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thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: music and film

“Where Are We?”: Situating Wonder Through Music In Apple Siri Commercials


wonder — (1): rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience; (2) : a feeling of doubt or uncertainty

Is there anything the Apple iPhone can’t do? And for that matter, is there anything Siri, the phone’s voice activated seer, doesn’t know? Recently I happened to be in Brooklyn early one morning and asked Siri where the nearest coffee shop was. She found a half-dozen places within a few blocks and with a glance down at their respective customer reviews (I love reading reviews, remember?) I was off and running. Siri was spot on too: the café was awesome and its croissants of the first rank.

I’ve learned about the kinds of things one can ask Siri not through trial and error–I keep meaning to experiment with questions yet never seem to have pressing ones in need of answering–but through Apple iPhone magazine ads and TV commercials. For example, on the back page of the March 5 New Yorker, there’s an ad that shows the iPhone in a well-manicured man’s hand providing the answer to a question the man has just asked. The question was “How do I play a B Major scale?” and Siri’s answer is graphic–showing the notes of the B Major scale as they are written on a treble clef and as they would be played on a keyboard. Impressive. Though I have to wonder why a musician would need this information, or how a non-musician could ever possibly benefit from knowing this particular bit of music theory. (And it’s incomplete music theory too, because Siri doesn’t show how the B major key signature is notated.) So the question was a strange one, but its answer certainly shows off Siri’s musical range.

Inspired by this ad, I asked Siri “How do I play a polyrhythm” and she asked me if I’d mind connecting to the Internet? (Do I have a choice?) Once I assented she brought up some Google results, the first of which was a strange YouTube video in which a spaced-out looking piano teacher awkwardly demonstrates his method for playing a two beats against three beats polyrhythm (using the mnemonic “not-di-ffi-cult–not-di-ffi-cult…”). Below this video was the Wikipedia entry on polyrhythm. Not bad, I guess, though I was hoping Siri would be the one doing the explaining in that cool clinical voice of hers. I guess the technology isn’t that advanced yet.

***

In the Siri TV commercials we see folks out and about, relying on Siri to answer all kinds of questions and help make things happen. For example, in the “Road Trip” commercial we follow a young couple taking a cross-country adventure from a frigid east coast to sunny Santa Cruz, CA. Along the way, Siri fields questions about driving routes, Kansas city BBQ joints, the meaning of life (“Where are we?”), the size of the Grand Canyon, gas station locations, and star constellations. What an informed companion!

What really struck me about the ads though, was their background music. After hearing it a few times I had an idea of the sense it intended to convey: wonder. Wonder at the strange and portable technological miracle that is the smartphone and its voice recognition functionality. Below is the “Road Trip” commercial (just one of several). Try to listen closely: the music is low in the overall mix, but it works to conjure a very particular sensation of awe:

This background music is the song “Orchestral–Goldengrove v2″ by Keith Kenniff, an American composer and multi-instrumentalist who records ambient electronic music under the monikers Helios and Goldmund. (I used to listen to Helios quite a bit.) The piece musically constructs a sense of wonder through its chord progression, its layered and shifting harmonic dissonances, its bubbling arrangement of piano and orchestral instruments (woodwinds, strings, celeste), and its open-ended 6-beat meter that hints at a two against three polyrhythm. (Polyrhythm is always a wonder if you ask me.)  Here’s the piece:

“Orchestral–Goldengrove v2″ not only conjures a sense of wonder, but also a sense of the American classical composer Philip Glass. The rhythmically churning arrangement of arpeggiating chords recalls Glass’s score for the 1982 silent film Koyaanisqatsi whose subject matter is not the wonders of contemporary urban life but rather its drudgery, emptiness and lack of balance. But more to the point, the commercial sounds a lot like Glass’s music for the 1998 movie The Truman Show. Here’s that music:

And this is where things get interesting. Glass’s Truman Show theme is based on a sequence of four chords that repeat over and over (until 1:16 where the music moves into another section). The chords are, to my ear: f minor, d-flat major, a-flat major, and C major. Interestingly, this is exactly the same chord sequence (albeit in a different key and at a faster tempo) heard over and over in the first minute of Keniff’s “Goldengrove v2″ and the main reason the two pieces sound so similar. So, is this just a musical coincidence? Or were the creators of the Siri commercial deliberately going for a Philip Glass effect to convey the sense of wonder? Indeed, a casual listener might well confuse the two pieces on the basis of the chords alone. They’re that similar.

In case you didn’t know, a chord sequence on its own can’t be copyrighted. The reason being that chords–clusters of pitches played at the same time like the notes c, e, and g make a C Major chord–are the generic building blocks of a piece of music that can be combined in many, many different ways. It’s only once you combine a chord sequence with a melody then you have something distinctive and copyrightable. Glass’s piece has a melody that meanders around the notes of those four chords, and remarkably, Keniff’s “Goldengrove v2″ seems to copy that too. (If you listen again to Keniff’s piano part at 0:34-0:50 you can hear it picking out the same first few notes as Glass’s tune before it veers elsewhere.) What’s going on here? Are we just listening too closely? Or was some secret licensing deal forged behind the scenes, guiding the musical textures in the commercial? Oh the unanswered questions!

But the irony of what appears to be a kind of musical appropriation in the Siri commercial is not lost on astute TV viewers out there listening closely. For example, on the website http://www.osxdaily.com a commenter named elesiumfilm theorizes on what this kind of musical appropriation illuminates about our relentless consumption of technology in the pursuit of wonder:

“This advert horrifies me, exactly because of the music. It’s an almost EXACT rip-off of part of the Truman Show soundtrack, and I find it amazingly ironic that music from a film about a man whose life is completely faked by entertainment corporations is being taken off to advertise technology that encourages people to live their whole lives through the filter of a little screen–chillingly ironic.”

On The Soundscapes Of Le Quattro Volte


Le Quattro Volte (2011) is a riveting, faux documentary-style meditation on death, (re)birth, the relationship between humans and the natural world, sound and time.  Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino, the film follows the repetitive daily life of an elderly goat herder as he goes about his work in a small rural Italian town. The man doesn’t speak and so our ears quickly become attuned to the soundscape of the goats (with their constantly clanging bells), the town, and especially, nature’s elements.  As we focus on all these non-human sounds an amazing perceptual thing happens: nature becomes foreground and the human world shrinks to feel infinitesimal. When the man doesn’t get up from his bed one day, the goats make their way to his apartment, quietly surrounding his dying body with their humming presence. It’s remarkable scenes like this and others that remind us–at least, those of us who are prone to forget such things–of the non-human world’s boundless soundings.

After the man dies he is burned to ash and in the scene immediately following we see the birth of a baby goat.  Now we follow this goat as he learns how to walk, be in the world and follow the pack. But soon he gets separated from the others, lost on a mountainside, alone. We hear the anguished cries of his small soul alone in an indifferent universe and it’s moving to listen to because the goat has become for us a synecdoche for a wider world of suffering that happens every day out of our earshot.  Not knowing where to go, the goat finds refuge under a lone pine tree whose shelter momentarily puts life’s big questions on hold.  Set against a changing sky, the lone pine becomes a kind of clock, bringing us through the summer, autumn and winter seasons.  Listening and watching the wind blow through the pine’s branches we move along with its slow rhythm.

By springtime, the goat is no longer to be seen and townsfolk have arrived to cut down the pine for their own needs. Stripped of its bark and branches and erected in the town square, the bare pine becomes a site for celebration and, from the looks of it, some tree climbing contests. Tracking their sights and sounds from a distance, Frammartino reveals these festivities as curious affairs. We hear faint strains of Italian folk music, singing, and voices, but can’t stop thinking about that distraught lost goat and the lone pine. Soon the tree is cut into logs for lumber and loaded onto a flatbed truck that wheezes up a watchful mountainside. Here again, Frammartino sets up a striking contrast between the indifference of human-made sounds to those of nature.

It turns out that the cut up pine that sheltered that lost goat is on its way to a yard where it will be slow burned to make charcoal. As we watch and listen to the wood smoldering we remember the earlier scene where the goat herder’s body was incinerated. As the transmogrified charcoal is shoveled into bags we hear the life force of what was once a pine tree still crack, snapple and popping.  Where is this charcoal–indeed this movie–going?

The charcoal is delivered back to the small town and the first stop is the apartment where the old man lived. The delivery man knocks a few times, but no one answers the door. In the final shot, though, we see smoke rising from the apartment’s chimney. Then Le Quattro Volte‘s transmigration of souls hits us: man became lost goat became lone pine tree became lumber and then charcoal that journeyed home and now burns again as new life.

***

Even though I’ve given away the story, there’s still good reason to watch it unfold yourself, for it’s in the unfolding through the film’s poetic evocation of time that the magic happens. Stripped of dialogue and a musical soundtrack, Le Quattro Volte moves at a glacial pace, substituting nature’s quiet-slow cycles for man-made noise-speed. And extended shots of pensive animals or windswept grasses remind one of what ecologist David Abram in his book The Spell Of The Sensuous (1996) describes as “the ‘spirits’ of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form” (13). Indeed, watching the film you get a sense that one of its goals is to show us how these modes of intelligence–embodied in the spirits of the old man, the goats, a barking dog, crackling charcoal, mountains and wind–co-exist as multiple temporalities to weave something harmonious.

Le Quattro Volte, in other words, is about the experience of time and how time articulates itself through sound. For me, the most astonishing aspect of the film is how it captures, renders and places in the stereo field all kinds worldly sounds, allowing the viewer to be immersed in the phenomena seen and unseen onscreen.  Everything in the film has a textured sonic voice that earns your listening attention by making you feel like even though you may have heard this sound before you never really listened closely enough. The sounds are vivid as if scored as music–with entrances and solos, melodies, rhythms,  call and response and counterpoint. Frammartino discusses his film’s sound design:

“The sound engineer’s work was really amazing. Paolo Benvenuti and Simone Paolo Olivero worked three or four hours more a day than us on the shoot. The sound takes up half of the movie. We worked with a lot of microphones everywhere in the shot, which allowed us to mix afterwards. This is a film where man is in the foreground and the sound is in the background, until little by little it takes up more space. We worked the sound in this way to find the perfect balance between human beings, images, and sound itself.”

In sum, while Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s term “soundscape” has been in circulation for a long while now, rarely do films offer us such a rich and focused opportunity to experience soundscapes through thoughtful sound design.  Le Quattro Volte is unique in that it brings the soundscape front and center and encourages  us to see and make sense of life’s cyclical rhythms with our ears.

On The Rhythms In Bollywood Films

Last week I attended a Powerpoint talk at my local public library given by a young Indian musician and composer named Rushi Vakil who spoke about the rhythms of Bollywood films.  Surveying the history of Bollywood from the 1950s to today, Vakil traced the use of different traditional Indian rhythmic cycles known as taals as well as western music beat patterns that drive this multi-billion dollar and constantly evolving Hindustani-language film industry.

From Bollywood’s earliest days, its musical soundtracks were east-west hybrids that blended Indian instruments and musical structures with western ones.  In some old black and white film clips Vakil played in his presentation, you could hear the melismatic singing style of Indian Hindustani classical vocalists atop of American jazz rhythms.  You could also hear more complex traditional Indian taals such as Rupak taal, a 7 beat cycle (3+2+2), and Dadra taal, a 6 beat cycle (3+3) which somewhat resembles western waltz time.

Inspired by Vakil’s presentation, I did some YouTube digging of my own. Here’s a song called “Bolo Kaisa Haal” from a vintage Bollywood movie called Kalpana (1960)

as well as clips from Shree 420 (1955) and Madhumati (1958) in which you can hear what sounds like that Dadra 6 beat taal

In another song from 1961 called “In Aankhon Ki Masti” you can hear the Indian tabla drums, the stringed instruments sarangi and sitar, as well as a western string section:

In the 1970s, the underlying rhythmic feel of many Bollywood songs changed to disco

and by the 1980s you can hear fully western musical textures as in the film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988)

By the 2000s, hip hop beats had entered the Bollywood soundworld too.  In recent movies such as Koi…Mil Gaya (2003), Ghajini (2008), and Robot (2010), you can hear very modern electronic dance music beats:

At the same time though, traditional folk rhythms such as the shuffling four-beat Punjabi dance music called bhangra can still be heard.  Below is an example of the bhangra rhythm in the song “Boliyaan” from the movie Aloo Chat (2009) (the bhangra beat begins at 0:36).  Notice that it’s the same rhythmic feel as that heard in the “Bolo Kaisa Haal” song above–the only real difference being the modern electronic sounds.  The shuffling bhangra beat is not only infectious and catchy, but it seems to almost define the Bollywood sound, the go-to beat whenever there’s a group dance scene.  Moreover, bhangra seems to be able to blend with just about anything which is perhaps why it appears over and over again in Bollywood songs, if only as a background rhythmic texture.

Vakil pointed out the source of an interesting distinction (in just his mind or in the minds of most Hindustani classical musicians I’m not sure) between what he called “sacred” traditional Indian rhythms and (mere) western “grooves.” For Vakil, western grooves such as a hip hop pattern in 4/4 meter are fixed beat sequences that loop around as endless rhythm.  In contrast, the Indian rhythmic cycles or taals always have contrasting sections built into them.  To illustrate this, Vakil discussed the Hindu concept of khali or “empty” beat.  (Vakil pointed out that in Hindu mythology, Kali is a goddess associated with eternal energy, time, and change.  Kali, as I would learn, derives from the Sanskrit root word “kal” which means time.  Is Kali related to khali?  I don’t know.)  In music, khali is the name given to the empty beat in the taal rhythmic cycle.  Taals are usually played on a percussion instrument such as the tabla by using various types of finger strokes to articulate the different beats of the rhythmic cycle; taals can also be clapped by anyone wishing to keep track of where they are in the cycle.  So, a sixteen beat taal such as teental is divided into four sections (vibhaag) of four beats each; the third grouping of four beats, beginning on beat ten, is the contrasting or “empty” kali section, giving the overall shape of the teental an AABA form.

Here’s a representation of how an Indian tabla drummer would play the basic teental rhythmic cycle, with the individual drum strokes (bols) written beneath the musical notation.  Notice how the drum strokes change slightly in that third grouping of four beats beginning on beat ten (the open and boomy “Dhin” stroke changing to a thinner sounding “Tin” stroke) to make that vibhaag sound more empty:

Admittedly it’s difficult to hear these kinds of subtle musical details in Bollywood songs because there’s often so many sounds already layered in there, and Vakil’s musicological discussion seemed to fly right over the heads of the All Ages general audience of about fifteen people who had come to hear his talk (a seven year-old was crawling over the chair next to me).  But Vakil nevertheless touched on an important theme of how tradition is always encountering modernity in music.  And of course, one of the wonderful things about rhythms–whether they’re of classical, folk, or modern heritage–is that they can be easily blended like spices or paint pigments to make new synthetic whole.

***

Speaking of synthetic, over the past few decades the Bollywood sound–as you might have already noticed from watching the YouTube clips above–has become increasingly digital, produced cheaply on Apple computers running Logic audio recording and MIDI sequencing software.  Vakil observed that Logic is the software of choice for Bollywood music producers in India today, no doubt partly due to the fact that Logic has–by coincidence or design, I’m not sure–thousands of looped instrumental sounds, including many Indian instruments and grooves.  (I also know that Logic is no longer copy protected, which means that one software owner can freely share the software with friends . . . )  Gone are the days when dozens of highly trained Indian musicians would gather in a recording studio to lay down a soundtrack live to the movie while a veteran playback singer like Lata Mangeshkar sang away in a vocal booth.  Now, a single composer-musician can build entire tracks on the computer, maybe overdubbing a live instrument or two for authentic acoustic flavor.

As Vakil reached the present day with video clips of Bollywood movies from the past few years, I couldn’t help noticing how radically the Bollywood soundscape had changed.  Sure, the bhangra rhythms are still there in the mix, but often there is also something very American pop- and hip hop-like in there too.  To my ear, the melismatic Indian melodies have been way toned down in favor of what sounds like a much more monotone, half sung, half spoken word sensibility.  Watching clips from recent films I thought about how Bollywood musicals map a history of a nation’s modernization since independence in 1947 through a continuous engagement with Western music.  I also thought about what Alan Lomax once referred to as “cultural grey-out”, a phrase used to describe an indigenous society modernizing and losing its cultural distinctiveness in the process.  Lomax felt that western popular music in particular was a force that could make the world’s musics sound more and more the same.

In Bollywood we hear, over and over again, Western musical influences being a conduit for expressing desire, coolness and a modern sensibility–whatever that happens to be at the time the movie was made.  In Bollywood, the rhythms of western musical styles from jazz to disco to hip hop and electronic dance music become signifiers of a kind of cosmopolitanism and remind us that globalization is very real indeed.

For another take on the making of modern Bollywood soundtrack music, listen to this story on Karsh Kale on NPR.

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