brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: drone

On How The Shape Of A Sound Shapes Us

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I noticed a simple thing the other day while working on some music. The sounds I was working with were long tones with slow attacks and long decays. (Can you guess the instrument?) What I noticed was how instantaneously the shape of the sounds shaped me. The sounds literally slowed me down–making me feel as if I was resonating along with their contours and slow rhythms. I’m somewhat astonished that I had never noticed and articulated this perceptual phenomenon in my own musical experience until now, but there you go.

To re-phrase that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: Be careful what sounds you make, for surely you shall become one with them!

On Rhythmic Instabilities And Brand New Feelings: DJ Rashad’s “Feelin””

“The technology’s so on point now: we can sample almost anything now.”
– DJ Spinn

One of the talked about music releases of 2012 is DJ Rashad’s Teklife Vol.1: Welcome to the Chi. Rashad is a Chicago musician who makes music to accompany a dance style known as footwork. Footwork is characterized by its hyper fast foot movements, and footwork dancers often compete against one another in dance battles where they spin gliding moves that resemble tap and hip hop dancing sped way, way up. Footwork music is a sample-based idiom that supports this dancing through its fast and frenetic rhythms.

The first track on Rashad’s Teklife Vol. 1, “Feelin'”, is a case study in how to maintain musical interest through constant rhythmic intensity and instability. The track features crisp and TR-808 drum machine-ish snare, cross stick, and crash cymbal. Along with this percussion is a constantly snaking and wobbling sub bass line/detuned kick drum, a few Rhodes keyboard and wah-wah guitar samples, some horn lines, and snippets of a woman’s voice singing just two lines: “I just had a brand new feeling, yeah/until you came up on me in the night…” Tonally, “Feelin'” oscillates around a single pitch and feels like a pulsing and hyper drone.

Like a lot of footwork tracks, the tempo is fast–160 beats per minute fast. This lets us listeners (and those footwork dancers) feel the music as simultaneously fast and slow. The overriding rhythm of the piece reminds me a lot of a mechanical version of a popular West African bell pattern or timeline that goes like this (bell hits are on the bolded counts):

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2, etc.

But this rhythm is constantly undercut by Rashad’s varying all of the instrumental parts. There is one particularly striking passage from 1:48-2:24 in which the cross stick plays the most cutting of cross-rhythms against the fast 4/4 feel: it sounds like a kind of displaced six-against-four rhythm (six equally spaced cross stick hits in the time of four beats). I love this kind of instability because it keeps my ears engaged. You can still feel the 4/4 grid, but it’s pushed to the background. The vocal samples are also cut up, pitch-shifted, and displaced all over the place–individual words and phrases repeated to make melo-rhythmic lines that dovetail with the music.

As I listened and re-listened to “Feelin'” a number of times, I thought about how different musics invite different kinds of responses from us. For instance, you can’t really daydream to this track–it’s just too intense for that. But you can let yourself enjoy all the syncopations of its angular rhythmic flow. It’s an interesting track to listen first thing in the morning or late at night, if only just to jolt you awake. Actually, I’m doing that right now!

And speaking of jolting ourselves awake, it might be fun to transcribe and learn the changing rhythms for a piece of music like this. In their stuttering and shape-shifting instabilities, machine-made rhythms can sometimes teach us new ways to approach musical time. And this reminds me–jolted awake as I am–of Kodwo Eshun’s description of rhythm itself “as a kind of an abstract machine.”

Here, then, is “Feelin'”:

And here is a short documentary video about the footwork dance and music scene that features some other footwork DJs, including DJ Spinn and Traxman. There’s an interesting bit from 2:45 to 3:26 where Traxman describes his interest in the robotic aspect of German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

On Evanescent Materials In Solid Containers: The Flaming Lips’ “7 Skies H3″

The Flaming Lips recently released a 24 hour-long song called “7 Skies H3.” I’m actually listening to a stream of it right now on a website (http://flaminglipstwentyfourhoursong.com/) as I write these words. I like this music. So far–30 minutes in–it’s been a lot of long feedbacking tones on guitars, washes of cymbals, and vocal wails that periodically resolve together on a chord change. It sounds very loose and improvised and all about the slowly evolving long drone.

What’s equally interesting about this release is its packaging. “7 Skies H3″ comes on a hard drive encased in a real human skull (!) and costs $5000.00 to purchase. The catch is that the band only made thirteen copies of their release and surprise, surprise, they’ve already sold out.

“7 Skies H3″ is quite a gesture in our era of evanescent MP3s and 99 cent Apple iTunes downloads. If you were to actually get your hands on this release you’d have yourself a very permanent physical momento as well an entire day’s worth of sound. It’s hard to ignore this kind of artistic gesture because it’s so lavishly physical and imposing, flying in the face of the essential disposability and interchangeability of many popular songs today whose contents we can easily browse/shuffle/add/delete on our digital devices. And because of its size, “7 Skies H3″ is probably impermeable to this kind of toying around. For that matter, how would a remix DJ ever decide where to start taking the music apart?  It’s just too colossal and that’s the point: “7 Skies” isn’t a song, it’s a slow-moving weather system.

On Sonic Persuasion: The Music Of Oneohtrix Point Never

Over the past few months I heard about Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin)’s electronic music in at least two disparate places–in Simon Reynolds’ fine book Retromania and in a recent article by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker–so I decided to buy his most recent recording Replica and check it out. Compelling music sometimes bubbles to the surface like this.

Oneohtrix’s music is indeed a rich soundworld, and while it drones and loops along, it’s never quite static. There’s a lot happening and changing moment to moment and this alone keeps your ear in the game.

Style-wise, the tracks on Replica don’t sound nostalgic, nor do they sound particularly 2011. Actually, it’s hard to date them. Maybe this is because Oneohtrix uses vintage synthesizers to generate arpeggios, improvises chords and melodies, and mixes these with audio samples culled from old infomercials found on YouTube. Everything is then blended together, re-sampled (sometimes many times) and assembled on the computer.  Here is Oneohtrix discussing his creative process:

“I jam combos of arpeggiators in latch or unlatched modes, sequencers, and free playing via loopers, and then bounce it to computer where I resample and layer the stuff there. I do this process over and over. It can get really time-consuming and insane.”

Most everything in this music is in full view, standing revealed: you can hear the seams between sections; you can hear the fragmented sampled source material; you can hear the repeated arpeggios; you can hear the sometimes cheesy sound patches (e.g. are those synthesized horn sounds?); and you can hear the layers of noise and hiss.

In other words, nothing is hidden in this music. It’s assembled from fragments, but without fetishizing their sources–without, that is, any knowing “winks” to indicate to us that some sound is referencing in an ironic way. What this leaves us with is a soundworld that is by turns mysterious, curious and anxious, and most importantly, quite emotionally moving.

Here is my favorite track, “Power Of Persuasion”:

On Max Neuhaus: The Sound Installation In Times Square

If you walk over the metal grating smack in the middle of the pedestrian island between 45th and 46th street where Broadway and 7th Avenue meet, slow down a little and listen closely to the space beneath your feet: you’ll notice a subtle shift in the soundscape around you.  There is a mysterious low-pitched humming drone that sounds like it could be some kind of industrial engine or maybe the sound of a didgeridoo player helplessly trapped below, but it’s neither of these things.  (Though for years I assumed it was a didge player with incredible lung power!)  The drone is actually a subterranean continuous sound art installation designed by the artist Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) in 1977.

Growing up in suburbs of Westchester, NY, Neuhaus studied jazz drumming with the great Gene Krupa (the flamboyant drummer featured on Benny Goodman’s song, “Sing, sing, sing”) and then in the late 1950s went on to earn bachelors and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School Of Music.  It was here that Neuhaus first encountered the music of American experimental composers including John Cage, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Morton Feldman who were writing adventurous pieces for percussion ensemble.  In the early 1960s, Neuhaus, who was touring as a percussionist with Pierre Boulez’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, became one of the first classical musicians to experiment with live feedback techniques using microphones and speakers.  In his performances of Cage’s piece Fontana Mix, Neuhaus would place microphones on his percussion instruments in front of loudspeakers and allow the resulting feedbacking sound to resonate the instruments and create a great sonic din probably not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s squealing electric guitar soundscapes.  It was the excitement of this kind of experimentation that led Neuhaus further and further way from traditional percussion music and into left-field sound work.

Eventually, Neuhaus took to heart Cage’s adage that everything in our listening environment can be considered music and began creating anonymous public sound works he called “sound installations” in the United States and Europe.  Many of these works consist of continuous sounds placed in particular locations that have neither beginnings nor ends—they just go on and on whether you notice them or not.  Neuhaus’s work in Times Square is called, fittingly, Times Square, though there is no sign around to tell you that.  The installation’s sound is actually generated by a machine that amplifies and enhances the natural resonances already present below ground but otherwise inaudible from above.  You can’t see the machinery making the sound, but that’s just as well, since Neuhaus intended the visual component to be all those who walk over the metal grating of the pedestrian island, as well as Times Square’s always proliferating giant billboards, hotels, shops and restaurants.   Times Square initially ran continuously from 1977 until 1992.  In 2002, the piece was resurrected and since that time has run twenty-four hours a day, every day.

I make a point of walking directly over Neuhaus’s sound installation most evenings to experience a fleeting 5-second experience of its basso continuo ambient drone.  Neuhaus’s work is somewhat odd in that once you notice it, it gets you thinking for a moment, but about nothing in particular.  It’s just one more voice blending in among the thousands of other sounds sounding in Times Square.  You hear and notice the drone for a few seconds, then just move on.

You can listen to Times Square here:

The Sound of Vuvuzelas

I hate it when I go to a vuvuzela concert and then people start playing football!  It’s so annoying!” – YouTube viewer

In last month’s Wire magazine, Marcus Boon wrote a thoughtful end piece on the phenomenon of vuvuzelas at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa.  If you remember, vuvuzelas are those small plastic horns that many South African fans blew at the football matches, creating an unbelievably loud (around 120 decibels) and insistent communal drone buzz.  It was, as Boon points out, noise in the signal of the Word Cup TV broadcasts; television couldn’t filter out this insistent sound of the people just enjoying themselves.  And while here was much talk of banning vuvuzelas from the games, the sound of these instruments was also a reminder of the sonic power and affect of noise, as well as how drone can bring people together.  But what does the vuvuzela drone-noise signify exactly?  It’s hard to say.  Here’s is an extended excerpt from Boon’s take on the sound:

“I cam to think of it, perhaps naively, as the sound of the global South, the buzzing hive sound of the people of the world, contaminating the otherwise clean hyperspace of the globalised spectacle of soccer, now trademarked and sold to us by FIFA.  A reminder that (. . .) if you listen to the messages of global capital, they will always be accompanied by their subaltern support, the global multitude (. . .)

To me, it was also a reminder that drone music is not a technique invented by the minimalist avant gardes, but one of the sounds of the people, spanning a very broad historical and geographical continuum, from the bilbical horn that blew Jericho down to the sound OM that gave birth to the universe in the Hindu scriptures, on to all the various folk musics that rely on sustained tones.  Drone music is easily configured as a collective technique, if only because playing sustained tones together is a simple method of amplification in a non-electronic culture–for example, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, where monks blow massive mountain horns simultaneously to produce the raw blast of sound that invites the deities to the ritual.”

From YouTube, here is an informative video on the vuvuzela put together by Dr. Dan Russell, a physics professor at Kettering University:

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