brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: music and memory

On Musical Traces: Some Favorite Musical Moments Of 2013

Musical memory is an interesting thing. Sometimes we remember with great clarity bits and pieces of a music–a beat, a catchy hook, a lyric, a chord progression. My wife’s memory seems to work this way: she has total recall of the words and melodies of just about any song she’s ever heard. Another kind of musical memory works in more amorphous ways, leaving us with only traces of what we listened to. These traces often take the form of a remembered gestalt–kind of like a compressed snapshot of the music. My memory often works this way. Having listened to a favorite piece a few (or many) times, I begin to mentally play back the sounds in a condensed form. The entire piece becomes a short loop of favorite parts juxtaposed together that I can somewhat hear in my mind’s ear. I say “somewhat hear” because I recall the overall vibe of the music more than any part in particular detail. Something about it has left a trace, and this trace–a memory of my repeated encounters with the sounds–is enough to help me recall the vibe of the music and keep me thinking and writing about it.

Here then are a few favorite musical moments that left traces here at brettworks in 2013:

Dawn of Midi, “Dysnomia”:

(read more here)

TM404, “202/303/303/303/808″:

(read more here)

James Blake, “Digital Lion”:

(read more here)

Autechre, “Bladelores”

(read more here)

Max Richter, “Recomposed, Winter 3″:

(read more here)

From The Archives: “Roadscape”

A few days ago a friend texts me an urgent musical request:

“Send me roadscape”

So I send it.

***

About ten years ago I first tried my hand at sequencing and recording music on a computer. Back then, my Apple desktop machine was a blue- and silver-colored beast running Logic software. I also had a large Yamaha digital piano/synthesizer as a controller and sound bank. I was ready to go. But I wasn’t quite sure how to go about making electronic music. I didn’t want to just loop things–I didn’t yet grasp how that could actually be interesting. Instead, I decided to improvise parts one at a time, layering stuff to hear what might happen. It was the first time I had tried such an all digital project.

One day, I happen upon a preset sound that sounds like a DX-7- ish keyboard bell timbre. There isn’t anything particularly attractive about this sound, but I’m struck how if I hold down a note long enough the patch makes the initial bell sound followed by a strange sort of continuous drone resonance that slowly increases in volume. It’s kind of spooky–in an engaging musical way that makes your ears perk up and listen, as if responding:”Oh, where is this sound going? Cool!” In my experience, it’s like that with sounds. A sound grabs you because it’s interesting, maybe somewhat indeterminate and ambiguous, evocative, and ultimately compelling. (Now that I think about it, if you believe that we project our values out onto the sounds we like, then I’ve just unwittingly offered you some of the adjectives I prize!) So I play with the bell sound for bit. After a few minutes I hit record and improvise some simple and consonant arpeggios–fourths and fifths, octaves, some thirds. I leave a lot of space between my notes. This space allows that spooky after-resonance to emerge. It also leaves room for the other parts that I will soon layer in.

The next part is the piano. The Yamaha controller has a wonderful piano sound and that combined with its weighted keys makes it a pleasure to play. After double checking the notes in the bell part, I hit record and play along with it on the piano, adding deep bass notes, some cluster chords, and again, pausing between phrases to create space around the notes. Since I’m working in MIDI, an errant note or two can be easily fixed later. The key is to improvise a take non-stop. This gives the part the best chance of being cohesive and having a sense of tension and directionality–like it’s moving towards something. After a few aborted takes, I play something all the way through that I’m happy with. I listen back to it once to make sure it’s okay.

Next, percussion parts. I load up a preset kit on the keyboard and limit myself to kick drum, hi hat, and snare drum-ish sounds–which sound more metallic that drum-like. The sounds are located between the notes C and E on the keyboard so they are easy to play together with my fingers as drum sticks. I play back the DX-7 and piano sounds and play along to them. It’s not a steady beat per se that I’m playing; more like percussive interjections, filling some of those deliberately left spaces with little shards of groove that don’t repeat much. As the music gets louder and softer I try to drum along at those dynamics–responding to the other two parts as if in dialogue with them. (Electronic music making = talking back to oneself!) After I’ve recorded the play-along percussion part, I copy its MIDI onto another track loaded with the same kit sound. I displace this kit by about a beat or so, turning it into an echo of the first part. I also pan each drum part to the far left and right, respectively, making a true stereo percussive field. It isn’t regular procedure to extreme pan drum tracks like this, but I like the sound and the clarity brought by the separation between the original and its copy.

The final layer is bass. I chose a simple sine tone bass. I like sine tone basses because they get the low-end job down without calling undo attention to themselves. With the bass sound I double some of the low piano notes, playing in unison with them, and where I can I add in little flourishes and lead-ins. After I have recorded a pass, I listen back while looking at the MIDI on the piano roll onscreen, finessing a note here or there up or down (if I missed a pitch) or left or right (if I was early or late doubling a piano note). But for the most part I leave it as is.

With that I’m done and bounce down to an MP3 file. I title the four-part piece “Roadscape.” I like how the music wanders yet still has a sense of something almost arriving–like the road just up ahead that keeps disappearing around the bend.

On The Inner Life Of Sampling

I’m at the computer, headphones on, Ableton Live software open, listening closely to audio sample loops that I’ve made of Wonders, a CD of marimba and vibraphone music I recorded eleven short years ago.  (How time flies!)  Why am I spending my time like this, mouse-clicking around loops of my musical past?  What am I thinking about as I listen through these samples?  What are the looping sounds doing to me?  What are they triggering in me?

As I experiment with various delay settings that add rhythmic echoes to the loops, I think about sampling as a kind of deteriorated memory–not because our memories and digital sampling can’t be faithful to an original event, but because remembered things are always distorted and anyway, I just like the sound of the effects I’m applying so now I’m theorizing about them.  With software it’s easy to distort a sound by re-pitching it to a low warble, or adding delay to make it echo and fold back upon itself (swimming in its own memory), or laying on filter upon filter to mutate the sound into unrecognizability.

All this is enjoyable and interesting to experiment with, headphones on, in close listening mode.  (There are even moments of ecstatic discovery too.)  But as I experiment I find myself remembering the previous life of my sampled material–the life it lead as it was composed and then performed and recorded as live music.  Or put another way: the life this sound once led when it was alive.  All this experience–which goes back almost twenty years now–feels compressed before me in the short four and eight bar loops I’m listening to.  The scale of this archeological dig through my musical life seems a little off somehow: How could my little schizophonic loops ever do justice to the scope of their lived history from which they have been split?

In his recent book Retromania, Simon Reynolds speaks of sampling as a portal “to far flung times and places”, a kind of musical “ghost coordination and ghost arrangement” (313-314).  More ominously, Reynolds suggests that sampling “is enslavement: involuntary labor that’s been alienated from its original environment and put into service in a completely other context, creating profit and prestige for another” (314).  I will almost certainly never profit nor earn prestige from sampling myself, and now I also wonder: What could I possibly add to my already recorded artifact?  And besides, isn’t the practice of sampling short sections of music and looping them effectively reducing the music’s informational content, making it more redundant and more repetitious?

This view–however old-fashioned it is in equating musical change with density of information and “progress”–was my perspective on sampling until it occurred to me that sampling offers other gifts of musical perception and affect.  One thing that had long struck me about Wonders was how impatient with itself much of it sounded. The constant and repeated sixteenth-notes and regular chord changes every four bars or so gave the music a sense of never being settled, never content with just staying put, and like its composer, always on the go.  But sampling lets me take a musical moment and say to it, Hold on.  Relax.  Get comfortable with yourself.  Stay for a while.  Sampling lets me retroactively inject a dose of my current sensibility into my past self–or as Reynolds might put it, enslave the old me.

Sampling is also a convenient excuse to explore how a range of sound-morphing effects impact my sounds.  To start, one of the most dramatic effects I’ve discovered so far–maybe out of laziness because the slider is just there in front of me, begging to be tried out–is to re-pitch a sample into a higher or lower register.  It’s easy to forget how crucial pitch is to a sound’s affect.  If you don’t believe me, record your own voice sometime and re-pitch it lower or higher.  You’ll realize immediately how much your vocal identity depends on its pitch.  And repitching a sample by a few semitones affects the shade of its timbre or tone color too: suddenly a wooden marimba can sound like a low gong or a metallic xylophone.  Re-pitching allows me to hear new things in my looping samples such as hidden inner voices (notes of a simultaneous chord) or harmonies, or even more mysteriously: a (new) feeling I didn’t know was even present in the sample in the first place.  A second dramatic effect is EQ or equalization, which can be powerful in the way it allows me to foreground particular frequencies, drawing in articulations and contrasts, turning a mellow timbre into something more focused.  Next, delay effects also help me hear my samples anew.  Adding the right type and amount of delay can send a sample into orbit, breaking it into thousands of shards bouncing rhythmically around the stereo field.  And finally, just the pure repetition of looping is transforming–if you find the perfect loop point.  Done right, looping is pure groove, pure flow.

So, as I sit at the computer with my headphones on, in close listening mode, experimenting with effects on the looped samples, I find myself thinking about the history of this music’s original production and here’s what comes to mind:

I’m working out its chord progressions on the piano in my parent’s home in the evenings of the summer of 1994, then painstakingly notating and arranging the chords for marimbas; inputting the music into Finale, a computer notation program; rehearsing the music with five other musicians in a subterranean, neon-lit percussion studio and hearing the lumbering piece come alive for the first time and fill the room with a ringing hum; performing the piece live in a recital hall for a few hundred listeners who applaud the moment the musicians all finish together on an upbeat on the final F major chord; learning to play all the parts myself four years later and then multitracking them at a recording studio, the click of an electronic metronome fed through my headphones to keep my playing in sync; putting the piece, along with four other compositions I’ve recorded, onto a CD for independent “release” (if you’re wondering: no, it never did sell enough to cover the cost of making it); storing hundreds of copies of this mostly unsold musical artifact on a high shelf in my closet, the brightly colored jewel cases still shrink-wrapped and lined up in neat rows in what is now an old and discolored cardboard box; taking out one of the shiny CDs and feeding it to my computer, prompting the machine, having just eaten the disc in one swift gulp, to politely ask “Would you like to import the audio cd ‘Wonders’ now?”; dragging an icon of Track 1’s audio file into Ableton Live–all that lived experience squashed into sound waves!–reminding me of a postcard sent from a distant land and then found again after all these years, waiting to be recycled.

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