feeling, to the cavernous burr of a didgeridoo. Classical composers have used it to evoke sounds of nature and a sense of something ancient, rustic or outside of time: Think of the gentle hum that opens Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the almost inaudible whine at the beginning of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 or the E flat at the bottom of the Prelude to Wagner’s “Rheingold,” which seeps into the listener’s consciousness like water.”

Outsider Music II: Notes On Moondog’s “A New Sound For An Old Instrument”

louishardin_moondog-e1291746349452 copy

“I’m into swing. I get that from the American Indians like the Sioux, the Arapahoe and the Apache. They have this drum-beat, heart-beat. Bom, Bom, Bom…I got that influence when I was six years old in Wyoming. My father took us to an Arapahoe Indian reservation. The chief let me sit on his lap and beat the tom-tom for the Sun Dance. So, that goes back to the early ’20s for me.”

- Moondog (interviewed by Jason Gross, 1998)

Moondog (1916-1999, born Louis Hardin) was a mysterious composer, percussionist, and musical instrument inventor known as the “Viking of 6th Avenue” because of the Viking costume he wore as he walked the avenue from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. Moondog was blinded in accident when he was a teenager and although often mistaken for being a homeless man dressed in costume, he wasn’t. He was a skilled artist whose rhythmic, modal, and contrapuntal music influenced New York composers, including two who would become infinitely more famous, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In fact, Glass is quoted as having said he and Reich took Moondog’s work “very seriously and understood and appreciated it much more than what we were exposed to at Juilliard” (quoted in R. Scotto, Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue, New York: Process, 2008, p.12).

I recently came across Moondog’s 1979 recording of organ music, A New Sound For An Old Instrument. (I loved the title.) The audaciously-titled recording sounds somewhat odd and out of step with the modern era–as it were the soundtrack to The Hobbit or Lord Of The Rings–but also because it truly does its own (timeless) thing. The pieces on A New Sound are mostly built out of multiple melodies set up as canons. (Moondog was a huge fan of the discipline of canon writing.) These organ melodies are rhythmic and percussive, singing in short tones, which gives the music a light, dancing feel–unlike so much lugubrious and somber organ repertoire. Accompanying the organ is Moondog’s distinctive stomp and jangle homespun percussion parts, which are sometimes in odd and complex meters and filled with their own layers of accents and patterns. How did Moondog record this album? Did he overdub all the parts himself? I’m not sure but the music has a great feel to it.

Anyway, listening to Moondog’s music is fascinating because it’s as if in it you hear faint traces of other more well-known composers and styles, as well as intimations of musics that could have been, might have been, but for some reason never were. It’s as if these organ pieces trace a stylistic path that leads us down a forest trail that suddenly ends at an old locked gate. What music was/is/could be sounding beyond that gate?

Here are two of my favorite pieces from A New Sound, “Single Foot” and “Mirage”:

You can read an interview with Moondog here.


Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

1. A brief interview with the composer Steve Reich who talks about contemporary music.

“A lot of people who use computers are gonna come up with junk; most of the people who use notation came up with junk, too. But there are the Brian Enos – people who have imagination for a new way of working that fits with their intuitive gifts – that come up with great stuff. A few things will turn out to be enduring. Well made, and in a new way.”

Here is part one of Reich’s “Radio Rewrite” which is based on a song by Radiohead.

2. A brief documentary the follows DJ Diplo’s project Major Lazer on a trip to Jamaica where they meet the legendary producer King Jammy, composer of the original “Sleng Teng” rhythm that ushered in digital dancehall music.

“If you confidently own the uniqueness of your voice, people will love you.”

3. An article about the hardcore music scene in New York City in the early 1980s.

“Hardcore was born as a double-negative genre: a rebellion against a rebellion. The early punks were convinced that rock and roll had gone wrong and were resolved to put it right, deflating arena-rock pretension with crude songs and rude attitudes (…) The idea was to out-punk the punks, thereby recapturing the wild promise of the genre, with its tantalizing suggestion that rock music should be something more than mere entertainment—that it should, somehow, pose a threat to mainstream culture.”

4. A trailer for an upcoming documentary about the xylophone music of the Sambla Baan people of Burkina Faso.

On Outsider Music I: Lubomyr Melnyk’s “Cloud Passade No. 3″


“The piano and its sound are as much a part of the music as the notes.” – Lubomyr Melnyk

I recently came across some piano music of Lubomyr Melnyk. He makes what he calls “continuous motion” music which involves playing rapid and continuous patterns up and down the keyboard for very long stretches while keeping the sustain pedal down. The effect is a hypnotic, waterfall-like sound wall. The music is very tonal and consonant harmonically, and has a steady, if somewhat frantic, 12-beat pulse. The continuity, consonance, and length of Melnyk’s pieces create a kind of heightened state. As you listen you hear little inherent patterns within the patterns as your ears latch onto different note combinations, and if you’re like me, feel non-musical things. (Isn’t that the point of music?)

Here is a three-minute excerpt taken from three-quarters of the way through a 17-minute performance of Melnyk’s “Cloud Passade No. 3:

A few observations about the music. First, despite its speed, Melnyk’s playing doesn’t feel physical or strenuous–it just feels flowing, which is itself a musical-technical accomplishment. Second, his chord choices are subtle and unusual–they don’t seem to follow the conventional logic that this style of music would suggest. Third, the music is reminiscent of some classic minimalist fare–leaning more towards Philip Glass’s romanticism than Steve Reich’s asceticism–yet Melnyk’s work has its own agenda too. Fourth, this piece raises the question of musical canons and repertoires, and insiders and outsiders vis-a-vis musical traditions–specifically about how it comes to be that some composers rather than others have their voices widely heard, and how it is that some musical gestures rather than others are spread far and wide and ultimately accepted. Finally, as I listened to this piece I found that I wasn’t thinking about music per se, just enjoying a waterfall sound wall. As the music constructed an array of emotions in me, I stopped thinking about its precedents or its stylistic brethren. That’s often a sign that a music is doing what every music aspires to do: create a space in which feeling and intellection can celebrate together over the sounds’ meaningful fire.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. A question-answer about Spotify’s shuffle algorithm.

“Working at Spotify has taught me a few things, one of them being is that it’s really, really, really hard to build something that a human will genuinely feel is shuffled. People still constantly come up to me at parties and tell me that the shuffle functionality is not random.”

2. An article about how musical training is good for the brain.

“The latest findings add to mounting evidence that musical training not only gives young developing brains a cognitive boost, but those neural enhancements extend across the lifespan into old age when the brain needs it most to counteract cognitive decline.”

3. An article about sound pollution’s impact on how we hear nature.

“This gift that we are born with – to reach out and hear things hundreds of metres away, all these incredible sounds – is in danger of being lost through a generational amnesia…There is a real danger, both of loss of auditory acuity, where we are exposed to noise for so long that we stop listening, but also a loss of listening habits, where we lose the ability to engage with the environment the way we were built to.”

Reflections On Melody: Listening To Shivkumar Sharma (Again)

The music of Shivkumar Sharma has an enduring appeal for me. Sharma is a master santoor player who combines the best of percussion playing and melody-making. Performing to the accompaniment of a tabla drummer, Sharma weaves line after line of dulcimer melodies within the rhythmic cycles outlined by the tabla. It’s groovy and endlessly tuneful.

Here he is performing:

As I listened to his music recently I reflected on how we often think about melody in terms of “tunes” or “themes” that are somehow distinct, catchy, and memorable. The melody of a song is supposed to be a singular thing. For example, something like The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”

or the zippedy up and down opening of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”:

or the less exaltedly tuneful hook to last year’s pop hit “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith which, by the way, is eerily similar to Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” (Petty was rewarded writing credit for what he called a “musical accident.”)

The point is, melodies are ideally these valuable things that are instantly recognizable, cherished, and in our era, copyrighted and protected.

But back to Sharma. When I listen to his playing I think about melodies differently. I’m reminded of how endless they can be.

Maybe that weaving-cloth metaphor I opened with isn’t apt after all, because melodies in Indian classical music have a liquidity and fluidity and fungibility about them. Whether sung by a vocalist, plucked by a sitar player, or hammered by a santoor player like Sharma, melodies in this music just endlessly flow along their ornamented paths through time. As I listen to Sharma I get the sense that the melodies he improvises coud be poured into one another, mixed and heated, changed into different states.

Thinking about melody this way–as an improvised practice that moves from moment to moment to shape the unfolding music–helps me reign in the notion of melody being a composed, exalted thing. Speaking of which, are we really well served by this idea anymore? Maybe not. Maybe this ear-blinds us the potentially vast expanses of melody’s landscapes.

You can read more about Sharma in an older blog post of mine.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article by Alex Ross on the music and career of Bjork, and the idea of musical genre.

“Stream, delta, border, boundary: we keep reaching for geographical metaphors as we speak of genres and we sense that the real landscape of musical activity ultimately has little to do with our tidy delineations, or indeed with the dismantling of them. Fluid and shifting, music is spread out like populations around urban centres, and certain communities could plausibly be assigned to one city’s suburbs or to another’s. Genre may be a kind of gerrymandering practised by musical politicians. Indeed, composers routinely complain when they are described as busters of genre or crossers of boundaries; they tend to view themselves simply as artists working with various kinds of material.”

2. An interview in The Quietus with fiddle and recorder player Laura Cannell about improvisation and the mixing of folk and medieval musics.

“Whenever you do music you’re always trying to tap into something a little bit magical, something difficult to contain or describe. That’s what makes you love it: the thing that you can’t explain that happens in your head when listening or playing. So yeah, not on purpose, but I just want to do something that I think sounds brilliant, that I really love. Again, I don’t want to say “anti-classical”, but I think it is anti-classical because (in that tradition) you can get very restricted, it becomes very much about the performance and the notes and what shoes you’re wearing. Being the right sort of performer. And I hate that, I feel like I’ve had a reaction against it; I want the music to move me.”

3. A piece about ragas (scales) in North Indian classical music. Basant Bahar is a compound raga, associated with springtime and interpreted in different ways by leading performers of various gharanas (schools) in the videos below.

Reflections On Richard McGuire’s “Here”


“I had this motto that I was going to make the big things small and the small things big.”
– Richard McGuire (quoted in The New Yorker, November 17, 2014).

Richard McGuire’s Here is a graphic novel that presents a poetic mediation on place and time. The book focuses on a single room in a house from the perspectives of different past, present, and future time periods. The room is a living room, and we see it as it looks and is inhabited circa 1959, 1983, 2015, 1774, and also on other dates, hundreds or thousands of years further back or forward. As the time periods change, we see fashions, decor, and social conventions shift. But we also see how similar humans are over time. The specifics of the place may change, but an underlying energy of the people in it persists.


One of McGuire’s visual narrative techniques–besides inserting the date on the corner of every page–is to divide the page into smaller windows of alternate time frames. In this way, we see the room as it looks in 1971, but at the same time see a corner of it as it is in say, 1791. This allows McGuire to show how different times and places interpenetrate one another, acting as mutual portals for sharing meaning and resonance across the ages.


Here gets you thinking about how things happen and are uttered repeatedly but in different forms over time. Here’s another example from the book that juxtaposes the deep past with the more recent century:


Naturally then, the book’s structure had me thinking about its musical resonances. One of McGuire’s techniques for shaping the book’s text (sporadic and brief as it is) is to show how bits of dialogue (“So what did you say?” “Did you hear that?”) echo and call and respond with one another through different eras. These utterances suggest how specific sounds can remain the same over time, yet have different local meanings.

This is common in music: a riff or a phrase or a composed gesture or a rhythm can travel through time and space, moving from the past to the present, from somewhere there (West Africa, say) to somewhere here (the United States, say)—like a meme. Or sometimes people say very similar musical things in vastly different contexts. And then there is the idea of musical quotation, and the fact of digital sampling. In fact, the musical world as we can experience it today thanks to so many musics streaming at our fingertips is deeply interpenetrated. Like those little windows in McGuire’s Here, we hear musical pasts in our present, and also endless lateral connections–from the East, West, and all points in between. So I guess what I’m saying is that this thought-provoking graphic novel had me thinking about a musical history (in the form of a graphic novel?) that would trace just a few small golden nuggets of sound along their travels to show how deeply music–itself an evanescent kind of space and place–connects us all.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article by David Pogue about Neil Young’s PonoPlayer.

“The results surprised even me. Whether wearing earbuds or expensive headphones, my test subjects usually thought that the iPhone playback sounded better than the Pono Player.”

2. An article about Mickey Guyton and black women in country music.

“The song is lyrically substantive in an era of eye-roll-inducing “sweet little somethin’” trivialities. It is instrumentally rich in an age of drum machines and handclaps. And it’s unapologetically retro at a time when country’s men are chasing every EDM and hip-hop trend to the point of desperation. Factor in the passion and conviction with which Guyton delivers the song’s climactic bridge, and there you have a recipe for a soon-to-be smash hit that will resonate with country fans of all kinds. Guyton may just leave country music better than she found it.”

3. An article about Ferran Adria’s creativity foundation.

“You don’t have to be passionate to be creative; you can just be professional about innovation.”

4. An article about Iggy Azalea and the white appropriation of hip hop.

“Rap music will always be rooted in the immutable allure of black masculine cool, but it’s no longer an exclusive expression of black urbanity. (…) As for her delivery, it’s a needling imitation of a black Southern voice, with syllables that twang in the wrong direction and vowels that curve into sour shapes. It’s pantomime devoid of personality. An empty white echo.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 141 other followers