brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: ecstasy of influence

On Twitter And Thinking

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You may well know this already, but I’ll say it anyway: Whether you broadcast or receive, Twitter can be a compelling tool for thinking. Reflecting on its virtues, a few points come to mind:

Twitter is brief.
One hundred and forty characters is just enough of a text allotment to say one thing and then be done with it.

Twitter is open-ended.
Depending on how you’ve set up your feed–do you follow one person or a thousand?–Twitter can grow along with you, as if mirroring the connections you make in your mind with ones in your feed.

Twitter invites you into the brains of others.
You follow a friend, but who is he or she (or it) following? You scan their list of who they’re following, and wonder why. If one or more seems interesting enough, you follow them too, tagging along down a new stream of information.

Twitter invites you to garden and curate.
As you follow one friend or a thousand disparate sources, you notice how often those tweets are appearing. Some pop up too often, like weeds. Others blossom once in a while, like flowers. You might choose to unfollow someone here and there, because they’re not adding much to your garden. And depending on who you follow, the cumulative weight of your feed can be striking–like the works of different artists hanging side by side in the same gallery.

Twitter invites surprise and serendipity.
Depending on who you follow, neat things pop up and here and there–a recommended article, an interview, a new blog post, a photo, a video link. These neat things popping up increase in impact as they’re read side by side other, unrelated tweets. This nudges you to reconcile your own diverse interests within some kind of broader thematic frame. In this way, Twitter can illuminate a kind of cognitive diversity.

Twitter promotes a bee hive mentality.
This isn’t a bad thing. Attending to your own little garden and curating your own part of the gallery, you become part of a larger, non-stop information-sifting and sharing organism. Buzz Buzz!

Twitter promotes thinking about pacing.
Sure, Tweets are brief, but how often do we need to be broadcasting? As you notice the rate at which others are tweeting, it prompts you to think about how often we need to be saying whatever it is we’re thinking. In this way, Twitter foregrounds the distinction between signal and noise: sometimes “talk is cheap” for a reason.

On The Trickle-Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics IV: Coldplay’s “A Sky Full Of Stars”

Though it has been fashionable to criticize the English band Coldplay for one reason or another–they’ve been too popular, their music is too sentimental, their singer Chris Martin overuses his falsetto voice–they do what they do well. Their music uses pop materials precisely, and for many listeners, Martin’s concise and catchy vocal melodies are worth the price of admission. As my wife pointed out the other night as we watched the band play two new songs on SNL, while publicly disliking Coldplay has become a kind of meme (see here and here), the band is tight. They do what they do well.

Like other guitar-bass-keyboard-drums bands, Coldplay is also not immune to the changing fashions of popular music. In fact, their recent single, “A Sky Full Of Stars” could be mistaken for a bona fide piece of electronic dance music. A few observations in this regard. First, the tempo of the song is a sprightly 122 bpm–just a few clicks below dance music’s optimal pace range. Second, the song’s harmonic glue is a syncopated, repeating keyboard ostinato that cycles through four chords, each for one measure. (In fact, the ostinato is identical to a well-known African bell timeline pattern: long-short-long-long-short.) Third, the keyboard part undergoes a series of filter sweeps that alter its timbre and adds a sense of tension and forward motion. Fourth, the drumset part is reduced down to a four-on-the-flour kick drum that seems designed for DJ sound systems. (Good luck finding tom-tom fills and cymbal crashes on this track.) Finally, the guitar and bass parts are relegated to secondary roles, effectively decorating that pulsating keyboard part and floating above the kick drum. And the vocals? They’re pared down too–emphasizing a few short, repeated phrases. All in all, there’s constant variation that makes the song build and build.

What I find interesting here is how rock band instrumentation is adapting to the different aesthetic needs of electronic dance music. Coldplay do their adapting well enough that one hardly notices it happening. Still though, there are concessions to the exigencies of pop songwriting. “A Sky Full Of Stars” ends with the band moving to four new chords, as if to provide a sense of song going finally somewhere, at least for its rousing conclusion–in effect saying, We’re not completely dance music yet!

 

On The Drumming Of Tony Allen

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In his memoir Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat (co-authored with Michael Veal, Duke University Press, 2013), the eminent Nigerian drummer recalls the influence of American jazz innovators on his own musicianship. It was in the playing of the African Americans such as Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Max Roach that Allen heard a familiar sound:

“The way they were drumming, it had all the spirituality and all the celebration in it. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t Western. It wasn’t what Gene Krupa was doing. It was a whole different language. We should have been playing the drum set like that in Nigeria. After all, it originally came from here. They took it, went there to the Americas, polished it, and sent it back to us in Africa.”

“Guys like Max and Elvin and Blakey and Philly Joe [Jones], they were telling a story on the drums. Krupa wasn’t doing that. These guys were telling a story by playing different rhythms, and they were doing it with independent coordination. That’s the way the drums should be played, man” (46).

Intriguingly, part of Allen’s inspiration for his polyrhythmic Afrobeat style came from his initial misunderstanding of what he heard the American jazz drummers doing on their recordings. “To me it was impossible” he said, “that it was only one guy playing all this stuff” (50). Allen recreated the sound of what he thought was more than one drummer playing at once.

Here is Allen drumming Afrobeat in the recording studio. Notice how supremely light and relaxed his touch is:

My full review of the book is here.

On The Ecstasy Of Musical Influence: Hearing Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” In Tim Hecker’s “Live Room”

One mark of a composer’s influence is how often their sound reappears in the work of other artists. By this metric, the American composer Steve Reich has been highly influential. His pulsating, percussive soundworld is pervasive in the music of both his imitators and heirs alike.

The Canadian electronic musician Tim Hecker makes creative use of Reich’s early piece “Piano Phase” on his recent track, “Live Room.” The piece begins with a slow and jagged repetition of Piano Phase’s twelve note minor key pattern. The piano part, swamped in reverb and delay effects and repeating like a stubborn music box, is gradually joined by Hecker’s signature ambient processed guitar and keyboard sounds as well as acoustic sounds (winds and strings) specially recorded for this project. Layers of noise, long tone drones, and slow moving chords build to create a sensation of being in a massive cathedral. As Ian Maleney describes the track at residentadvisor.net, its sounds “build awkwardly towards strange and jagged peaks before crumbling into patches of desolation that are both beautiful and painful.” Eventually the Piano Phase piano reference fades out and the ambient harmonies are lush, revealing Reich’s music to have been a point of departure for new musical landscapes. By the track’s end, a few long woodwind tones have emerged as the last sounds standing, and “Live Room” seamlessly segues into the next track, “Live Room Out.”

Here is Reich’s “Piano” phase and Hecker’s “Live Room” and “Live Room Out”:

On Influence And Voice

This is a post about influence and voice.

It’s about how each of us is influenced by one another–by other writers, musicians, teachers.

By voice I don’t mean our actual speaking voices (though those can have their influence too).

I mean that something in the character and essence and presence of each of us that resonates outward and affects others–whether we know it or not.

I think about this because it amazes me how deeply I can be influenced by just a single voice.

Which reminds me: voice is always singular.

By influence I mean a process of immediately taking on some of the qualities of another’s voice in one modality or another.

In being influenced we become ventriloquists of sorts, channeling and re-voicing those who have influenced us. I’ve explored this idea of ventriloquism in my Ventrilo-Dialogues, such as this one.

I have encountered a small number of influential voices in my orbit of experience, and I continue to discover new ones, though not very often now. Sometimes the voices are those of people I know, sometimes they are musical voices, and sometimes they are writing voices.

What is most significant about the influence of another’s voice, though, is the metamorphosis of its influence into immediate change. As you assume the voice, you assume persona, inhabit gesture and space, and take on affect in a new way. Like when a music teacher shows you something and says: “Do it like this.” You do it like that and immediately assume a new voice–or at least get a glimpse of what that voice feels like. Not on you, but as you.

So, as this is a blog post about influence and voice, it is also about how malleable we are.

All we need to do is pay attention to the process.

On The Influence Of One’s Musical Teachers

In his New Yorker piece “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, pianist Jeremy Denk reflects on taking piano lessons from the time he first took up the instrument at the age five through his college years. Denk’s teachers helped him learn to better practice, interpret and think musically. “Learning to play the piano” says Denk, “is learning to reason with your muscles.” Denk’s most influential teacher was the great Hungarian pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) who spent many years teaching at Indiana University. Sebők was a master who made “the concepts behind the notes” come alive. Sebők could conjure worlds from the piano that felt “like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.”

Sebők’s playing a dual role of “spirit guide and physics teacher” in Denk’s life is something that any of us who have closely worked with a music teacher will recognize. Sebők aimed to “bridge the gap between boring technical detail and the mysteries of the universe.” Denk expands on the subtleties of Sebők’s approach as it relates to the complexities of the piano:

“He would make you focus on the myriad hinges of the arm and wrist, sometimes looking for the arm to resemble a sewing machine, with up-and-down linear simplicity, other times looking or curves, circles, spirals. The mechanism of bone and muscle brought to bear on the piano is very complex; the hidden responding mechanism inside the piano is also very complex; and the interaction of the two is a lifetime’s study.”

Particularly interesting for me is Sebők’s belief “that matching one’s motions to the gestures within the music was essential to unlocking the emotions of the piece.” Sebők considered it perverse “to play a phrase with body language that was opposed to the musical idea itself.” Denk’s essay also conjures the deep value of masterclass sessions with Sebők, describing them as “beautiful acts of attention, in which the revelatory detail is cherished for its own sake, freed from the narrative necessities of performance.” Reading this I recalled some of my own practicing during college, but also realized that there are everywhere opportunities for beautiful acts of attention. The  key, I suppose, is learning how to really notice things.

After Denk had finished his studies with Sebők and moved to New York, he did some teaching himself and got some sense of what Sebők may have experienced with his pupils. “When you give ideas to students, they tend either to ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque.” Which leads Denk to reflect on the nature of one’s identity–musical or otherwise: “what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of the struggling student do you see what you’re really about.” Whatever the case, Sebők’s teachings have remained with Denk. Having dinner with another one of his former teachers at, of all places, an Applebee’s in Florida and reminiscing about Sebők, Denk is surprised that twenty years after his lessons with the Hungarian master he still carries with him memories of how Sebők played Bach and made it feel like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.

Here is a video of Sebők discussing the relationship between feeling and music followed by a riveting performance of Bach:

On Pantha Du Prince And Bell Laboratory’s Elements Of Light

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I think techno music at the moment is just an infrastructure. Basically, it’s not a musical term anymore. It used to be more like straight, technical funk. Nowadays, it is more of an infrastructure where you have certain beat patterns that you can call techno music. But in the end, it’s a social and economic infrastructure. The name ‘techno’ does not have anything to do with content anymore. It can be anything, from soul jazz to new music, to electro-acoustic music. It’s not the description for a musical genre anymore. It’s the description of a structure within which you move around. And it’s dance music.” – Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince)

The German techno DJ and Producer Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince) is quite into the sound of bells. On his 2010 recording Black Noise you can hear bell sounds on the tracks “Welt Am Draht”

and  “Bohemian Forest.”


Since then, Weber has kicked his interest in bells up a few significant notches. On his recent recording Elements Of Light, he collaborates with The Bell Laboratory, a collective of musicians who play a range of tuned percussion instruments including a huge 50-bell carillon. The 17-minute track “Spectral Split” showcases the electronic music meets ancient bells and percussion collaboration. Once the piece gets going you can hear the full mix: the lumbering carillon bells, marimba patterns deeply indebted to Steve Reich (the composer may demand royalties here), steel pan, tubular bells, crotales, a 4/4 techno pulse, and a slow-moving synth bassline. Harmonically speaking, “Spectral Split” doesn’t travel far, instead building musical interest through repetition, addition and subtraction of its parts.

What I find interesting about this music is its attempt to engage in a dialog with the languages of classical minimalism and contemporary electronic dance music of the minimal techno variety. In this respect, “Spectral Split” is a unique beast–the musical result of instruments and sounds wandering out of their usual stylistic frames. Does it work? Yes, it does work in its own way. And while the music is perhaps limited either by the carillon themselves (their tuning, and by how fast they can be played) or by Weber’s musical setting of them (I keep waiting for a dramatic harmonic shift that never arrives), the composer and his collaborators deserve credit for making everything groove and hum.

Here is the lusciously filmed official promotional video for Elements Of Light and the track “Spectral Split”:

On Finding Cross-Sensory Inspiration: The Spell Of Michel Bras

The Michelin-starred, self-taught French chef Michel Bras may as well be a music composer, such is his multi-sensory approach to his culinary craft. In the ambient and thoughtful documentary Inventing Cuisine: Michel Bras (2008), directed by Paul Lacoste, we see Bras at work on the kitchen–poaching fish, peeling veggies, brooding over his (fascinating) sketchbooks, and generally just looking concerned, lost in thought, and worried about the state of things in his kitchen. But we also see Bras outside in the blowing wind, under overcast skies, finding inspiration in the shifting play of light, wind, rocks, grassy hills, and whatever else he notices in the rugged environment near his restaurant in Laguiole, a remote area in southern France.

In one scene from the documentary (which begins at 4:57 in the YouTube clip below), we find Bras outside observing the sky and landscape through a piece of glass he’s set up on an easel. Like a painter, he’s trying to literally “frame” a piece of his environment by tracing what he sees directly onto what is essentially a translucent canvas. Later, Bras will use his glass tracing as the basis for designing the layout of a new dish on a dinner plate (which we actually saw Bras assembling just before this scene; so much for proper film chronology). “Everyone has their own reading and rewriting [of nature]” says Bras. “The plate is the most difficult part. It’s a sky on a stormy night. The backlit cloud bank captivates me, so maybe I’ll paint it on a plate.”

This scene reminded me of composers finding inspiration (or the idea/ideal that composers find inspiration) in their environments by turning their ears towards say, the rhythmic sound of city traffic and hearing music as with Steve Reich’s City Life (1995)

or maybe noticing the enchanted aura of an old cathedral and imagining out from there as with Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910, performed here by the composer himself in 1913!)

or otherwise paying attention to something else that they want to translate from one medium into another.

And back to cooking, this is what is so fascinating about Bras in this scene: the cross-sensory nature of his creative process. As is the case with someone who experiences synesthesia (experiencing one sensory domain in terms of another–like hearing a chord and seeing the color purple, etc.), Bras is taking in something visual but funneling it through olfactory means: a sight becoming a taste (not to mention a texture, a set of relations and contrasts). It’s all about one of my favorite processes: transformation. And not only does Bras work cross-sensorially to transform elements from one sphere to another, he also gets deeply into the materials of his craft:

“For years, I’ve been interested in the abstract side of things. I get into them, I identify with them. In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”

Finally, like a composer who knows how different rhythms and harmonies will interact to make an enchanting sum greater than its humdrum parts, so too does Bras knows his edible materials well. For instance, he attributes his interest in pastry to the fact that they have a structure that can be altered in a predictable way: “You put in flour, add sugar, you know the outcome.” Bras, then, is a materialist, but like good artists in other fields, he’s a materialist fueled by imagination and the sense(s) to change one kind of matter into another:

“I have a physio-chemical approach to food that helps me enormously. Because I learned on my own it was a real struggle. Today I can sense and predict the transformation process.”

On The Trickle-Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics IV: Usher And Diplo’s “Climax”

“We are in a place now where fans don’t have conviction to one sound.”

- Diplo

This song caught my ear the first time I heard it: I recognized Usher’s R&B falsetto singing, of course, but what really got me was the sparse electronic backing track comprised of little more than a sequenced bassline, kick, snare, hi hat, plus bits of piano and a string arrangement by Nico Muhly.

The backing track is by Diplo, a globe-trotting DJ/producer/cultural broker who is also a respectfully inspired seeker and popularizer of dance musics from around the world. Diplo, by the way, produced the excellent documentary Favela On Blast, an inside look at the culture of electronic music making and dance parties situated in the favelas in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. (You can read more about the documentary here.)

What makes Usher and Diplo’s song “Climax” compelling to me is how it makes the most of so little. First, the song’s 138BPM tempo does double duty, suggesting a fast speed with its quick ticking hi hats while keeping a half and quarter time feel with a snare drum that hits once a measure and a kick drum on the downbeat once every two measures. Second, the song’s sequenced baseline is simultaneously its chord progression. The baseline/chord progression pulses away at an eighth-note speed while subtly morphing in timbre via its frequency cut-off setting. Diplo talks about the origins of the song:

“The production actually started as a house thing with a chord progression that I wrote, but with some time in the studio alone I was making a sort of ‘wildfire’ beat out of it. The idea of pushing cut-off on a synth used so much in progressive house music but pulling back. I was making something like a minimal techno record with Atlanta strip clubs in mind.”

So what about this “wildfire” beat? “Wildfire”, it turns out, is the name of a track by UK electronic musician SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”). Not only does Diplo’s “Climax” have pretty much the same tempo and rhythmic profile as “Wildfire”, but it’s in the same key too. Ah the ecstasy of influence! Still, “Climax” is a powerful track that makes maximal use of minimal means, yet another example of the trickle-down of electronic dance music aesthetics into the pop music cauldron.

Here is SBTRKT’s “Wildfire”:

And here is Diplo and Usher’s “Climax”:

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