brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: listening

Krista Tippett On Listening

securedownload

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

154123-headphones-headphones

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

36319_215874_wave_L

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

Exai_Packshot_600

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

url

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.

Zadie Smith On Joni Mitchell’s Blue

In her recent essay in the New Yorker, novelist Zadie Smith recounts her listening history with the music of Joni Mitchell–specifically, Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue. Here is the title song from the record:

Smith describes encountering Mitchell’s idiosyncratic and alternate tuning jazzy-folk music for the first time while in college and hating it. But years later she hears the same music on the radio while taking a road trip with her husband. This time, surprisingly, she loves Mitchell’s album and it makes complete sense to her. Smith wonders about this shift in her listening history: “How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur? (…) It’s not even the content of the music that interests me here. It’s the transformation of the listening.”

Smith doesn’t have a clear answer to the questions of how and why her listening changed over time and “the inconsistency of identity, of personality.” But the shift in her musical taste inspires her to muse on how she might have become a different person had she listened to and been a fan of certain records and musics when she was younger: “What kind of person would I be if I knew this album at all…?” And she articulates what makes it difficult for us, as we get older, to get into musics  that are new to us and differ substantially from the sounds with which we grew up: “Shaped by the songs of my childhood, I find it hard to accept the musical ‘new’, or even the ‘new-to-me.'” Then Smith points out a contradiction many of us may share and which may help explain why new music can be hard to metabolize: “For though we recognize discontinuity in our own lives, when it comes to art we are deeply committed to the idea of continuity.”

***

I have written on this blog previously about some of my listening experiments. Reading Smith, it strikes me that we might learn the most about our musical tastes by deliberately listening to music we don’t like or don’t think we like and making note of that experience. I have been trying this lately as a way of mapping my tastes and to some extent I’ve learned some things. (“This is way too aggressive for me.” Or: “The rhythm isn’t interesting.”) But the listening experimentation can go further than simply making us aware of the songs that shaped our childhood (when we musically came of age) or figuring out what we do and don’t like. My experience so far has me wondering whether or not our tastes are fungible to the point that they can actually be reset. If there were a “super” listener that’s exactly what he or she would be able to do: appreciate everything anew with each listen, finding deep meaning in every idiom, unconstrained by personal listening history. The super listener would hear with ears and sensibilities truly wide open.

On Grateful Sound: Thinking Through “Dark Star”

gd72OR

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?

***

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.

***

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.

On Listening With Sympathy

Sitting at the kitchen table
listening to a mix
playing from the other room–

excited sounds
flying around corners
and down the hallway,
partly muffled,
half exaggerated,
out of proportion,
out of breath,
and weakened upon
their diminished arrival
at my ear

–a thought appears:
listening with sympathy
makes the music doubly resonant
by giving it the benefit of doubt.

Yet the music
doesn’t ask
or encourage
such sentiment

only appreciating
its generous goodwill.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers