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:

 

David Hockney On Perspective

I’ve been reading more Lawrence Weschler lately, this time his engaging study of the painter David Hockney, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney (University of California Press, 2009). I first encountered Hockney’s work in the mid-1990s at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit was a show of Hockney’s English countryside landscapes. They seemed simple on their surface, but there was something going on in them with regards to perspective: the works seemed to capture multiple viewpoints at once, drawing you in. To make a musical analogy, they were visually polyphonic. I bought a poster and had it framed.

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Anyway, what makes Weschler’s book engaging is its story of Hockney’s seemingly boundless obsession with perspective in visual art. One fulcrum for this obsession is his interest in how and why European art underwent a profound shift in perspective, precision, and realism around the 1420s. Hockney thinks the reason is due to the use of optical projection devices. Hockney, who even wrote a book about his (controversial) theory, Secret Knowledge (2001), expresses his curiosity about the matter in the form of a question: “How come awkwardness seems to disappear completely from Western European art for three hundred years and then just as quickly reappear? It all just happens by itself? That would be the loopy theory” (133).

Weschler traces how Hockney arrived at his interest and along this journey are several series of works that I found interesting. One early series consisted of photo collages built out of dozens of Polaroids. Hockney took photos of his subject matter–his living room, a swimming pool, a California highway, the Grand Canyon–from a multitude of viewpoints. Then he organized the photos in a way that requires the viewer to slow down and move through the pictorial space, one segment after another–back and forth, up and down–always scanning over time. Here are two:

sunonthepool

c_hockney

One interesting thing about these collages: each photo is a self-contained viewpoint. Another thing: the effect is at once unrealistic in that you notice the artifice of Hockney’s technique and also hyper realistic in that you find yourself noticing that this is actually how we see the world: in and as a series of glances, instants, and angles that enter our field of perception for a flash before we turn our attention elsewhere. The effect is pure art: simple, yet it gets you thinking.

As I read and looked at the pictures I thought about how all this might pertain to musical practice. (I also wrote about perspective in music here.). Music, of course, is different from visual art in that it requires time to unfold. You can’t listen to a symphony in a second–you have to wait it out and keep paying attention, moment by moment. But the fact that some musics–intensely polyrhythmic musics or polyphonic musics, for instance–make deep perceptual demands on us insofar as they pack a lot of information into each moment reminded me of how Hockney’s works seem to chase after ways to model themselves on how we apply our senses over time.

Incidentally, when Hockney spoke of the “awkwardness” in art reappearing after three hundred years, he was referring to Cubism. Picasso, Hockney told Weschler, wasn’t trying to “deconstruct” his subject matter. Rather, he was trying to faithfully convey a sense of how we behold the world around us. “The monocular claim to univalent objective reality is falling away once and for all,” he says, “and we are being thrust back on ourselves, forced to take responsibility for the way we make and shape our realities, with eye and hand and heart” (143).

Richard Powers On Divisions In Music

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“Music doesn’t mean things. It is things.” – Richard Powers

In a recent interview on Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, novelist Richard Powers spoke about his new music-saturated novel, Orfeo. Powers makes a probing–and somewhat problematic–observation about the source of what he calls “the real division in music.” What he’s referring to, I think, is the reason why some people have a fascination with some types of music and loathing for others. Here is Powers:

“The real division in music is not highbrow-lowbrow. The real division, it seems to me, is music that appeals instantly through sonority and a reduction in complexity and using repetition as a way of creating the propulsion and the hook and the forward motion. Versus music that’s developmental and needs to change the way narrative changes. And that requires memory to know how far that theme is traveling.”

On the one hand, Powers’ observation is probing because it gets at one of the signal differences between classical and popular musics. Classical music–much of it anyway–is often built on elaborate and extended chord progressions. As we listen to a symphony, the sequence of chords lead us, metaphorically speaking, on a journey that could be likened to a narrative. Popular music–much of it anyway–is often built on a much shorter sequence of chords. (Some popular music today just hovers with presence around a single chord.) When we listen to say, Beyoncé’s latest, we listen for the groove, the sound, a voice, or maybe a repeating chorus that’s so catchy. True, speaking of “classical” and “popular” like this is painting with broad strokes, but in general these differences between the different idioms have been, and remain, quite real.

On the other hand, Powers’ observation is problematic because it hints at a judgement leveled at all those musics that don’t adhere to the classical idiom’s narrative mold. Look again at some of his language. He speaks of a music that “appeals instantly through sonority,” involves a “reduction of complexity,” and uses repetition to create propulsion, hook and forward motion–as if these are bad things! But they’re good things, are they not?

In fact, even a cursory glance through late 20th- and early 21st-century music reveals that developments in the sonorities of timbre (think electronic music), the reduction of complexity (think minimalist art), and the propulsion and forward motion of repetition (think African American popular musics) have been paramount to music’s ongoing story. In other words, they’ve been very good things! Some of this development has been inspired, in one way or another, by electronic music technologies such as the synthesizer, the drum machine, software sequencers, and other interfaces. That’s also a good thing.

Which brings us back to Powers’ point about how music that appeals instantly through its sonics and its rhythmics doesn’t require memory the way music that harmonically unfolds over time does. He’s probably right. But then again, maybe our perception about what is good and interesting music is itself shifting. If music, as the musicologist David Burrows suggests, is a virtual model of our experience in the world (“the urgencies and the passions of living are among the things that music models”), maybe our go-to musics tell us something about our changing capacities to pay attention to, engage with, and remember with music.

On The Musicality Of Architecture

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Martin Mull

times square blocks

Walking across a recently re-designed section of Times Square last week I had a pleasant sensation that the design was working on me, on us pedestrians, guiding us along certain paths and shaping our sense of space. Sometime last year I read a New Yorker article about the architectural changes in store for Times Square. The city had hired the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta to make the area more people friendly. The firm studied patterns of pedestrian movement and found that despite the existing walkways being closed to traffic and painted bright and non-street like colors, folks still preferred the sidewalks–in part because the sidewalks were raised higher than the street and thus felt safer. The proposed renovation (to be completed by 2015) aims to get rid of this height differential between road and sidewalk, unifying everything with a series of interlocking and slightly contoured concrete blocks. Here’s Snøhetta’s description of their design:

“clear and simple ground surface made of pre-cast concrete pavers creates a strong anchor for the space, allowing the excitement of Times Square’s commercial components to shine more brightly above […] The area’s new two-toned custom pavers are embedded with nickel-sized steel discs that will capture the neon glow from the signs above and playfully scatter it across the paving surface. In addition to simplifying the ground surface by consolidating both moveable and permanent sidewalk and street elements, Snøhetta’s redesign also addresses practical issues such as drainage and maintenance and programmatic flexibility.”

And here’s a close-up of the concrete blocks:

times square ground

It wasn’t until I walked on the blocks in a completed section that I felt the power of Snøhetta’s design. What was most striking is that the space seemed to foster a sense of expansiveness and possibility as I walked around it. Something about its subtle textures and angles re-oriented how I felt the plaza.

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Walking about the Snøhetta plaza, I thought about how music shapes and directs our sensations. In fact, it does this so effectively that sometimes we hardly notice the sounds working on us–whether they be steady beats that induce dance, noisy and distorted timbres that suggest aggression or maybe defiance, or static drones and long tones that invite contemplation. Of course, each of us bring our experience to our listening, yet the shape of the musical object remains primary. Like the interlocking and angles concrete bricks at the Times Square plaza, the design of a music works on us, sometimes despite us. We go in feeling one thing, but soon start feeling something else.

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As I took in the environment of new textures, shapes, and angles, I also remembered a book by architect/philosopher Christopher Alexander called A Pattern Language (1977). It’s about the aesthetics of architecture and urban design, proposing a set of some 253 different design patterns found in human-built environments that encourage meaningful living. From the public patterns of town, neighborhood, and street design, to the patterns of home and garden, A Pattern Language suggests that it’s the relationship between the small elements of ordinary places that create the good feeling we get when we’re in them. These relationships explain why we find say, a reading nook at the top of the stairs “safe”, an archway “mysterious”, or a stone walkway out to the garden “inviting.” Whether we’re talking about the design patterns of spaces or music, our environment matters.

Notes On What Makes A Piece Of Music Work: Boards Of Canada’s “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

“So it was becoming clear to me that texture deserved as great a place as process in the theory of how music involves people and draws you into deep identification, total participation, past the logical contradictions of separation from the Other.” — Charles Keil, Music Grooves, p. 169

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As I listened to Boards Of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp 2013), I thought about how music–any and all musics?–gives us clues to its interpretation in the process of its sounding. A performance of music is like a story with characters, plot, and setting. Some musics have just a single protagonist that undergoes a series of transformations, or maybe obsessively repeats a few actions over and over. Other musics have many, many moving parts co-existing in one chaotic mix. And some musics are like a magnifying glass, inviting your attention to focus on one detail or another. Whatever its particularities, music is an affective form that appears to answer the questions it poses over time.

Boards Of Canada, a Scottish electronic duo (no, they’re not Canadian), were part of a wave electronic dance music experimentalists that appeared in the 1990s making what some people called IDM or “intelligent dance music.” The label was unfortunate but the music could and can be interesting–blending compelling sounds and textures with less than obvious beat-making into a complex whole. BOC’s signature sound has a gauzy, hazy, and wobbly/out of tune quality which the duo links to their love of 1970s National Film Board of Canada documentary film soundtracks they watched and listened to as kids in Scotland. As if in homage to this influence, something in their music always sounds weathered and out of focus.

As I listen to track two, “Reach For The Dead” I reach for the particular qualities I would talk about if asked about how the piece works on me. I might talk about how it has four chords, each held for four beats, and that the chords unfold in a progression over 24 measures that repeats. I might talk about the half-time feel of the percussion: the kick drum on beats 1 and 3 and a half, and the snare drum backbeat on beats 3. I might talk about the gradual accretion of parts on the track: layer after layer added–from drone chords to percussion to arpeggiating keyboard to strings–to create an increasingly thick texture. I might talk about how many of these melodic sounds are continuous sounds: the bass and keyboard sounds have a sustain but seemingly no decay, making a kind of wall of sound. Or I might talk about the overall timbre or tone color of the music. BOC’s timbres are unabashedly electronic, yet far from cold. Timbre-wise, theirs like an Instagrammed sound.

Which of these musical qualities is most essential? None in isolation from the others. Together, they all contribute to the music’s emotional feel. And funny enough, it’s exactly this quality–the most important measure of a music’s power–that I’m at a loss to fully measure and describe.

Notes On A Talk By Robert Fripp

On a whim
I searched Spotify
for music by Robert Fripp
but found none.

Instead
there was a recording of him speaking to a crowd
about various musical things.

And it was good.

“Music never goes away” he said,
“It’s always available,
but we are not always
available to music.”

And when pushed
to say where music comes from,
to say something about its source,
he just said, resoundingly:

“Music comes from love.”

On Negative Achievement: The XX Perform In New York

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“The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement.”
– Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose

If you are a fan of musical minimalisms, atmospheric indie rock, and electronic beats, there was a lot to like about the xx’s poised and elegantly understated performance at Hammerstein Ballroom last week. The young Mercury Prize-winning trio from the UK is Romy Madley Croft on electric guitar and vocals, Oliver Sim on bass and vocals, and Jamie Smith on electronic percussion and keyboards. Theirs is a stripped-down, austere and moody sound that relies on just a few echo-y guitar chord progressions, a handful of sliding bass notes and spartan beats to conjure deep feeling. Against this musical backdrop is Croft’s and Sim’s deeply affecting singing–a singing that is only possible with close mic’ing and serious amplification. Many xx songs feature Croft and Sim taking turns singing the lines of the songs which has the effect of making the song sound like voicing shared secret stories between them that we are listening in on. In concert, the quiet singing sounds powerful and intimate and the minimalist musical textures richly transparent.

While Croft and Sim sing and play at the front of the stage, it is percussionist/programmer Smith standing behind them who is most interesting to watch. (I plead guilty here to a percussion bias.) Smith had an array of electronic drum pads and sample/sequencer machines set up at three different stations across the stage. On most songs you could see him doing something I have only recently thought about as a bona fide kind of musical activity: electronic finger drumming. Standing in front of a hardware controller, Smith used his index fingers to slam out sampled kicks, snare drums, hi hats, hand claps, and other percussive shards in real time. On one song he even played steel pan–though I couldn’t see an actual pan. (And does this matter if Smith used real pan mallets and the sound was real enough?) The pleasure of watching Smith was that you could see him truly controlling the percussion parts–playing little fills, leaving silent spaces at the end of phrases, and, most importantly, keeping his own perceptibly imperfect time that didn’t ever sound quantized (save for a few pre-sequenced patterns he would trigger here and there while busy with something else). Thus, even in those moments where a song had a four-on-the-floor kick drum part you could hear Smith’s small imperfections. Smith also had a single crash cymbal set up at one station center stage. On one song, the percussionist’s right hand held a stick to play a ride pattern on the cymbal while his left hand index finger drummed away kick and snare patterns on tiny rubber pads. What a striking contrast between the acoustic and the electronic! But thanks to Hammerstein Ballroom’s powerful amplification, it all gelled together. If Smith’s finger drumming skills weren’t enough, he also played  keyboards here and there. Hats off to his heavy musical lifting.

With the xx, less really is more. The band can extract drama and maintain musical interest from the most seemingly threadbare of materials, and their songs rarely follow popular music’s verse-chorus-bridge conventions. The xx will repeat parts and stay in a place for a while, letting intensity build by other means. It turns out that those threadbare materials–cycling around the notes of a minor triad, say–are anything but. And while I sometimes found myself wanting a little more –a few more strange chords, or maybe some denser rhythmic stuff–the xx make music their way, and theirs is as much about all the things they choose not to do.

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“Angels”, the opening song on the xx’s recent album Coexist, is effective for reasons both musical and sonic. Musically, there are just four sound sources: Croft’s voice, electric guitar, electric bass, and drum programming. By the standards of multi-layered contemporary pop, it’s a simple instrumentation, but the music fits together in a powerful way. Each part itself is simple too: the guitar plays a 2-note riff that moves around, plus a few chords; the bass slides over a few notes, first in the upper range, then in the lower; the drum programming eschews pretending to be a conventional kit and alternates between sparse scattershot snare drum rolls and concert bass drum hits; and Croft’s voice rarely gets beyond whispering a melody within the tight confines of the first five notes of a minor scale.

“Angels” is also sonically striking. Each instrument inhabits a distinct space in the mix. The guitar is deeply reverbed to sound distant–distant as if off in a far corner of a cathedral; the bass is in a drier and closer proximity to sound like its amplifier is but a few feet from the mic; the drum programming is surreal: the concert bass drum so huge that it momentarily obliterates the other instruments each time it’s sounded, while the snare drum swims in a long tail reverb yet still sounds closer to us than the guitar; finally, the Croft’s voice has a super close-up and dry sound, as if Croft is whisper-singing with a hoodie on and her mouth an inch from the mic. On the one hand, “Angels” sounds like a realistic recording: like four musicians located at varying locations around a single microphone. On the other hand, the song also presents an impossible listening perspective that places the listener at the center of each sound. “Angels” is a simple song, but its arrangement and its recording give it reams of deep resonance.