brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: improvisation

Reflections On Several Musical Projects: Thinking About What Worked (For Now)

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Reflecting on some recent musical projects of mine, I noticed a number of techniques and strategies I used to build them:

I used my own (sampled) sounds. I’ve written here before about my frustrations with making electronic music. But using my own sounds makes the process personal and somehow more sensible.

I improvised a performance rather than composed a piece. For me, performance still means something. And by performance I mean making musical decisions in real-time–without stopping, without going back, only going forward–and living with them. In his classic psychology of music textbook, The Musical Mind, John A. Sloboda talks of composing and improvising being the same process, only taking place at different rates of speed. True enough, but with composing you can always go back and change something. Improvised performance doesn’t allow for that. And this is a good thing.

I stayed in one key (per section or for the entire piece). Depending on the effect you’re going for, sometimes key changes are overrated. Sometimes we don’t want change and surprise, just an extended moment in one tonal place.

I used percussion sounds. This relates to my point about sampling above. Percussion sounds are the ones I know best because I’m around them a lot–my hands touch percussion instruments every day so they feel familiar.

I avoided steady beats. At least when I’m mediated through controllers and computer software, I’m not crazy about my own beats, so why use them?

I kept the pieces brief. The brevity of the pieces is a function of my performances, which raises the question: Why are my performances brief? Maybe it’s a matter of paying attention for just a few moments before things return to their everyday scatter.

I used software to copy, transpose, and time-shift. As far as I can imagine, this is the best use for software: having it carry out tasks that would otherwise drain the moment of its intensity.

I followed a process. (See point above.) In general outline, the process was: perform, play with the materials of that performance, and edit. It’s like writing, actually.

I made a series of pieces in the same style. There’s a few reasons for this. First, making multiple variations of a thing helps reveal what that thing is. Second, making multiple variations frees me from thinking about the process so I can just get into the moment. Third, an accumulation of pieces takes pressure off any individual piece to represent the bunch. Some may be–and were–cast aside after a few listens, since not all performances are equal. Equally valid, sure, but not equally compelling to listen to.

I stopped once I felt I had explored the process enough and before I knew exactly what it was I was doing. As the saying goes, the key is knowing exactly when to stop. In this case, I wanted to stay somewhat surprised and one step behind myself.

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:

From The Archives: Bill Bruford’s “Bruford And The Beat”

“Sometimes faults can be turned to good advantage. A musician is the total not only of his good things but his faults too. And when you can understand your faults and live with them and turn them to creative use, that can be of interest.” – Bill Bruford

The two things that made the drummer Bill Bruford, now retired, so steadily compelling were his touch and his time. Bruford’s playing had a snappy and limber meticulousness about it–his hands in motion looked like praying mantis limbs. And his musical choices always seemed considered, in the moment–as if you could hear him thinking, always thinking about how to best design the passing musical Now. Bruford devised new approaches to drumming conventions: his drumsets were arranged as unique constellations of acoustic (and at times, electronic) percussion instruments, their angles and one-off sounds (a snare, a Roto tom, an Octoban, a slit drum) offering invitations to drum outside the conventional boxes of popular music timekeeping. In interviews, Bruford said that he “imported” his musical roots via a stack of Blue Note jazz records. This may be so, but in his numerous musical collaborations he also consistently went his own third way, finding a space between the swing of jazz and the thump of rock where he could explore pulse.

In the documentary video Bruford and the Beat, we see and hear this thoughtful drummer solo and talk about his musical métier circa 1982. The video opens with Bruford soloing (0:00-1:56). The first thing we notice is that his collection of instruments isn’t homogenous: in addition to a snare and bass drums (one acoustic, one electronic) and no hi-hat cymbals in sight, Bruford has a few electronic drum pads tuned to specific pitches, as well as Octoban tube drums, a Roto tom, and a single-headed gong drum. The second thing we notice is that the solo has a four note melo-rhythmic theme on the electronic drum pads that opens and closes the improvisation. The theme is stated, repeated, and then becomes the basis for flights off onto the other drums. The theme fragments and shape shifts, only to reappear again some time later. The solo, in other words, is a little journey.

Bruford then explains (6:44-8:58) three different approaches to soloing on drums/percussion. The first approach is to solo over a steady pulse. Here, the hands can explore complex and lengthy phrases that “embroider” over a “dance pulse” provided by the foot playing a bass drum. A second approach to soloing is to go free form. Here, the drummer strings together phrases with “no steady metrical pulse.” In other words, there is no rhythmic anchor for this type of playing, just movement among the drum set’s various percussion instruments. A third approach to soloing is to create call and response between the different instruments of the drum set. Bruford likens this “more textural” strategy to setting up “master drummer figures” such as those played by the lead drum in a West African drum ensemble. These figures are “calls” to which the rest of the ensemble drums reply with their “response” patterns. All three of these approaches to soloing–patterns over a steady pulse, free form without steady metrical pulse, and call and response–inform Bruford’s playing in his brief opening performance.

A little later in the video (15:45-18:53), Bruford demonstrates how combining a complex hand pattern on the snare drum with a steady bass drum pulse achieves the best of both rhythmic worlds. He shows how a 17-beat pattern (played with a mallet on the snare drum with snares off) over a steady 4/4 pulse is both interesting and groovy. But it gets better. Bruford next plays the same pattern on a pitched wooden slit drum, and finally, moves his hands between the slit drum and the Roto tom, distributing the 17-beat pattern between two different sound sources. With just a few considered moves of the hands, Bruford has added new dimensions to an already interesting pattern. “It’s liquid” he says, “and yet the accents are sufficiently complex not to feel a sense of repetition.”

In sum, Bruford and The Beat drums home an enduring musical message: approach. An instrument approached in a novel way–touch-wise and time-wise–can yield all manner of compelling sounds, patterns, and urgencies. Think about your approach anew and you may find surprising strategies for making music.

On A Not-Knowing Knowledge

The jazz guitarist John McLaughlin says that when he played with Miles Davis in the late 1960s, Davis gave him some advice before a recording session for In A Silent Way (1969):

“Play like you don’t know how to play guitar.”

McLaughlin, of course, went on to great heights of jazz-Indian music fusion with his Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti and said that Miles’ words had a deep impact on him. Here is how he describes his interpretation of the moment:

“After a few seconds I threw caution to the winds, and literally threw all the chords out, and the rhythm also. Even if you don’t know how to play guitar, most everybody knows the E chord. I played that one chord and played the melody around it. Miles had already got the red light on [signaling a recording in process], and at the end he really liked what happened.”

The advice to do something as if you don’t know how to do it is a powerful heuristic for approaching any craft because it puts you in a fresh mindset. The trick is how to forget what you know enough to free yourself up to move in novel directions. In the case of musicianship–and indeed, probably in the case of any craft–one obstacle to thinking with a fresh mindset is that we spend so much time developing and refining certain ways of doing things (that’s why we practice, after all) that it can be difficult to imagine alternate pathways to creation.

Observations On A Musician Playing Guitar

A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.

 – Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”

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1. She’s smiling, enjoying herself and making playing the guitar look easy.

2. She has an audience of one sitting next to her (plus all of us!) making her playing a performance.

3. The music is acoustic, takes place outside, and the instrument doesn’t require electricity.

4. The music has a steady strummed rhythm, a sequence of chords (I-IV-I-V), and a melody that repeats with variations.

5. Look at her left hand technique on the guitar fretboard: her hand moves through a series of gestural shapes that keep the music continually changing in small ways despite its steady strummed rhythm and repeating chord sequence. This makes the performance feel longer than its 2:47 length.

6. Almost as soon as it has begun, the music is finished.

On Grateful Sound: Thinking Through “Dark Star”

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I have a secret: over the past few weeks while riding the subway with headphones on I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead. And maybe not coincidentally, I haven’t shaved in about two weeks. So as I write this I’m wondering–Are these twin facts somehow related? Do they point to a strange metamorphosis taking place in me through an alchemy of music and listening?

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Formed in 1965 in San Francisco, The Grateful Dead was a peculiar kind of rock band that blended blues, folk, psychedelic-rock, bluegrass, jazz, reggae, country, and free improvisation into a trippy whole that sometimes achieved very musical results. Though they sold some 30 million albums over their 30-year career, what they really liked to do was play live, and in that regard the band seemed to have singlehandedly initiated the “jam band” scene.

I was never a Grateful Dead fan and my lack of fandom, is, I guess, altogether unfair since I never even once listened to the group’s music while growing up. Maybe I was a dormant fan who just didn’t know it yet, but I had a sense that their social-sonic world was something you had to be a believer in to truly appreciate; the music didn’t enculturate you, you had to join its cause–such followers of the group are called Deadhead, by the way–almost with a pre-knowledge of what its makers and its scene were all about. Also, Deadheads seemed to hang with other Deadheads and I didn’t know any in the first place. All this to say that for one reason or another the Grateful Dead never entered my musical orbit.

I began thinking about and listening to the Dead recently after reading a very fine article about them by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker. Without being sentimental, the article traces and celebrates the author’s own fandom as he recalls his first experience seeing the Dead perform, describes trading and scrutinizing fan bootleg recordings (or audience tapes) with friends, and hangs out with an archivist who is in charge of the Dead’s vast recorded legacy. Along the way, Paumgarten unpacks the sound and structures of the Dead’s music and explains how, for its devoted fans at least, it has had such enduring appeal. The article raises a question: How does a music become resilient to time’s passing? In the case of the Grateful Dead, their music has lived on mainly through a vast number of live recordings.

Even though I didn’t listen to the Dead, I had long heard that their recordings really don’t do justice to the band anyway; their music was all about a magic conjured in performance. You just had to be there. The Dead had lots of songs to draw on, but what they were famous for was improvising new versions of their material at every concert. Ironically enough, as Paumgarten points out, this group that apparently could only be understood through its performances is best known today for its astonishingly large archive of recorded music which is stored in a climate controlled vault in California. Indeed, having played over 2,300 concerts between 1965 and 1995 “the Dead have more recorded music in circulation than any performing group in history” and there are more than 8,000 Dead recordings on archive.org alone. Many of these recordings are audience tapes–the work of fans who meticulously recorded Dead shows. (The Dead encouraged audience taping as a way to spread the good word.) This “immense body of work”, notes Paumgarten, “invites and sustains obsession, and its variability is in some respects the draw.” Obsessive listening invites new perspectives too. Reflecting on his getting to know the musical details of particular recordings of Dead concerts, Paumgarten says that “the music, on repetition, began to feel like something composed, rather than improvised. It took on a life of its own…”

Another irony of the Dead is that it played a “ragged, improvisational amalgam of old-timey American music” amplified through a most sophisticated sound system known as the Wall Of Sound: 600 speakers with an output of over 25,000 watts. Thus, between its thousands of recordings and its famed sound system, the Dead is as good a locus as any for thinking through the story of technology’s impact on our consumption of music over the last fifty years. Even though they looked like hippies, they were postmoderns who were all about the improvised remix–or what Kevin Kelly calls “recombinant” culture–years before this became a guiding idea of contemporary music.

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One of the Grateful Dead’s most famous songs–or platform for acoustic recombinant remixing/improvisation–is “Darkstar.” Released in 1968, the song eventually became the Dead’s most anticipated and hallowed live numbers. There was an aura about this song that fans simply referred to as “It”–perhaps due to the fact that Dead stopped playing the piece for many years and then, in the late 1970s, suddenly resumed playing it again. Structurally, “Dark Star” is, as Paumgarten accurately dissects it, just “a modal vamp based on the A mixolydian scale, with two short verses and no bridge.” The original studio recording of the song clocks in under three minutes. But like the “head” of a jazz tune, the brief song is just a skeleton for the group’s variations. Thus, various live versions of “Dark Star” range anywhere from 11 to 48 minutes (!) If nothing else, “Dark Star” demonstrates a kind of musical minimalism–or a maximal use of minimal materials.

I’ve spent some time listening to two versions of “Dark Star” on Spotify and YouTube. On Spotify I found a 20-minute recording from the 1972 Bickershaw festival in the UK; and on YouTube I found a 10-minute video of a show in Oregon from that same year. On both versions you can hear endlessly melodic bass wandering and rhythm guitar comping, bits on twinkling piano, tumbling and syncopated drumming, and at times soaring lead guitar. Only on the Bickershaw version does the group’s lead singer and guitarist, Jerry Garcia, get around to actually singing those verses!

Listening to this piece and watching the video I find the music has an interesting sense of active stasis that appeals to me. This stasis is perhaps mostly a function of the guitars and bass staying in that A mixolydian mode. (Detractors might call this kind of thing modal “noodling.”) Also, the medium slow tempo (about 70 bpm) remains constant and its languid pace contributes to the feeling that no one–neither the band nor its thousands of fans swaying out in the Oregon fields beyond the stage–is in any big hurry to go anywhere soon. While a lot of popular music has a goal-oriented teleology–verses bring us inexorably towards the choruses, and so on–“Dark Star” is definitely a different, more patient animal. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s so famous?

To their credit, the musicians manage to keep things fairly (though not always) interesting by constantly varying their parts. Most obvious is Garcia’s endless lead guitar soloing. But listen also to the bass which often stays in an unusually high register, almost dovetailing with Garcia’s guitar. (This is contrary to the bass guitar’s customary role of playing mostly low-pitched notes and thus build a solid “foundation” for the song.) Similarly, the rhythm guitar keeps changing its jazz comping-like riffs, and the drummer Bill Kreutzmann never ever plays any kind of steady back beat on beats 2 and 4; instead, he plays a kind of swinging rhythm. In sum, this kind of group level improvisation is almost jazz-like: it has a constant pulse, it swings, and remains resolutely modal.

Listening to different performances of “Dark Star” I heard a number of beautiful if brief moments of group synchrony and groovy musical thinking. In the clip below, you can hear such a moment from 5:59-6:35. For a mere half-minute, a deep space opens up. Maybe that’s because the bass guitar finally stays still for a moment and lets some nice low A notes ring long. Or maybe the reason is something else altogether. Whatever it is, it’s worth listening to.

Microthought: A Santoor And Tabla Duet

Tensioned melody

over rhythmic cycled drum–

Pandit strings motives.

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