thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: Creativity

On The Most Human Human

In his book The Most Human Human, an engaging account of competing in the annual Turing test, Brian Christian ranges far and wide through the literature of AI (artificial intelligence), linguistics, computer science, philosophy and even poetry to figure out what exactly makes us distinctly human and distinctly different from machines.  The Turing test was conceived by Alan Turing, an English mathematician, in 1950.  The test is whether or not a computer can fool a human into thinking that it–the computer–is also human through interrogation only.  If a computer can fool us, then it could be said to “think.”  Today, the Turing Test pits both computer software programs and human “confederates” against one another, each trying to convince a human judge that they are human and not machine.  The catch is that each interaction has a 5 minute time limit.  The winner in the human confederate category, of course, is deemed “The Most Human Human.”
One of the more interesting of the book’s digressions is Christians’s discussion of chess playing, specifically the different ways humans and software programs approach this decision-making terrain.  Chess is a space for thinking about what makes humans human precisely because the game offers such a vast array of possible moves to get one’s brain around.  And the amazing thing–at least from the perspective of a non-chess player such as myself–is that the very best chess players can navigate the terrain of possible moves by intuitive means.  What this means is that not only can a Gary Kasparov draw on vast experience but he can also make unusual choices as to how he proceeds.  Case in point: making a somewhat random opening move is a great way to stymie a computer software opponent like Deep Blue, who, of course, proceeds through the game only by crunching millions of possible moves per second.  The human player has the poetics of randomness and intuition on his side, against which the machine can only number crunch the relative merits of the next move.  Here Christian hits on an important point about human creativity: on some level it requires the practitioner/artist to not know exactly what he or she is doing.  Or in the words of Donald Barthelme, one of the interviewees in Christian’s book: “Not knowing…is what permits art to be made.”  Barthelme is referring to that aspect of the creative process that is  inherently random, accessible only by our vaguest of intuitions.
This discussion of randomizing one’s opening moves had me thinking about how I begin working on a new piece of music on the computer.  For some time now I have fretted over the sheer number of possibilities open to me as I try to decide how to proceed with a piece.  The software programs on my laptop are like a chessboard in that they invite millions of possible creative moves from me.  It’s a deeply exciting prospect but also potentially paralyzing.
In the past, I would try to systematically think my way through the “best” option: maybe I’d start by searching for a nice pad sound and then…The problem is that my systematic thinking would always be interrupted by a rogue sound, an unexpected by-way, or an accidental juxtaposition that would instantly charm me, as if asking: “But have you considered this?”  Well, no, I hadn’t considered that because I was under the impression that I was doing something else.  And then I would fret some more about having let myself be undermined by my own digressions . . .
After reading The Most Human Human, I decided to try applying the idea of randomizing an opening move to writing music.  What I did was just jump into making sounds–any sound that seemed interesting–so that I could get the music “game” underway and remove from the equation my anxiety about having too many options.  Randomizing my opening move–”Let me just build a little pattern using this drum sound…”–let me get on with the more satisfying business of interacting with and building a new sonic organism that could grow.

On David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand

They don’t seem to make books like David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand anymore, but then, Sudnow, who died in 2007, was no ordinary explorer of musical experience.  Trained as a sociologist, Sudnow took a turn inward in the late 1970s and wrote Ways Of The Hand (1978/2001), a remarkable insider’s phenomenological account of learning to improvise jazz piano that was based mostly on his own introspection.  The book attempted to articulate the lived experience of what it feels like to move one’s fingers about the piano keyboard, tracing exploratory paths and going for notes to make jazz.

Here’s a passage from the book’s preface:

“I’ve found that thus far unanalyzed aspects of the body’s ways can be closely depicted, for all to see, by the performer, and perhaps no one but the performer, especially one who self-consciously takes up a complex activity with as strong an intention to master its accomplishment as to try to reflect rigorously upon the experiences of doing so. Guided by neither an introspective, mentalistically inclined consciousness nor the methods of analytic science but only by the concrete particular problems faced in the course of learning jazz piano, I’ve pointed to various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (2001:3).

Ways Of The Hand is not afraid to attempt a comprehensive cartography of the terrain the jazz pianist must traverse to make jazz.  And contrary to what I imagine most jazz musicians would think about learning jazz–that you learn the “right” way, the jazz way, by just listening to the jazz greats, by mysterious osmosis in other words–Sudnow proposes an approach to grasping a (graspable) set of jazz moves.  If that weren’t audacious enough, in its intricate, rigorous, and poetically rendered details about the deep connections between the musicking body, cognition, feeling, and creativity, Ways Of The Hand also sets an example for a kind of writing about music that has had few followers since.  In 2001, Sudnow even revised the book (Ways Of The Hand: A Rewritten Account) further distilling its already austere descriptive language into something even more crystalline.

We need more books like Ways Of The Hand–books that look inward for answers, books that approach (and achieve) rigorous thinking through intuition, reflection, and practical experience in things musical.  Many great musicians never write about music, and many great critics and academics seek deep answers far outside the relationship between musician and his/her instrument.  But Sudnow proposes that the way can be simple: it’s right in our hands.  We just need to think about it.

Electronic Music and Gaming Theory

In this week’s New Yorker there is an article by  Nick Paumgarten on the Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto that unpacks the magic behind such Miyamoto game creations such as Super Mario Bros. and Legend Of Zelda.  Game designing is a creative endeavor that few people besides Miyamoto have mastered.  (Though the American Will Wright, designer of Sims and Spore, also comes to mind.). One key to designing a good game, notes Paumgarten, is to make sure it has a complexity and dynamic depth to it that is cognitively challenging yet also charming and fun to engage with.  Achieving this complexity and dynamism means designing the game around a few elements that can endlessly remix themselves in different combinations to keep things fresh.  Describing the source of Super Mario Bros.’s appeal Paumgarten writes:

“The game had just fifteen or twenty dynamics in it…yet they combined in such a way to produce a seemingly limitless array of experiences and moves, and to provide opportunities for an alternative, idiosyncratic style of play, which brings to mind nothing so much as chess” (92).

To me, there is a similarity between the experiences of playing and designing videogames and making electronic music with a computer.  Specifically, I am thinking of the way software such as Ableton Live (which I happen to really enjoy using–or should I say playing?) is configured.  For those readers who have never used it, this is what it looks like:

One of the software’s two viewing pages, Session View (what is shown in the pic above), is arranged like a mixer, with each sound given its own vertical track.  Within each track, one can stack discrete chunks of audio or midi called clips.  So for a single track of say, percussion, one can have a few dozen clips of different lengths.  Each clip can be looped, played back, and triggered in any order the musician wishes.  And that’s just one track; imagine the “limitless array of experiences and moves” available to a musician with a dozen tracks, each with two dozen clips.  That’s a lot of ways to combine sounds, and we haven’t even begun to consider effects processing (e.g. ways to alter, distort and enhance a sound such as distortion or reverb effects, etc.).

So, for electronic musicians who perform using a laptop running Ableton’s software, part of the pre-performing process is a little like Miyamtoto’s designing complexity and dynamism into his games. And the pleasure comes later when musicians get to (literally) play their music, improvising different combinations of sounds, and figuring out on the fly in what direction to head in.  Like the experience of interacting with a videogame, electronic music allows a musician to explore virtual worlds that strike a balance between adventure and play…

And speaking of play, Paumgarten also cites Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938), a famous study of this essential human activity, in order to further unpack the joys of videogaming.  For Huizinga, play has five attributes:

1. it’s free,
2. it takes place outside the realm of everyday life,
3. it is, materially speaking, unproductive,
4. it follows an agreed upon protocol of constraints and rules,
5. its outcome is uncertain and therefore it encourages improvisation from its players

This sounds like an awfully apt characterization of music too, doesn’t it?

Creative Strategies From elBulli’s Cookery

This blog post is not about music or sound per se, but about the creative process of cooking.  I am a big fan of books about cookery, and they can be read from a sideways perspective–thinking by analogy about how they may offer insight onto other domains.  With that said, every once in a while you encounter a book that is not only beautiful but inspiring and thought-provoking too.  One such book is A Day at elBulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria (Phaidon 2008).  Adria is a Catalonian chef famous for his innovations associated with the “molecular gastronomy” movement in cookery.  In fact, one could argue that Adria is the prime architect of this meticulously adventurous and scientifically precise approach to preparing, cooking, and conceiving of food.  His restaurant elBulli is open just six months of the year, and Adria spends the other six in research and development mode, designing new dishes, new flavors, and trying things with food that have never been done before.  He’s a creative artist who just happens to work with edible things.

In A Day at elBulli, Adria and Phaidon have created a 528-page wonder of a manual on creativity that I think is applicable well outside of the culinary arts.  The book follows a typical day in the elBulli universe, from daybreak to closing time, beginning with the backdrop for the restaurant–pictures of Cap de Creus park and the natural textures of its environs: water, stone, trees and sky.  From here, the book proceeds in 5-minute increments, tracking the assembling of a multi-hour elBulli meal by a crew of cooks, from shopping to prepping and cooking and serving.  The rhythm of the day is documented through hundreds of photographs, recipes, and quotations.

But what really makes the book extraordinary as a creative manual are three different 4-page inserts (complete with different sized paper) titled “Creative methods” (I, II, and III).  Here we get a glimpse of the conceptual framework underlying the restaurant’s machinery, and Adria outlines a number of ideas that could be of interest to anyone interested in the creative process.  In Creative Methods I, he discusses traditional and local cuisines, influence, and technique-concept searching.  In Part II, he explains and defines the concepts of association, inspiration, adaptation, deconstruction, and minimalism as they apply to his work.  And Part III discusses the importance of the senses, including the sixth sense that Adria describes as “pleasure experienced by the mind.  [This] sense often relies on setting up a tension or a contrast between the guest’s own knowledge and experiences, and the elements in the dish in front of him.”

These inserts inspire the reader to think systematically about his or her creative process in whatever field they work in.  Not to control everything down to the tiniest detail, but rather to try to cultivate a sense of order over what is potentially an endless universe of flavor (or sound, or texture, or color, or textual) combinations made possible through transformative techniques.  A Day at elBulli chronicles that sense of possibility by documenting how experience is organized at a most singular restaurant.

Sound Exploring

If you make electronic music of any type you can’t get around the inescapable fact of needing and wanting to explore new sounds.  Back in the early days of electronic music–think Stockhausen, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky–making electronic sounds was a laborious process.  One had to layer sine tones, or manipulate magnetic tape, or deal with giant, wall-sized synthesizers in the pursuit of novel timbres.

How different it is today.  With software emulations of classic synthesizers as well all kinds of virtual sound making instruments, sounds today are cheap.  Entry-level DAW (digital audio workstation) software programs such as Ableton Live, Apple Logic, or Propellerhead Reason come loaded with thousands of factory-made or “preset” sounds.  Electronic music purists have an aversion to presets, choosing instead to make their own sounds.  Indeed, some musicians will only make music using sounds they’ve forged themselves or sampled themselves.

But I wonder if we need to re-evaluate the value of presets?  John Cage once said that he never imagined anything until he experienced it.  This can certainly be the case when browsing through dozens or hundreds or thousands of sounds on one’s computer. Not only do you not know what you’re looking for (besides something generic: a bass sound, a pad sound, etc.), you often discover by chance something you didn’t know you wanted.  In this way, there is what could be called a poetics of sound browsing at play: you listen, make note of interesting sounds, and happen upon unexpected sounds that just might be the start of something new.

Making Musical Systems Public

Over the years, a lot of electronic musicians have shrouded their work in a veil of mystery: they tell us very little about how they make their music–the tools the use, their working methods, and so forth.  We are reminded of vinyl DJs back in the day who would cover up the labels on their records so no one could see the sources of their tracks.  Non-DJ electronic musicians have a lot of equipment potentially at their disposal and so invest time and energy devising their own musical systems through which they channel their ideas.  It’s always interesting to hear what they have to say on this front because they help answer our questions: What software and MIDI controllers do you use?  What is your set-up for rendering your material in live performance?  These are the kinds of things that electronic musicians have to think about because being a one person band is never a natural or a simple thing to pull off. In essence, you’re trying to approximate a larger sound, using technology to multiply your musical capabilities and extend your senses.  And one’s musical system is never written in stone either. For instance, it’s not uncommon for musicians to rebuild their systems from scratch from time to time, just to see what happens.

Occasionally, musicians cut to the chase and share with us information about their musical systems, and it’s a thrill when they do.  Case in point: San Francisco-based ambient musician Christopher Willits collaborated with electronic music magazine and website XLR8R to produce a series of videos on his performance set up and techniques.  I saw Willits play live a few months ago and was impressed by the fluidity of his music making.  Sitting cross-legged on stage, he used an electronic guitar as a controller, while a laptop computer running Ableton Live software handled the sound processing.

In a series of videos posted on YouTube, Willits walks the viewer through this musical set up and explains how he uses it.  The set up includes not just his guitar, but also software programmed with Max For Live (a version of Cycling ’74′s Max/MSP that is integrated into Ableton Live) and a MIDI controller called the Block.  Willits walks the viewer through his software and hardware set up, paying particular attention to how he uses his Max For Live step sequencer.

As the music gets cranking about 9 minutes into one of the videos, you can hear some similarities to American minimalist music, especially the music of Steve Reich.  Of course, minimalist music was once known as “process” music (and indeed Reich himself once characterized his interest in music that was, literally, a process, or an unfolding in front of your ears where nothing is hidden).  The process in Willits’ music is a gradually unfolding series of permutations: Willits plays guitar notes into the step sequencer that records them, chews them up, multiplies them, and sets up a looping and ever-shifting melo-harmonic-rhythmic texture.

You can watch the video here.

C.Wright Mills: On Intellectual Craftsmanship


Thinking is a struggle for order and at the same time for comprehensiveness.”
- C. Wright Mills

Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) was an American sociologist best remembered for his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination (which is still in print). For me, one remarkable aspect of the book is its Appendix, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Here Mills does something I have never really seen other social scientists do: discuss the nature of the research craft, particularly the creative process of linking intuition with idea generation. This is important because, after all, generating ideas is what scholars do.

Mills begins with the suggestion that one set up a file or journal in which to record ideas–ideas about stuff, about the world, about what you’re reading, about what excites you, and about that which stimulates your curiosity. This lays the groundwork for what he calls “systematic reflection.” The file or journal is a space you can unite “what you are doing professionally and what you are experiencing as a person.”  Or put another way: your personal interests are in fact linked to your professional research interests. The journal is also a place to capture “fringe thoughts”–bits of information such as overheard conversations, something you read, or even a feeling revealed to you in a dream (!). Very cool stuff to read in an Appendix, right? Keeping a journal keeps your inner life awake and allows you to develop powers of expression and the discipline of “controlled expression” by which I think Mills simply means the process of capturing those aspects of your inner life in order to study and consider them. Once the journal is up and running, its individual entries can be periodically re-arranged, cross-referenced, and so forth. All of this serves to loosen your imagination by revealing to you connections and larger themes. The most important point to remember about the journal is this: “The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production.”

Later on the Appendix. Mills suggests ways to stimulate one’s imagination, and many of these suggestions revolve around a sense of play. Playing with words, phrases, concepts and definitions is one way to start. Or you can pursue insight by considering extremes such as “thinking of the opposite of that with which you are directly concerned.” In suggesting forms of intellectual play, Mills advocates for a constant shifting of one’s attention from one level to another–kind of like playing with the zoom function on a camera. To use a musical analogy, Mills almost seems to be describing what could be called composing with ideas.

The Appendix ends with a set of suggestions for good craftsmanship. These include the importance of writing simply and clearly, the importance of grounding your writing in clear examples, and the importance of thinking broadly about the relevance of your work to your time, or in Mills’ words: “orient [your work] to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shape and the meanings, of your own period . . . ” Finally, and perhaps most incisively, Mills suggests that we maintain our autonomy as scholars when it comes to deciding the kinds of projects we take on and which ideas are in fact important to us:

“Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in someone else’s terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter.”

You can read the Appendix here.

On Autechre: Exercising The Materiality Of Machine Music

I don’t think of a sound in my head and try and find it on the keyboard.  I just find the sound on the keyboard. -Sean Booth, Autechre

Have you ever listened to the music of Autechre?  They are a UK-based electronic music duo that has been releasing their unique brand of adventurously experimental and probing techno music (for lack of a better description) on Warp records since the early 1990s.  Back then, one could hear them as a kind of offshoot of more mainstream techno, and many critics consider them pioneers of the IDM or “intelligent dance music” sound–or put another way, music that was too off-kilter and strange to really work well as dance music.  And making dance music never seemed to be the group’s goal anyway.  Rather, they just wanted uncompromisingly explore the sonic possibilities of their technology.  Using common instruments (drum machines, synthesizers, software) as well as homemade software patches, Autechre has produced a body of musical work that doesn’t ever settle for normal.  In fact, it keeps unsettling itself, seeking ever new sounds.

There is a wonderful analytical article on Autechre by Bret Schneider at  You can read it here.  Schneider convincingly makes the case that Autchre’s music is not really “experimental and abstract” as it is often characterized.  Specifically, he gets to the heart of what Autechre seems to be trying to do with its creative work, namely, exploring the potentials of its gear and themselves:

“Over the 20+ years of the duo’s (Rob Brown and Sean Booth) existence, Autechre has unflinchingly clung to a consistent program of investigating the potentials of varied electronic music equipment, ranging from vintage analog hardware to cutting-edge algorithmic software.  If one thread has connected all their projects, it is a process-based attempt to analyze the materiality of new technological material and allow the hidden potentials within them to surface.  Curiously and problematically, Autechre’s project is singular today.”

But how do we study a music that gives us so few analytical handles? How do we understand music with fractured pattern sequences and a-rhythmic rhythms?  With harmonies and melodies that lie suspended between tonal and  atonality?  A music that uses unrecognized and new timbres?  That resists easy categorization as a particular stylistic sub-category of electronic dance music?  In short, how do we study a music of what Schneider calls
“ambiguation”, a music of “sonorities”?

On top of all this, Autechre themselves say very little about their work–about how they make it or what it means. Even their track titles are cryptic, and their album covers abstract, as can be seen below:

We are left with just the “music itself”, wondering if we have arrived at what Charles Seeger once called the musicological juncture: that point at which we realize that talking about music really has its limitations.

Nevertheless, Autechre makes deliberate, calculated music that to my ear sounds meticulously organized. Things are always happening, shifting and evolving in Autechre tracks. If you want an example, listen to the track “Simm” from their 2008 album Quaristice. While there is no typical Autechre piece, this one is a good example of the duo’s constant calculations that are audible in the sounding musical structure.

The piece is roughly divided into three sections. The piece begins with clanging percussion in a 4/4, 8th-note offbeat feel with a repeating melody comprised on long metallic bell tones on top.  At 1:30 this texture begins decomposing as it were, its percussive hits replaced, bit by bit, by ruptures and distorted, broken timbres.  As you listen you are witness to a real-time shift of sonic shapes.  At 2:38 a new percussive element enters the mix: two kick drums–one somewhat steady dry kick and a second deep sub bass kick layered on top of every fourth hit.  The first bass drum pattern is unstable in that beat four of its pattern is seemingly delayed by a micro-second; it never seems to come in on time, and yet the pattern as a whole seems to hold steady, creating the illusion of musical dragging.  Together, the two bass drums signal a new section without the melody in the opening of the piece. By 3:10 the texture of digital frog-like metallic percussion and the unstable kick drums is in its full croaking glory. What happened to the melody from the first section is unimportant; perhaps it was just a launch pad for this new sonic environment?  Then at 3:30, a series of -  chords enter atop the croaking percussion. The chords have a lush, slow attack, pad timbre that fills the stereo field, and each one lasts about eight 4/4 measures (if we’re counting). At 4:42 the percussion abruptly stops, there’s a brief pause and reverb tail from the last percussion hit, and then we’re left with one final harrowing chord that–a shift of tonality that oscillates with a deep vibrato that rattles one’s speakers/headphones deep into their sub-bass limits.  In “Simm”, like a lot of Autechre tracks, you can hear the musical morphing happening right in front of your ears and that lends the pieces a sense of urgent interest.  It’s completely engaging cognitive journey and you get the sense that they are surprised as you are at where it all ended up.

On Impetuses For Making Views From A Flying Machine

I recently finished a series of nine electronic music pieces begun in December 2009.  One impetus for collecting and finishing the works came by way of an organ recital I heard at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London this past spring.  (I was in England to give a paper at a conference for the British Forum For Ethnomusicology.)  The organ pieces (by a 19th century French composer whose name I can’t recall) were dazzling technique-wise (after all, one has to use two hands and two feet to play the church organ), but what caught my attention was the overall form of the music.  It sounded to me like one big cluster of sound—a sonic blob of energy that ebbed and flowed in a continuous, ever-shifting blurry motion.  Part of this sonic impression is no doubt due to the liquid acoustics in a place the size of St. Paul’s, where a single sound can hang in the air for a half a minute, or so it seems, its reverberant tail echoing in a multitude of directions.  But I also noticed that the organ composition had many layers to it.  Some of these layers were twinkling parts that chattered away in the highest, delicate registers; some were mid-register open (2-note) chord tonalities in the middle register; and way, way down below, as if resonating from the catacombs deep underneath the church, were single note pedal sub bass tones.  What a magisterial sound it all made!

As I listened I made note of some keywords to help me remember what I had experienced: “chord clusters”, “drone”, “common tones”, “sub bass”, “slowly changing harmonies”, “limited number of timbres.”  These keywords became guides–soundposts, really–by which I organized the pieces that make up Views From A Flying Machine.  The nine pieces that comprise this work are scored for a series of pad sounds (some presets, some homemade), a few varieties of organ (surprise, surprise), sub bass, bells and glockenspiels, and percussion.  Interestingly for me–since I am a percussionist–is that the percussion is almost more textural than rhythmic in function.  These pieces are less about rhythm and more about layers of harmony.  Finally, if you’re wondering where the title comes from, all I can say is that it just seemed appropriate.  And also this: there is a fascinating New Yorker article called “Angle Of Vision” (April 2010) on the aeriel photographer George Steinmetz.  Steinmetz custom-built his own paraglider–a real and rickety “flying machine”–for taking low-altitude photos of deserts.  As I remember it, the article had nothing to do with music, but was all about views from a flying machine.  Click here to listen.

Creative Strategies in Electronic Music

If you subscribe, like I do, to Future Music magazine, each month you get a nifty DVD with free sounds and musician interviews.  This month’s disc featured a video tutorial with Kieran Hebdan – aka Four Tet.  It was pretty brilliant (as the English might say).  Hebdan brings the viewer through the composing process he used to assemble his latest collection of music, There Is Love In You.  Hebdan explains how he transforms looped sounds into finished pieces using Ableton Live (for experimenting with loops) and Pro Tools (for assembling the finished track).  Interestingly, his strategy is often to go through as many obvious permutations of the material he can think of: playing the loop at half speed or double speed, playing it backwards. This “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” approach allows him to eschew the constant search for new sounds, preferring instead to make full use of what he already has on his ever-growing archive of material on his hard drive.  Here he might find a guitar riff he once played, or maybe a bass line that could find new life as a tuned kick drum.  Hebdan also does a lot of arranging “by hand” – meaning that he laboriously lines up different parts so they’ll sit just how he wants them to sit.  No across the board quantitzation for him.  The effect for me is that one can really Hebdan’s music breathe.


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