brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: Electronic music

On The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.

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There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:

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In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

Finding Musical Analogies In Lawrence Weschler’s “On The Digital Animation Of The Face”

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“Coldness is about more than just a sound and a look, and it’s more than the coldness of a technological being, too. Coldness is what we fear lies beyond human capability. Coldness is the gap between human intentions and outcomes. It’s the uncanny valley of the human reflected in the non-human.”–Adam Harper

In his marvelous essay “On The Digital Animation Of The Face” (from Uncanny Valley: Adventures In The Narrative, 2011), Lawrence Weschler writes about his experiences hanging out with the programmers and animators at Industrial Light & Magic and DreamWorks to learn about their work in digitally rendering the human form. One of their steepest challenges is how to realistically render faces. Faces and facial expressions are complicated to digitally model, in part because they’re complicated. For instance, we have many small muscles that are (unconsciously) deployed in thousands of ways in the service of even the simplest of expressions. These micro movements need to be noticed, “captured and programmed” (8) by animators. Also, there is the question of skin tone, texture, and its myriad hues, of “the subtlety and complexity of the way light radiates out from the inside” of a person’s face (5). In their complexities and subtleties, our faces seem to radiate our consciousness. And if the past failures of AI (artificial intelligence) are any indication, consciousness is tough–impossible?–to simulate.

Weschler also observes that we’re finicky when it comes to assessing the realism or fakeness of our digital models. In fact, we seem to have a tolerance threshold for the simulated real: when something seems realistic but is still slightly off, we get creeped out. Here, Weschler draws on The Buddha In The Robot (1981), a pioneering book by Japanese robot engineer Masahiro Mori. Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe that small yet large gap between the simulated/machine entity and the real/living entity. Weschler sums up Mori’s concept:

“When a replicant’s almost completely human, the slightest variance, the 1 percent that’s not quite right, suddenly looms up enormously, rendering the entire effect somehow creepy and monstrously alien (no longer, that is, an incredible lifelike machine but rather a human being with something inexplicably wrong–part of Mori’s point being how incredibly finely attuned we humans are at perceiving those infinitesimally disquieting failings)” (15).

In sum, the purported goal of digital animators is to transcend the monstrously alien and move their work ever closer to looking and feeling real. And for that to happen, as Pixar founder Alvy Ray Smith notes, “we’ll only be able to get there using human actors, with all their idiosyncratic mannerisms and specificities, as our models” (17).

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As I read Weschler’s essay I thought about what has been happening in electronic music since at least the early 1980s. For thirty years, electronic musicians have grappled with the question of how to make their music sound more realistic–how to make MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) sequencers, quantization, sampling, and other technologies work in a way that doesn’t sound artificial but as if a real person is behind them. Pick up a music magazine–then or now–and you’ll find story after story about techniques aimed towards these ends. Moreover, each generation of technology promises ever better quality, ever more realism, ever higher sampling bit rates, and sounds that feel less cold and more warm–like the real thing. The race for perfect simulation and modelling is ongoing, yet how close do we want to get? Is the goal to fool ourselves, to make the electronic sound acoustic?

I have written before on this blog about electronic music and the real. One post cites a passage by Jaron Lanier about the limitations of music post-MIDI. Another post describes some of my frustrations with the sounds of electronic music. In my own work, I had the experience over the past year of spending time listening to different sounds in my software and finding that the ones I liked best were those that fooled me into thinking that they were real instruments. But these sounds were few and far between. Tired of searching for glimpses of realism within my computer, I finally sampled one of my percussion instruments. And what do you know? I was surprised at how engaging its sound was, made of fundamental, overtones, and little imperfections. It sounded real because it is real. And so I began to work with it.

One of the animators at DreamWorks that Weschler spoke with, Lucia Modesto, opined that the quest for creating a believable digital human has essentially become a quest for quest’s sake. But for her, animation “ought to be about what you can’t get in reality” (13). Like say, creating Shrek. Maybe that’s the best case scenario for electronic music too.

Music Distillation: On Ryoji Ikeda’s “Supercodex 08″

Rhythms, frequencies
as bits of information–
sounds anonymous.

Read about music distillations here.

On The Lessons Of Antifragility For Creativity: Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile”

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“We know more than we think we do, a lot more than we can articulate” (35) – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I used to resist randomly exploring some aspect of music software–an instrument, a sound, an effect, a sequencer–because I wanted to have a sense ahead of time where I was headed. (Good luck with that Tom.) But this needing to know closed off interesting options that I could not predict. Whenever I just went with whatever caught my attention though, trying things out at random, I always ended up in an interesting musical place. My push and pull experiences with chance and randomness while working with music software came to mind last year as I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. Taleb, a scholar and statistician, suggests the concept of antifragility to describes things that “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” Reading Taleb, who is a compelling essayist, I thought anew about how my needing to know where the music was going hampered the creative process. Could I learn to embrace antifragility–to love “randomness, uncertainty, disorder, errors, stressors, etc.” when making music?

For Taleb, one only achieves a measure of control when one embraces randomness and the nonlinear. Taleb’s book (a companion to his earlier books, Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan) aims to provide a philosophical guide to what he calls nonpredictive decision-making under uncertainty or opacity, or in other words, “how to not be afraid to work with things we patently don’t understand…” (11) One way to do this is by tinkering. Tinkering is a process of trial and error that allows one to make many small mistakes or incur small losses. The mistakes that come via tinkering are important, Taleb says, because they are rich in information yet small in harm. They also do vital work by stressing the system of which they are a part and making it stronger. And by yielding information and stressing the system to make it stronger, tinkering sets the stage for discovery–the possibility of finding “something rather significant” (236).

At one point in the book Taleb provides a list of words that describe the conditions that confront and characterize our decision-making under opacity: uncertainty, variability, imperfection, chance, chaos, volatility, disorder, entropy, randomness, dispersion, and unknowledge. The point is that there is so much more we don’t understand about the world than we do. How then can we regenerate ourselves by using, rather than suffering from, the opaque unknown? By being curious, and by making mistakes via tinkering. In my reading of Taleb’s essay, it is this strategy for embracing the unknown that is potentially so useful, especially to Makers Of Things who know well that they never fully control the sources of their creative work in the first place. “Antifragility takes time” (12), Taleb assures us. Only over time are the shapes and meanings of nonlinearity–“fractal, jagged, and rich in detail, though with a certain pattern” (325)–made apparent.

On Sinister And Dynamic Rhythmic Energy: Laurel Halo’s “Oneiroi”

“I guess I just wanted to record what I was doing live. Basically when I got into the studio to record those tracks I found myself playing around with the patterns more, playing around with the samples more, trying to find what was particularly gripping, or dynamic. I wanted the tracks to have this sinister empty energy; I wanted them to sound quite cold.” – Laurel Halo

Halo’s recent recording Chance of Rain (Hyperdub 2013) is a collection of propulsively rhythmic instrumental tracks. Track two, “Oneiroi”, is a particularly focused piece that packs a constantly shifting punch. The piece moves in 4/4 time at 130 beats per minute. There’s a boom-rumble sound on beat 1 of each bar, low-res 16th-note hi hats insistently ticking away, a syncopated cross stick sound, small shards of cymbals and voice samples on the off-beats, a single tom-tom, and noise ambiance. The 4/4 grid never relents, but the sounds and their patterns keep changing up. The cross stick begins by playing on every quarter note, but gradually melts into a new sound (is it the same one played backwards? pitch-shifted down?) and eventually reappears later on offbeats. The hi hat comes and goes, now open, now closed, the shards of cymbal and voice samples change position, the tom-tom pattern builds up into something that resembles a paradiddle, and the noise ambiance ebbs and flows. Every rhythmic part fits into the 4/4 grid and could function independently as a timeline or bell pattern on its own, and the parts never sit still so the grid sounds dynamic and alive. In sum, “Oneiroi” is a groove with enough continuous rhythmic change happening that its seven minutes fly by.

An interview with Halo about her working methods can be read here:

Notes On What Makes A Piece Of Music Work: Boards Of Canada’s “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

“So it was becoming clear to me that texture deserved as great a place as process in the theory of how music involves people and draws you into deep identification, total participation, past the logical contradictions of separation from the Other.” — Charles Keil, Music Grooves, p. 169

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As I listened to Boards Of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp 2013), I thought about how music–any and all musics?–gives us clues to its interpretation in the process of its sounding. A performance of music is like a story with characters, plot, and setting. Some musics have just a single protagonist that undergoes a series of transformations, or maybe obsessively repeats a few actions over and over. Other musics have many, many moving parts co-existing in one chaotic mix. And some musics are like a magnifying glass, inviting your attention to focus on one detail or another. Whatever its particularities, music is an affective form that appears to answer the questions it poses over time.

Boards Of Canada, a Scottish electronic duo (no, they’re not Canadian), were part of a wave electronic dance music experimentalists that appeared in the 1990s making what some people called IDM or “intelligent dance music.” The label was unfortunate but the music could and can be interesting–blending compelling sounds and textures with less than obvious beat-making into a complex whole. BOC’s signature sound has a gauzy, hazy, and wobbly/out of tune quality which the duo links to their love of 1970s National Film Board of Canada documentary film soundtracks they watched and listened to as kids in Scotland. As if in homage to this influence, something in their music always sounds weathered and out of focus.

As I listen to track two, “Reach For The Dead” I reach for the particular qualities I would talk about if asked about how the piece works on me. I might talk about how it has four chords, each held for four beats, and that the chords unfold in a progression over 24 measures that repeats. I might talk about the half-time feel of the percussion: the kick drum on beats 1 and 3 and a half, and the snare drum backbeat on beats 3. I might talk about the gradual accretion of parts on the track: layer after layer added–from drone chords to percussion to arpeggiating keyboard to strings–to create an increasingly thick texture. I might talk about how many of these melodic sounds are continuous sounds: the bass and keyboard sounds have a sustain but seemingly no decay, making a kind of wall of sound. Or I might talk about the overall timbre or tone color of the music. BOC’s timbres are unabashedly electronic, yet far from cold. Timbre-wise, theirs like an Instagrammed sound.

Which of these musical qualities is most essential? None in isolation from the others. Together, they all contribute to the music’s emotional feel. And funny enough, it’s exactly this quality–the most important measure of a music’s power–that I’m at a loss to fully measure and describe.

Running Music


(Listening on headphones recommended.)

Notes On Another Kind of Wonder: A Phenomenology Of Remixing

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“I confronted the tradition directly as a sound form and kinesthetic activity, and made it my own in an act of appropriation that transformed me, my self, into something I hadn’t been before, a person capable of playing in this tradition with at least minimal competence.” – Timothy Rice, “Toward a Mediation of Field Methods and Field Experience in Ethnomusicology” (G.F. Barz and T.J. Cooley, eds., Shadows in The Field, 2008, p. 110)

Introduction: An Invitation To Remix
One summer evening in 2003 while I was doing research on an experimental electronic music scene in New York City, I get talking with a musician at a bar on the Lower East Side. Around us, electronic music enthusiasts hunch over the glow of their laptops—playing sound files, making beats, trying out software, and talking to one another about their work. As I tell my acquaintance about my background as a percussionist and my CD of percussion music I had recorded a few years earlier he offers a bit of advice: “You know, you should just cut up your tracks into samples and dump them into Ableton Live!” Live is a software music sequencer that at the time of my research was fast becoming a ubiquitous tool for making electronic music. My acquaintance tells me that the best way to further my understanding of electronic music is to remix some of my own stuff—play with it, find its potential, and use the software to recycle the music into a new form. He’s trying to tell me something: my CD is not merely a document of composed pieces; it can also be the source of some new music. Ten years later I take the advice and begin remixing my material. This (long) post examines that remix process.

Sound Artifact: Wonders

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Figure 1. Wonders CD

In 1998 I recorded Wonders, a CD of five works for keyboard percussion. Scored for multiple marimbas and vibraphones, the pieces are rhythmically and texturally dense: the music features three to six percussionists playing steady sixteenth-note patterns using two and four mallets in each hand, and the harmonies change slowly, lending the music a pulsating, minimalist sound. In some of the larger pieces, such as the first track, Splash (scored for four marimbas and two vibraphones), the multiple mallet parts create a thick sound—a humming halo of fundamentals and overtones.

Listening For Loops
Thirteen years after recording Wonders, I sit in front of my laptop with headphones on, looking at the screen. I load Splash into Live, my software sequencer, and see the 15-minute track’s waveform laid out before me. How to begin?

waveform of splash complete

Figure 2. Waveform for “Splash”

Remembering the advice of my acquaintance from the lower East Side all those years ago, I’m listening for audio samples that I can turn into loops. With a few movements of the cursor over Splash’s waveform, I zoom in and focus my attention on one small section at a time. I activate the loop brace function of the software and move the brace around the waveform, selecting small sections of the piece and listen to them loop. I listen in search of a sound that is interesting and mysterious when repeated: I notice the loop’s timbral profile, assess how well it grooves, and get a sense of the feelingful space it inhabits and creates—its musical life force. As I move the loop brace around, tentatively at first, each section I listen to has a distinct affecting presence as a “perpetual and perpetuating action, complete within itself” (Robert Plant Armstrong, The Affecting Presence, 1971, p. 24). This presence strikes me immediately as a visceral response: either the loop sounds appealing and makes sense, or it is unremarkable and lacks some essential logic. I listen to each loop candidate for just a few moments, moving the loop brace along in search of something else, something more compelling.

Moving the loop brace, I notice small qualities within the audio samples that emerge through repetition. Repetition is a revealing, helping me notice magical moments; it draws me inwards towards the loop, focusing my attention on its presence through its characteristic contours and textures. The musician Lee Patterson describes sampling as “an exploration of specific material properties of things… It’s kind of an alchemical process, because not only does the [sampled] object become transformed, but your understanding of the world and these objects becomes transformed as well” (Lee Patterson, “Plink, plink, fizz”, Wire 303, 2009, p. 18.). Moreover, what was once audio background becomes audio foreground—a symmetry is revealed, a fleeting mood made tactile. In his evocative article on the aesthetics of laptop music making, Glenn Bach captures the perceptual pleasure of working with digital audio:

“What happens is a re-examination of the sacrosanct figure–ground relationship of western art and music. By focusing on the ground, by mining the substrate, the laptop alchemist discovers new figures hidden there and brings them to the fore, only to discover altogether new grounds upon which these new figures appear. These new grounds are isolated and the ritual repeats itself” (Glenn Bach, “The Extra-Digital Axis Mundi: Myth, Magic and Metaphor in Laptop Music”, Contemporary Music Review, 22/4, 2003, p. 7).

Listening to the brief sections of Splash under the loop brace renders the original percussion music strangely unfamiliar, the repetition revealing micro- and macro-patterns that would be otherwise hidden within the sample. The sound of some loops reminds of me of the repetition and figure-ground relationships in other percussion musics I have heard such as Ugandan akadinda xylophone music and mbira music from Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik described what he called “inherent rhythms” as perceptual gestalt by-products of the akadinda’s fast-paced, repeating patterns (Gerhard Kubik, “The Phenomenon of Inherent Rhythms In East And Central African Instrumental Music”, African Music 3/1, 1962, pp. 33); inherent rhythms can also be heard in the hypnotic and polyrhythmic sounds of mbira music (Paul F. Berliner, The Soul Of Mbira, 1978, p. 90). In a fashion similar to akadinda and mbira patterns, the looped sections of Splash have inherent rhythms of their own, the samples circling around and around to create a melo-harmonic-rhythmic drone. I’m grooving on them. And then I find my first loop:

first splash loop

Figure 3. First loop from Splash

The Persistence Of Music-Triggered Memories
Much as I wish I could explore the audio of Splash as if I have never heard the piece before, as I move the loop brace around my memory of the original composition guides my listening. One section prompts memories of details of the composing process twenty years ago in which I worked out a chord progression and a sticking pattern that made bodily sense on the marimba. The memories then scattershot themselves: from listening to the sample to ever more amorphous associations, in a feedback loop—composing the piece, notating it, rehearsing it with other musicians, performing it at concerts, and recording it in a studio. As John Berger notes, memory “works radially…with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event” (John Berger, About Looking, 1980, p. 64). Listening to a single sound sample under the loop brace triggers and re-triggers memories of the original percussion music, and my recollection of its history keeps reasserting itself, over and over again. I try circumventing this sound-memory feedback loop by positioning the loop brace into unusual rhythmic positions such as off beats instead of downbeats. This catches the sampled sound mid-phrase and re-frames my listening; I want to be surprised by what I hear, not reminded of the original piece.

Being Systematic
I listen to one-, two-, and four-measure sections of Splash to hear how they loop. At first, I am systematic about how I locate each loop candidate, nudging the loop brace further along the audio waveform a few beats at a time, trying off beats as well as downbeats. But out of curiosity I skip around too, moving the brace now forward, now backward again by arbitrary amounts—nudging it a half beat, or leaping ahead by seven. Not knowing exactly what to listen for beyond a sound that is interesting and mysterious creates a tension that resists my desire to search for loops in a systematic way. I want to listen to every sample-able moment in Splash—leave no moment of audio un-listened to!—but realize that will not happen. Surely I have already missed many good loops?

splash edit window

Figure 4. Splash sample edit window. The transpose knob on left is set at -14 semitones

Re-Pitching
My systematic searching is further disrupted by the editing possibilities in my software’s sample edit window. On a whim to explore what might happen to the sound, I turn a knob that controls the pitch of the sample and shift it downwards by one, two, four, seven, and twenty-four semitones, and then back up again to the sample’s original pitch level. As the loop’s pitch is lowered its affect changes dramatically: the sound becomes more wooden and resonates in a hollow, ghostlier way. The lowered pitch also brings out hidden inner voices and harmonies not perceptible at the original pitch level. Then I pitch the loop upward, moving one semitone at a time until it has been transposed by one octave: in this register, the intensity of the loop grows with each upward step and begins to sound like frantic, squelching metallic bells. I like the loop detuned by fourteen semitones the best and save it (Figure 4). But this control over re-pitching loops raises a question that reframes my listening: Should I listen through all of the Splash loop candidates at various different pitch levels? The sonic possibilities raised by this thought are so vast—leave no audio sample un-detuned!—that I instead return to the task of moving around the loop brace. Here and there I will experiment with detuning a loop by fourteen semitones because this remixing move, while discovered on a whim, is now part of my remixing toolkit.

A Delay Effect, Extending The Moment
While searching for loops I experiment with adding effects processing to the marimba samples I have already found and saved. I try EQ’ing them, boosting some of the high frequencies to add articulation and cutting low frequencies to reduce the murky hum of the multiple marimbas; I add compression to make them louder and more focused; and I add delays and reverbs to add a new murky hum I cut out with the EQ’ing. I scroll through the delay effect presets in my software and try out a few, noting that one of the presets turns my marimba loops into rhythmically cascading, waterfall-like streams of sound. The effected loop catches my attention and I listen to it for a while. The delay preset transforms the marimbas by multiplying them and providing further rhythmic motion by adding little melo-harmonic artifacts that ricochet around the stereo field in a way that is polyrhythmic and textured. The sound is unexpected and now I wonder: Could I use this effected loop as a pulsating chordal drone? And how might I build on this pulsating drone?

I spend days, weeks, and then months moving the loop brace around the waveform of Splash, making loops as my thoughts oscillate between past and present, extending radially out towards other experiments by other musicians whose music I have listened to. I think about the 12th-century composer Pérotin who used Church hymn melodies as stretched out and slow-moving basslines for his polyphonic compositions; the musique concrète tape experiments of Pierre Schaeffer, the sound engineer at Radio France in the 1940s who stitched together different train sound samples in his “Étude aux chemins de fer”; the 1960s tape experiments of Steve Reich who played two field recordings of spoken voice samples out of sync with one another to make a phasing, polyrhythmic sound; and of course, the DJ practices of Jamaican dub, disco, and electronic dance musicians over the past forty years who isolate, foreground, and extend the rhythmic break sections of songs to make new groove music. In other words, the only new thing about this is my source of samples. But back to the present: by the time I have cut and saved dozens of marimba loops for Splash, I turn my attention to building on these sounds. If I don’t move on, I could spend forever on this.

Adding Other Sounds: Improvising On A Rhodes
With the marimba loops put into a sequence that makes harmonic sense, I begin adding other sounds. The possibilities offered by my software are bewilderingly large and each sound is stimulating in some way, suggesting a feeling and a musical direction, and I spend hours wandering through soundbanks, playing a single note and just listening to its timbre. The sound possibilities are exponentially increased as I consider how each sound can be altered: I can begin with any sound—a kick drum, a sine wave, a gong, or a marimba sample—and shape it into something different. The sounds in my laptop are endlessly elastic and fungible, but most of these sounds do not fit with my marimba samples so I begin with a sound I already know: a Rhodes electric piano. I let the marimba loops play as a melo-harmonic rhythmic drone and begin playing along with them on the Rhodes, picking out notes and chords, improvising.

Improvising with the Rhodes sound, my goal is to impose some kind of structure onto the marimba loop, but first I need to examine it for clues as to what that structure might be. Fumbling around the keyboard I locate the loop’s main pitch. Depending on the loop, this pitch may or may not be immediately clear. In some cases, it oscillates between two pitches a semitone apart—a sonic ambivalence I enjoy hearing (and one of the reasons I saved the loop in the first place); in other cases, the loop’s pitch level falls between the cracks of the tempered tuning of my MIDI sounds and I need to finesse the loop up or down until is sounds right. With the loop playing, I experiment with intervals and chords: triads, fourths and fifths, and octaves. I keep the intervals open, using them as a way to foreground the consonance of the loop. The sound of the pulsating marimbas creates the sensation that they carry my Rhodes chords high through the air as I arrive at a chord progression that complements the loop: a sequence of triads, or a bass line that slowly moves stepwise up and down. Playing the progression over and over, I refine it, hit record and improvise around it.

Playing long slow tones over the loop, I notice how the affect of the marimbas changes as I shift one note at a time. My perception of the time is shifting: the piece is starting to move at a slower rate, with 60-bar chord progressions on the Rhodes that don’t hem the piece in, but rather open it up. The notes and chords on the Rhodes ring out and decay slowly, suggesting space and a feeling that the time of the music is stretching out. In his meditation on the connections between seeing, feeling, and drawing, John Berger observes “I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world. I do have all the time in the world” (John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011, p. 8). Berger’s observation could describe the sensation of listening to the marimba loops and the slow-moving chord progressions.

The improvisations are equally guided by practical goals: to move from the upper range of the keyboard to the lower, to move from consonance to dissonance, to expand or contract the pacing of the chord sequence. Theoretically I can always edit, cut, and paste my improvisations later on in the process, and the software offers to take over my musical labor: Why play something over and over when you can just loop it (the way you looped the marimba samples)? The software offers help, yet I resist: I want to play all of the parts in the remixes, improvising and capturing a performance. Even parts that repeat a single note I will play through from beginning to end; the parts may sound looped, but they feel different when performed. The Rhodes chord progression holds my attention by changing my perception of the marimba loop. I save it, moving on to play along with another loop and begin the process again. I spend days, weeks, and then months playing along to the loops.

Filling In Other Sounds, Soundsets
With a Rhodes part for each looping marimba section of the remix, I have something to build on and respond to. Just as the marimba loops suggested a direction for the Rhodes improvisations, now the Rhodes parts suggest a direction for other sounds. Listening to the chords and marimba loops, I load a glockenspiel, celeste, sine tone sub bass, a steel pan-like sound I made called Lead, a sawtooth wave sound I made called Treble, and a lush, echoing-dubby synth sound. Some of these sounds are preset sounds that I have found through chance, trial and error, while others have their own stories of discovery. For example, Treble is the default sound in one of my software synthesizers. I take this plain and unadorned sawtooth wave and EQ its frequency profile, removing bass frequencies to make it brittle, lowering mid frequencies make it flatter, and boosting its high frequencies to make it crisp—like a potato chip. Other sounds, like the sine tone sub bass preset, I simply like for their purity. After searching through the hundreds of drum sounds in my software, I choose an old-fashioned percussion soundset: kick drum, hi hat, ride cymbals, tom toms, and a clave-like sound I call Pulse. In all, I decide on a soundset of thirteen different melodic and percussive sounds for the remix. The choice of soundsets is a self-imposed constraint, “encapsulating a defined space for potential expression” (Thor Magnusson, “Designing Constraints: Composing and Performing with Digital Musical Systems”, Computer Music Journal 34, 2010, p. 62). While many other sounds could have worked with my marimba loops, these particular sounds do work and should provide me with plenty of musical options.

Listening to the Rhodes improvisations over the marimba loop, I select one of my other melodic or percussion sounds, and begin improvising with it on the keyboard. I play along to both the Rhodes and the loop, responding to this two-part texture. Sometimes the parts I record take the form of counter melodies; other times they are much simpler, such as a single note or two that repeats—a bell tone or a drum hit, filling in the spaces.

Into New Orbits
My soundset leads me to think about alternate musical roles for each sound and I experiment with bringing the melodic parts into orbits they do not usually inhabit. For example, many sections are harmonically anchored by chord progressions on the Rhodes that range from eight to eighty measures, while the glockenspiel, celeste, lead, treble, and echoing-dubby parts typically “decorate” these progressions with shorter patterns of their own. But mixing up the musical roles of each sound opens up the texture of the remix. Thus, in some sections the Rhodes part sounds long ringing tones in a high register usually occupied by the glockenspiel or celeste. This leaves space in the middle register of the music to be filled in a number of ways: it can be left empty to become a space in which the other melodic sounds are foregrounded; or a chord sequence normally played on the Rhodes can be sounded instead on the bubbly steel-pan like Lead, or the brittle sawtooth Treble sound. Alternately, if the Rhodes moves into a very low register, momentarily functioning like the sub bass, the bass is free to move to a higher one. As I try out numerous combinations, swapping parts and pushing each sound into new orbits and roles, the remix process reveals itself as a kind of puzzle: How many ways can these materials be combined? Whatever I choose to do, changing the role of one sound simultaneously opens up spaces for the other sounds to do something different too. In representing my remix as horizontal strips stacked upon one another like an arrangement of Lego blocks, my music software encourages me to think in such modular terms. As Roger Linn notes, “People don’t play traditional instruments so much anymore, but rather, they play computers […] manipulating objects that they found the same way they do in the art world. I like to call it OOC—object-oriented composition—where the art is in your combination of objects’ (Roger Linn, “Mr. MPC: Roger Linn”, Remix 9/1, 2007, p.51).

Finger Drumming
I play all of the percussion sounds by finger drumming on the keyboard.

drumming on keyboard

Figure 5. Finger drumming on a MIDI keyboard controller

The photo in Figure 5 is of me finger drumming while experimenting with different tom-tom patterns for one section of Splash. As a percussionist, I hear music through the skill set and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike, and when I listen to percussion parts I imagine the physical moves required to play the rhythms on an instrument such as a drum set or hand drum. I hear rhythms as physical possibilities, resonating in sympathy with them, trying to feel their patterns as I might play them myself, and I rely on my embodied memory of how acoustic instruments channel and resist my actions. The notion of musical resistance is discussed by the percussionist Fred Hinger in his book Technique for the Virtuoso Timpanist. Hinger observes that every musician must overcome the resistance of his or her instrument in order to get it vibrating, but percussionists face a uniquely difficult situation in that their instruments “are the only ones not in contact with the player before the instruments are vibrated” (Fred D. Hinger, Technique for the Virtuoso Timpanist, 1975, p. 2). Hinger’s observation about the challenges faced by percussionists also pertains to the electronic musician who works with software. Like the percussionist, the electronic musician is necessarily at a distance from the physical life of sound. Despite this limitation, stimulating discoveries that may arise out of points of contact between the musician and his/her software and MIDI controller need not depend on previous experience with acoustic instruments. As Tara Rodgers observes, “digital music tools have their own accompanying sets of gestures and skills that musicians are continually exploring to maximize sonic creativity and efficiency in performance” (Tara Rodgers, “On the process and aesthetics of sampling in electronic music production”, Organised Sound 8/3, 2003, p. 315).

Indeed, finger drumming on a keyboard reframes my existing skill set and drumming sensibility, allowing me to access ways of putting together rhythms that have little to do with the physical experience of conventional drumming. With drum sounds mapped out along the twelve semitones of the keyboard, my fingers find patterns and sound juxtapositions that would not occur to me on a drum set. Listening back to some of the patterns I have recorded, I realize that I am unable to air drum to them since there is too much happening simultaneously; to play all the parts together would require additional limbs. Finger drumming opens up an approach to conceptualizing rhythm independent of particular assemblages of acoustic percussion instruments (such as the drum set) that is similar to programming drum machine parts. As Andrew Goodwin observes, the drum pattern programmer (or finger drummer) may “avoid the tried and tested conventions that the body unthinkingly repeats” (Andrew Goodwin, “Drumming and Memory: scholarship, technology and music-making.” In Mapping The Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, A. Herman, J.M. Sloop, and T. Swiss, eds., 1998, p. 125).

Editing I: Tuning For Euphony
Having played melodic and percussion parts for all sections of the remix, I convert the MIDI to audio files and begin editing. Returning to the sample edit window, I experiment with moving the pitch of the percussion parts up or down a few semitones. I notice how the hi hat sounds more defined when pitched up 13 semitones. This pitched-up sound surprises me and I make this editing change to all but a few of the hi hat parts. The new hi hat sound encourages me to re-pitch the cymbals, tom-toms, kick drum, and clave/Pulse parts so that they too work melodically with each section of the piece. This audio tweaking makes a substantial difference to how the remix sounds overall: now there is more euphony between the percussion and the keyboard parts. Each change of pitch up or down a few semitones also affords an opportunity to re-listen to each section from that re-tuned perspective.

Editing II: Finessing Transitions
While the sections of Splash are arranged in an order that makes harmonic sense, many of the transitions between them are abrupt because all fourteen parts change at the same instant, creating a sense of information overload. To smooth out the transitions, I mute parts here and there, staggering the entrances of each part (with the exception of the marimba loops which continue throughout as chordal drones). The more I mute parts the clearer the sections sound. Clicking on an audio sequence and dragging it to the right or left, I introduce the sounds gradually, one at a time—like voices entering a communal conversation. In this way, I use the music software to set up musical change through addition and subtraction.

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Figure 6. Adding and subtracting parts, one at a time

Adding or subtracting parts, one at a time, in dozens of different combinations, radically changes the texture and feel of each section of the remix. My heuristic for deciding which parts to add or subtract depends on which combination of sounds is most dramatic. The longer I wait to bring in a part, the more interesting the total sound; holding back a part creates a sense of anticipation that keeps the listening engaging—as if the music offers an answer to the question, What will happen next? Even though many of the parts repeat short patterns (especially the cymbals, hi hat, and tom-toms), the overall texture of the music is continuously changing in small ways. As I mute parts here and there I keep the marimba loops and a few other sounds from the previous section (often the hi hat) to maintain an element of continuity. At the end of sections, once the parts have entered, the addition process is reversed and they are gradually removed, one by one. This gradual building up and building back down structure provides momentum to the remix. As with tweaking the pitch of the percussion parts, listening to each section repeatedly to hear how parts enter the conversation affords an opportunity to assess the music from the perspective of the texture of the arrangement.

Editing III: Effects As Musical Change
My final editing step is to experiment with two delays and a reverb I have set up as effects busses. I listen through Splash for moments and parts that might benefit from the effects. For example, a reverb applied to the glockenspiel part makes its high-pitched notes shine and ring long over the other un-reverbed sounds in the mix. In one section I add a delay to the clave/Pulse part, automating the effect so that it gradually increases in volume over one minute. The effect makes the clave part increase in rhythmic complexity as echoes of itself grow in volume and bounce around the stereo field, polyrhythmicizing the notes into new forms. I draw in the automation effect and listen to the results:

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Figure 7. Effects automation: adding delay to clave Pulse part

It would be easy to add these and many other effects everywhere in the remix, but I resist. If a part seems to need effects, I add it. Otherwise, the part is left as it is. In this way, the application of effects has its own set of constraints: less is more.

Conclusion: Adapting To The Space Of Making Electronic Music
With the marimba loops in place, improvised other parts filled in, transitions between sections smoothed out, and effects added here and there, the remix as a whole begins to speak and assert itself. Berger describes this experience of realizing that the object created has taken on an affective life of its own:

“At a certain moment…the accumulation becomes an image—that’s to say stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence…This is when your looking changes. You start questioning the presence as much as the model. You stare at the drawing…at what is radiating from [it], at [its] energy” (John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011, p. 8).

As with looking at art objects, so too with listening to sound objects. Listening to what for the moment is a finished remix, my attention is directed onto three layers. First, I hear rhythmic interaction between the parts. On this layer I notice the cycling marimba loops, the Rhodes, the call and response dialogue between the glockenspiel, celeste, Lead, Treble, the echoing-dubby sound, and the polyrhythms of the percussion parts. A second layer I hear is the timbral profile of the piece as a thick sound mass that spans the low tones of the sine tone sub bass and the kick drum up to the high-pitched and sparkling hi hats and cymbals. This sound mass is a kaleidoscope buzz of activity and shifting variation. Finally, I hear the remix as a musical clock slow-ticking through its twenty-nine minute duration: the length of the piece is integral to how it feels and how it opens up my perception. Indeed, it takes a while for textures in Splash to unfold: a chord or a single note by one of the melodic sounds is struck and rings for a long time, its sound slowly decaying and fading to nothing; parts entering gradually, one by one. These long sounds and their gradual addition and subtraction contrast with the fast, rhythmically swirling marimba loops. Seconds turn into minutes and the loops take on a different quality, sounding oceanic:

My acquaintance from ten years ago from the Lower East Side was right: remixing one’s own music is a dynamic way to understand the possibilities of electronic music and sound generally. But the experience of working with music software has its own tensions. On the one hand, I am intrigued by the sonic possibilities of looping audio, finding or creating sounds from scratch, and playing and arranging these sounds into sequences. The software allows me to be sound designer, composer, performer, and arranger for a virtual music ensemble of any kind I can imagine. It feels like a route towards a kind of supercharged musicianship, whereby, as Virgil Moorefield observes, “the producer is the artist is the composer is the producer”(Virgil Moorefield, The Producer As Composer, 2005, p. 111). On the other hand, I also notice a gap between my notion of making music by playing an instrument and the more passive experience of interacting with software by looking at a screen and touching virtual buttons, knobs, and faders. (There are, of course, many electronic music hardware controllers that make the experience of interacting with music software more physically engaging. Hardware such as Native Instruments’ Maschine, Ableton’s Push, Livid Instruments’ Ohm64 and Base, and Novation’s Launchpad function as MIDI and effects controllers, drum machines, sequencers, sample triggering and playback devices. Some electronic musicians have also used videogame controllers, smartphones, as well as other homemade devices as interfaces with which to interact with music software.)

And yet, despite these tensions, I have made discoveries through both approaches to making music. For instance, I improvised parts on my keyboard, trying to capture mistakes-and-all performances and make musical decisions in the passing moment. But in listening to and looking at my sounds and performances as objects in my software, I embraced additional techniques simply by experimenting ad hoc—turning knobs and faders to adjust sound parameters, soloing, muting, or dragging a part somewhere else, adding effects, re-pitching and editing, and listening to how this experimentation affects the sound. In some cases—as when I re-pitched some marimba loops downwards by fourteen semitones—this experimenting proved to be crucial to the overall sound of the music. Thus, the space between my improvising a part and my subsequent interaction with it after the fact demonstrates that the making of electronic music never ends with its composition or performance. One action is always a potential starting point for a next step.

In his phenomenology of the natural world, philosopher-ecologist David Abram notes that our bodies “subtly adapt themselves to every phenomena they experience” (David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, 2010, p. 251). In my experience as an amateur electronic musician, this phenomenological stance also speaks to the ecology of making music using software. Indeed, the most surprising aspect of my remixing project was realizing the extent to which I had begun to adapt to the experience of making music on a computer. By paying attention to the sounds and structures opened up by the software—by the marimba loops and other sounds, and by the effects and editing possibilities—I felt myself developing what Abram calls a “keener perception” of their “manifold depth and dimensionality” (ibid.: 217). Sitting in front of my laptop with headphones on, staring at the screen, I listen repeatedly to the remix as it develops, searching for the hidden worlds within the sounds and paying attention to the possibilities for them to always become something else, forever changing.

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Figure 8. Full arrangement of Splash remix

Listen to Splash here:

On African And Electronic Music Influences In Dawn Of Midi’s “Dysnomia”

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Dysnomia is an album about time; it is an expression of the fractal unfolding of the present, demonstrated through rhythm.” – Aakaash Israni, bassist

There’s a part near the end of John Collins’ excellent documentary on West African rhythm, Listening To The Silence: African Cross-Rhythms, where Collins makes a striking observation. African music, he says, is like a perceptual time bomb that went off inside Western music in the twentieth century. Indirectly shaping jazz, rock, pop, hip hop and even classical music, the influence of African music is omnipresent in the importance of steady groove, syncopation, and polyrhythm. Most of us hardly ever think about it, but much of the music we hear around us is indebted to the aesthetics and vitality of African–especially West African–music making.

I thought about Collins’ documentary when I came across the music of Dawn of Midi, an acoustic piano, bass, and drums trio from Brooklyn. Dawn Of Midi’s most recent recording, Dysnomia, is a compelling 45-minute long, through composed musical object. Each of the album’s nine tracks–which connect to one another into a single seamless groove–is a study in making polyrhythm and rhythmic process front and center in the music. The tracks have little in the way of jazz chords, chord changes, or melodies. But what it lacks in that department it makes up for in rhythmic vitality executed with precision timing, focus, and verve.

You can hear this vitality on the track eight, “Algol.” Pianist Amino Belyamani plays African bell-like timeline patterns on muted strings rich with harmonics; bassist Aakaash Israni plays staccato two-note chords; and percussionist Qasim Naqvi finds the silences in between the bass and piano parts and inserts bass drum, hi hat, snare, and cross stick hits. Each musician’s part repeats but also steadily shifts, adding and subtracting notes to keep the musical texture evolving. A lot of skill and restraint is required to pull this off as well as Dawn of Midi does.

Perhaps most significantly, “Algol” has a twelve beat meter. Meters like 6/8 and 12/8 are common in West African drumming pieces, perhaps because they facilitate multiple musical time perspectives. For instance, 12/8 can be felt in groups of 2, 3, 4, or 6 beats. Skilled musicians can play patterns within the twelve counts of the meter that foreground these different metric subdivisions of 2, 3, 4, and 6 beat groupings. Musicians can also superimpose these different groupings–playing say, a three beat pattern in the left hand and a two beat pattern in the right to make a polyrhythm (or what Collins’ documentary calls a “cross-rhythm”). Dawn of Midi does a lot of this kind of foregrounding metrical foreground and background in their music by having each musician repeat specific patterns that interlock in ways that engage and surprise the listener. Each pattern holds steady for a while, then makes a subtle change. And with every subtle change, a new musical relationship is revealed. Between the patterns, the repetition, and the perceptual delights to which the subtle changes give rise, this music holds your attention like a kaleidoscope.

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In an interview at theorganist.org podcast, Dawn of Midi frames what they’re doing as responses to African and electronic musics. Pianist Belyamani describes how the standard American jazz swing ride cymbal rhythm--ding-ding-de-ding-ding-de–has long been felt on the downbeat at the expense of feeling it on the upbeat. He says that Dawn of Midi embraces that upbeat feel which is more African in its perceptual demands on the listener. Belyamani makes an analogy to dance: “In other parts of the world you’re dancing against what the music is providing. So the [dancer's beat] is not present in the music.” The dancers, he says, “are completing the circuit.” Similarly, Dawn of Midi aim to play their interlocking parts around the beat to accentuate the unsounded spaces and upbeats, letting the listener complete the musical circuit by filling in the implied pulse that no single musician is playing outright. Percussionist Naqvi then compares the group’s approach to electronic music making: “There’s a degree of precision in terms of having to play these parts over and over again–that I guess are almost like loops…And they have to be really perfect in order for the dialogues to be musical…In that sense, the repetition and perfecting that gives one a sense of electronic music.” Bassist Israni describes this approach in terms of learning from electronic music: “In Autechre…they’re doing things that computers are allowing them to do. But it also seems like we’re just getting to place now where we’re wanting to learn those things back from the computers…and doing it ourselves.”

***

There is so much that is interesting about Dysnomia. First, the African music connection is real: these musicians know how to construct polyrhythmic grooves that circle around a shared beat without articulating it outright, and this tension makes the music fly. Second, the music flies yet also doesn’t go anywhere harmonically or melodically–and this is a good thing, if only to remind us of the power of rhythm and timbre to hold our attention. Third, the electronic music connection is just as real as the African one. Structurally, the aesthetic guiding the pieces on Dysnomia resembles the constraints of a step sequencer that allows musical parts to only shift one note or “step” at a time. It’s perhaps a rigid musical protocol to adopt, but it nevertheless lends this acoustic music an electronic feel. Also, great restraint and control are required to play and develop parts as a machine like a step sequencer can. In this way, Disnomia has a disciplined and focused sound “with a pull all its own” (says Chris Barton, L.A. Times) that evokes an “organic quest for something spiritual and transformative” (says Jeremy D. Larson, pitchfork.com). Like a true African cross-rhythm, the music seems to never quite reveal itself, and so we wait to hear what will happen next.

 

On Small Joys Of Making Electronic Music

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One small joy for me with electronic music is the sounds. Oh the crazy interesting sounds! It’s easy to find sounds that excite me in ways that acoustic sounds don’t always do.

Electronic sounds seem infinitely open and malleable, responsive to my limitations and even my (brief) moments of control. Electronic sounds are also mysterious and always slightly beyond my comprehension. They often describe things I didn’t even know existed. (Think of a complex synthesizer patch.)

I make my own electronic sounds, and that begins a process that takes me deeper into making music to something that feels more architectural–scientific even. So I embrace every opportunity to design and shape my own sounds.

Sometimes I stumble upon exciting sounds while browsing through my sound banks, and I make note of them. I feel an instant connection to the sounds. Even though I just met them, they seem like old friends.

Some of these sounds I stumble upon are exciting, and I feel connected to them because in addition to them feeling like old friends, they resonate with me–they sound like me. Only upon admitting this do I realize how closely musicians can identify with their sound sources, the timbre of their instruments felt to be a reflection and extension of their own voices. It doesn’t matter whether or not a sound is acoustic or electronic. What matters is the relationship we feel ourselves to have with a sound.

When I sample an acoustic sound–like a favorite drum, say–I have set the sound free. I can play with the sound–re-pitch it, say–and this energizes me as I realize some of the sound’s hitherto latent potential. My sample is a copy that releases the original acoustic sound from its time and place.

My small joy with the sounds of electronic music then, is also an excitement that I am finally free as a musician when working with electronics. The interface is just right and I am learning how to adapt to a new musical system.

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