thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: improvisation

On Gary Marcus’s “Guitar Zero”

About five years ago I began playing acoustic guitar. I played off and on for a while, learning chord shapes, and trying (without success) to build callouses on my fingertips. I also experimented with alternate tunings and used a capo, recording a number of chord progressions I thought sounded interesting (hear the audio file at the end of this post). As a musician familiar with the keyboard’s horizontal layout of black and white notes, the guitar presented a puzzling new geography that was both horizontal (notes getting higher as you move from left to right) and vertical (notes spanning the near low strings to the high ones located further away, down towards your feet). I learned a bunch of chords but also realized that it would take me years of practice/enculturation to groove a relationship and any kind of musical fluency with the instrument. Plus, I never really felt like a guitarist, only like a guy playing guitar. So I did the sensible thing: I quietly put away the instrument.

I thought about my guitar experience recently as I read psychologist Gary Marcus’s excellent Guitar Zero: The New Musician And The Science Of Learning, a memoir and neuroscience exploration of learning to play a musical instrument. The book is a story of the author’s journey learning guitar from scratch at age 39. Can he do it? He’s not especially young, and to make matters worse, he’s admittedly somewhat unmusical too–cursed with what he humorously describes as “congenital arrhythmia.” So this is the book’s conceit: Can dogged persistence, practice, close listening, and a good teacher set Marcus on his way to a musical life? Well, yes, kind of. Through the book we follow the NYU professor over the course of a sabbatical year from teaching as he takes lessons, learns chord changes, practices with metronomes, performs songs (on bass guitar) at an NYC children’s rock music camp, and even tries his hand at songwriting. Marcus doesn’t become a virtuoso but does achieve a newfound balance in his life through his guitar playing. Music, it seems, has a unique power to make our experiences meaningful: it gives us the sense of having a voice while simultaneously drawing on an array of physical and cognitive skill sets to make that sense possible in the first place.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of Guitar Zero is its fresh take on the cognitive complexities of learning and playing even the simplest of music. Rarely do we reflect on skills we already have, but any experienced musician reading this book will be energized to do just that, thinking through his or her own journey of coming to know music making as a physical-mental-spiritual presence by following Marcus’s progress. If nothing else, the reader may reflect on how making music requires a high degree of perceptual mastery (e.g. sound pattern recognition), the coordination of multiple muscles (e.g. think about the four limbs of the drum set player, each doing something different), and the engagement of memory and anticipation (for musical experience has no past or future, only the fleeting present). In terms of engaging, whole body-mind workouts, there’s simply nothing like making music.

But learning about the author’s musical progress—a story which in fact is fairly brief—is just one of the charms of this book. Other pleasures await in the many byways he opens up alongside the main story of learning to play guitar. These byways address a number of pressing questions about music, and they had me enthusiastically marking passages on my Kindle. What follows are elaborations on some of those questions.

To start, what makes great musicians great? While there are as many answers to this question as there are great musicians, one answer might be that great musicians have an ability to continuously monitor their performances, learn from them and then improve–a cycle that lead to their skills getting better and better and better over time. Case in point: the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who tells Marcus that he makes detailed written notes after every performance which then become study guides for what went wrong and what went right. “A good part of expertise” says Marcus, “comes from diagnosing one’s own likely mistakes.” Surely not every great musician makes notes like Metheny, but setting up a feedback loop for continuing refinement seems to be a hallmark of expertise generally.

This idea of musical diagnostics brings us to the question of what makes a great teacher. Marcus observes a number of skilled teachers and notes that they’re all highly perceptive, with ears and eyes sharply attuned to spot technical and physical problems. Great teachers can propose solutions to musical problems too, connecting with their students by maintaining their attention and motivating them to improve. It can even be fun. One teacher observed by Marcus, J. Cirt Gill from Weaver Academy in Greensboro, NC, impresses the author in how he guides students to design their own podcast projects for his music production classes. Here, the teacher functions as a spark used by students who go on to light their own fires.

Marcus also considers the fire that is music performance and how performers–especially improvisers–know and create through their actions in the moment. A key question in this context: What’s the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge in music? The distinction between the two is important for aspiring artists studying master performers for clues–that is, for ways to extract theory from performance. But the catch is that procedural knowledge is all about working by feel in the moment. Here, Marcus cites the great jazz pianist Bill Evans as a model of procedural knowledge. Evans’ improvisations innovated new varieties of harmonizing that were only later codified into (written) theory. So, there’s good reason to believe that artistic innovation comes about not by consciously thinking about it (“I want to innovate…”) but by letting “the ways of the hand” (Sudnow 2001) do their thing, in the heat of the moment.

Marcus also examines the alleged connections between music and language, unpacking the sources of music’s omnipresence. “Why is music virtually ubiquitous” he asks, “when many other arts have a smaller presence in daily life?” Why is it that music is so pervasive in everyday social life no matter where you go in the world? No one knows for sure, but music’s ubiquity has led many to wonder whether or not there’s a music “instinct” in our DNA. Is there? No, there isn’t. Our “being musical” is the result of neural circuitry that’s been finely tuned over the course of human evolution, though not for music per se. Music isn’t the product of evolution, “but the product of artists evolving their craft in order to tickle the brain in particular ways.” Music’s ubiquity, then, is just something we’ve cultivated.

And perhaps music’s staggering variety of idioms reflects its ongoing cultivation. Indeed, there also seems to be a connection between the variety of personality types in the world and the varieties of musical taste. Marcus tells of how the perceived value of a piece of music “derives partly from the temperament of the listener.” Thus, extroverted types are said to prefer energetic and rhythmic music, and so on. This is interesting stuff to think about as a way of understanding the roots/routes of one’s own musical affinities.


One of the most compelling ideas in the book is the author’s contention that music itself is a technology “refined and developed over the last fifty thousand years, in no small part to maximize flow.” This experience of flow can be felt in the euphoric feeling experienced while “jamming” with other musicians or while improvising. And what an invention music is! Consider a few things about it. First, its complex formal structures allow us to experience both novelty and familiarity at the same time. Second, because music unfolds over time and we can’t remember all of its details at once, it’s perpetually new. Finally, the physicality of music and its connection to our sense of motion makes it immersive and flow-inducing. What a package!

Many of music’s innovations are intellectual and not physical. For example, Marcus reminds us that the plainchant practice of 9th-century monks singing two different pitches at the same time (as opposed to singing in unison) lead to the development of organum, harmony, and eventually chord progressions as a way to organize music’s melodic flow over time. Likewise with the innovations of steady rhythm: “Virtually every song you hear on the radio nowadays” Marcus says, “combines these two musical techniques–harmony and steady percussion–both of which in essence had to be invented.”

As a technology, music has changed quite radically over the centuries, the two-dimensional quality of that 9th-century plainchant (“like paintings from before the discovery of perspective” says Marcus) giving way to the multidimensional, flow-inducing properties of harmony (which become increasingly expressive over the centuries). As a technology of sounding, music adapts to our ever-changing appetites, as each “new generation of artists craves new ways to broaden the palette, and hence better ways of keeping both listeners and performers entranced, in a state of flow.” Thus, electronic and digital technologies of 20th- and 21st-century music such as multitrack recording, synthesizers, electric guitars, microphones, and computers “are the musical equivalent of new species, which open up new niches and are in some ways better adapted to the environment than many of their predecessors.”

Finally, to return to music’s unique power, Marcus describes the philosophy of eudaimonia–the sources and cultivation of long-term, slow-burning human happiness. Making or listening to music, says Marcus, is a special way of being in the world “because of its potential for combining the hedonia of enjoying [it] in the moment with the eudaimonia of a constant sense of progress, as the musician continues to learn new techniques, create new songs, and make new discoveries.”

Guitar Zero, then, documents a wide-reaching musical trip. There’s a lot of material here, yet it’s covered in an accessible and engaging way that makes the journey fun. Yes, Marcus learns to play guitar decently. Yes, he performs with a band in front of a crowd. Yes, he even composes his own song. But, for this reader at least, the author’s worthy practical goals have also provided the perfect excuse to unravel some of music’s most enduring questions and experiences.

Intangible Things: On Victor L. Wooten’s “The Music Lesson”

New Age : “an eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health

Victor L. Wooten’s book The Music Lesson (Berkley Trade 2008) caught me off guard. I came across the book entirely by accident and after having read its first few pages didn’t know if I felt quite compelled to keep at it. So I put it down. And then picked it up again, kept reading a bit. And then put it down again, back and forth, oscillating on how I felt about it. The Music Lesson was speaking in common tones, asking me to forget thick theory for a moment to follow an invented story about what it means to understand music and being musical, making music with meaning—or, as the cliché goes, with heart and soul. Hmm. I put the book down, and then picked it up again. I kept at it. If I stumbled upon the book I should at least have the patience to stay a while and listen, right?

Wooten is a distinctive musician. A bassist since he was a toddler, he’s well-known for his work with the banjo player Bela Fleck. Here is a clip of Wooten playing a virtuosic rendition of “Amazing Grace”:

As if musical skills on their own weren’t enough, Wooten is also a naturalist and animal tracker, directing a one of a kind music camp in Tennessee that teaches musicianship by way of not just musical instruction but also nature exploration.


In The Music Lesson, a fictional account of a set of music lessons, we first encounter Wooten at time in his life when nothing seems to be working. He wants to improve his musicianship, but seems stuck in a rut of old practice habits that aren’t paying dividends. Then, as if by magic, a series of music teachers appear in Wooten’s life to guide him on his spiritual quest through a number of musical concepts. The main teacher is Michael, a mysterious trickster-like figure with eyes that change color on occasion and who comes across a little like a Native American sage and Zorro with a skateboard in tow. But there’s also Uncle Clyde, a homeless old man who plays a mean harmonica, Sam, a precocious boy wonder of a eleven-year old drummer who is wise beyond his years, and Isis, a quirky Russian fortune-teller with an intense interest in connection between numbers and music. Michael, Clyde, Sam, and Isis lead Wooten through a series of lessons on groove, notes, articulation, technique, emotion/feel, dynamics, rhythm/tempo, tone, phrasing, space/rest, and listening. By the end of the book, Wooten’s senses have been thoroughly reoriented, his musical life focused and energized.

Scattered through the text are a number of interesting ideas about music and musicianship. Below are a few of them that struck me.

First, music is inside the musician, not the musical instrument. There are many instances in the book where Michael admonishes Wooten for merely thinking of himself as a bassist rather than as a musician who happens to play the bass. The idea here is that musicality is more an orientation towards the field of the sonic rather than a technical competence on a particular musical instrument.

Second, dissonance in music is contextual. For instance, while two notes a semitone apart sounded together produce a “tense” sound when heard on their own (e.g. try playing the adjacent notes C and C-sharp at the same time), when surrounded by additional tones (e.g. try adding the notes F-sharp and A above to the C and C-sharp) the dissonance can sound quite different and in fact, consonant.

Third, when we say we dislike a music we are admitting a failure to perceive it adequately. In a passage about Wooten’s dislike of bluegrass, Michael tells him: “You are talking about you but blaming your lack of perception on this particular style of Music” (56).

Fourth, “beauty is something you experience, not something you prove” (73). This, to me, is a pure phenomenological stance, and probably what music does best: putting out an experience in time that may not mean anything specific or prove an argument, while at the same time bringing us on a virtual ride that feels important somehow.

Fifth, the idea that emotions are stored as a kind of infinite potential within a musical instrument (116). Admittedly, I had not thought much about this possibility, probably because I know myself to be more interested in what I’m feeling than what emotions may or may not be latent in the instrument. But each musical instrument certainly seems to have its own range of affective potential.

Sixth, a listener’s musical attention can be shaped and directed by playing fewer rather than more notes. Here, Michael explains to Wooten a strategy for accompanying a soloist in a way that his or her solo can shine: “We were creating a hole right in the middle of the music that allowed the soloist to stand there out in the open. We also simplified the music, directing all of the attention to the soloist. . .” (140). The lesson here is that by saying less, you can not only listen more, but also give other musical speakers room to breathe.

Seventh, “music is played from the mind, not the body” (158). This almost seems counter-intuitive, since musicians spend so much time refining their bodily relationship to their instruments. And yet, as listeners we’ve often had the experience of witnessing a musician who manages to hold our attention and compel us not so much through virtuosity per se but through sheer presence. The lesson here is that presence and focus are themselves kinds of musicality that transcend what the musical body can pull off.

Eighth, “you need to get your thoughts out of the way so that your true feelings can speak” (216). This idea relates to point number four above. If music is not about proving anything, but rather a tool for exercising perception, then we are best ready for it when we stop worrying about what it all means. From this perspective, music just is.

Finally, here’s Wooten on listening, perception and synesthesia: “What difference does it make who it is? What does it sound like and how does it make you feel? That is what is important. […] Allow your whole body to pick up the vibrations, using the whole body as an eardrum. […] We think that music stops at the ears. That is a mistake. Vibrations can be felt in all places and all times, even with the eyes. Music can be seen if your awareness is broad enough” (239-240). To illustrate this holistic approach to listening, there’s a striking passage at the end of the book where Wooten and Michael are out in the forest taking in its soundscape. As Michael learns to model his listening acuity on Michael’s, all of a sudden he’s having a full-blown synesthesia experience—seeing sound as color flowing through the forest creatures around him. (It’s pretty psychedelic actually and the image stayed with me for a while, even inspiring my own dream in which everyday objects began speaking in tones. But that’s for another blog post!) The lesson here is that there is potentially no end to listening as a full body—and even out of body—experience.


In sum, The Music Lesson is an idealized account of the musician as a kind of deeply knowing, in-tune seer, healer, and phenomenologist. Michael and the other teachers in Wooten’s life are voiceboxes for the author’s own musical philosophy, and while these at times cartoonish characters are a writerly conceit, it’s a conceit that works well to get Wooten’s many thought-provoking points across. Moreover, it perhaps goes without saying that it’s difficult to talk about philosophical aspects of musical experience without risking sounding cliché or even New-Agey. So hats off to Wooten for trying. I’m glad that I stuck with his zany story to its end.

Last but not least, The Music Lesson is ultimately about the importance of oral tradition to how musical traditions survive and evolve. By the book’s end the narrative circles around on itself, Wooten having taken the place of Michael as a teacher himself, appearing in the life of young musician—a musician that bears a striking resemblance to Wooten himself at the beginning of the book—just at the very moment the young man needs guidance. And so Music—that presence Wooten characterizes as feminine and always worthy of a capital M—lives on as a teachable perceptual power, helping us understand both ourselves and the worlds we live in.

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

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

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

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

From The Archives: Chords And Beats

Five years ago I wrote a series of pieces for piano and electronic sounds (percussion, bells, sub bass, pads, etc.) called Chords And Beats. The “chords” were improvised on piano, the “beats” and other sounds played on the keyboard to trigger non-piano sounds. Sometimes the chords came first, sometimes the beats came first. Whatever the case, at some point I would be playing along with sounds just recorded, listening to find little synchronies and contrasts and harmonies and discovering a musical form as I went along. All the parts were improvised and done in a single pass, from beginning to end, to give some sense of a performance.

Improvising music can bring about more interesting results than programming it because in improvising I feel that I’m listening closely. And it’s the traces of that listening process in the recorded artifact–embodied in those little hesitations, repetitions, changes of direction, dynamics, and even flat out mistakes–that offer evidence that the music is in some way alive rather than inert (although recordings themselves are ultimately frozen things).

Here is one of the pieces:

Some Notes On The Usefulness Of Improvisation

The problem with improvisation is, of course, that everyone just slips into their comfort zone and does sort of the easy thing to do, the most obvious thing to do with your instrument.” — Brian Eno

My friend Lee is always asking me to write music for him to sing over–“we just need an A and a B section!” he likes to say in endless encouragement–but as much as I try I usually come up short.  A few nights ago I turned on the computer and loaded up an acoustic piano sound and tried (again) to do something for my friend.

But I really just wanted to improvise.  As a player of somewhat limited means, the kind of playing I’ve always gravitated to is modal–that is, music that stays in the same scale or group of notes for the duration of the improvisation.  I also tend towards keeping my hands moving–often in an interlocking fashion where the left hand crosses over the right–to make a continuous rhythm. Most of all, though, I like experimenting with different “shapes” of my hands over the keyboard to make chords or note combinations that sound (and look) new to me.  My hands keep trying new configurations in search of new sounds that make me feel anew.  It’s not as much a matter of expressing my feelings through the keyboard as much as unearthing a sensual “language” for expressiveness.  So, a chord doesn’t so much embody a feeling as much as seems to refract it through its juxtapositions of notes and intervals played with varying dynamics and rhythm.


As I play, I begin by trying out some kind of pop-sounding chord progression. But it sounds contrived; it’s too simple, too boring to my ear. And as much as I try, I can’t ever seem to get my chord progressions simple enough.  There’s always something a little off–like I’ve missed some fundamental concept of music theory. And besides, I’m feigning interest in a musical idiom in which I’m only a tourist (listening to songs while driving, for instance).

It’s at this point that I momentarily “give up.”  It’s a key moment because what I’m giving up is the pretense of actually trying to accomplish anything specific (like actually writing a song–ha!).  Also, I’m giving up a sense of being in control over the outcome of my improvisation–of knowing and directing where it will go and how it will go.  So “giving up” is a turning point where I lose all ambition (sorry Lee: there will be no “song” tonight) and just get into the experience the music is offering me.

I like the piano because it has such a large range of registers, a rounded tone, and a sustain pedal that allows me to st r  e   t    c     h my playing and let sounds ring.  And the amazing thing is that once I begin I forget that I’m using a little 61-key plastic midi controller hooked up to the computer via USB and triggering digital piano samples.  The sounds fool me enough that I can lose myself in them, my body tricked into thinking this is a real piano and interacting with it accordingly, pressing those plastic keys as if they’re ivory.

I try playing with an electronic metronome click track (in case later I might want to add other parts to the piano) but it feels constraining.  When I play the piano without other sounds, I want sp a  c    e  to play with dynamics and tempo, so I mute the click and just choose a fluctuating, personal tempo that feels appropriate for this late hour.  Ahh, much better.


After a false start, I hit record and improvise for five minutes.  Listening to it now, it seems to have captured something of the moment.  It captures less a feeling or a mood (though it does seem to have that) and more just musical thinking in motion.  I like improvising because it moves at the speed of my thought (and the mechanical limitations of my piano technique!)–no slower, and certainly no faster.  My improvisation (which hasn’t been edited in any way) has some space to it too, in the form of little pauses where I let notes ring out while I consider what just happened and where I might go next.

For me, improvising on the piano like this is a fun and useful exercise in listening and concentrating.

On David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand

They don’t seem to make books like David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand anymore, but then, Sudnow, who died in 2007, was no ordinary explorer of musical experience.  Trained as a sociologist, Sudnow took a turn inward in the late 1970s and wrote Ways Of The Hand (1978/2001), a remarkable insider’s phenomenological account of learning to improvise jazz piano that was based mostly on his own introspection.  The book attempted to articulate the lived experience of what it feels like to move one’s fingers about the piano keyboard, tracing exploratory paths and going for notes to make jazz.

Here’s a passage from the book’s preface:

“I’ve found that thus far unanalyzed aspects of the body’s ways can be closely depicted, for all to see, by the performer, and perhaps no one but the performer, especially one who self-consciously takes up a complex activity with as strong an intention to master its accomplishment as to try to reflect rigorously upon the experiences of doing so. Guided by neither an introspective, mentalistically inclined consciousness nor the methods of analytic science but only by the concrete particular problems faced in the course of learning jazz piano, I’ve pointed to various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (2001:3).

Ways Of The Hand is not afraid to attempt a comprehensive cartography of the terrain the jazz pianist must traverse to make jazz.  And contrary to what I imagine most jazz musicians would think about learning jazz–that you learn the “right” way, the jazz way, by just listening to the jazz greats, by mysterious osmosis in other words–Sudnow proposes an approach to grasping a (graspable) set of jazz moves.  If that weren’t audacious enough, in its intricate, rigorous, and poetically rendered details about the deep connections between the musicking body, cognition, feeling, and creativity, Ways Of The Hand also sets an example for a kind of writing about music that has had few followers since.  In 2001, Sudnow even revised the book (Ways Of The Hand: A Rewritten Account) further distilling its already austere descriptive language into something even more crystalline.

We need more books like Ways Of The Hand–books that look inward for answers, books that approach (and achieve) rigorous thinking through intuition, reflection, and practical experience in things musical.  Many great musicians never write about music, and many great critics and academics seek deep answers far outside the relationship between musician and his/her instrument.  But Sudnow proposes that the way can be simple: it’s right in our hands.  We just need to think about it.

Musical Collaborations: Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

Mandinka kora music is among my favorite sound worlds. The kora is a 21-string harp-lute traditionally played by oral historians in many parts of West Africa. I travelled to Mali (home to many Mandinka people) in 2002 to learn to play the kora.  Though I didn’t get all that far in three weeks, I learned the basic building block pattern (kumbengo) for an old piece called Allah lake and started to get a feel for how variations (birimintingo) are spun from this rhythmic web.  You play the kora using just two thumbs and two index fingers. To a complete novice like me, it feels tricky to negotiate those 21 strings in such a small space.  Even more daunting is playing a melody, its accompaniment, and variations on them–all while keeping alive that cycling smooth groove that makes kora music hum with life.

Here is a short clip of famous kora player Toumani Diabate showing how the elements–what he calls here the “bass”, the “accompaniment” and the “improvisation”– of a kora piece called “Salaman” are all woven together:

Ballaké Sissoko is a jali from Mali and also a virtuoso kora player.  I first learned about him through his duet recording with Toumani Diabate, New Ancient Strings (1999).  Recently, Sissoko collaborated with French cellist Vincent Segal to make Chamber Music (Six Degrees Records), a series of duets.  Here is a clip of the two musicians making music together:

It is perhaps notable that Chamber Music is distributed through Six Degrees, a record label specializing in hybrid musics that aspire to be truly global in scope (or at least in ambition), especially those that blend styles from the “world music” canon–musics from outside of the Euro-American pop and classical traditions and made by an international roster of artists–with the technologies, sounds and structures of electronic musics.

Sissoko and Segal’s Chamber Music isn’t electronic music in any way, but it is an overt kind of fusion of traditions–what the Six Degrees website describes as “a quieter, more refined ‘world music'”–and it reminds me of some observations of Michel Chanan which I quoted in an earlier post:

“Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce . . . Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?  Is the idea just another form of cultural expropriation and exploitation or could it possibly represent a true growth of awareness of other musics?”

At least within the realm of the Sissoko and Segal’s music making together, there does seem to be “awareness of other musics” on display.  You can hear, for instance, Segal play some of those kumbengo bassline-like patterns, melodies are traded back and forth, drones are offered in mutual support, and so on, in a musical dialogue that includes improvisation and new takes on old compositions.  One could probably safely say that for both musicians, “techniques are extended” too.


Euphony Groove And The Prospect Of New “World” Music

From 2000-2006 I was part of a most interesting (to us, anyways) music ensemble called Euphony Groove.  Euphony, meaning “wellness of voice” and groove, “a rhythm that repeats” formed the group’s mantra: music can make us well, over and over again.  Euphony Groove brought together musical traditions and sounds from Turkey, North Africa, China and Australia to create what I would describe as a hybrid, improvised, introspective, modal and sometimes even ecstatic music. We performed in all kinds of alternative performance spaces around New England including lofts, art galleries, colleges and high schools, industrial spaces, and nursing homes.  We even performed live on college radio stations a few times.

The instrumental timbres of EG fit well together: I played the Chinese yang-qin hammered dulcimer, Fred played the Turkish ney flute, Todd played North African frame drums, and Matthew played the Australian natural horn, the didgeridoo.  We sometimes thought about those timbres by analogy: the yang-qin as rushing water, the ney as billowing fire, the drums as solid earth, and the didge as a cyclone of turbulent air.  Beyond their timbres, the instruments co-existed well volume-wise too: we could play together in a room and hear one another clearly, without amplification.

Here is Lumos, the first track from Live At The Loft (2001).

What was most exciting about Euphony Groove was its repertoire, or rather, how little “solid” repertoire it had.  Most of what we did was improvise around what were, in retrospect, very loosely agreed upon structural constraints.  For instance, a “piece” might consist of agreeing to play in a b-minor mode, in 4-beat meter, at a glacial tempo, for a long, long while, and then somehow metamorphose into a breakneck tempo in a relative major key.  No music scores, no notes, no “head” or theme, no conductor (obviously)–just our memory of what we had agreed to do.  Sometimes we pulled off our plan, but more often there emerged these wonderful moments of rupture–usually cued by a frantic glance indicating that one group member had no idea where we were or where we were going–that blew things wide open: we were improving without a net, and it felt exhilarating. Fred wrote in the liner notes to Live At The Loft:

Perhaps the listener could guess that our music is constructed in motion.  We hope that this recording suggests the social chemistry that allows that to happen.  The essential idea of Euphony Groove is to juxtapose timbres and musical strategies in new combinations that seem useful in the her-and-now.  In constructing these pieces we borrow freely from the musical ideas of our four respective traditional soundscapes, and combine them with new concepts that we have created specially for our collective fifth geography.”

Over the years of working within the Euphony Groove geography, some repertoire stapes did emerge: Slow Reach, Athens KyotoFunk (not funk as you probably know it), Tumblemeter…I realize these titles are meaningless to my blog readers, but to us they signified pretty heavily, and after a while we knew we could always revisit these musical templates with some measure of security.  Having said that, however, we didn’t go back to them that much; we just pushed forward.  In this regard, Euphony Groove was experimental in that we wanted to get ourselves into musical places from which there would be no clear exit.

We gave one another solo opportunities too.  In every concert there would be room for each of us to make an entirely solo statement.  This was a favorite part of the evening: just to listen to my band mates making extended essays on their instruments.  It’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you play the frame drums or the didgeridoo.  I single out these instruments because they don’t have recourse to melody like the ney and the yang-qin do, and remember that melody is a widely agreed upon way to build a musical “narrative.”  But Todd and Matthew could hold an audience’s attention however long they needed to through texture, timbre, dynamics and rhythm-making.

Perhaps because of our musical interests and our instrumentation, drone figured fairly prominently in our sound.  The didgeridoo, of course, is a drone machine par excellence, and I enjoyed making drones on the yang-qin through tremolo rolls.  And three of us indulged our interests in overtone singing (or what Tuvans call khoomei).  Who doesn’t like to overtone sing?  It’s kind of the ultimate euphony or “wellness of voice” and we incorporated this singing technique into our pieces.  Here is a piece called “Midnight” from The Montreal Sessions (circa 2005?).  It opens with solo yang-qin, soon joined by the drone of khoomei-style singing, and finally the didgeridoo.  You can listen to “Midnight” here.

A typical rehearsal schedule was to assemble the evening before our concert and talk, joke around, and generally procrastinate until late into the night, until we finally started to think about what we might do the next day.  Sometimes we tried out new musical ideas, but more often we just started to play together, to establish a conversation through sound.  So we talked, we played, we talked so more, we had food and drank some, I tuned (and re-tuned) my axe, we laughed, and so on.  No matter how “organized” we endeavored to be, this was the method to our madness: empty out our expectations during that evening “rehearsal” as if to remind ourselves that we really had nothing “new” to say and that we were ready to face, head on, our impending concert the next day.  (Butterflies in the stomach just thinking about it.)  In short, we were procrastinating because we knew that our music would really most meaningfully grow out of our encounter with our audience.

Who showed up to a Euphony Groove performance?  Usually there were between 15 and 90 people at our concerts.  When we performed at The Loft in Brattleboro, Vermont, there were many regulars who returned again and again to hear us play; some even travelled great distances to hear us.  For about 10 bucks, they got an evening of sonic uncertainty, but also little epiphanies of synchrony and euphony along the way.  And our listeners were very much part of the equation: they talked to us before, during, and after the show, they bought some CDs and T-shirts, they made “song” requests (“Play Boomerang!”), they slow-danced in the aisles to pieces with 7-beat meters, they requested encores, and they asked us when we would be returning to play again.

One of my favorite things about Euphony Groove was the way in which it was deliberately limited.  There were only four timbres, and we could only play in few keys.  There were two reasons for this: the tuning of the yang-qin (certain keys like G, D, C major and A minor are easier to play in) and the didgeridoo (which can only play one tone at a time).  We worked with our limitations by maximizing the affect we could extract from subtle musical shifts of note placement, dynamics, modulation, entrances, exits, and silence.  Sometimes, the most powerful thing was hearing what might be called the presence of someone’s absence for six or seven long minutes, until suddenly–baam!–they were back in: all presence!  In an age of infinite timbre available at our fingertips (as anyone who makes electronic music can attest), Euphony Groove was minimal and old-fashioned.  It was simple.

This simplicity became to topic of conversation on more than one occasion when we had discussions and disagreements about whether or not to “modernize” Euphony Groove–whether to add new electronic sounds, triggers and samplers, textures and tones to spice things up.  Some members wanted to race forward into the electronic age, while others were, ahem, happy with exactly where we are, thank you very much.  I recall saying that we were candle makers and book binders in an age of downloadable content, and I didn’t mean that as a criticism of the group.  I thought our limitations were cool precisely because they meant that we couldn’t do everything.  Like any living thing, we were finite.

Playing in an ensemble like Euphony Groove–a self-directed, off the grid, improvising-heavy ensemble–shapes how one sees the broader music industry.  We weren’t part of any mainstream, we weren’t signed to a label, we didn’t try to sell ourselves (or at least, weren’t very successful at it).  We just made music together.  And if we had tried to market ourselves as some kind of new “world” music, I doubt that would have led us far.  Four white men (including two Canadians, but still) playing a motley collection of instruments in and around New England?  What kind of world music is this again?  Umm, that sounds pretty local to me.

And yet.  I’m reminded here of some things Michael Chanan says at the end of his history of music and recording technology, Repeated Takes.  Chanan talks about issues that Euphony Groove tried to address head on, describing the kinds of things that happen when different musics collide, so to speak, with one another in their recorded forms, or otherwise:

“musical cultures of every type develop new dynamics.  Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce independently, in musical revenge against technological alienation.”

Is this not what Euphony Groove was participating in?  An acoustic revenge against technological alienation?  Yes, yes, yes!  Chanan also asks what it means that the musics of different cultures come into contact with one another, and indeed, are changed by one another: “Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?”  Well, yes again!  I think that Euphony Groove was an example of one of many authentically local cultural undercurrents just trying to make musical sense of the world’s music cultures colliding with one another.

It was a good musical and social hang, it brought us together and pushed us apart, it prompted us to do things we probably would not have done on our own, and of course, it was deep, deep fun.

Electronic Music and Gaming Theory

In this week’s New Yorker there is an article by  Nick Paumgarten on the Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto that unpacks the magic behind such Miyamoto game creations such as Super Mario Bros. and Legend Of Zelda.  Game designing is a creative endeavor that few people besides Miyamoto have mastered.  (Though the American Will Wright, designer of Sims and Spore, also comes to mind.). One key to designing a good game, notes Paumgarten, is to make sure it has a complexity and dynamic depth to it that is cognitively challenging yet also charming and fun to engage with.  Achieving this complexity and dynamism means designing the game around a few elements that can endlessly remix themselves in different combinations to keep things fresh.  Describing the source of Super Mario Bros.’s appeal Paumgarten writes:

“The game had just fifteen or twenty dynamics in it…yet they combined in such a way to produce a seemingly limitless array of experiences and moves, and to provide opportunities for an alternative, idiosyncratic style of play, which brings to mind nothing so much as chess” (92).

To me, there is a similarity between the experiences of playing and designing videogames and making electronic music with a computer.  Specifically, I am thinking of the way software such as Ableton Live (which I happen to really enjoy using–or should I say playing?) is configured.  For those readers who have never used it, this is what it looks like:

One of the software’s two viewing pages, Session View (what is shown in the pic above), is arranged like a mixer, with each sound given its own vertical track.  Within each track, one can stack discrete chunks of audio or midi called clips.  So for a single track of say, percussion, one can have a few dozen clips of different lengths.  Each clip can be looped, played back, and triggered in any order the musician wishes.  And that’s just one track; imagine the “limitless array of experiences and moves” available to a musician with a dozen tracks, each with two dozen clips.  That’s a lot of ways to combine sounds, and we haven’t even begun to consider effects processing (e.g. ways to alter, distort and enhance a sound such as distortion or reverb effects, etc.).

So, for electronic musicians who perform using a laptop running Ableton’s software, part of the pre-performing process is a little like Miyamtoto’s designing complexity and dynamism into his games. And the pleasure comes later when musicians get to (literally) play their music, improvising different combinations of sounds, and figuring out on the fly in what direction to head in.  Like the experience of interacting with a videogame, electronic music allows a musician to explore virtual worlds that strike a balance between adventure and play…

And speaking of play, Paumgarten also cites Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938), a famous study of this essential human activity, in order to further unpack the joys of videogaming.  For Huizinga, play has five attributes:

1. it’s free,
2. it takes place outside the realm of everyday life,
3. it is, materially speaking, unproductive,
4. it follows an agreed upon protocol of constraints and rules,
5. its outcome is uncertain and therefore it encourages improvisation from its players

This sounds like an awfully apt characterization of music too, doesn’t it?

Brian Eno on Improvisation, Computers and Music

One of the reasons why musician and producer Brian Eno’s words are worth reading is that he often has timely things to say about music and says them in a way that makes sense and makes you pause and think.  In a recent Pitchfork interview (my second Pitchfork-related post in a week), Eno discusses strategies for improvisation and the impact of computers on music making.  Below are some excerpts from the interview.

Eno describes various strategies he used to constrain and compel group improvisations for his recent release, Small Craft On A Milk Sea (Warp 2010):

“And some of the other structuring ideas are completely conceptual in the sense that I might say, ‘Imagine it’s the year 2064 and all digital music has been destroyed in a huge digital accident, an
electromagnetic pulse or something like that.  So, all we know about the music between 2010 or 2030 is hearsay. There don’t exist any recordings.  We’ve read about a kind of music that existed in the suburbs of Shanghai in 2015 to 2018, and this music was played on’–then you specify a group of instruments– ‘was played on, say, industrial tools, such as steel hammers, and augmented with samplers and various electronic versions of some Chinese instruments.  And it was intensely repetitive and played at ear-splitting volume,’ for example. So, we then…try to imagine what that music would be like, and we try to make it.”

And here Eno discusses making music with computers and the potential of new musical controllers:

“I think we’re sort of deep in the grid period of making music– well, we’re probably emerging from it a little bit now, I would say.  You know how eras always have a sound to them and you don’t realize it
until the era has gone?…You can hear the profile of a sound, in retrospect, so much more clearly than you did at the time.  And I think one of the things that’s going to be nauseatingly characteristic about so much music of now is its glossy production values and its griddedness, the tightness of the way everything is locked together.”

“It’s very interesting, to me, to be reminded… that there was a time when things were not that tight.  And we’re going through this super-uptight era, which I think comes entirely from literacy, actually.  It’s the result of machines that were designed as word processors being used for making music.  Because that’s what we’re doing, after all.  All the programs we’re using started their lives, really, as word processing programs and the concepts that typify word processing, like ‘cut and paste,’ ‘change typeface’…”

“The idea that the computer is a completely neutral device that doesn’t have a personality of its own and just liberates you to do anything you want–it’s complete cock.  You just make different music on a computer.  And you can make wonderful music on a computer, but don’t pretend that the machinery is transparent.  It makes as much difference to what you’re doing as it does if you play an acoustic
guitar as opposed to a kettledrum.  You’re not going to make the same music.”

“In terms of what has been happening recently, there have been, I think, some really interesting new instruments that have come out that sort of show me the direction of the future.  Korg has…a whole series now of these things called Kaoss Pads. They’re wonderful because they do get your muscles working again.  And what DJs do, of course, with their DJ turntables now, the CD turntables, which have pitch change and speed change and everything else.  They’re doing something that I think is interestingly physical.  Then…there’s another Korg instrument called the Wavedrum, which is a great, great instrument.”

“So, there is a sort of convergence starting to happen between the computer and musical instruments, but it’s still quite a long way off.  Basically, you’re still sitting there using just the muscles of your
hand, really.  Of one hand, actually.  It’s another example of the transfer of literacy to making music because the assumption is that everything important is happening in your head; the muscles are there
simply to serve the head.  But that isn’t how traditional players work at all; musicians know that their muscles have a lot of stuff going on as well.  They’re using their whole body to make music, in fact.
Whereas it’s quite clear that if the interface between you and a computer is a mouse, then everything of interest that happens must be happening in your head.  It’s a big step backwards, I think.  It’s back
to the biggest problem with classical music, which is [that] it’s head music. It doesn’t emanate from anything below the shoulders, basically.”

“We’ve had [years] of evolution to develop this incredibly fine set of muscles, which can do the most extraordinary, delicate things and which have their own memories and so on.  And then we fucking well discard it all; it seems completely stupid to me.  And also, I think, if you spend a day or– as many people do– a life working only with that aspect of your being, the cerebrum connected to a finger, I feel
that the rest of you atrophies, essentially.  It’s all wasted, and it feels wasted.  You feel dead.  You feel as if you’re not living a full life.  Which, of course, is why–it’s my theory about why so many people who are heavily into computers are also into extreme sports…It’s because their bodies are crying out for some kind of action.”

You can read the full interview here.


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