brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: listening

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.

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”

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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?

***

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.

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.

On Flavors, Tastes, Sound And Perception: Thinking Through Ruhlman’s Twenty

“Clear your way. Always be thinking.” - Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman’s Twenty

First, let me say the obvious: if you like to cook and want to know more about the science and craft of cooking, you’ll probably enjoy Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty. The book provides much to think about by explaining fundamental techniques and ingredients in a sensible and accessible way. Having said the obvious, there are other interesting things happening in Ruhlman’s Twenty. In the midst of the cooking theory, tips, instruction, and recipes, Ruhlman spends a fair amount of time talking about taste perception. Here are two examples:

“The complexity that comes from the intense sourness offset by a parallel sweetness goes especially well with…” (100).

“Does this sauce have the depth of texture and satisfying nature that I’m after? If not, fat may be the solution” (134).

Complexity. Sourness. Sweetness. Depth of texture. The overarching theme of this book is how we create and perceive specific tastes, and Ruhlman wants us to “always be thinking” about what affects what in the alchemical world of the kitchen. As it turns out, in the world of cooking, everything affects everything else. In the chapter “Acid” Ruhlman writes: “When you taste anything, ask yourself, What would make this better? Often the answer is acid.” He then discusses the effects of adding a drop of vinegar to a spoonful of soup. Ruhlman describes the taste as brighter: “Bright is an element of flavor that takes some imagination. I don’t mean literally brighter, but synesthetically brighter: vinegar has a brighter flavor–clear, clean, crisp” (92). Similar discussions ensue in chapters on salt, sweetness, and other tastes.

In the end, cooks work with essentially six distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, metallic, and umami–a Japanese word that roughly means “savoriness.” And while it may be difficult to put into words what these different tastes do and the complex ways they interact with one another, good cooking can’t happen without their presence in various ratios. Think about a favorite daily sauce: vinaigrette. Oil (fatty umami), vinegar or lemon juice (sharp sourness), a pinch of salt (saltiness), and maybe some honey (sweetness). That’s four of the six essential flavor components. No wonder salad is so tasty!

***

As in cooking, so too in music?

Just as food presents us with a range of tastes, music presents us with a range of heard and felt vibratory perceptions. In music, we speak of low-, medium-, and high-range pitches or registers. Low-pitched sounds vibrate at a slower rate than do high-pitched sounds. Moreover, low-pitched sounds are often considered to have a “dark” tone quality or timbre (think of a low note bowed on a double bass, or the sound of a deep gong softly struck) while high-pitched sounds have a “light” quality–or like Ruhlman’s vinegar taste, are “brighter” (think of a shrill piccolo sound). A musical instrument’s design, its mode of vibration, and the material it’s made out of also affect its timbre. It’s for this reason that a flute and a violin sound different and distinctive even when they play the same pitch. When composers score works for different instruments (violins and brass say, or electronic sine tones and pad sounds) they create new hybrid timbres that are more than the sum of their parts. In music as in cooking, one can mix and match to create new depths of perception.

I’ve been thinking about Ruhlman’s book as I’ve been working on some electronic music pieces. I’m in the mixing and balancing stages of a project, listening through to make sure all the sounds are sitting in the right proportion to one another to create a pleasing soundscape. As I listen it strikes me that sounds are like flavors–each one has a different taste. I don’t mean to say that there are six basic sounds that correspond to sweet, salty, and so on. But I do mean to say that different sounds, like different flavors, affect us in many different ways. Put another way, sounds have a feeling dimension just as flavors have a taste dimension.

The five electronic music pieces in my project each have over a dozen parts–including marimba samples, sine tones, Rhodes, glockenspiel and celeste, tom toms and cymbals.  There are a lot of layers and each layer has a distinctive pitch register and timbre profile. The parts were improvised and recorded many months ago: chord progressions were worked out, harmonies, basslines, and rhythmic counterpoint among the percussion added. Then everything was put into order so the pieces have a basic arc shape (each is some 20-plus minutes in length). Now I’m experimenting with different combinations of these layers, tweaking their volume, their tone, their pitch, and adding bits of delay and reverb effects to augment and change them. It’s a lot to think about and the possibilities for tweaking can feel endless.

But like Ruhlman’s story about the effect of a drop of vinegar on the taste of a spoonful of soup, I’m finding that small changes can have large effects on the overall feel of the music. For instance, tuning tom-toms to the tonic note of a section adds a deep euphony. Or pitching a hi hat sample up one octave makes it feel more metallic, crisp and brittle. Or maybe one part needs an EQ scoop (lowering the volume of its middle-range frequencies) to make it flatter, softer, and more transparent. Of course, the sound really isn’t any of those things–it’s basically a sawtooth wave sound–yet that’s how it feels as I listen and so I adjust parameters according to this imagined profile. All this tweaking is done intuitively, until the sound of the music feels right.

Finally, I’m surprised at how different the pieces sound as I return to them day after day. Same headphone volume, but a slightly different listening me, I guess. Taste is like that: it’s not entirely in the flavor, the ingredient, or the sound, but neither is it entirely in our perception of these phenomena either. It’s a combination of the two and that’s what makes the intersection of flavor, taste, and perception so interesting: it’s an unstable and ever-changing encounter for our senses.

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