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Category: creative strategies

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 The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.

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There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:

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In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

On Four Tet Remixing “Thriller” In Ten Minutes

I recently watched and re-watched a wonderful video in which Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) remixes Michael Jackson’s Thriller as part of the “Beat This” series. The challenge is to make a remix in ten minutes. The catch is that Hebden can only use sounds from Thriller. What makes the video wonderful–even a little thrilling–is seeing and hearing a producer work in real time. The time constraint is actually useful, because it serves to compress a series of steps and decisions Hebden must take and make in order to whip something up. What we’re left with is the essence of transforming one work of music into another.

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With the clock ticking, Hebden begins. For the first thirty seconds, he skips the stylus around side one of Jackson’s 1982 record, sampling a few bars from a few songs. He wastes no time, taking bits from the openings of “Beat It”, “Billy Jean”, “Human Nature”, and “P.YT.” Satisfied he has enough material to work with (clock is ticking!), he turns off the record player and turns to his laptop. Next, he loads the Thriller samples into a Drum Rack in Ableton. The Drum Rack simulates the series of rubber drum pads that one might find on hardware drum machine, each pad assigned to a sound sample. With the sounds loaded in, Hebden can move around their waveforms, listening for interesting bits.

At 8:19, Hebden isolates the kick drum from the “Billy Jean” beat, and draws in a four-on-the-floor MIDI pattern that triggers the kick. He also quickly EQs it to bring up its bass frequencies. With the repeating kick as an anchor, he isolates the snare drum sound from the same song, putting it on every fourth beat, and the hi hat sound from “P.Y.T”, putting it on every 8th note offbeat. By 6:35 he has a dance music rhythm going. At 6:00, Hebden has found a small bit from “P.Y.T.” and re-pitched it. He keeps wandering about the “P.Y.T.” sample, only to return to the bit he likes around 5:25. Next, around 5:00, he draws in a three-note MIDI rhythm, and uses this rhythm to trigger the opening sound of “Beat It.” (How did Jackson make that sound, by the way?) By 3:30, Hebden is working on the Arrangement page, organizing his repeating parts into a larger structure. At 1:19 you can hear how ominous one of his re-pitched voice samples has become. In fact, for me, this background ambiance is now the hook of the remix.

Finally, the ten minutes are up and Hebden has something. When asked by one of the cameramen if he likes the piece, Hebden says he does, joking that he’ll play the remix exactly as is at a club in London that coming weekend.

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In sum, the video offers us a few lessons. First, even a very short window of time is enough time in which to make something–or start something. Hebden, ever skilled with his software and experienced ear, managed to create a tight arrangement in a few minutes. Second, we see a musician working with a limited set of materials–brief samples from four songs–to make something new. But the materials aren’t really that limited. Notice, for instance, the thirty seconds during which Hebden scrolls back and forth along a sample, listening to it at various points (6:00-5:25). He chose just one loop that sounded good, but there were probably dozens of others that were just as interesting. Third, the video offers a case study in decision-making. With the 10-minute clock ticking down, Hebden has to decide which sounds he likes. There’s no time to waste: if something catches his attention, he goes with it. Those dozens of other loop candidates will have to wait for another day (or forever). Fourth, the video shows Hebden working with a very simple studio: a turntable, a computer, an audio interface (to get the turntable sound into the computer), software (Ableton Live), and two speakers. Given all the gear available these days, this set up is beautiful bare bones, and more than enough to work with. Finally, and this surprised me, watch Hebden’s eyes and hands. His eyes dart back and forth, tracking things on his screen, registering tiny details his ears have noticed. Meanwhile, his hands move the mouse and tap keyboard shortcuts–moving, dragging, cutting, and pasting musical material about the virtual environment of the software. This is the electronic musician’s body, engaged in concentration for ten minutes.

You can read more about Kieran Hebden here and here.

Notes On Another Kind of Wonder: A Phenomenology Of Remixing

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“I confronted the tradition directly as a sound form and kinesthetic activity, and made it my own in an act of appropriation that transformed me, my self, into something I hadn’t been before, a person capable of playing in this tradition with at least minimal competence.” – Timothy Rice, “Toward a Mediation of Field Methods and Field Experience in Ethnomusicology” (G.F. Barz and T.J. Cooley, eds., Shadows in The Field, 2008, p. 110)

Introduction: An Invitation To Remix
One summer evening in 2003 while I was doing research on an experimental electronic music scene in New York City, I get talking with a musician at a bar on the Lower East Side. Around us, electronic music enthusiasts hunch over the glow of their laptops—playing sound files, making beats, trying out software, and talking to one another about their work. As I tell my acquaintance about my background as a percussionist and my CD of percussion music I had recorded a few years earlier he offers a bit of advice: “You know, you should just cut up your tracks into samples and dump them into Ableton Live!” Live is a software music sequencer that at the time of my research was fast becoming a ubiquitous tool for making electronic music. My acquaintance tells me that the best way to further my understanding of electronic music is to remix some of my own stuff—play with it, find its potential, and use the software to recycle the music into a new form. He’s trying to tell me something: my CD is not merely a document of composed pieces; it can also be the source of some new music. Ten years later I take the advice and begin remixing my material. This (long) post examines that remix process.

Sound Artifact: Wonders

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Figure 1. Wonders CD

In 1998 I recorded Wonders, a CD of five works for keyboard percussion. Scored for multiple marimbas and vibraphones, the pieces are rhythmically and texturally dense: the music features three to six percussionists playing steady sixteenth-note patterns using two and four mallets in each hand, and the harmonies change slowly, lending the music a pulsating, minimalist sound. In some of the larger pieces, such as the first track, Splash (scored for four marimbas and two vibraphones), the multiple mallet parts create a thick sound—a humming halo of fundamentals and overtones.

Listening For Loops
Thirteen years after recording Wonders, I sit in front of my laptop with headphones on, looking at the screen. I load Splash into Live, my software sequencer, and see the 15-minute track’s waveform laid out before me. How to begin?

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Figure 2. Waveform for “Splash”

Remembering the advice of my acquaintance from the lower East Side all those years ago, I’m listening for audio samples that I can turn into loops. With a few movements of the cursor over Splash’s waveform, I zoom in and focus my attention on one small section at a time. I activate the loop brace function of the software and move the brace around the waveform, selecting small sections of the piece and listen to them loop. I listen in search of a sound that is interesting and mysterious when repeated: I notice the loop’s timbral profile, assess how well it grooves, and get a sense of the feelingful space it inhabits and creates—its musical life force. As I move the loop brace around, tentatively at first, each section I listen to has a distinct affecting presence as a “perpetual and perpetuating action, complete within itself” (Robert Plant Armstrong, The Affecting Presence, 1971, p. 24). This presence strikes me immediately as a visceral response: either the loop sounds appealing and makes sense, or it is unremarkable and lacks some essential logic. I listen to each loop candidate for just a few moments, moving the loop brace along in search of something else, something more compelling.

Moving the loop brace, I notice small qualities within the audio samples that emerge through repetition. Repetition is a revealing, helping me notice magical moments; it draws me inwards towards the loop, focusing my attention on its presence through its characteristic contours and textures. The musician Lee Patterson describes sampling as “an exploration of specific material properties of things… It’s kind of an alchemical process, because not only does the [sampled] object become transformed, but your understanding of the world and these objects becomes transformed as well” (Lee Patterson, “Plink, plink, fizz”, Wire 303, 2009, p. 18.). Moreover, what was once audio background becomes audio foreground—a symmetry is revealed, a fleeting mood made tactile. In his evocative article on the aesthetics of laptop music making, Glenn Bach captures the perceptual pleasure of working with digital audio:

“What happens is a re-examination of the sacrosanct figure–ground relationship of western art and music. By focusing on the ground, by mining the substrate, the laptop alchemist discovers new figures hidden there and brings them to the fore, only to discover altogether new grounds upon which these new figures appear. These new grounds are isolated and the ritual repeats itself” (Glenn Bach, “The Extra-Digital Axis Mundi: Myth, Magic and Metaphor in Laptop Music”, Contemporary Music Review, 22/4, 2003, p. 7).

Listening to the brief sections of Splash under the loop brace renders the original percussion music strangely unfamiliar, the repetition revealing micro- and macro-patterns that would be otherwise hidden within the sample. The sound of some loops reminds of me of the repetition and figure-ground relationships in other percussion musics I have heard such as Ugandan akadinda xylophone music and mbira music from Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik described what he called “inherent rhythms” as perceptual gestalt by-products of the akadinda’s fast-paced, repeating patterns (Gerhard Kubik, “The Phenomenon of Inherent Rhythms In East And Central African Instrumental Music”, African Music 3/1, 1962, pp. 33); inherent rhythms can also be heard in the hypnotic and polyrhythmic sounds of mbira music (Paul F. Berliner, The Soul Of Mbira, 1978, p. 90). In a fashion similar to akadinda and mbira patterns, the looped sections of Splash have inherent rhythms of their own, the samples circling around and around to create a melo-harmonic-rhythmic drone. I’m grooving on them. And then I find my first loop:

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Figure 3. First loop from Splash

The Persistence Of Music-Triggered Memories
Much as I wish I could explore the audio of Splash as if I have never heard the piece before, as I move the loop brace around my memory of the original composition guides my listening. One section prompts memories of details of the composing process twenty years ago in which I worked out a chord progression and a sticking pattern that made bodily sense on the marimba. The memories then scattershot themselves: from listening to the sample to ever more amorphous associations, in a feedback loop—composing the piece, notating it, rehearsing it with other musicians, performing it at concerts, and recording it in a studio. As John Berger notes, memory “works radially…with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event” (John Berger, About Looking, 1980, p. 64). Listening to a single sound sample under the loop brace triggers and re-triggers memories of the original percussion music, and my recollection of its history keeps reasserting itself, over and over again. I try circumventing this sound-memory feedback loop by positioning the loop brace into unusual rhythmic positions such as off beats instead of downbeats. This catches the sampled sound mid-phrase and re-frames my listening; I want to be surprised by what I hear, not reminded of the original piece.

Being Systematic
I listen to one-, two-, and four-measure sections of Splash to hear how they loop. At first, I am systematic about how I locate each loop candidate, nudging the loop brace further along the audio waveform a few beats at a time, trying off beats as well as downbeats. But out of curiosity I skip around too, moving the brace now forward, now backward again by arbitrary amounts—nudging it a half beat, or leaping ahead by seven. Not knowing exactly what to listen for beyond a sound that is interesting and mysterious creates a tension that resists my desire to search for loops in a systematic way. I want to listen to every sample-able moment in Splash—leave no moment of audio un-listened to!—but realize that will not happen. Surely I have already missed many good loops?

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Figure 4. Splash sample edit window. The transpose knob on left is set at -14 semitones

Re-Pitching
My systematic searching is further disrupted by the editing possibilities in my software’s sample edit window. On a whim to explore what might happen to the sound, I turn a knob that controls the pitch of the sample and shift it downwards by one, two, four, seven, and twenty-four semitones, and then back up again to the sample’s original pitch level. As the loop’s pitch is lowered its affect changes dramatically: the sound becomes more wooden and resonates in a hollow, ghostlier way. The lowered pitch also brings out hidden inner voices and harmonies not perceptible at the original pitch level. Then I pitch the loop upward, moving one semitone at a time until it has been transposed by one octave: in this register, the intensity of the loop grows with each upward step and begins to sound like frantic, squelching metallic bells. I like the loop detuned by fourteen semitones the best and save it (Figure 4). But this control over re-pitching loops raises a question that reframes my listening: Should I listen through all of the Splash loop candidates at various different pitch levels? The sonic possibilities raised by this thought are so vast—leave no audio sample un-detuned!—that I instead return to the task of moving around the loop brace. Here and there I will experiment with detuning a loop by fourteen semitones because this remixing move, while discovered on a whim, is now part of my remixing toolkit.

A Delay Effect, Extending The Moment
While searching for loops I experiment with adding effects processing to the marimba samples I have already found and saved. I try EQ’ing them, boosting some of the high frequencies to add articulation and cutting low frequencies to reduce the murky hum of the multiple marimbas; I add compression to make them louder and more focused; and I add delays and reverbs to add a new murky hum I cut out with the EQ’ing. I scroll through the delay effect presets in my software and try out a few, noting that one of the presets turns my marimba loops into rhythmically cascading, waterfall-like streams of sound. The effected loop catches my attention and I listen to it for a while. The delay preset transforms the marimbas by multiplying them and providing further rhythmic motion by adding little melo-harmonic artifacts that ricochet around the stereo field in a way that is polyrhythmic and textured. The sound is unexpected and now I wonder: Could I use this effected loop as a pulsating chordal drone? And how might I build on this pulsating drone?

I spend days, weeks, and then months moving the loop brace around the waveform of Splash, making loops as my thoughts oscillate between past and present, extending radially out towards other experiments by other musicians whose music I have listened to. I think about the 12th-century composer Pérotin who used Church hymn melodies as stretched out and slow-moving basslines for his polyphonic compositions; the musique concrète tape experiments of Pierre Schaeffer, the sound engineer at Radio France in the 1940s who stitched together different train sound samples in his “Étude aux chemins de fer”; the 1960s tape experiments of Steve Reich who played two field recordings of spoken voice samples out of sync with one another to make a phasing, polyrhythmic sound; and of course, the DJ practices of Jamaican dub, disco, and electronic dance musicians over the past forty years who isolate, foreground, and extend the rhythmic break sections of songs to make new groove music. In other words, the only new thing about this is my source of samples. But back to the present: by the time I have cut and saved dozens of marimba loops for Splash, I turn my attention to building on these sounds. If I don’t move on, I could spend forever on this.

Adding Other Sounds: Improvising On A Rhodes
With the marimba loops put into a sequence that makes harmonic sense, I begin adding other sounds. The possibilities offered by my software are bewilderingly large and each sound is stimulating in some way, suggesting a feeling and a musical direction, and I spend hours wandering through soundbanks, playing a single note and just listening to its timbre. The sound possibilities are exponentially increased as I consider how each sound can be altered: I can begin with any sound—a kick drum, a sine wave, a gong, or a marimba sample—and shape it into something different. The sounds in my laptop are endlessly elastic and fungible, but most of these sounds do not fit with my marimba samples so I begin with a sound I already know: a Rhodes electric piano. I let the marimba loops play as a melo-harmonic rhythmic drone and begin playing along with them on the Rhodes, picking out notes and chords, improvising.

Improvising with the Rhodes sound, my goal is to impose some kind of structure onto the marimba loop, but first I need to examine it for clues as to what that structure might be. Fumbling around the keyboard I locate the loop’s main pitch. Depending on the loop, this pitch may or may not be immediately clear. In some cases, it oscillates between two pitches a semitone apart—a sonic ambivalence I enjoy hearing (and one of the reasons I saved the loop in the first place); in other cases, the loop’s pitch level falls between the cracks of the tempered tuning of my MIDI sounds and I need to finesse the loop up or down until is sounds right. With the loop playing, I experiment with intervals and chords: triads, fourths and fifths, and octaves. I keep the intervals open, using them as a way to foreground the consonance of the loop. The sound of the pulsating marimbas creates the sensation that they carry my Rhodes chords high through the air as I arrive at a chord progression that complements the loop: a sequence of triads, or a bass line that slowly moves stepwise up and down. Playing the progression over and over, I refine it, hit record and improvise around it.

Playing long slow tones over the loop, I notice how the affect of the marimbas changes as I shift one note at a time. My perception of the time is shifting: the piece is starting to move at a slower rate, with 60-bar chord progressions on the Rhodes that don’t hem the piece in, but rather open it up. The notes and chords on the Rhodes ring out and decay slowly, suggesting space and a feeling that the time of the music is stretching out. In his meditation on the connections between seeing, feeling, and drawing, John Berger observes “I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world. I do have all the time in the world” (John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011, p. 8). Berger’s observation could describe the sensation of listening to the marimba loops and the slow-moving chord progressions.

The improvisations are equally guided by practical goals: to move from the upper range of the keyboard to the lower, to move from consonance to dissonance, to expand or contract the pacing of the chord sequence. Theoretically I can always edit, cut, and paste my improvisations later on in the process, and the software offers to take over my musical labor: Why play something over and over when you can just loop it (the way you looped the marimba samples)? The software offers help, yet I resist: I want to play all of the parts in the remixes, improvising and capturing a performance. Even parts that repeat a single note I will play through from beginning to end; the parts may sound looped, but they feel different when performed. The Rhodes chord progression holds my attention by changing my perception of the marimba loop. I save it, moving on to play along with another loop and begin the process again. I spend days, weeks, and then months playing along to the loops.

Filling In Other Sounds, Soundsets
With a Rhodes part for each looping marimba section of the remix, I have something to build on and respond to. Just as the marimba loops suggested a direction for the Rhodes improvisations, now the Rhodes parts suggest a direction for other sounds. Listening to the chords and marimba loops, I load a glockenspiel, celeste, sine tone sub bass, a steel pan-like sound I made called Lead, a sawtooth wave sound I made called Treble, and a lush, echoing-dubby synth sound. Some of these sounds are preset sounds that I have found through chance, trial and error, while others have their own stories of discovery. For example, Treble is the default sound in one of my software synthesizers. I take this plain and unadorned sawtooth wave and EQ its frequency profile, removing bass frequencies to make it brittle, lowering mid frequencies make it flatter, and boosting its high frequencies to make it crisp—like a potato chip. Other sounds, like the sine tone sub bass preset, I simply like for their purity. After searching through the hundreds of drum sounds in my software, I choose an old-fashioned percussion soundset: kick drum, hi hat, ride cymbals, tom toms, and a clave-like sound I call Pulse. In all, I decide on a soundset of thirteen different melodic and percussive sounds for the remix. The choice of soundsets is a self-imposed constraint, “encapsulating a defined space for potential expression” (Thor Magnusson, “Designing Constraints: Composing and Performing with Digital Musical Systems”, Computer Music Journal 34, 2010, p. 62). While many other sounds could have worked with my marimba loops, these particular sounds do work and should provide me with plenty of musical options.

Listening to the Rhodes improvisations over the marimba loop, I select one of my other melodic or percussion sounds, and begin improvising with it on the keyboard. I play along to both the Rhodes and the loop, responding to this two-part texture. Sometimes the parts I record take the form of counter melodies; other times they are much simpler, such as a single note or two that repeats—a bell tone or a drum hit, filling in the spaces.

Into New Orbits
My soundset leads me to think about alternate musical roles for each sound and I experiment with bringing the melodic parts into orbits they do not usually inhabit. For example, many sections are harmonically anchored by chord progressions on the Rhodes that range from eight to eighty measures, while the glockenspiel, celeste, lead, treble, and echoing-dubby parts typically “decorate” these progressions with shorter patterns of their own. But mixing up the musical roles of each sound opens up the texture of the remix. Thus, in some sections the Rhodes part sounds long ringing tones in a high register usually occupied by the glockenspiel or celeste. This leaves space in the middle register of the music to be filled in a number of ways: it can be left empty to become a space in which the other melodic sounds are foregrounded; or a chord sequence normally played on the Rhodes can be sounded instead on the bubbly steel-pan like Lead, or the brittle sawtooth Treble sound. Alternately, if the Rhodes moves into a very low register, momentarily functioning like the sub bass, the bass is free to move to a higher one. As I try out numerous combinations, swapping parts and pushing each sound into new orbits and roles, the remix process reveals itself as a kind of puzzle: How many ways can these materials be combined? Whatever I choose to do, changing the role of one sound simultaneously opens up spaces for the other sounds to do something different too. In representing my remix as horizontal strips stacked upon one another like an arrangement of Lego blocks, my music software encourages me to think in such modular terms. As Roger Linn notes, “People don’t play traditional instruments so much anymore, but rather, they play computers […] manipulating objects that they found the same way they do in the art world. I like to call it OOC—object-oriented composition—where the art is in your combination of objects’ (Roger Linn, “Mr. MPC: Roger Linn”, Remix 9/1, 2007, p.51).

Finger Drumming
I play all of the percussion sounds by finger drumming on the keyboard.

drumming on keyboard

Figure 5. Finger drumming on a MIDI keyboard controller

The photo in Figure 5 is of me finger drumming while experimenting with different tom-tom patterns for one section of Splash. As a percussionist, I hear music through the skill set and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike, and when I listen to percussion parts I imagine the physical moves required to play the rhythms on an instrument such as a drum set or hand drum. I hear rhythms as physical possibilities, resonating in sympathy with them, trying to feel their patterns as I might play them myself, and I rely on my embodied memory of how acoustic instruments channel and resist my actions. The notion of musical resistance is discussed by the percussionist Fred Hinger in his book Technique for the Virtuoso Timpanist. Hinger observes that every musician must overcome the resistance of his or her instrument in order to get it vibrating, but percussionists face a uniquely difficult situation in that their instruments “are the only ones not in contact with the player before the instruments are vibrated” (Fred D. Hinger, Technique for the Virtuoso Timpanist, 1975, p. 2). Hinger’s observation about the challenges faced by percussionists also pertains to the electronic musician who works with software. Like the percussionist, the electronic musician is necessarily at a distance from the physical life of sound. Despite this limitation, stimulating discoveries that may arise out of points of contact between the musician and his/her software and MIDI controller need not depend on previous experience with acoustic instruments. As Tara Rodgers observes, “digital music tools have their own accompanying sets of gestures and skills that musicians are continually exploring to maximize sonic creativity and efficiency in performance” (Tara Rodgers, “On the process and aesthetics of sampling in electronic music production”, Organised Sound 8/3, 2003, p. 315).

Indeed, finger drumming on a keyboard reframes my existing skill set and drumming sensibility, allowing me to access ways of putting together rhythms that have little to do with the physical experience of conventional drumming. With drum sounds mapped out along the twelve semitones of the keyboard, my fingers find patterns and sound juxtapositions that would not occur to me on a drum set. Listening back to some of the patterns I have recorded, I realize that I am unable to air drum to them since there is too much happening simultaneously; to play all the parts together would require additional limbs. Finger drumming opens up an approach to conceptualizing rhythm independent of particular assemblages of acoustic percussion instruments (such as the drum set) that is similar to programming drum machine parts. As Andrew Goodwin observes, the drum pattern programmer (or finger drummer) may “avoid the tried and tested conventions that the body unthinkingly repeats” (Andrew Goodwin, “Drumming and Memory: scholarship, technology and music-making.” In Mapping The Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, A. Herman, J.M. Sloop, and T. Swiss, eds., 1998, p. 125).

Editing I: Tuning For Euphony
Having played melodic and percussion parts for all sections of the remix, I convert the MIDI to audio files and begin editing. Returning to the sample edit window, I experiment with moving the pitch of the percussion parts up or down a few semitones. I notice how the hi hat sounds more defined when pitched up 13 semitones. This pitched-up sound surprises me and I make this editing change to all but a few of the hi hat parts. The new hi hat sound encourages me to re-pitch the cymbals, tom-toms, kick drum, and clave/Pulse parts so that they too work melodically with each section of the piece. This audio tweaking makes a substantial difference to how the remix sounds overall: now there is more euphony between the percussion and the keyboard parts. Each change of pitch up or down a few semitones also affords an opportunity to re-listen to each section from that re-tuned perspective.

Editing II: Finessing Transitions
While the sections of Splash are arranged in an order that makes harmonic sense, many of the transitions between them are abrupt because all fourteen parts change at the same instant, creating a sense of information overload. To smooth out the transitions, I mute parts here and there, staggering the entrances of each part (with the exception of the marimba loops which continue throughout as chordal drones). The more I mute parts the clearer the sections sound. Clicking on an audio sequence and dragging it to the right or left, I introduce the sounds gradually, one at a time—like voices entering a communal conversation. In this way, I use the music software to set up musical change through addition and subtraction.

splash muting parts 2

Figure 6. Adding and subtracting parts, one at a time

Adding or subtracting parts, one at a time, in dozens of different combinations, radically changes the texture and feel of each section of the remix. My heuristic for deciding which parts to add or subtract depends on which combination of sounds is most dramatic. The longer I wait to bring in a part, the more interesting the total sound; holding back a part creates a sense of anticipation that keeps the listening engaging—as if the music offers an answer to the question, What will happen next? Even though many of the parts repeat short patterns (especially the cymbals, hi hat, and tom-toms), the overall texture of the music is continuously changing in small ways. As I mute parts here and there I keep the marimba loops and a few other sounds from the previous section (often the hi hat) to maintain an element of continuity. At the end of sections, once the parts have entered, the addition process is reversed and they are gradually removed, one by one. This gradual building up and building back down structure provides momentum to the remix. As with tweaking the pitch of the percussion parts, listening to each section repeatedly to hear how parts enter the conversation affords an opportunity to assess the music from the perspective of the texture of the arrangement.

Editing III: Effects As Musical Change
My final editing step is to experiment with two delays and a reverb I have set up as effects busses. I listen through Splash for moments and parts that might benefit from the effects. For example, a reverb applied to the glockenspiel part makes its high-pitched notes shine and ring long over the other un-reverbed sounds in the mix. In one section I add a delay to the clave/Pulse part, automating the effect so that it gradually increases in volume over one minute. The effect makes the clave part increase in rhythmic complexity as echoes of itself grow in volume and bounce around the stereo field, polyrhythmicizing the notes into new forms. I draw in the automation effect and listen to the results:

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Figure 7. Effects automation: adding delay to clave Pulse part

It would be easy to add these and many other effects everywhere in the remix, but I resist. If a part seems to need effects, I add it. Otherwise, the part is left as it is. In this way, the application of effects has its own set of constraints: less is more.

Conclusion: Adapting To The Space Of Making Electronic Music
With the marimba loops in place, improvised other parts filled in, transitions between sections smoothed out, and effects added here and there, the remix as a whole begins to speak and assert itself. Berger describes this experience of realizing that the object created has taken on an affective life of its own:

“At a certain moment…the accumulation becomes an image—that’s to say stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence…This is when your looking changes. You start questioning the presence as much as the model. You stare at the drawing…at what is radiating from [it], at [its] energy” (John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011, p. 8).

As with looking at art objects, so too with listening to sound objects. Listening to what for the moment is a finished remix, my attention is directed onto three layers. First, I hear rhythmic interaction between the parts. On this layer I notice the cycling marimba loops, the Rhodes, the call and response dialogue between the glockenspiel, celeste, Lead, Treble, the echoing-dubby sound, and the polyrhythms of the percussion parts. A second layer I hear is the timbral profile of the piece as a thick sound mass that spans the low tones of the sine tone sub bass and the kick drum up to the high-pitched and sparkling hi hats and cymbals. This sound mass is a kaleidoscope buzz of activity and shifting variation. Finally, I hear the remix as a musical clock slow-ticking through its twenty-nine minute duration: the length of the piece is integral to how it feels and how it opens up my perception. Indeed, it takes a while for textures in Splash to unfold: a chord or a single note by one of the melodic sounds is struck and rings for a long time, its sound slowly decaying and fading to nothing; parts entering gradually, one by one. These long sounds and their gradual addition and subtraction contrast with the fast, rhythmically swirling marimba loops. Seconds turn into minutes and the loops take on a different quality, sounding oceanic:

My acquaintance from ten years ago from the Lower East Side was right: remixing one’s own music is a dynamic way to understand the possibilities of electronic music and sound generally. But the experience of working with music software has its own tensions. On the one hand, I am intrigued by the sonic possibilities of looping audio, finding or creating sounds from scratch, and playing and arranging these sounds into sequences. The software allows me to be sound designer, composer, performer, and arranger for a virtual music ensemble of any kind I can imagine. It feels like a route towards a kind of supercharged musicianship, whereby, as Virgil Moorefield observes, “the producer is the artist is the composer is the producer”(Virgil Moorefield, The Producer As Composer, 2005, p. 111). On the other hand, I also notice a gap between my notion of making music by playing an instrument and the more passive experience of interacting with software by looking at a screen and touching virtual buttons, knobs, and faders. (There are, of course, many electronic music hardware controllers that make the experience of interacting with music software more physically engaging. Hardware such as Native Instruments’ Maschine, Ableton’s Push, Livid Instruments’ Ohm64 and Base, and Novation’s Launchpad function as MIDI and effects controllers, drum machines, sequencers, sample triggering and playback devices. Some electronic musicians have also used videogame controllers, smartphones, as well as other homemade devices as interfaces with which to interact with music software.)

And yet, despite these tensions, I have made discoveries through both approaches to making music. For instance, I improvised parts on my keyboard, trying to capture mistakes-and-all performances and make musical decisions in the passing moment. But in listening to and looking at my sounds and performances as objects in my software, I embraced additional techniques simply by experimenting ad hoc—turning knobs and faders to adjust sound parameters, soloing, muting, or dragging a part somewhere else, adding effects, re-pitching and editing, and listening to how this experimentation affects the sound. In some cases—as when I re-pitched some marimba loops downwards by fourteen semitones—this experimenting proved to be crucial to the overall sound of the music. Thus, the space between my improvising a part and my subsequent interaction with it after the fact demonstrates that the making of electronic music never ends with its composition or performance. One action is always a potential starting point for a next step.

In his phenomenology of the natural world, philosopher-ecologist David Abram notes that our bodies “subtly adapt themselves to every phenomena they experience” (David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, 2010, p. 251). In my experience as an amateur electronic musician, this phenomenological stance also speaks to the ecology of making music using software. Indeed, the most surprising aspect of my remixing project was realizing the extent to which I had begun to adapt to the experience of making music on a computer. By paying attention to the sounds and structures opened up by the software—by the marimba loops and other sounds, and by the effects and editing possibilities—I felt myself developing what Abram calls a “keener perception” of their “manifold depth and dimensionality” (ibid.: 217). Sitting in front of my laptop with headphones on, staring at the screen, I listen repeatedly to the remix as it develops, searching for the hidden worlds within the sounds and paying attention to the possibilities for them to always become something else, forever changing.

splash full arrangement

Figure 8. Full arrangement of Splash remix

Listen to Splash here:

On Composing At 40,000 Feet: Afrojack And The Soaring Economics Of EDM

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In a recent New Yorker article, Josh Eells describes the economics of the electronic dance music (EDM) scene in Las Vegas. Here, working at gambling resort clubs, marquee-name DJs (Armin van Buuren, Tiesto, David Guetta, Diplo, Deadmau5, Afrojack, and others) are paid mind-boggling sums to perform their sets for big spending and very drunk audiences. Increasingly, it’s this electronic music and not gambling that draws people to Vegas.

Profiling a Dutch DJ-producer named Afrojack (Nick van de Wall), Eells observes him composing on his laptop while in a hotel room and then on a flight from New York to Vegas. Afrojack uses FL Studio software stocked with “two hundred thousand samples, from synthesizer whooshes to snare hits.” Several passage in Eells’ article are striking in how they capture Afrojack’s working process:

“On his screen, the song…appeared as a series of red and green horizontal bars. Zooming in on a segment representing six seconds of bass, he equalized and compressed the sound to get the timbre he wanted…Nearly an hour later, after replaying the six-second chunk hundreds of times, he took off his headphones. ‘Got it,’ he said.”

And later, on the flight to Vegas:

“The plane was forty thousand feet over western Indiana when he decided he wanted to make a new track. He began with a brisk four-four beat and a repeating phrase that sounded like a theme from a video game. He added string flourishes, whistle sounds, and a shrill, buzzy tone that recalled a fax machine. By the time the plane had entered Nebraska airspace, the song was more or less finished.”

A few interesting things about these passages. First, Afrojack, like many EDM musicians, treats composing as a kind of combinatorial game, choosing from among thousands of sound samples and loops to generate new material. His musical labor lies primarily in listening for striking juxtapositions of already performed and recorded sound bits. Second, he uses his software not only as a vast sound archive from which to draw but also as a mixing board that allows him to shape sound just so. In other words, the software enables him to be an engineer and producer as well as composer. Or more to the point: engineering/producing/sound design becomes part and parcel of the composition process.

Afrojack’s composing at 40,000 feet may also be an apt metaphor for the high-flying, soaring quality of the EDM scene in Vegas. Indeed, Eells’ article concludes with Vegas concert promoters and DJs alike wondering if and when the superstar DJ phenomenon may cool off or vanish altogether. Is this oversized, visceral music–a music intended to move its audiences to momentary excess–sustainable? Or do some bright things eventually fade to a lesser glow?

You can read a critique of Eells’ article at Gawker.

Here is Afrojack’s well-known track, “Take Over Control” (ft. Eva Simons). At 1:24-1:38 (among other places), you can hear his trademark “bleepy” sound:

Finally, here is a Dutch documentary about Afrojack. At 8:38-8:55, the DJ demonstrates his “bleepy” sound. “It’s very weird”, he says about the sound, “and that characterizes my style.”

From The Archives: Bill Bruford’s “Bruford And The Beat”

“Sometimes faults can be turned to good advantage. A musician is the total not only of his good things but his faults too. And when you can understand your faults and live with them and turn them to creative use, that can be of interest.” - Bill Bruford

The two things that made the drummer Bill Bruford, now retired, so steadily compelling were his touch and his time. Bruford’s playing had a snappy and limber meticulousness about it–his hands in motion looked like praying mantis limbs. And his musical choices always seemed considered, in the moment–as if you could hear him thinking, always thinking about how to best design the passing musical Now. Bruford devised new approaches to drumming conventions: his drumsets were arranged as unique constellations of acoustic (and at times, electronic) percussion instruments, their angles and one-off sounds (a snare, a Roto tom, an Octoban, a slit drum) offering invitations to drum outside the conventional boxes of popular music timekeeping. In interviews, Bruford said that he “imported” his musical roots via a stack of Blue Note jazz records. This may be so, but in his numerous musical collaborations he also consistently went his own third way, finding a space between the swing of jazz and the thump of rock where he could explore pulse.

In the documentary video Bruford and the Beat, we see and hear this thoughtful drummer solo and talk about his musical métier circa 1982. The video opens with Bruford soloing (0:00-1:56). The first thing we notice is that his collection of instruments isn’t homogenous: in addition to a snare and bass drums (one acoustic, one electronic) and no hi-hat cymbals in sight, Bruford has a few electronic drum pads tuned to specific pitches, as well as Octoban tube drums, a Roto tom, and a single-headed gong drum. The second thing we notice is that the solo has a four note melo-rhythmic theme on the electronic drum pads that opens and closes the improvisation. The theme is stated, repeated, and then becomes the basis for flights off onto the other drums. The theme fragments and shape shifts, only to reappear again some time later. The solo, in other words, is a little journey.

Bruford then explains (6:44-8:58) three different approaches to soloing on drums/percussion. The first approach is to solo over a steady pulse. Here, the hands can explore complex and lengthy phrases that “embroider” over a “dance pulse” provided by the foot playing a bass drum. A second approach to soloing is to go free form. Here, the drummer strings together phrases with “no steady metrical pulse.” In other words, there is no rhythmic anchor for this type of playing, just movement among the drum set’s various percussion instruments. A third approach to soloing is to create call and response between the different instruments of the drum set. Bruford likens this “more textural” strategy to setting up “master drummer figures” such as those played by the lead drum in a West African drum ensemble. These figures are “calls” to which the rest of the ensemble drums reply with their “response” patterns. All three of these approaches to soloing–patterns over a steady pulse, free form without steady metrical pulse, and call and response–inform Bruford’s playing in his brief opening performance.

A little later in the video (15:45-18:53), Bruford demonstrates how combining a complex hand pattern on the snare drum with a steady bass drum pulse achieves the best of both rhythmic worlds. He shows how a 17-beat pattern (played with a mallet on the snare drum with snares off) over a steady 4/4 pulse is both interesting and groovy. But it gets better. Bruford next plays the same pattern on a pitched wooden slit drum, and finally, moves his hands between the slit drum and the Roto tom, distributing the 17-beat pattern between two different sound sources. With just a few considered moves of the hands, Bruford has added new dimensions to an already interesting pattern. “It’s liquid” he says, “and yet the accents are sufficiently complex not to feel a sense of repetition.”

In sum, Bruford and The Beat drums home an enduring musical message: approach. An instrument approached in a novel way–touch-wise and time-wise–can yield all manner of compelling sounds, patterns, and urgencies. Think about your approach anew and you may find surprising strategies for making music.

On Small Joys Of Making Electronic Music

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One small joy for me with electronic music is the sounds. Oh the crazy interesting sounds! It’s easy to find sounds that excite me in ways that acoustic sounds don’t always do.

Electronic sounds seem infinitely open and malleable, responsive to my limitations and even my (brief) moments of control. Electronic sounds are also mysterious and always slightly beyond my comprehension. They often describe things I didn’t even know existed. (Think of a complex synthesizer patch.)

I make my own electronic sounds, and that begins a process that takes me deeper into making music to something that feels more architectural–scientific even. So I embrace every opportunity to design and shape my own sounds.

Sometimes I stumble upon exciting sounds while browsing through my sound banks, and I make note of them. I feel an instant connection to the sounds. Even though I just met them, they seem like old friends.

Some of these sounds I stumble upon are exciting, and I feel connected to them because in addition to them feeling like old friends, they resonate with me–they sound like me. Only upon admitting this do I realize how closely musicians can identify with their sound sources, the timbre of their instruments felt to be a reflection and extension of their own voices. It doesn’t matter whether or not a sound is acoustic or electronic. What matters is the relationship we feel ourselves to have with a sound.

When I sample an acoustic sound–like a favorite drum, say–I have set the sound free. I can play with the sound–re-pitch it, say–and this energizes me as I realize some of the sound’s hitherto latent potential. My sample is a copy that releases the original acoustic sound from its time and place.

My small joy with the sounds of electronic music then, is also an excitement that I am finally free as a musician when working with electronics. The interface is just right and I am learning how to adapt to a new musical system.

Roger Linn On Drum Machine Groove And J Dilla’s Off-Beat Sound

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Music is fortunate to have inventors like Roger Linn. Linn has designed or co-designed a number of drum machines–such as the LM-1, the LinnDrum, the Akai MPC series of sampling workstations, and Tempest, a recent venture with Dave Smith. Linn is skilled in making instruments that musicians can, and do, use with ease in musical ways. And in every interview I find, Linn always exudes a laid-back curiosity and quiet earnestness that keeps coming back to the intersection of technology, design, and music making. Linn definitely makes my short list of interesting and singular voices.

Linn’s thinking is on display in a recent interview at Attack magazine as well as in a talk he gave with DJ Carl Craig at Dubspot. In the Attack interview, Linn discusses the topic of how his drum machines groove through his “swing factor” quantization. (Quantization, by the way, is another Linn innovation from back in the 1980s and refers to the “rounding off” of beats to their nearest note value.) The Attack magazine interviewer asks Linn about the secret to the MPC’s distinct groove or rhythmic feel. Linn replies that the key was the design of his machines’ “swing” feature. Here, swing entails delaying by various amounts all the even-numbered 16th-note subdivisions within a beat. While this might not be how a drummer conceptualizes musical time, it’s a straightforward explanation of Linn’s machines’ apparent techno-musical magic. Linn:

“Swing – applied to quantized 16th-note beats – is a big part of it. My implementation of swing has always been very simple: I merely delay the second 16th note within each 8th note. In other words, I delay all the even-numbered 16th notes within the beat (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) In my products I describe the swing amount in terms of the ratio of time duration between the first and second 16th notes within each 8th note. For example, 50% is no swing, meaning that both 16th notes within each 8th note are given equal timing. And 66% means perfect triplet swing, meaning that the first 16th note of each pair gets 2/3 of the time, and the second 16th note gets 1/3, so the second 16th note falls on a perfect 8th note triplet. The fun comes in the in-between settings. For example, a 90 BPM swing groove will feel looser at 62% than at a perfect swing setting of 66%. And for straight 16th-note beats (no swing), a swing setting of 54% will loosen up the feel without it sounding like swing. Between 50% and around 70% are lots of wonderful little settings that, for a particular beat and tempo, can change a rigid beat into something that makes people move.”

In the Dubspot talk, Linn provides an informative overview of the history of drum machines over the past 80 years. Here is the talk:

***
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Music is also fortunate to have had musicians like producer J Dilla (1974-2006) whose approach to achieving swing was to avoid using quantization altogether. In fact, Dilla was known to finger-drum his beats live and pretty much leave them raw and unquantized. In Dilla’s music, you can hear a good sense of groove, and this groove depends on little timing variations and inconsistencies that are very much audible in the performances. Dilla’s approach has also inspired amateur musicians to think about how certain machine-made grooves move the way they do. For instance, at futureproducers.com in 2008, a musician named samplesbank threw a question out into the ether:

“So I listen to a lot of hip hop and noticed cats like j. dilla, madlib, black milk, flying lotus and a bunch of others….they have this off-beat sound to their tracks like the snare is late or early and the high-hats seem off but on at the same time. I got access to an mpc 3000 [co-developed by Akai and Roger Linn]…and I’ve been trying to get that sound by using no quantize and having the metronome off…but still can’t get that vibe. What’s the secret???”

Listening to various recordings, samplesbank then hypothesizes that perhaps the producers are “shifting all the snares a tiny bit early…”? Another reader named guilty j comes to the rescue and sets the record straight on behalf of Dilla et al:

“[The producer is] not shifting anything he’s just playin live like a real drummer would. Just leave ya quantize off and play in a good rhythm, you’ll get that off-beat sound.”

Here, then, is Dilla’s track “Lazer Gunne.” Listen closely and you can clearly hear the odd drum hit that is “off” –pushing ahead or pulling back–just enough to keep the groove so very on:

On Lessons From A Recent Musical Project

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The trick is to work swiftly
and then stop
just before
you completely figure out
what it is that you’re doing.

On Musical Systems And Four Tet’s Good Musical Sense

“I don’t want to sound like anybody else.” – Kieran Hebden

I have written previously on this blog about the music of Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet). Hebden not only has good musical taste but also a thoughtful and unique approach to using technology to create his work. In this video from Red Bull Music Academy, Hebden explains to students his electronic gear set-up and how he uses it in performance.

What is interesting here is how Hebden uses a combination of software (Ableton and Cool Edit Pro) running on two computers and other bits of hardware such as loopers and MIDI controllers to re-create his compositions live. This musical system reflects specific performance goals and also illustrates Hebden’s admission that he doesn’t even know some of his software very well (“I don’t know much about Ableton at all and the sorts of things it can do…”). This is key, because it frees him to pursue a quite unique-sounding creative path.

Here is the video:

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