thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: criticism

On Wit And Work: Adam Gopnik On Two Kinds Of Creativity

In his recent New Yorker essay on creativity in jazz and popular music (drawing on recent biographies of Duke Ellington and The Beatles as his case studies), Adam Gopnik makes a distinction between idea-based and action-based notions of creativity:

“Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by the fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than work, to think that the new idea ‘contributed’ by the work matters more than the work itself” (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, Dec. 23 and 30, p. 123).

In the music world, critics are ever alert to characterize and describe the next big idea that manifests itself through an emerging style–whether it be minimalism or dubstep, post-classical or vaporwave. But how easy it is to forget that creativity in music lives on the ground, at the intersection of body-minds and instruments, unaware of its outside interpreters trying to make sense of it. And while any individual musician-composer may not overtly “know”–that is, be able to tell you with certainty–why they do what they do and what to call it, the value of their work remains within the practices that constitute it.

Notes On Music Distillations


Hieronymus Brunschwig’s The Book of the Art of Distillation, circa 1500. (Source: Wikipedia)

The music speaks for itself, yet I still feel a need to respond to it.

One way to respond is to copy it–internalizing the parts of the music that resonate with me and use them in my own work somehow.

Another more public way to respond is to translate the music’s most salient attributes into language. The sense of sounds suggest words, and words can be organized into soundful sense.

So for a while now I’ve been writing short haiku-length pieces on music I’m listening to.

But I don’t want to create a play-by-play translation. Instead, I want a snapshot distillation–as if the music was paused and gathered up into a single moment.

Click: got it.

Distillation is an ancient process of purifying a liquid through evaporation and condensation, reducing it to its essence.

Can music be distilled through a few words? If it can, then the value of these words may be that they point listeners back to the music itself.

Music distillations are engagements with sound, a trace of an encounter between listener and music, and an advocacy: I liked this and maybe you will too.

Together, engagement, encounter, and advocacy form a kind of poetic criticism, launching the reader through words back into the flux of music.

For more on the goals of critical writing about music, see my blog post on the excellent thoughts of Wire writer Tony Herrington here.

On Negative Achievement: The XX Perform In New York


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

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

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

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


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

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

On Small Things And Big Pleasures: David Guetta’s “Titanium”

I get excited by small things. The other day I bought a mechanical pencil to highlight books with as I read. While holding the pencil that evening and underlining, I was struck by the pleasure this $2.19 purchase had brought. It’s precise, light, and helps do a job, with the added grace of having an eraser on the end should I want to backtrack. Other little things that pack big pleasures come to mind:

The texture of a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg whose yoke is in that liminal state between overcooked and runny–just right.

Or the feel of new soft socks that are cushiony marvels of cotton and other materials (Lycra?) that magically mould to the foot. Ahh.

None of these things cost much, but they deliver a whole lot of good.


One of music’s delights is how it creates a space for lots of small things to happen and be heard at the same time. Almost not matter what music you listen to, there’s a lot of this simultaneous micro activity happening. Sometimes this activity isn’t heard as much as felt, but either way it forms the tangible part of music’s texture and deeply shapes how it impacts us. Take David Guetta’s recent-ish dance pop smash (104 million views on YouTube) “Titanium”, which was written by the smooth Australian singer Sia who also sings on the track. On the face of it, this is an oversized anthem of a song–all big featured and perhaps not so subtle. But for me, the elements that makes it work and have the impact it does are Guetta’s little production effects and arrangement decisions that keep the music compelling and moving along.

Structurally, “Titanium” is a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus-chorus affair. The piece begins with a muffled electric guitar plucking away a four-bar chord progression in e-flat major: E-flat (I), g-minor (iii), and c-minor (vi). The first time I heard it I thought of the Police’s ballad “Every Breathe You Take”–same muffled and arpeggiated guitar (only the guitar on the Police song opens with an eight bar, four-chord progression). Soon a kick drum and a bassline enter the mix for the second half of the verse. When the chorus arrives, the chord progression changes to A-flat major (iv), B-flat major (V), g-minor (iii), and c-minor (vi). The chorus also momentarily sets Sia’s voice free of the drums and bass which abruptly cut out–a classic DJ compositional move–only to return a few bars later. After the chorus, the song continues to the next verse, but this time around the rhythm section joins in sooner. Then back to the chorus, a bridge (well, a quasi-bridge, since it’s sung over the same chorus chords), and a few more choruses to the end. At a tempo of around 126 BPM, “Titanium” clocks in at 3:50–the ideal pop song length.

Now for those little things in Guetta and Sia’s song that deliver a whole lot of musical good:

First, if you listen to the four-bar guitar part on the verse, you’ll notice some small amounts of a reverb tail added in specific spots. You can hear it on beat four of bars one and two, as well as on all four beats of bar four. The reverb makes it sound like the guitar has been placed in an echoey stairwell for just a moment, making those muffled staccato notes momentarily become un-detached and blur together in a mass of sound that grows in intensity. The addition of the reverb lends the guitar part a subtle kind of accentuation which might be represented as: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. This reverb-accent creates a forward momentum that makes the downbeats of bars one, two, and three seem all that more exciting.

Second, Sia’s vocals undergo a shift as the song moves from the verses to the choruses. Listen closely and you hear her overdubbed voice double tracked on the chorus–super high notes mostly on the right, and lower harmony on the left singing “you shoot me down, but I won’t fall …”–leaving the space in the middle of the stereo mix curiously devoid of her lead vocal. That lead vocal from the verse that should be in the middle of the stereo mix just disappears for a few seconds. Interesting.

Third, the percussion on this song is fairly sparse. On the verses, it’s mostly the 4/4 kick drum. Eight bars in, just when you think a snare drum will join the mix on beats two and four, it doesn’t. Instead it’s replaced by a light and fluttering electronic brush sound playing an off-beat pattern. When the chorus arrives, all of the percussion cuts out entirely for the first eight bars. Then a snare drum enters, playing on beats 1,2,3 and 4 of the second four bars. On the final eight bars the snare cuts out the kick drum returns. In terms of what a real drummer might do, this is one awkward and disembodied drum part. But it’s a programmed part, and virtual musicianship has more leeway than would be accorded to a real musician. Guetta’s percussion–the kick, the fluttering electronic brush, the snare–holds together more because it’s quantized than because it sounds like a real drummer.

Which brings us to a fourth little thing that holds “Titanium” together: the fact that the whole mix sounds like it’s pulsating along the 8th-note groove set up at the outset by the arpeggiating guitar. This can be heard in a big way on the choruses when the kick drum returns and along with it a pulsating set of chords and a throbbing baseline. Production-wise, it’s quite simple to make a pulsating or throbbing sound by putting a compressor effect on say, a bass or keyboard part, and chaining this compressor to the song’s 4/4 kick drum. Each time the kick drum hits, the compressor on the bass or keyboard part will, well, kick in and “duck” the sound out of the way or momentarily lower its volume. It’s this ducking out of the way that gives a lot of electronic dance music its signature pumping sound. Not only that, but while the technique was originally used to make mixes “tighter” and more energized, it can be used to an extreme too. Listen again to the chorus of “Titanium” when the kick re-enters. To my ear it sounds like compression overkill that makes for a squashed and flattened mix. But maybe this is what works well in huge performance venues?

This sense of pulsation can be heard in more discreet ways too. For instance, I notice it on the little delays added to Sia’s vocals that become more intense as the song unfolds. The delays are synced to the song’s tempo and you can hear them bouncing off into the soundstage horizon long after Sia finishes singing her brief lines, helping build the momentum and make the music feel inevitable.

In sum, “Titanium” uses a number of small production techniques to make itself hum and thrum. If I may offer a scenario not as a criticism but more as a thought experiment: if you were to render this song on an acoustic guitar with a single voice overtop it might not be as much to listen to, and may not even convincingly hold together…Well, okay, scratch that idea, because it turns out that there are acoustic covers of the song that do hold together, such as this one. Nevertheless, Guetta’s digital incarnation of “Titanium” coheres with the help of computer stitching on the disembodied drum kit, the reverb and compression effects, and the little slights of ear like Sia’s overdubbed voices.

It turns out that this song offers a number of musical subtleties. And as with the pleasures of a mechanical pencil, a soft-boiled egg, or soft socks, “Titanium” doesn’t cost much in terms of your attention, yet delivers a whole lot of good.

On Musical Texts: T.M. Wolf’s “Sound”

T.M. Wolf’s Sound is a novel that merges writerly form and narrative content to approximate the ambiguities and instabilities of how we think and talk–not in books but in the real world. Content-wise, Sound‘s story is simple enough: Cincy Stiles, a disaffected philosophy graduate school drop out, returns to his hometown on the Jersey shore to take a job at a boatyard as a supervisor of a small crew of new hires for the summer. During this time, things happen: Stiles explores the shore and its old haunts, hangs out with his housemate, Tom, a musician, and falls for a mysterious woman named Vera who keeps disappearing from his life and then showing up weeks later. Meanwhile, the boatyard is being watched by Jersey undercover police, who eventually bust one of Cincy’s new hires on drug charges. By the novel’s end, Cincy is no closer to a career path or the mysterious Vera, but he has begun to write and tell us his story.

That’s the essence of Sound‘s plot. But it’s the form of the book that is complex and resonates strongly for musically-inclined readers, for much of Sound is laid out like a musical score. Taking inspiration from the verbal wordplay and flow of hip hop as well as the graphic scores of experimental composer John Cage, Wolf places all of his book’s dialogue within sets of horizontal lines that function as a simplified musical staves. These staves allow the reader to see Wolf’s dialogue “orchestrated” in different vertical slots, from high to low, as well as in various horizontal positionings that convey the timing and rhythm of the voices as they interact, overlap, question and answer one another. Wolf also uses various typeface styles and sizes to represent and convey the different voices, affects, and personalities of his characters. In short, the use of graphic techniques make Wolf’s writing literally a kind of musical object–an object fueled by the musicality of speech as much as by its meaning.

Positioning the story’s dialogue on musical staves has a lot to recommend it. Most importantly, it lends the voices a precise temporality: as you read, you experience the uneven tempi of characters speaking as they respond to one another in conversation, pause, and sometimes even go silent for a stretch (which Wolf indicates by using empty quotes: ” “). It’s fun to read voices on a staff because they draw you along their rhythm–which tends to move at a fast clip. The layout of the dialogue also allows its underside to sing in the form of characters’ un-voiced memories and contradictory thoughts that co-exist and appear simultaneously with the voiced conversations. There is something strikingly realistic about this juxtaposition of the words spoken and ideas thought; indeed, Wolf has captured how most of us think most of the time. We might sound coherent to one another, but our minds are constantly playing with a multitude of ideas and juggling our thoughts behind the scenes. In some places, Wolf incorporates ambient sounds into the dialogue as well. For instance, we see the voice of the baseball announcer giving a play-by-play of a Red Sox game, or the lyrics of the rap song that booms on the radio in a car. These radio voices are a backdrop to the main dialogue, but they also dovetail with it to create counterpoint, fill in spaces, and frame meaning. As you read, you can’t help but wonder how the characters might be influenced by what they hear as they talk.

There are, however, limitations to notating all of Sound‘s dialogue on staves. For one thing, the flow of the reading experience is broken because as we read we need to start and stop, go back, vertically scan the staff from top to bottom to make sure we haven’t missed anything. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were only listening to the voices. But reading this way–polyphonically, like reading a fugue–is laborious because we don’t read the way we listen.

But this is a small shortcoming. If you stick with Sounds, the reading gets quicker and the density of Wolf’s polyphonic dialogue begins to sing. I appreciated, for instance, how the different typeface styles and sizes he uses convey what the ear would easily hear without needing an explanation. Case in point: one bit of whispered talk is rendered in a microscopic font and the effect–helped by how easily our eyes can interpret physical smallness as acoustic quietness–is more affective than simply telling us that a character has just whispered something. In other places, Wolf tries other tactics: he includes a list of few dozen search terms from Cincy’s Internet search free-floating without a musical stave for support which makes them stand out in an unusual, clinical way (260); he depicts a flurry of memories as short phrases written slightly crooked over a huge, 21-line stave (247); he shows the noise of a character’s conflicting thoughts by superimposing layer upon layer of word streams to the point of being unreadable (343); and near the end of the book, he graphically represents the sound of a house party’s booming sound system through large grey blocks that look like maxed out sound waves (304-312). If there is a meta-theme throughout Sound, it’s that coherent meaning is always on the verge of getting fuzzy, always on the verge of being swallowed by noise.

In sum, there’s a lot going on in Sound besides the story, and much of what’s going on is quite musical. For it’s not only the borrowing of staff-style notation as a structural device that alerts us to Wolf’s sonic leanings. He’s also a fan of musical loops and intrigued by the ways in which our memories are engaged by music. Loops, in a hip hop context, consist of audio samples of older recordings–a snippet of a voice, a shard of a drum break–that play over and over again. The repetition transforms the loop into something Other (and usually something groovy) by revealing meanings not heard in the once-played-through original. Similarly, our memories are like loop players that constantly revisit the past–from a few minutes ago to decades ago. And when we replay in our minds, like Cincy does, the stuff of our immediate and deep experience, we transform that too–like a kaleidoscope remixing a scene into new combinations of colors. All this to say that what is ultimately most impressive about Wolf’s novel is how he renders the musicality of the everyday by depicting our talking and thinking as the strange loops that they truly are.

Peter Coviello On Musical Talk That Does Something

sympathetic resonance –a harmonic phenomenon wherein a formerly passive string or vibratory body responds to external vibrations to which it has a harmonic likeness (Wikipedia).

In his article “The Talk That Does Not Do Nothing” in the July/August 2012 issue of The Believer (The Music Issue), Peter Coviello writes about fighting with a friend over the merits of Steely Dan’s music. Their rambling discussions take place over the course of twenty years, and one of the issues they argue over is whether or not there is a recurring character portrayed in Steely Dan’s lyrics. As it turns out, there may well be such a character and Coviello expertly parses the textual connections among different songs to make his case. Along the way he also renders the experience of his Steely Dan discussions to show what being a devoted music fan is all about.

One of the ways fans express their fandom is by talking about the stuff they love with their friends, explaining and arguing over its virtues, what makes it work so well (or not so well), what makes it important to them, and so on. In the second half of his article, Coviello shifts into deep analytical mode and provides us with an excellent overview of the nature and purpose of criticism in general:

“I’d like to say, then, that what you’re doing when you’re fighting about slight, useless, beautiful things you love, is, in effect, criticism–if we can torque the idea of the critical enterprise hard enough so that it takes seriously the joyousness, the inflooding sense of richness and abundance, by which we are sometimes possessed both in the presence of an object and also in and through the talking with others about the object and its captivations. (…) Criticism might also be understood as the making of a language–and with it the making of a special, precious kind of sociality, fractious and lovestruck–whose roots are in ardor and captivation, something kindled by those moments of exhilaration that songs so commonly produce. (…) Talking [is] the mode of joy’s enlargement, its enactment” (10).

There are a number of exciting points here. I especially like the idea of criticism as a special kind of talking about that which captivates us in something, as a “precious kind of sociality” that frees us to create a unique language for our talking/writing, and also the idea of criticism as a way to enlarge the joy we have already experienced through say, music, art, or in a book. Taken together, these ideas on the functions of criticism reinforce a notion that I’ve had for a while: the critic–amateur or professional, it doesn’t really matter–as someone who puts into words the texture of his/her co-resonance with whatever it is that seems worth writing about. To use a sound analogy: we’re vibrating in sympathy with a tone that has already sounded and now we want to extend that resonance, amplify it, and let it keep ringing through ourselves and hopefully out towards others too.

From Geoff Dyer’s Criticism To Keith Jarrett’s Pianism

In his recent collection of essays, Otherwise Known As The Human Condition, novelist and critic Geoff Dyer writes beautifully and incisively about photography in a way that I wish more writers would (or could) write about music.  Here is Dyer writing on Idris Khan’s work (pictured below) that digitally blends hundreds of photographs into a single composite image:

“Each art form has its own unique advantages and limitations.  Words and music unfold successively, through time.  Photography is about an instant.  By analogy it can ask the impossible: in this case, what if you could hear every note of Beethoven’s sonatas in an instant?  What would it look like?  And when we think of a piece of music that we know well, don’t we sometimes remember it not phrase by phrase, but in its amorphous entirety?

It is often said that photographers freeze time but Khan does the opposite.  This can be seem most clearly in his remixes of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of the 1880s […] Muybridge used fast shutter speeds to break action into moment-by-moment increments, rendering movement stationary.  Kahn takes these sequences of isolated moments and unfreezes time by combining them in a single image.  Muybridge’s strictly mechanical record of a man getting out of bed becomes a vision of the unconscious lifting clear of the body, a dream of waking…” (84).

Lucky for us, Dyer does briefly turn to music in a later section of the book, writing about artists as varied as John Coltrane (and his versions of “My Favorite Things”), Indian singer Ramamani, and 1980s rockers Def Leppard.  The most compelling essay here, however, is “Editions Of Contemporary Me”, Dyer’s personal account of encountering new music through the ECM record label.  (The essay’s title is a play on the record label’s name.)  ECM is the brainchild of Manfred Eicher, who started the label in Germany in 1969 as a vehicle for releasing new and interesting sounds that span and fall in between the stylistic boundary lines of jazz, classical, and world music.  Probably due to Eicher’s artistic vision and curatorial ear, there is a distinctive ECM aesthetic: think minimal designs, contemplative and vast open spaces, and sounds roaming free in reverberant halls.  Some have argued–somewhat disparagingly–that ECM was a pioneer of what has come to be called New Age music.

A longtime ECM artist is piano virtuoso Keith Jarrett, about whom Dyer cannot say enough good things.  As it happens, during the time I was reading Dyer on Jarrett I cleaned my closet and out came tumbling Jarrett’s Koln Concert CD, his 1975 recording of an improvised concert at the Cologne Opera House that is the best-selling piano record of all time.  The details surrounding the concert are well-known by now: a half-working piano delivered to the concert hall by mistake that sounded thin in the bass and upper registers, Jarrett’s fatigue and back pain (not to mention his irritation with the piano situation), and a late night, 11:30pm showtime.  Under these less than auspicious conditions, Jarrett pulled off a historic performance in front of 1700 entranced listeners, making do with he had, and more than that, structuring his performance around the limitations of his instrument.

Listening to Koln Concert two things stand out for me.  The first is how Jarrett can sustain the listener’s interest by creating long lyrical melodic lines that keep shifting–in their harmonies, their patterns of accentuation and dynamics, their register, and in their length.  These melodies are simple yet elastic and endlessly adaptable.  Listening to them you feel like you’re hearing a good story.  A second thing that stands out is Jarrett’s relentless and precise groove, especially that left hand of his that builds rhythmic ostinati on top of which he spins his right hand melodies.

But let me add one more thing.  The music gets even more interesting when both of these qualities–long melodies and relentless grooves–blur together to make a kind of melodic drumming on the keyboard.  In the YouTube clip below of Part II B, you can hear this especially beginning at the 6:45 mark through to the end of the clip.  Here, melodies and harmonies form a single and constantly morphing sound mass.  What’s neat about this is that you hear Jarrett seemingly moving through (or channelling?) all kinds of musical idioms–from early 20th century French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel to Middle Eastern modes to American minimalism and beyond–with just the shift of a semitone here and there.  Here is the clip:

Overall, Koln Concert is a good illustration of Dyer’s assertion that the most alive jazz has always been that which tries to escape the idiom’s well-worn stylistic paths in search of new territories to assimilate.  I don’t know if Jarrett was thinking about any of this during his Koln concert, but you can nevertheless hear something very modern here, as if Jarrett/jazz is trying to get outside of himself/itself.  Jazz is omnivorous, able to digest just about any other music and make it its own.


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