brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: affect

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.

***

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.

***

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

***

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.

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.

How Many Words Is A Sound Recording Worth?

“Seeing is believing, but hearing is hearsay” — Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies (2011)

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Instamatic, a smartphone photo app, because it makes me feel like a skilled photographer. The app is essentially photo editing software that allows you to quickly–really quickly, with the tap of a virtual button, actually–apply a range of filters to your photo to make it look sharper and just plain cooler. Cooler because the filters make your photo look old, moody, vintage, over-saturated, analog old-school, or as Leonard Koren might describe the worn aesthetic–wabi-sabi (you can read more about this Japanese concept here). Instamatic is also a social app, allowing you to share pics with other Instamatic users. So I imagine there are billions of Instamatic photos floating out in the ether, capturing and constructing cool wherever we users happen to point our camera-phones. It feels that easy to use: point, shoot, add filter. Here is one of my pics:

You get the idea.

Thinking about it, it strikes me that Instamatic encourages people to think photographically–to be on their toes, ready for cool sights to capture and render. This is a good thing in that the app pushes us to be visual ethnographers, documenting the passing, strange, and wonderful of our everyday lives. When we take pictures, we see the world differently for a few moments. We think about how we can “frame” what we observe around us, and how we can compress the seen into a visual document for posterity or for our friends. A lot is captured in a photo too. Consider the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” which refers to the idea that a complex idea can be conveyed through a single image. If this isn’t literally true, then pictures at least provide the illusion of capturing ideas because in pictures we notice so many details, contrasts, and relationships.

But here are my questions: How many words is a sound worth? And if there were an Instagram-like app for capturing, filtering, and sharing sound (calling all app developers out there!), would have it have the same emotional resonance as Instagram?

***

I decided to experiment with taking a field recording I made on my iPhone and running it through some effects processing to try to create some different aural moods. The recording is of a man playing the accordian on a subway platform at Grand Central Station in New York City. After listening to him for a while, I donated some money and he turned to face me so I could take a photo. I liked the music he was playing, and liked it even more as I fiddled around with adding effects to it.

Here is my original field recording:

Here is the clip with delay added so that it sounds like the instrument is bouncing off walls, all dubby and mysterious:

Here is the clip with static added so that it sounds somewhat like an old recording:

Here is the clip with chorusing and flanging added:

Here is the clip with distortion added:

Here is the clip with reverb added so that it sounds like it’s in a cave or large cathedral:

Here is the clip with a glitch-y effect added:

You get the idea. (My favorite, by the way, is the clip with delay added.)

Now one question is whether or not the application of these audio effects affects the mood of the original recording. The answer, I think, is yes, but exactly how the effects alter the mood is somewhat hard to describe. A second and even more fundamental question: Do the audio clips convey as much as the photo of the accordian player conveys? I think so, though the things they tell us are of a different order. Given that I have included a photo of the musician above, we can directly compare the different kinds of information the visual and aural media bring to our awareness. Looking at his photo, you might notice how he’s dressed (casually in jeans, and with a baseball cap), the expression on his face as he plays (pretty neutral, though he was smiling for my picture), or even the heft of his instrument–it almost looks like it’s a struggle just to get those accordian bellows to wheeze into life. My photo captures these bits of information, but it leaves other things out. By contrast, the audio recording isn’t static like the photo is. Instead, it captures the accordian player’s performance over time (about a minute and half of time, in fact). This allows us to experience the non-musical ambient sounds of the subway too–for example, the sounds of other people, and the sounds of spare change landing in the musician’s open instrument case. Without anything to see, we can only focus on the audible information, but we’re granted the luxury of letting that information reveal itself over a duration. Finally, what’s most striking to me when comparing the photograph of the accordian player with a recording of his music is that the music seems more melancholy and expressive than its maker actually looks. The music seems to tell a story that we might miss if we were only looking.

On Vocal Frying

“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people, and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.”  – Mark Liberman, linguist, University of Pennsylvania

The image is impossible for me to prevent in my mind’s eye: spoken and sung words and phrases immersed like Lego blocks into the boiling oil of a deep fryer, one letter at a time, melting and losing their form while crisping away. But the phenomenon known as vocal frying has nothing whatsoever to do with heat. Rather, it describes the low-frequency creaking (or frying) sound we make when we speak or sing in our lowest vocal register. In essence, frying is the sound of our vocal chords vibrating irregularly at a very slow rate of speed, producing a pitch that is low (on average about 36 Hertz or vibrations per second) and on the verge of breaking up.

Vocal frying has been around as long as we’ve been speaking and singing and the technique can found across musical cultures. Most often it’s used as a way to reach low notes otherwise unreachable and to communicate a particular kind of affect. But in recent years, vocal frying has floated to the surface popular awareness, partly thanks to American celebrities including pop singer Britney Spears and that famous-for-being-famous reality TV star, Kim Kardashian.

Back in 1999 Spears had a breakout hit song called “Baby One More Time” that launched her career. At the beginning of each line of the verses and especially when she sings the repeating “Oh baby, baby” hook you can pure vocal frying. Spears was never the strongest singer, but she has undoubtedly been helped by recording technology and the production techniques of her main producer/songwriter, Sweedish pop maestro Max Martin. Just as refinements in microphone technology paved the way for the laid back and close-up crooning of Frank Sinatra, so too has computer music production encouraged vocal frying to join pop’s lexicon of cool sounds.

Here is Spears:

Going beyond Britney, you can hear another kind of vocal frying in Louis Armstrong’s singing. Here the fry was part and parcel of Armstrong’s famously precise vocal phrasing and warm appeal:

There’s also audible frying at the beginning of phrases sung by male country singers where the fried twang signifies a heartfelt, good old, down-by-the-country-fair kind of feeling. Here is country star Brad Paisley frying the word “I” at the beginning of each line he sings:

In musical cultures further afield, frying characterizes the glorious sound of Tuvan, Mongolian and Tibetan overtone singing (singing in which both fundamental and overtone pitches can be heard simultaneously). In Tuva, for example, the low-pitched style of singing known as kargyraa has a heavily fried fundamental pitch rich with overtones. Here is the late Aldyn-Ool Sevek singing:

***

The vocal fry got a promotional boost outside of the music world when Kim Kardashian–she of Keeping Up with the Kardashians reality show–started talking and we, for some mysterious reason, started listening. Kardashian’s fry is in a way an update of the 1980s California “Valley Girl” way of speech. Valley Girls, incidentally, started the trend of “uptalking” or making statements sound like questions? and using the word “like” for like, emphasis. In this clip of Kardashian encouraging us all to be glamorous, you can hear the fry on the words “shoes”, “squad”, and “equinox”:

Valley Girl speak was a way of signifying a particular brand of harmlessly annoying girl privilege–in essence, the sound of a kind of ennui. Kardashian’s vocal fry similarly functions to signify ditziness and reassure Kardashian listeners that the star is a harmless (yet desirable and unattainable) bombshell, easy to dismiss yet nevertheless kind of fascinating too.

Reading about the widespread use of vocal frying among young women (there’s an informative article in the NYTimes here) I’ve learned that the sound plays two roles at once. On the one hand, notes linguist Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, the fry is a way for women to lower their voices to sound more authoritative and assume a more powerful sonic stance. This connects to findings about early use of frying as far back as the 1960s among British men wishing to indicate their “superior social standing.” So in a way, the vocal fry may be a kind of modern female way of speaking appropriated from an old male way of acting haughty. On the other hand, the fry is simultaneously used to create a sense of lightness and harmlessness–the exact opposite of what we think of as being authoritative. As linguist Mark Liberman notes, women use the vocal fry “when they’re relaxed and even bored, not especially aroused or invested in what they’re saying.” But again, this perhaps connects to those stodgy British men who use their voice to act like they’re above it all. These research findings not only help explain Spears’ and Kardashian’s use of the vocal fry, but also point towards the endlessly interesting ways all of us socially construct our identities through the sounds we make.

“Where Are We?”: Situating Wonder Through Music In Apple Siri Commercials


wonder — (1): rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience; (2) : a feeling of doubt or uncertainty

Is there anything the Apple iPhone can’t do? And for that matter, is there anything Siri, the phone’s voice activated seer, doesn’t know? Recently I happened to be in Brooklyn early one morning and asked Siri where the nearest coffee shop was. She found a half-dozen places within a few blocks and with a glance down at their respective customer reviews (I love reading reviews, remember?) I was off and running. Siri was spot on too: the café was awesome and its croissants of the first rank.

I’ve learned about the kinds of things one can ask Siri not through trial and error–I keep meaning to experiment with questions yet never seem to have pressing ones in need of answering–but through Apple iPhone magazine ads and TV commercials. For example, on the back page of the March 5 New Yorker, there’s an ad that shows the iPhone in a well-manicured man’s hand providing the answer to a question the man has just asked. The question was “How do I play a B Major scale?” and Siri’s answer is graphic–showing the notes of the B Major scale as they are written on a treble clef and as they would be played on a keyboard. Impressive. Though I have to wonder why a musician would need this information, or how a non-musician could ever possibly benefit from knowing this particular bit of music theory. (And it’s incomplete music theory too, because Siri doesn’t show how the B major key signature is notated.) So the question was a strange one, but its answer certainly shows off Siri’s musical range.

Inspired by this ad, I asked Siri “How do I play a polyrhythm” and she asked me if I’d mind connecting to the Internet? (Do I have a choice?) Once I assented she brought up some Google results, the first of which was a strange YouTube video in which a spaced-out looking piano teacher awkwardly demonstrates his method for playing a two beats against three beats polyrhythm (using the mnemonic “not-di-ffi-cult–not-di-ffi-cult…”). Below this video was the Wikipedia entry on polyrhythm. Not bad, I guess, though I was hoping Siri would be the one doing the explaining in that cool clinical voice of hers. I guess the technology isn’t that advanced yet.

***

In the Siri TV commercials we see folks out and about, relying on Siri to answer all kinds of questions and help make things happen. For example, in the “Road Trip” commercial we follow a young couple taking a cross-country adventure from a frigid east coast to sunny Santa Cruz, CA. Along the way, Siri fields questions about driving routes, Kansas city BBQ joints, the meaning of life (“Where are we?”), the size of the Grand Canyon, gas station locations, and star constellations. What an informed companion!

What really struck me about the ads though, was their background music. After hearing it a few times I had an idea of the sense it intended to convey: wonder. Wonder at the strange and portable technological miracle that is the smartphone and its voice recognition functionality. Below is the “Road Trip” commercial (just one of several). Try to listen closely: the music is low in the overall mix, but it works to conjure a very particular sensation of awe:

This background music is the song “Orchestral–Goldengrove v2″ by Keith Kenniff, an American composer and multi-instrumentalist who records ambient electronic music under the monikers Helios and Goldmund. (I used to listen to Helios quite a bit.) The piece musically constructs a sense of wonder through its chord progression, its layered and shifting harmonic dissonances, its bubbling arrangement of piano and orchestral instruments (woodwinds, strings, celeste), and its open-ended 6-beat meter that hints at a two against three polyrhythm. (Polyrhythm is always a wonder if you ask me.)  Here’s the piece:

“Orchestral–Goldengrove v2″ not only conjures a sense of wonder, but also a sense of the American classical composer Philip Glass. The rhythmically churning arrangement of arpeggiating chords recalls Glass’s score for the 1982 silent film Koyaanisqatsi whose subject matter is not the wonders of contemporary urban life but rather its drudgery, emptiness and lack of balance. But more to the point, the commercial sounds a lot like Glass’s music for the 1998 movie The Truman Show. Here’s that music:

And this is where things get interesting. Glass’s Truman Show theme is based on a sequence of four chords that repeat over and over (until 1:16 where the music moves into another section). The chords are, to my ear: f minor, d-flat major, a-flat major, and C major. Interestingly, this is exactly the same chord sequence (albeit in a different key and at a faster tempo) heard over and over in the first minute of Keniff’s “Goldengrove v2″ and the main reason the two pieces sound so similar. So, is this just a musical coincidence? Or were the creators of the Siri commercial deliberately going for a Philip Glass effect to convey the sense of wonder? Indeed, a casual listener might well confuse the two pieces on the basis of the chords alone. They’re that similar.

In case you didn’t know, a chord sequence on its own can’t be copyrighted. The reason being that chords–clusters of pitches played at the same time like the notes c, e, and g make a C Major chord–are the generic building blocks of a piece of music that can be combined in many, many different ways. It’s only once you combine a chord sequence with a melody then you have something distinctive and copyrightable. Glass’s piece has a melody that meanders around the notes of those four chords, and remarkably, Keniff’s “Goldengrove v2″ seems to copy that too. (If you listen again to Keniff’s piano part at 0:34-0:50 you can hear it picking out the same first few notes as Glass’s tune before it veers elsewhere.) What’s going on here? Are we just listening too closely? Or was some secret licensing deal forged behind the scenes, guiding the musical textures in the commercial? Oh the unanswered questions!

But the irony of what appears to be a kind of musical appropriation in the Siri commercial is not lost on astute TV viewers out there listening closely. For example, on the website http://www.osxdaily.com a commenter named elesiumfilm theorizes on what this kind of musical appropriation illuminates about our relentless consumption of technology in the pursuit of wonder:

“This advert horrifies me, exactly because of the music. It’s an almost EXACT rip-off of part of the Truman Show soundtrack, and I find it amazingly ironic that music from a film about a man whose life is completely faked by entertainment corporations is being taken off to advertise technology that encourages people to live their whole lives through the filter of a little screen–chillingly ironic.”

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