brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: listening

Alan Watts On Deep Listening

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.

Notes On Toggling Between (Disparate?) Musics

Lately I’ve been thinking about toggling.

I think about it as I switch among various go-to apps on my phone–email, news, Twitter, blog, music player, Wikipedia, calendar, amazon.com–back and forth, quickly, seamlessly, without thinking much about it. The process, made possible by the technology of my phone, feels like the essence of thinking itself: continuous zigzagging among ideas, always weighing and assessing, always seeking connections, always toggling from one bit to another.

And there’s toggling within these individual activities too. Take music listening, for example. I often toggle back and forth between stylistically different musics just to remind myself of their essential (and maybe shared yet overlooked) qualities and also to see how they affect me in tandem. A while back, I toggled between American composer John Adams’ “String Quartet” and UK electronic musician Darren J. Cunningham’s (aka Actress) “Ivy May Gilpin.” Even though these musics may not have much in common, I kept toggling!

Here is the Adams piece:

Here is the Cunningham/Actress piece:

Toggling between the two pieces of music I also thought about what the musics may say about their respective creators. And then came this (perhaps unfair) musing: Based on their music, which composer would you most like to hang out with?

Krista Tippett On Listening

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Listening to a podcast, my ears perked up when I heard the day’s guest, Krista Tippett, talk about what it means to listen. Tippett wasn’t referring to music listening per se, yet her words had me thinking anew about what listening in a musical context might entail. Here are some quotes, along with elaborations on them:

Listening is a spiritual technology.
We don’t often hear those two words together. Yet listening is a way to tap into what many people believe music indexes: some parallel affective realm in which patterns of sound give rise to patterns of feeling. Combined together, sound and feeling can feel pretty deep.

Listening is an ordinary, everyday virtue.
We hear and make sense of things all time–ambient noise, conversations–and so each of us has a finely tuned apparatus ready to take on music. It’s a virtue to be able to listen because listening has built-in moral component: at minimum, by listening we engage with others.

Listening is an essential way that we can reach across the mystery of the Other.
This is a fundamental principle of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology: that informed and open listening is a way to understand the cultural value of all the world’s musics–no matter how different they may seem from what is familiar and local to us. Listening literally connects us to other ways of hearing and making sound.

There aren’t many things that we do in our lives that are more important than listening.
Making music with others can’t exist without close listening. In fact, effective/affective music is defined by how closely its makers interact with, and respond to, one another. It’s the interaction among musicians and their sounds that makes the music compelling. In this, listening is the most important thing.

Listening is an essential tool that we need to cultivate in a noisy, busy world.
Listening, inside or outside of musical practice, is a way to focus and block out distractions.

Listening is about presence.
When we listen we accrue a special kind of presence as listeners. Our best selves rise up as our senses hone in on the importance of sound.

Listening is about being open to being surprised and amazed. Listening is about being vulnerable.
Brought about by listening, our best selves are open to the world, ready to be guided into unfamiliar territory. There is risk involved because we’re not entirely sure where we’re going. But we listen anyway, wondering what will come next.

On Music As Overlay

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Here we are, me among them, sitting on the subway, sharing a physical space but each of us somewhere else. We each listen to a different music, and each of our musics acts as a cultural overlay that separates and distinguishes us from one another. Headphones on, we ensconce ourselves in protective bubbles of sound.

Music and musical action are often spoken about as means of sharing experience, expressing and enacting identity, and building community. And this is true: as a form of symbolic action (symbolic because melodies and rhythms don’t literally do anything in the world outside of music), music is perhaps the most powerful social technology we have.

In its staggering diversity of styles, music also invites each of us to surround ourselves with a unique mosaic of (recorded) sounds that articulate who we feel ourselves to be. This is exactly what we, me among them, do as we sit alone-together on the subway with our musical overlays, sharing a physical space but each of us somewhere else.

On How The Shape Of A Sound Shapes Us

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I noticed a simple thing the other day while working on some music. The sounds I was working with were long tones with slow attacks and long decays. (Can you guess the instrument?) What I noticed was how instantaneously the shape of the sounds shaped me. The sounds literally slowed me down–making me feel as if I was resonating along with their contours and slow rhythms. I’m somewhat astonished that I had never noticed and articulated this perceptual phenomenon in my own musical experience until now, but there you go.

To re-phrase that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: Be careful what sounds you make, for surely you shall become one with them!

On Musical Invention, Sound And Process: “Bladelores” From Autechre’s Exai

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No one is quite sure how the UK duo Autechre make their electronic music. Sure, they use software and computers, they program, they use hardware synths and drum machines and samplers, they improvise, they code, they make beats, they tweak, but we really don’t know how they work. Not only is the group’s musical sum is more than its technical parts–we don’t know what those parts are. The Autechre sound is difficult and opaque, yet also endlessly surprising and engaging and at times emotionally moving too. Critics have called the duo “top-notch sonic magpies and brilliant technicians” (Grayson Currin writing at pitchfork.com) whose music “always implied a kind of future music–as in, a sound that points to a possible futuristic norm” (Charlie Frame writing at thequietus.com). However you want to describe the group or their sound, Autechre have a clarity and concision about them.

For me, the most significant attributes of Autechre’s music are its rhythmic invention, its timbres, and its sense of process or change through time. The group’s best moments are those that are continually shape-shifting rhythmically or timbrally into ever new forms. This is what makes the music thoughtful, probing, and utterly unlike so much 4/4 thumping electronic dance music. Autechre may have grown up among the conventions and grooves of techno and hip hop, but they’ve long since left those stylistic orbits in the pursuit of more experimental designs that still manage to pulsate and groove in a physically alive kind of way.

The twelve-minute track “Bladelores” from Autechre’s recent recording Exai demonstrates a sense of musical process, and a bird’s-eye of the piece gives us a sense of its structure. On its surface, “Bladelores” is accessible because it begins has funky muted kick drum and a simple white noise backbeat on 2 and 4 that is drenched in reverb and joined by a repeating acidic bassline. It’s almost like a slow hip hop groove. At 1:00 a pulsating harmonic thing joins the mix, blending in with the long reverb tail triggered by the white noise backbeat. At 2:16 the pulsating thing becomes louder, accentuating the offbeats. The groove feels good. Meanwhile, what seemed to have been a reverb tail has morphed into a kind of chordal wash that is growing steadily. By about 3:15 you notice the chordal wash is in fact two chords that are alternating and repeating, and by 4:00 you notice the backbeat is fraying and coming apart a bit and the bassline becoming squelchy. Around 4:55 the chords and backbeat cut out, leaving just the brittle bassline. Soon though–from 5:11 to 5:37–the chords surge to the foreground again for a moment, even hitting a kind of resolution, only to be cut out at 5:38 where the backbeat, the reverb tail, and bassline return, reset and slightly altered. The chordal wash joins in again around 6:35 and for the next two and half minutes grows in intensity as the percussion and bassline keep fluttering about. The reverb from the outset of the track has been transferred to the chords, making their resonance grow to gargantuan proportions. At 9:00 the backbeat abruptly stops, leaving the bassline to slowly dissolve into the resonant chords that continue to thicken until they hit a resounding wall of harmonic sound at 11:00 and then gradually fade out for the end of the piece. As with a number of fine Autechre tracks, you didn’t expect this one to turn out like this. It just seemed to somehow evolve.

This is the rough structure of “Bladelores.” But I’ve left out the details, and these details manifest themselves as changes that happen to the music in a continuous flow. If you listen to any one-minute section of the track and focus on a single sound–the backbeat, the bassline, the chords–you can hear micro changes inflicting themselves continuously on each part, second by second. So that white noise back beat is almost never only a marking of beats 2 and 4, nor is that bassline merely marking a chord progression. Upon closer inspection, the parts keep changing rhythmically and/or timbrally and this change is the basis of the processual aspect of the music as a whole. This processual aspect of the music reminds me of what the musicologist David Burrows notes in his article “A Dynamical Systems Perspective on Music”: music creates for us “a now whose content changes ceaselessly” (The Journal of Musicology Vol. 15, No. 4: 1997:529). In sum, Autechre’s music doesn’t just move from one section to another–it doesn’t have seams like that. What it does do is shape-shift over time, and this makes for a challenging and enchanting listening experience.

Here is “Bladelores”:

You can read more about Autechre here and watch a Ventrilo-Dialogue with them here.

Microthought: On Harold Budd’s “Bandits Of Stature”

I listened
to the composer’s music
solitary while riding the subway–
not multitasking, not otherwise
occupied.

And so the thought
came to occupy me,
unfolding in slow phrases:

What do we value in music?
What of its values occupy us?
What aural codes
do we enjoy resonating with?

As I listened
to the composer’s music
it seemed to offer some hints–
long tones rubbing elbows,
space between the notes,
and brevity–
before the subway ride itself
was over.

A Question On Pop Musical Irritants

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If you get annoyed by a pop song
after just a few months
of hearing it on TV and the radio,

how do you think this music will age?

Will you like it in ten years?
Will it remind you of when you first heard it,
conjuring vague feelings?
Or will it become even more irritating
with time?

Do musics contain the seeds
of their own expiration trajectories?

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”

***

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.

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