brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: Electronic music

Notes On FK twig’s “LP 1″

One of my ongoing frustrations with popular music–and the problem may be with me–is that the music doesn’t always keep my attention. So I was delighted when I heard FKA twig’s debut, LP1, an at times stunning release, both musically and production-wise that the Guardian called “the UK’s best example to date of ethereal, twisted R&B.”

On its sounding surface FKA twigs’s voice reminds one of the late Aaliyah or even Ciara. Her voice is clear and sweet in that contemporary R&B way, but without pyrotechnics. For me, though, the interesting action is in the production by the Venezuelan DJ Arca. There’s little that’s straightforward about the arrangements–each sound choice and each layer adding surprise, texture, and dimensionality. It’s both experimental and listenable.

“Two Weeks” is the first single and features an unusual half-time feel beat, heavily weighted with 16th notes on the first and third bars of each four bar percussion phrase. The beat is typical of the production touches and flourishes on LP1 that keep my ear interested.

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.

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