From The Archives: “Roadscape”

A few days ago a friend texts me an urgent musical request:

“Send me roadscape”

So I send it.

***

About ten years ago I first tried my hand at sequencing and recording music on a computer. Back then, my Apple desktop machine was a blue- and silver-colored beast running Logic software. I also had a large Yamaha digital piano/synthesizer as a controller and sound bank. I was ready to go. But I wasn’t quite sure how to go about making electronic music. I didn’t want to just loop things–I didn’t yet grasp how that could actually be interesting. Instead, I decided to improvise parts one at a time, layering stuff to hear what might happen. It was the first time I had tried such an all digital project.

One day, I happen upon a preset sound that sounds like a DX-7- ish keyboard bell timbre. There isn’t anything particularly attractive about this sound, but I’m struck how if I hold down a note long enough the patch makes the initial bell sound followed by a strange sort of continuous drone resonance that slowly increases in volume. It’s kind of spooky–in an engaging musical way that makes your ears perk up and listen, as if responding:”Oh, where is this sound going? Cool!” In my experience, it’s like that with sounds. A sound grabs you because it’s interesting, maybe somewhat indeterminate and ambiguous, evocative, and ultimately compelling. (Now that I think about it, if you believe that we project our values out onto the sounds we like, then I’ve just unwittingly offered you some of the adjectives I prize!) So I play with the bell sound for bit. After a few minutes I hit record and improvise some simple and consonant arpeggios–fourths and fifths, octaves, some thirds. I leave a lot of space between my notes. This space allows that spooky after-resonance to emerge. It also leaves room for the other parts that I will soon layer in.

The next part is the piano. The Yamaha controller has a wonderful piano sound and that combined with its weighted keys makes it a pleasure to play. After double checking the notes in the bell part, I hit record and play along with it on the piano, adding deep bass notes, some cluster chords, and again, pausing between phrases to create space around the notes. Since I’m working in MIDI, an errant note or two can be easily fixed later. The key is to improvise a take non-stop. This gives the part the best chance of being cohesive and having a sense of tension and directionality–like it’s moving towards something. After a few aborted takes, I play something all the way through that I’m happy with. I listen back to it once to make sure it’s okay.

Next, percussion parts. I load up a preset kit on the keyboard and limit myself to kick drum, hi hat, and snare drum-ish sounds–which sound more metallic that drum-like. The sounds are located between the notes C and E on the keyboard so they are easy to play together with my fingers as drum sticks. I play back the DX-7 and piano sounds and play along to them. It’s not a steady beat per se that I’m playing; more like percussive interjections, filling some of those deliberately left spaces with little shards of groove that don’t repeat much. As the music gets louder and softer I try to drum along at those dynamics–responding to the other two parts as if in dialogue with them. (Electronic music making = talking back to oneself!) After I’ve recorded the play-along percussion part, I copy its MIDI onto another track loaded with the same kit sound. I displace this kit by about a beat or so, turning it into an echo of the first part. I also pan each drum part to the far left and right, respectively, making a true stereo percussive field. It isn’t regular procedure to extreme pan drum tracks like this, but I like the sound and the clarity brought by the separation between the original and its copy.

The final layer is bass. I chose a simple sine tone bass. I like sine tone basses because they get the low-end job down without calling undo attention to themselves. With the bass sound I double some of the low piano notes, playing in unison with them, and where I can I add in little flourishes and lead-ins. After I have recorded a pass, I listen back while looking at the MIDI on the piano roll onscreen, finessing a note here or there up or down (if I missed a pitch) or left or right (if I was early or late doubling a piano note). But for the most part I leave it as is.

With that I’m done and bounce down to an MP3 file. I title the four-part piece “Roadscape.” I like how the music wanders yet still has a sense of something almost arriving–like the road just up ahead that keeps disappearing around the bend.

On David Byrne’s “How Music Works”

It’s hard to keep track of all the things David Byrne does. He’s the former front man of the Talking Heads, of course, but also a singer-songwriter who has collaborated with musicians from all over the world, a record label founder, a sound art installation artist, a designer, a visual artist, a photographer,a bicycle enthusiast, a blogger, and a writer. Everything connects in Byrne’s world, and he is excellent at getting us to hear, see, and read how and why. How Music Works (McSweeney’s 2012) is Byrne’s set of essays about music and his ongoing musical life. The book is part memoir, part music ethnography, part music history/music theory, part cultural critique, part music business advice manual, and part diary. It all adds to up to a meandering yet consistently engaging read. Part of what makes Byrne interesting is how he takes on the big issues–issues that many academic specialists might avoid–by taking a bird’s-eye view of music making on a global scale.

Byrne is a generalist in the best sense of the word, constantly asking questions about the nature of music, how it works, and how it affects us. For example, in the opening chapter, he examines the possibility that music evolves to suit its acoustic context. Byrne illustrates his thesis by comparing and contrasting varied musical traditions (and their contexts) that range from West African drumming to Gregorian chant, opera, to Bach, Mozart and Mahler. It’s a fascinating perspective that helps explain the possible relationships between musical structure and acoustic context. As Byrne points out, the intricate polyrhythms of West African drumming would be a blur of sound inside a gothic cathedral; likewise, chant music sung outside would miss the sustain and ambiance provided by a church’s resonant interior space. Later in the book, Byrne extends this concept of space shaping musical style in his discussion of CBGB’s, the New York bar rock club the Talking Heads first honed their craft and sound. All this fits with Byrne’s general theory that creativity is not such much about the artist who makes stuff as much as it is about the conditions–social, but also physical and acoustic–that make the artist’s craft possible in the first place.

In addition to weaving grand theories, Byrne writes about the musics around him as they make sense through his own listening. He makes striking observations about contemporary hip hop, for example. Designed for booming sound systems, hip hop heard emanating from a moving car, says Byrne, is “generous music” in that its booming low end is publicly shared for all to hear (whether they want to or not!). The style is also kind of abstract in that it “floats free of all worldly reference” (132). Byrne elaborates: “It’s music that, by design, affects the body. It’s very sensuous and physical, even though the sounds themselves don’t relate to any music that has ever been physically produced. You can’t play air guitar or mimic playing an instrument to a contemporary hip-hop record; even the sounds that signify ‘drums’ don’t sound like a drum kit” (132). Similarly, Byrne is adept at explaining his own history of making music–at home alone in his studio, or in his many collaborations with other musicians (most recently with St. Vincent). Byrne shares his technique for improvising wordless melodies (158), working with the limitations of computer software, and even the genesis of his lyrics for the Talking Heads hit “Once in a Lifetime” (161). Byrne likes music that grooves and makes us move and explains how the Talking Heads essentially made acoustic dance music, working collaboratively in the studio as a human step sequencer: “One or two people would lay down a track, usually some kind of repetitive groove that would last about four minutes…Others would respond to what had been out down, adding their own repetitive parts, filling in the gaps and spaces, for the whole length of the ‘song'”(157-58).

For Byrne, this collaborative songwriting process was “about hunting and pecking with the aim of ‘finding’ short, sonic, modular pieces…Then we would shape those accumulated results into something resembling a song structure” (186). Insiders’ accounts of musical process like Byrne’s help us understand what it was like to be making popular art music on the lower East side of Manhattan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It captures the feeling of being on the crest of a wave that included punk (the Ramones also played at CBGB’s), disco, gospel and other American vernacular musics, and modern classical composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass–and how these styles and sounds came crashing together in the Talking Heads’ post-punk, pre-synth pop art-dance funk-rock. Says Byrne, “while punk rock was celebrated for needing only three chords, we had now stripped that down to one.” Using only a single chord “made the tracks feel more trance-like, somewhat transcendent, ecstatic even–more akin to African music or Gospel or disco” (159). These tracks, he says, were “driven more by textural variation than by melody or harmony–more like minimal classical music or some traditional forms of music around the world than the rock and pop traditions we came out of” (159).

Inspired by Byrne’s description of his one-chord rock, I had a re-listen to “Once In A Lifetime.” I first heard the song in the early 1980s via MTV. I was a little young to appreciate the music back then, but I do remember the live concert video in which a sweaty Byrne dressed in an oversized suit channeled the role of a preacher on a roll. As I listened to the song again I was struck by how solid, rhythmic, and well orchestrated the song is. Wow! It really does sound like a band making steady-state acoustic machine music, with just enough little quirky touches–like the occasional slightly wonky drum hit–to give it soul. What is most noticeable to me is how every part–the two note bass part, the disco guitars, and even the vocals–fits into its own rhythmic slot and leaves room for the others. Here’s the song:

There’s a lot of other material covered in How Music Works too–including essays on music recording technology, the politics of elitism in classical music, and the evolutionary origins of music. Here and elsewhere, what Byrne’s book does best is convey the thinking of an artist still very much at work–listening, composing, performing, collaborating, reading, mulling ideas over, spinning theories, sharing passions and excitement, giving advice, and even giving credit where credit is due. At one point in the book, Byrne simply suggests that for him, creativity is something to engage in as an everyday activity like cooking or doing errands. Creativity is also an emergent force–less a product of our individual talents than the networks of energy and information in which we find ourselves. It’s an interesting notion, and one that How Music Works communicates over and over by being generous, open, and self-effacing.

On Beginnings And Anywheres: A John Cage Aphorism


I see the words on an inspirational magnet in a shop window.

“Begin anywhere”

the late American experimental composer John Cage (1912-1992) tells us.

But what was the point of this telling?

Cage in fact walked the walk of his talk, relying on rolling dice, consulting the Chinese I-Ching book of hexagrams, and even scrutinizing the minute imperfections of music staff paper to define anywhere for him and assist in making the decisions (or free himself from the decision-making) required to construct his music scores.

But again, what was the point of this telling?

A quick and perhaps unreliable Internet search reveals that Cage might have meant his words as advice for those facing the psychological paralysis brought about by not knowing where to begin their project, their work, their book, their art. Perhaps–and now that I think of it, Internet searches themselves can often be exactly like this as well–the problem is having too many options, too many links, which brings about a flawed question to oneself: Where’s the best place to begin (my search, my project, etc.)?

It’s a flawed question because there is no best place to begin. From the standpoint of creative work, all places are good enough and all places are beginnings.

Finally, something else comes to mind when I think about that inspirational magnet. Begin anywhere, certainly, but once begun with whatever it is that you’re doing, be deliberate about your going. Cage walked the walk of his talk in this respect too. Whatever methods he used to help him make musical decisions, once he set up the system, so to speak, he rigorously adhered to it, letting it take him and his compositions somewhere (and these somewheres didn’t always make for engaging listening either). In other words, it takes a great discipline to grant oneself the freedom to begin anywhere and then let that anywhere run its course.

Here is Cage’s “Sonata V” from his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948) for prepared piano:

On Play

Play, I’ve come to realize, is a favorite word of mine.  In no particular order, here are some possible contexts for it:

He plays that piano well.

The book’s title was a play on words.

My dog is playful.

No worries: we were just playing around.

You just got played.

The musicians were playing off of one another.

Play with the ideas until they fit and make sense.

Play is a favorite word because good things tend to grow out of play, and by “good things” I mean interesting and useful things. Play is usually fun, too.

I wrote about play in an earlier post on this blog, but lately I’ve been thinking about it again in the context of composing.  You see, my process is usually to sit down at the computer and just start playing around–in the sense of randomly listening through and trying out sounds.  Simple.  The mindset feels like that of a young child grappling with different-shaped blocks, trying to figure out what goes with what.  Are there rules to this play?  No, not really.  Whatever catches my ear (as if my ears might fly away like butterflies if not so caught) becomes sufficient reason to jump into capture mode (now the potential musical idea is the butterfly liable to get away if I don’t act fast), quickly experiment with some patterns and then hit record and improvise.  At this point, I’m still in a play state, only it’s kind of like I’m under self-surveillance too–observed by my own critical ear.  It remains play though because I feel as if I don’t know what I’m doing: I’m in new territory and don’t know where I’m going.  It’s fun in a slightly scary kind of way.

After this moment of recording under self-surveillance I often lose that sense of play as I begin judging what I’ve done.  First thoughts to materialize in my mind: “That’s kind of lame.”  Or a shrug: “Whatever.”  Or sometimes I like what I’ve done because it sounds vital: “I really like this!”  But whatever its tenor, self-judgement is corrosive, at least at this stage of the game.  At later stages, though, it’s a useful tool.

In his novel Television, Jean-Philippe Toussaint articulates two distinct stages of artistic process:

“The first, subterranean, is a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind, in order to fuel the handling of new ideas and new materials, while the second is soberer, more orderly, requiring method and discipline, austerity and rigor; this is the process that takes over when it comes time to put the [work] into its definitive form” (100).

For me, play is part of what Toussaint calls the “subterranean” and “gestational” process.  The trick, if that is the right word, is to forestall the “soberer” self-critiquing stage long enough for ideas to flower.  So I improvise–play–with an open mind.  Who knows where this is going?  Maybe nowhere.  The important thing is that for this very moment it feels new and holds my attention.

I have a lot of these musical beginnings (trapped butterflies!) stored as files on my computer’s hard drive.  They’re blueprints for full pieces to be completed down the road, but they also serve other, vaguer purposes.  Sometimes, when I’m doing something mundane like changing the water in the fish tank I listen to the sketches on loop mode, as if they’re already finished.  I’m listening, believe it or not, to try to get to know them.  They’re still strange to me and I’m trying to understand what essential feeling they embody.  Put in the form of a question: What is this thing?  Put in the form of a statement: I’m trying to let the music socialize and teach me something.  It strikes me that even as I generate these ideas I’m not all that well equipped to make sense of them.

So I take my time, listening and mulling things over.  It’s possible that this process–this trying to get a sense of what the sounds are all about–is as interesting as the compulsion to one day get the things finished.

And then, just when my listening starts moving away from play, I hit stop.

On Techlust: Native Instruments’ Maschine

I’m at Tekserve, in the audio department, and I spot a beauty: Native Instruments’ Maschine, a hardware-software rhythm machine.  I move in for a closer inspection.  Its top is made of metal and I run my fingers across the smooth, cool brushed surface.  I pick up the musical object off the display table and assess its weight: a solid few pounds.  I put it back down and continue exploring.  Its dials are smooth and rotate infinitely, and I so I twist them around and around, imagining what parameters they might control.  Its buttons produce subtle clicks–confident sounds that will surely respond to my touch and help me, one day, switch something on or off in an instant.  And then there are those sixteen beautiful 1.5 inch square rubber pads.  Soft like gummy bears, they’re mini drums that can absorb the impact of an incoming finger, and so I start drumming on them, my fingers playing silent patterns across the four by four grid.  Feels nice.  I pick up Maschine again, rotating it in my hands, and even consider smelling it–after all, I’m sizing up a potential musical mate. (This from someone who regularly smells his Kindle as if it were a paper book!)  What, I’m wondering, might I do with this thing?  Will this be, finally, the instrument that allows me to create fluidly, or will it lure me down a wormhole of complicated procedures that will blunt the creative process?

Maschine is a recent example of electronic music software assuming a physical presence in order to attract musicians. The thinking is that we like tangible things–vibrating strings, membranes, or even smooth moving knobs and smushy rubber pads–with which to interact and make music.  But the fascinating paradox about the tools of electronic music is that as the palette of sound possibilities has increased exponentially with software innovations, the music making process has become increasingly less physical.  There are two ways to think about this.  On the one hand, the shift has encouraged many people without traditional music training to just go ahead and make music.  On the other hand, those of us with training are always looking for a foothold, a link to the physical.  So far, this foothold or link comes in the form of MIDI keyboards and other controllers such as the Akai APC series and the Korg Kaoss touch pads.  Maschine harks back to hardware instruments from the late 1980s and early 1990s such as Akai’s MPC workstations, like the unit in the pic below:

These instruments are still popular with hip hop beat makers who program their patterns like a potter plays with and molds clay: the boxes allow them to feel like they’re getting their hands dirty.  This is a good thing, because our hands often know as much or even more than our minds, and letting our hands play with instruments is a direct route to new ideas.  Maschine is both an attractive piece of hardware and a powerful piece of software, hence its appeal for electronic musicians.  Below is a Native Instruments promotional video for the instrument featuring Jeremy Ellis hammering away on those rubber pads:

On Marcus Boon’s In Praise Of Copying

Marcus Boon’s recent book, In Praise Of Copying (Harvard University Press, 2010), is a timely argument in favor of our freedom to freely copy one another in the name of healthy creativity.  Boon, a professor of literature at York University (as well as a DJ and contributor to Wire magazine) notes that the word copy derives from the Latin “copia” which means “abundance, plenty, multitude” (41).  Copying is everywhere, and Boon eloquently argues that not only is copying an integral part of being human, but that “we could not be human without copying, and that we can and should celebrate this aspect of ourselves, in full awareness of our situation” (7).

Part of what makes this book so authoritative on our situation is its own sheer copiousness and wide-ranging mobilization of ideas from philosophy, religion, critical cultural studies, anthropology, and music.  Anchoring the book’s argument are some ideas from Buddhist philosophy, through which Boon makes deep and abstract observations about copying, beginning with the fact that nothing is ever truly original and that everything comes from something, thus everything in the world is a copy.  We ourselves are copies too: namely, DNA copies (thankfully mutated ones!) of our parents (and their parents…).  For the world as we know it, it’s copies all the way down.

One of Boon’s main case studies is that of the Luis Vuitton handbag–the original LV which costs thousands of dollars and the many knock-off LV copies which look and feel practically identical but cost much less.  One interesting point here is how originals need copies in order to assert their originality; there’s a subtle dialogue between the two that Boon argues is essential to the original’s thriving.  So in the case of the LV bags, the knock offs are actually what give the original its imagined and real (i.e. dollars and cents) value.  The idea Boon is getting across is that the essence of things is never fixed, for if it were, “it could not be transported to the copy, and imitation, even as a degradation of the original, would not be possible” (27).

Musical practice is another useful locus for examining copying.  The reason for this is due to both its evanescence and its resistance to being controlled and regulated as a thing.  Music, notes Boon in one particularly luminescent passage, “appears and disappears fleetingly […] constellates into infinite sonic chains, precipitates collective joy, is eminently portable, and resists being turned into a thing or property–which is why folk cultures have such love for it” (65).  Boon cites folk music and hip hop as traditions that each thrive on copy-based practices.  Folk music cultures “are always cultures to whom nothing belongs, from whom everything is taken” (72), using and  transforming whatever is at hand as the basis for a shared repertoire.  (Think of all those simple chord progressions upon which countless songs are spun!)  Hip hop too is a music culture built on copying, a response “to the industrial world” (69) through the reappropriation of technologies of sound playback (think about the turntable) for copying purposes.  In both traditions, copying is at play “in the repetition of generic motifs and devices such as particular songs, rhythms, patterns, and practices…” (194).

Of course, musicians and composers–whether they work in folk/popular or classical music idioms–have always copied one another, but the issue of copying went into overdrive with the advent of the dub remix in the 1970s, then with the (disco) DJ spinning two copies of the same record to extend rhythmic breaks, and finally with the arrival of the digital sampler and the personal computer.  Now anybody can copy just about anything and make “endless copies of a tune” (67).  Indeed, we are truly in what Kevin Kelly calls a “recombinant moment.”

Overall, In Praise Of Copying offers an abundance of material to process and think through.  Boon’s book also helps the reader make sense of our recent digital music revolution.  Remember back in the early 2000s when Napster was so popular, when peer-to-peer file sharing of MP3 files seemed to be the future of music, and then how the recording industry shut it all down? (Napster is now a for pay subscription service.).  Napster was loathed because it eroded the idea of a music recording as a charged object of desire with value due to its manufactured scarcity.  Napster was also loathed because it effectively made any music that was in MP3 format a fluid, copyable thing again.  And Napster was inherently pro-copia and consumers loved it–free music!–while the recording industry hated it.  In Napster’s wake, of course, came Apple’s iTunes, digital rights management (which prevents you from making endless copies of all those songs you bought for 99 cents apiece), and a return to what Karl Marx would call “commodity fetishism” (183).

And here we come to the crux of the matter: music was never meant to be an object, but rather a shared, impermanent experience.  But with industrialization, capitalism, recordings (copied sound objects), and copyright law came the notion of music as property and the possibility of manufactured scarcity (and our fetishizing of commodities).  Copia, our abundance and shared heritage of creative work, has been, in our era, hijacked by commercial interests.  And yet . . .We remix, we mash-up, we digitally cut and paste and juxtapose, we auto-tune speech into melodies…Copia is, in these ways at least, alive and well.

Boon offers you a copy of his book to read here.

And for more reading on copying, see Jonathan Lethem’s excellent article “The Ecstasy of Influence” here.

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.