brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: listening

On How Composers Listen To Their Own Work

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Having recently finished a project and waiting for it to be mastered, I found myself spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces. I did this listening while doing other things like making toast or tidying up the apartment, and more often than not I listened from another room, letting the sounds move down the hallway and bend around corners so I could take them in from a distance. Why was I listening and what was I trying to notice?

A first reason for listening was to get to know the music. The pieces had been done relatively quickly—quickly enough that prior to finishing the music I had never quite gotten to know it. Over the past few years, my composing has been partly based upon improvisation. (Isn’t all composing at some point improvisation?) This means that I end up reaching for things in one-time performances without fully knowing what it is that I’m reaching for. I just play—trying to make something that seems balanced and enchanting in the moment, or at least not immediately annoying. Later, when I’m editing, I’ll listen to the pieces repeatedly, but since I’ll be focused on the minutiae of fixing little annoying errors, I won’t hear how the pieces flow and won’t understand what it was that I had originally been reaching for. It’s only once the pieces are done (little errors now minimized) that I can begin listening while doing other things and get to know the music in a general way. Now I can hear the performance almost as an outsider would—as if observing it from a distance. This explains why I’ll listen from another room.

I was also listening for something more amorphous: how the music makes me feel, its overall mood, and how it sustains and paces my feeling for the duration of its sounding. Let me re-phrase that: music probably doesn’t make us feel anything—we arrive at feelings with the help of the music. Listening, in other words, is an encounter between the hearer and the sounding. Listening from another room while doing other things is an encounter that helps me gauge how the music inflects those other things I’m doing, as if the sounds are scents, or casting shadows. In a way, I was trying to assess if this music could be actually useful. For instance, could I, or someone else, make toast or fall asleep to this music? I’m happy to report that the answer to both these questions is yes!

A third thing I was listening for was durability: how do these pieces hold up over repeated listenings? How do they wear as I get to know them better? Do some pieces become more annoying, more cloying, the more I listen to them? Do some pieces get better or simply hold their value? Here’s an example: there was one piece in the series—originally the ninth piece, now the fifth—that had always struck me as slightly better than the others. Even though all the pieces were created the same way, each one based upon brief musical improvisations, this particular piece had a weight to it. If it wasn’t better, it at least sounded more assured, almost as if it were a model for the others to aspire to. Maybe I got lucky with it, or maybe, since it was originally the ninth piece in a series of twenty, I had begun to hit my stride with it? In any case, repeated listening did two things: it confirmed my initial positive impression of this model piece, and it confirmed the durability if not of the piece, then at least of that initial positive impression. This was an important realization insofar as there are times when a music seems to change over time simply because my tastes have changed. Funny how that works.

A final reason I was listening was to let go of the music. While I’m working on a project and listening to it over and over, its sounds loom large in my mind’s ear and I often hear bits of the pieces on repeat in my head when I’m least expecting it, as if I’ve created my own earworms. I began this project one year ago, then left it for a time, then came back to it. During that time, the pieces were in the foreground of my attention. But now I need to shift them to the background. I’m done with this music and the fundamental reason I’m spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces from another room while doing other things is to say goodbye to them.

On Leaving Space In Music

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The other evening I felt like listening to some “zone out” music on my way home from work, so I put on Harold Budd’s Perhaps, a collection of piano music.

As I walked the last few blocks from the subway I took measure of the great space in Budd’s improvisations–in the spaces he leaves between his chord clusters and melodies that hang like tree branches. In addition to his attractive note choices, what stands out in Budd’s playing are those spaces just after the melo-harmonic resonances are fading away. Taking measure of these spaces in the music, I tried counting the number of steps I was taking between each chord and was surprised to find that the average was between eight and twelve steps. That’s a lot of space!

While I have enjoyed Budd’s music since I first encountered it a few years ago, I never realized that maybe part of how it works is through what could be called its generosity of space-providing. As you listen, the music offers you ample room to think about what you just heard, count your steps if you’re so inclined, or make other non-musical associations. Most music we listen to isn’t like this. Most music is about fullness and density–richly layered, textured, orchestrated, and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. But such music doesn’t invite us into the listening encounter the way Budd’s space-providing piano playing does.

You can read more about Budd here and here and here.

On Outsider Music I: Lubomyr Melnyk’s “Cloud Passade No. 3″

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“The piano and its sound are as much a part of the music as the notes.” – Lubomyr Melnyk

I recently came across some piano music of Lubomyr Melnyk. He makes what he calls “continuous motion” music which involves playing rapid and continuous patterns up and down the keyboard for very long stretches while keeping the sustain pedal down. The effect is a hypnotic, waterfall-like sound wall. The music is very tonal and consonant harmonically, and has a steady, if somewhat frantic, 12-beat pulse. The continuity, consonance, and length of Melnyk’s pieces create a kind of heightened state. As you listen you hear little inherent patterns within the patterns as your ears latch onto different note combinations, and if you’re like me, feel non-musical things. (Isn’t that the point of music?)

Here is a three-minute excerpt taken from three-quarters of the way through a 17-minute performance of Melnyk’s “Cloud Passade No. 3:

A few observations about the music. First, despite its speed, Melnyk’s playing doesn’t feel physical or strenuous–it just feels flowing, which is itself a musical-technical accomplishment. Second, his chord choices are subtle and unusual–they don’t seem to follow the conventional logic that this style of music would suggest. Third, the music is reminiscent of some classic minimalist fare–leaning more towards Philip Glass’s romanticism than Steve Reich’s asceticism–yet Melnyk’s work has its own agenda too. Fourth, this piece raises the question of musical canons and repertoires, and insiders and outsiders vis-a-vis musical traditions–specifically about how it comes to be that some composers rather than others have their voices widely heard, and how it is that some musical gestures rather than others are spread far and wide and ultimately accepted. Finally, as I listened to this piece I found that I wasn’t thinking about music per se, just enjoying a waterfall sound wall. As the music constructed an array of emotions in me, I stopped thinking about its precedents or its stylistic brethren. That’s often a sign that a music is doing what every music aspires to do: create a space in which feeling and intellection can celebrate together over the sounds’ meaningful fire.

On Soloing A Part: Listening To Eddie Van Halen’s Electric Guitar

Thanks to a recent post by Open Culture, I recently listened to the electric guitar part to Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “Panama.” Just to be clear, it’s a recording not of the song with the full band of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Just Eddie Van Halen’s guitar in complete isolation, up close and personal.

It’s a virtuosic performance. The groove is relentless and forward-moving, the timbre is weighty with its wonderful distortion, there are nice bits of harmonic work, a brief solo (in this case, a solo within a solo), and a surprising amount of dynamic contrast. The other thing I noticed is how efficient “Panama” is as a pop-metal concoction. It says its thing, sets off some fireworks, and then it’s over.

When I was a kid I must have heard this song hundreds of times as ambient sound. Whether it was on the radio or on TV, this music, this celebration of bombast just seemed to be omnipresent for a time. I wasn’t even a fan of the band, but that didn’t stop the music from finding me. And so as I recently listened to this guitar-only version, I was surprised at how many little details–the quality of the distortion, those harmonics–I was already familiar with, as if they were traces that had been lodged deep in my memory of half-listening to the song all those years ago.

If you are interested in learning more about Van Halen’s cultural and historical moment, a super fine account is John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reaktion Books, 2012). A very fine cultural history of the electric guitar is Steve Waksman’s Instruments Of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard U. Press, 2001) And a probing discussion of the connection between the disorted, overdriven sound of heavy metal and the construction of power can be found in Robert Walser’s classic study, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness In Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan U. Press, 1993).

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!

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