On A Repeating Less Is More: Beck’s “Wave”

“He’s found the right sound for his disposition and he resonates like crazy with that sound.” – Ben Ratliff (The New York Times)

“In ‘Wave,’ the angst pours out like a mantra. – Jody Rosen (vulture.com)

“‘Wave,’ for instance, is a floating impressionistic orchestral dirge, Beck letting the strings surrounding his voice lift it up and toss it around, never letting drums or guitar pierce the reverie.” – Tom Breihan (stereogum.com)

“Wave consists of an awesome ebbing, flowing combination of authority-figure strings and saturated Beck vocals that could easily harsh the mellow of anyone in a fragile state.” – Kitty Empire (The Guardian)

Beck’s song “Wave” is a piece of music that creates reams of affect out of minimal materials: strings, voice, and reverb resonance. Playing long and slow notes, the strings outline an A minor melodic tonality, full of open 5ths, and keeps our ears oscillating in ambiguity as to whether or not e or b is the tonality’s tonic. Beck’s voice floats above in a halo of reverb, tracing drawn out, chant-like melodies.

The song’s lyrics can be read as being about the physical and social affect of music itself. Verse 1 describes something, a presence–the “I” of music?–that takes “the form of a disturbance” and engages us “like some tiny distortion.” Verse 2 describes the feeling of experiencing this presence’s effects. If only we “surrender” to these effects, we’ll get “carried away”–as if music, literally and metaphorically, is a wave. Then, for the one-off refrain that concludes the song, Beck repeats the word “wave” twice in falsetto (on ascending notes d and e) followed by the word “isolation” four times (on descending notes b, a, and g). But as he repeats the phrase he stretches out the first syllable “I” so that it separates from “isolation” and returns to the “I” that represents music in the lyrics. It’s as if the vocal sound has become a longing to express–as if the words are saying one thing but meaning another:

“I…so…la…tion…”

On The Wisdom Of Online Listeners: Thinking Through A Performance Of Steve Reich’s “Music For Pieces Of Wood”

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Sometimes a piece of music and an exceptional performance of it seem to telegraph to us some of the information we would need to know about what it is, how it works, and its presence in the world. Such may be the case with a rendition of Steve Reich’s “Music For Pieces Of Wood” by the esteemed percussion ensemble Nexus.

Composed in 1973, “Music For Pieces Of Wood” is scored for five sets of tuned claves. One percussionist plays a steady timeline to establish the tempo grid for the piece and keep the other musicians in sync. A second player adds a repeating 12-pulse pattern. The other three players then add to the texture by playing the same yet rhythmically displaced pattern as the second player, building their parts up one note at a time. As the piece unfolds through different variations on this idea, the effect is hypnotic–like a slowly unfolding musical puzzle.

The Nexus performance of “Pieces Of Wood” is from a 1984 concert in Japan and has been viewed on YouTube over 140,000 times. It’s a masterful performance that is seriously unified, controlled, and ritualistic. What I found equally interesting though, were all the viewer comments about the clip. By turns insightful, humorous, analytic, and impressionistic, the comments reflect something of music’s ability to create order, conjure feeling, and embody ideas. Sifting through them, harnessing the collective perception of online listener-viewers, we get a picture of Reich’s music and Nexus’s performance of it as they are responded to by their global audience. Take them or leave them, here are some of the comments:

“Being in the now.”

“This is what white guy rhythm looks and sounds like.”

“The gentleman in the middle is almost superhuman in holding the rhythm.”

“Concentration at the highest level.”

“It works!”

“Amazing rhythmic exercise.”

“Why wood anyone want to listen to this?”

“Wonderful and inspiring how such simple things can create such beauty.”

“There are layers being made gradually, creating a significant shape.”

“Static arrangement gets upside down with a single accent moved.”

“This music makes you wanna dance to it.”

“And finally techno was invented.”

“Sounds like African music.”

“This must take so much concentration.”

“This song is a bit repetitive and a little hypnotic.”

“The guy in the middle is a machine.”

“This is confusing to listen to, trying to keep track of all the rhythms and the different wood sounds.”

“God has truly given humans extraordinary abilities to create extraordinary works […] of direct expression of the vast capability of the human mind.”

“What happens if one of them has to sneeze?”

“I thought I was hearing delay in this…I had to open it in two windows.”

“The concentration required for Reich’s music is cray awesome.”

“The way each [musician] builds the rhythm gives so many interpretations.”

“It seems music but it’s meditation in disguise.”

On The Music Of Laraaji

I sometimes forget that much of my everyday music listening comes to me by way of established channels–whether these be record labels, music streaming recommendations, or tips from music reviews. So I’m surprised when one of those channels leads me to something off the well-trodden path of what is critically admired at the moment.

Last month as I flipped through Wire magazine, I read about a compilation of work by Laraaji (Edward Larry Gordon, b. 1943), an American electronic zither player and student of Eastern mysticism. Laraaji’s repetitive music is percussive and rhythmic, trance-like and drone-ish, exuberant and sparkling. Most interestingly, it’s unique–like a music culture of one that lies outside of the established and tacitly agreed upon conventions of idiom and style–“electronica”, “global”, “folk”, “noise” etc.–that even adventurous publications like Wire adhere to on some level.

My favorite piece is “I Am Sky.” Structurally, it’s built on a steady pulsation in a 4/4 feel, with a regular accentuation on beats two and its offbeat (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and). Harmonically, the piece calls to mind an Indonesian-sounding five-note scale (g-sharp, a, b, d-sharp, e). Using this limited palette of notes, the groove continues until 4:30, where Laraaji switches from using mallets to his bare hands, which make a thumpy flesh of the palms and fingers sound, and for the next minute the music switches to double time feel and becomes more syncopated. The concluding thirty seconds shift downwards by a tone (a surprising key change) and sound a free form cascade of falling notes.

But talking about musical structures sometimes only gets us so far. What strikes me most about “I Am Sky” is its ability to convey a sense that its sounds proceed by a logic different from one we can comfortably analyze. Even as I try to put my finger on it, the music has its own goals.

On Andreas Tilliander’s TM404 Project

“I would have a sequence running for two hours, seriously, and I was afraid to ruin it all by touching a single knob.” – Andreas Tilliander

One of the more compelling soundworlds I’ve been listening to recently is a project by Andreas Tilliander called TM404. The music is made entirely with old Roland drum machines and sequencers, specifically the TR-202 and 303 sequencers, and the TR-606, 707, and 808 drum machines. To my ear, what makes the music compelling is its constantly fluctuating rhythmic syncopation (accents on normally unstressed beats), its limited sound set of tuned percussion sounds (even the 303 basslines sound percussive) arranged into long sequences, and its harmonic stasis. The TM404 pieces don’t go anywhere, but rather cycle around and around in a way that maintains intrigue. They sound restrained–as if holding something back. What could be more engaging?

To read more about Tilliander/TM404, go here.

Notes On What Makes A Piece Of Music Work: Boards Of Canada’s “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

“So it was becoming clear to me that texture deserved as great a place as process in the theory of how music involves people and draws you into deep identification, total participation, past the logical contradictions of separation from the Other.” — Charles Keil, Music Grooves, p. 169

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As I listened to Boards Of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp 2013), I thought about how music–any and all musics?–gives us clues to its interpretation in the process of its sounding. A performance of music is like a story with characters, plot, and setting. Some musics have just a single protagonist that undergoes a series of transformations, or maybe obsessively repeats a few actions over and over. Other musics have many, many moving parts co-existing in one chaotic mix. And some musics are like a magnifying glass, inviting your attention to focus on one detail or another. Whatever its particularities, music is an affective form that appears to answer the questions it poses over time.

Boards Of Canada, a Scottish electronic duo (no, they’re not Canadian), were part of a wave electronic dance music experimentalists that appeared in the 1990s making what some people called IDM or “intelligent dance music.” The label was unfortunate but the music could and can be interesting–blending compelling sounds and textures with less than obvious beat-making into a complex whole. BOC’s signature sound has a gauzy, hazy, and wobbly/out of tune quality which the duo links to their love of 1970s National Film Board of Canada documentary film soundtracks they watched and listened to as kids in Scotland. As if in homage to this influence, something in their music always sounds weathered and out of focus.

As I listen to track two, “Reach For The Dead” I reach for the particular qualities I would talk about if asked about how the piece works on me. I might talk about how it has four chords, each held for four beats, and that the chords unfold in a progression over 24 measures that repeats. I might talk about the half-time feel of the percussion: the kick drum on beats 1 and 3 and a half, and the snare drum backbeat on beats 3. I might talk about the gradual accretion of parts on the track: layer after layer added–from drone chords to percussion to arpeggiating keyboard to strings–to create an increasingly thick texture. I might talk about how many of these melodic sounds are continuous sounds: the bass and keyboard sounds have a sustain but seemingly no decay, making a kind of wall of sound. Or I might talk about the overall timbre or tone color of the music. BOC’s timbres are unabashedly electronic, yet far from cold. Timbre-wise, theirs like an Instagrammed sound.

Which of these musical qualities is most essential? None in isolation from the others. Together, they all contribute to the music’s emotional feel. And funny enough, it’s exactly this quality–the most important measure of a music’s power–that I’m at a loss to fully measure and describe.

On Grid Music Antidotes: Harold Budd’s “Quadari”

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Like a lot of people, I listen to a lot of “grid” music. Grid music is any music with a clear, consistent, and steady meter. By this definition, most music is grid music. Electronic music–especially the kind with steady beats, which is sometimes referred to as electronic dance music–is uber grid music. All of its sounds are organized around (usually) a 4/4 metric grid, quantized to the grid, and flowing along the constraints of the grid. Even electronic musicians in whose work the rhythmic fabric is unusually loose and funky–like tracks by Flying Lotus, say–the music remains organized in relation to an implicit grid.

Harold Budd though, is off the grid–way off the grid. And this is what makes his music so refreshing. While I have written about Budd and his music before on this blog, I don’t know much about his musical philosophy (if in fact there is one). Wikipedia says that Budd creates his slow and sustained piano soundscapes using an approach he calls “soft pedal” but that doesn’t fully explain the sound. (The soft pedal is the leftmost of the three piano pedals. When depressed it softens the sound of the instrument.) Whatever Budd’s method, the result sounds free and spacious, soaring above the conventions of the nearest contemporary musical style landmarks such as ambient or new age or post-minimalist classical. And the music is off the grid not only rhythmically, but harmonically too. His chords–maybe they’re not quite chords, but rather the result of the sustain pedal blurring sequences of notes together?–don’t create a sense of goal-oriented motion. Instead, they just float and slowly hover like clouds. The music is vaguely episodic, as if composed of various snapshots of some kind of nature setting. However it might be described, Budd’s musical voice is a singular voice. It does its own thing, creating its own kind of space to inhabit, and this is good.

On African And Electronic Music Influences In Dawn Of Midi’s “Dysnomia”

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Dysnomia is an album about time; it is an expression of the fractal unfolding of the present, demonstrated through rhythm.” – Aakaash Israni, bassist

There’s a part near the end of John Collins’ excellent documentary on West African rhythm, Listening To The Silence: African Cross-Rhythms, where Collins makes a striking observation. African music, he says, is like a perceptual time bomb that went off inside Western music in the twentieth century. Indirectly shaping jazz, rock, pop, hip hop and even classical music, the influence of African music is omnipresent in the importance of steady groove, syncopation, and polyrhythm. Most of us hardly ever think about it, but much of the music we hear around us is indebted to the aesthetics and vitality of African–especially West African–music making.

I thought about Collins’ documentary when I came across the music of Dawn of Midi, an acoustic piano, bass, and drums trio from Brooklyn. Dawn Of Midi’s most recent recording, Dysnomia, is a compelling 45-minute long, through composed musical object. Each of the album’s nine tracks–which connect to one another into a single seamless groove–is a study in making polyrhythm and rhythmic process front and center in the music. The tracks have little in the way of jazz chords, chord changes, or melodies. But what it lacks in that department it makes up for in rhythmic vitality executed with precision timing, focus, and verve.

You can hear this vitality on the track eight, “Algol.” Pianist Amino Belyamani plays African bell-like timeline patterns on muted strings rich with harmonics; bassist Aakaash Israni plays staccato two-note chords; and percussionist Qasim Naqvi finds the silences in between the bass and piano parts and inserts bass drum, hi hat, snare, and cross stick hits. Each musician’s part repeats but also steadily shifts, adding and subtracting notes to keep the musical texture evolving. A lot of skill and restraint is required to pull this off as well as Dawn of Midi does.

Perhaps most significantly, “Algol” has a twelve beat meter. Meters like 6/8 and 12/8 are common in West African drumming pieces, perhaps because they facilitate multiple musical time perspectives. For instance, 12/8 can be felt in groups of 2, 3, 4, or 6 beats. Skilled musicians can play patterns within the twelve counts of the meter that foreground these different metric subdivisions of 2, 3, 4, and 6 beat groupings. Musicians can also superimpose these different groupings–playing say, a three beat pattern in the left hand and a two beat pattern in the right to make a polyrhythm (or what Collins’ documentary calls a “cross-rhythm”). Dawn of Midi does a lot of this kind of foregrounding metrical foreground and background in their music by having each musician repeat specific patterns that interlock in ways that engage and surprise the listener. Each pattern holds steady for a while, then makes a subtle change. And with every subtle change, a new musical relationship is revealed. Between the patterns, the repetition, and the perceptual delights to which the subtle changes give rise, this music holds your attention like a kaleidoscope.

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In an interview at theorganist.org podcast, Dawn of Midi frames what they’re doing as responses to African and electronic musics. Pianist Belyamani describes how the standard American jazz swing ride cymbal rhythm--ding-ding-de-ding-ding-de–has long been felt on the downbeat at the expense of feeling it on the upbeat. He says that Dawn of Midi embraces that upbeat feel which is more African in its perceptual demands on the listener. Belyamani makes an analogy to dance: “In other parts of the world you’re dancing against what the music is providing. So the [dancer’s beat] is not present in the music.” The dancers, he says, “are completing the circuit.” Similarly, Dawn of Midi aim to play their interlocking parts around the beat to accentuate the unsounded spaces and upbeats, letting the listener complete the musical circuit by filling in the implied pulse that no single musician is playing outright. Percussionist Naqvi then compares the group’s approach to electronic music making: “There’s a degree of precision in terms of having to play these parts over and over again–that I guess are almost like loops…And they have to be really perfect in order for the dialogues to be musical…In that sense, the repetition and perfecting that gives one a sense of electronic music.” Bassist Israni describes this approach in terms of learning from electronic music: “In Autechre…they’re doing things that computers are allowing them to do. But it also seems like we’re just getting to place now where we’re wanting to learn those things back from the computers…and doing it ourselves.”

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There is so much that is interesting about Dysnomia. First, the African music connection is real: these musicians know how to construct polyrhythmic grooves that circle around a shared beat without articulating it outright, and this tension makes the music fly. Second, the music flies yet also doesn’t go anywhere harmonically or melodically–and this is a good thing, if only to remind us of the power of rhythm and timbre to hold our attention. Third, the electronic music connection is just as real as the African one. Structurally, the aesthetic guiding the pieces on Dysnomia resembles the constraints of a step sequencer that allows musical parts to only shift one note or “step” at a time. It’s perhaps a rigid musical protocol to adopt, but it nevertheless lends this acoustic music an electronic feel. Also, great restraint and control are required to play and develop parts as a machine like a step sequencer can. In this way, Disnomia has a disciplined and focused sound “with a pull all its own” (says Chris Barton, L.A. Times) that evokes an “organic quest for something spiritual and transformative” (says Jeremy D. Larson, pitchfork.com). Like a true African cross-rhythm, the music seems to never quite reveal itself, and so we wait to hear what will happen next.