brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: music criticism

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”

reich_piecesofwood

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”

DawnOfMidi

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.

 

On The Sound Of Epic Achievement And Luxury: A Rolex Soundtrack

While overdosing on Wimbledon 2012 TV coverage over the past few weeks, I noticed a recurring ad for Rolex watches that features Roger Federer. In the 30-second spot the narrator begins by asking “When is greatness achieved?” as we see a montage of Federer’s milestone wins throughout his career interspersed with still shots of him staring into the camera. As one viewer of the ad on YouTube puts it, it’s a pretty epic piece–a great tennis champion plus a great watch. A perfect endorsement too, though in some ways it’s not entirely clear who is endorsing who.

What really makes this Rolex ad epic though, is its music, assembled by Beetroot Music, an English music production company. As music goes, the core of the piece is quite simple, consisting of just three chords over eight measures in the key of f minor, with each chord held for four beats (or one measure of 4/4 time). Here are the chords:

f minor (i chord in f minor)
D-flat major (VI chord, 1st inversion)
C major (V chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
D-flat major (VI chord)
C major (v chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
f minor (i chord)

The chords are arpeggiated on piano and joined by a pulsating string section. (In older versions of the ad, there is also a booming backbeat–ah, nothing so subtle as classical music with a backbeat!) But as compelling as the spare instrumental arrangement for this 30-second spot is, the ad’s epic quality is primarily signified and suggested through the chords themselves. Let’s take a closer listen.

The first thing to note is that Rolex’s epic sound world is grounded in a minor key–in this case, f minor. Very briefly, in the history of Western concert music going back many hundreds of years, minor keys have long been synonymous with sadness, heaviness, a sense of longing, foreboding, and so on. Basically, a minor key is used to convey the opposite of a major key, which generally speaking is all about happy, brightness, and optimism. Of course, I’m generalizing about the range of meanings inherent in major and minor chords (and meanings are never inherent in anything musical anyway), plus there are a lot of grey areas too. For instance, one can freely mix and match major and minor chords, putting one after another in a sequence called a chord progression. In other words, context is everything in music, and a major chord can sound very differently after a minor chord and vice versa. Also, a simple major or minor chord consists of a triad with three notes–a root note, plus an interval of a third and a fifth above that root. But other intervals can be added on as well, giving major or minor triads very different favors. With added notes, minor is no longer simply sad and major simply happy; the extra tones can make the chords feel emotionally more complex. You can hear this emotional complexity in jazz among many other places.

Having said this, the music in the Rolex commercial doesn’t inhabit any grey areas at all: it’s just straight ahead triads, albeit with a few inversions thrown in to make the chord progression seem more elaborate than it in fact is. So then, the second thing to note about Rolex’s epic sound world besides its use of one minor chord and two major chords in the key of f minor, is its chord progression. Chord progressions have been the basis of Western music–classical as well as popular–for a very long time too. Chord progressions are what create a sense of the music “going somewhere.” The music isn’t actually going anywhere besides traveling through the chords one at a time, of course, but such is the neurological wiring and enculturation of the human imagination that we really feel like the music is taking us on a journey. The Rolex chord progression, while brief, packs a wallop because the i – VI – V – i sequence has such a rich history in our listening lives. We’ve heard it used many, many times without realizing it. It also affects us because the dynamics between its chords are so entrenched in those little movements by one semitone (e.g. the fifth of the i chord moving up to the fifth of VI in 1st inversion, and the third of the V chord moving back to root if the i chord). If you don’t believe me, flip the minor chord to major and the major chords to minor and listen again. I assure you the progression will feel differently.

Perhaps because of its history of heavy use and the dynamics among its major and minor parts, this chord progression continues to speak to us–even when we don’t quite know what is being spoken and how. In fact, the viewer comments on YouTube suggest that Rolex commissioned just the right music to subliminally convey a sense of what the brand is all about: luxury, achievement, precision, pedigree and class. Thus, a viewer named awe4cs asks about the music “Can someone say what’s the name of this ÜBER song?” This sentiment is echoed by others: mrvishal1000 calls the music “epic” and Katherineli notes “There’s so much class in this it’s ridiculous.” Finally, warLock21x speaks of Federer–but perhaps unwittingly too of the 100-year old watch company and the chord progression of the music–as being “of divine descent”.

Here, then, is the commercial:

On The Rise Of Cultural Populism: We’re All Musical Experts Now

“Obscure knowledge was once a kind of currency.” – Alexandra Molotkow

I recently came across a resonant NYTimes article by Alexandra Molotkow titled “Why the Old-School Music Snob Is the Least Cool Kid on Twitter.” The article describes how file-sharing, first introduced in the late 1990s with Napster, made Molotkow and her friends’ esoteric insider music knowledge–the kind of knowledge once held by nerdy record store clerks back in the day and portrayed in Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity– irrelevant. “Thanks to the Internet”, Molotkow writes, “cultural knowledge was now a collective resource. Which meant that being cool was no longer about what you knew and what other people didn’t. It was about what you had to say about the things that everyone already knew about.”

I think Molotkow is right. Today we see the evidence of what looks to be a pretty seismic cultural shift set into motion by the digitization of our musical-social life via the Internet, music blogs, and music downloading. Digitization and downloading aren’t new, of course. But the shift is: the rise of a cultural populism in the place of that old guard, a grouchy cultural elitism, which, as Molotkow points out, had been guided by the strange notion that the fewer people who like a music the more valuable it seemed to be. (Remember the title of that 1958 article in High Fidelity magazine by composer Morton Feldman that sums up well the elitist ethos: “Who Cares If You Listen?”)

Perhaps it goes without saying that the notion of a music’s value being directly proportional to how many people don’t know about it is passé. It’s quite easy now to know something about all kinds of music. Thus, also passé is the notion of knowledge-hoarding: for who can hoard specialized, insider’s knowledge when facts are free to all on the Internet, just a click away? We share knowledge with one another because knowledge is so easily circulated these days. (And was what we know ever really “ours” to begin with?)

In relating her pre-Internet experiences tracking new and unknown and therefore cool musics, Molotkow relates how the old paradigm (all the way back in the 1990s when she was growing up) was that knowing a lot about a single subject area was the name of the game. Now, knowing a little about a lot of things seems to endow us with more cultural capital–which in turn enables us to stay a part of the cultural conversation, to know what’s New and Exciting and Hot and Now. As Molotkow observes, knowing everything there is to know about a narrow slice of experience (William Blake’s “To see the world in a grain of sand” approach) doesn’t necessarily help one keep up with the conversation of the moment. Indeed, if you get deep into something–become an expert of a particular music, say–you “just have to accept that most of your findings will have no social value.” Notice Molotkow didn’t say “little” social value but “no” social value.

Really? Zero value? That’s tough for me to accept, though perhaps Molotkow has a point in that it seems that to be socially relevant these days means to stay on the surface of one’s experience so as to more easily make (shallow and numerous?) comparisons between different social worlds. I admittedly did this last week when I explored in a surface-y kind of way some of what I heard in contemporary country music like the band Lady Antebellum. I came away from my experiment with some useful knowledge about country’s soundworld, but I could have gone much deeper. Clearly, country music is a whole way of life, a sonic representation of a habitus informed by acquired sensibilities and a set of tastes. I observed these tastes from afar, sure, but didn’t get inside them or try to understand them on their own terms.

In sum, Molotkow’s article may articulate a cultural trend, namely that being knowing about something threatens to replace actually knowing something. Being knowing is how we might describe someone who knows a bit about a lot of cultural things, but who isn’t necessarily committed to any of it. Knowing something on the other hand, involves not only a commitment of time and energy to dig and play around in the details but also, and inevitably, a turning away from a whole lot of things one doesn’t have time for. I know a little about country music, but knowing a lot more would undoubtedly open up answers to why country musicians make the music the way they do.

I’m not sure then that I agree with the idea that having expertise is synonymous with having little to contribute to the cultural conversation of the moment. But I do think that the cultural formations of digital/connected social life allows many more of us to comment on the “action” as never before. Which brings me back to Molotkow’s notion of how it matters what we have to say about a music that everyone and their grandmother has already heard/seen on TV or YouTube. It matters what we say precisely because there is so much opinion already circulating out there in the ether which all of are free to peruse, distill, refine, and interpret.

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In her survey of online music culture brokers like music blogs, Molotkow mentions in passing Richard Beck’s article “Pitchfork, 1995–Present” in the critical journal, n+1.  I’m glad I checked it out! This outstandingly informative essay traces the origins and rise of the music review website pitchfork.com from well, 1995 to the present. The history of this influential website is important because it parallels the rise of so-called “indie” popular music through the same time period and with which it has had a symbiotic relationship. Beck argues that Pitchfork perfected a kind of musical criticism as cultural capital accrual–its record reviews explaining to readers why a band or a recording is important to know about. He writes:  “A Pitchfork review may ignore history, aesthetics, or the basic technical aspects of tonal music, but it will almost never fail to include a detailed taxonomy of the current hype cycle and media environment […] Pitchfork’s writers became the greatest, most pedantic fans of all, reconfiguring criticism as an exercise in perfect cultural consumption.”

Beck and Molotkow are coming from the same place–both of them acknowledging the complexities of consuming music in the 21st-century. There’s so much available but so little real context and too little time to listen; there’s so many influences but so little daringly new and original material (see my review of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania for more on this); there’s so much signifying and quotation but so little concern about radically changing meanings; and perhaps too there’s an abundance of knowingness and perhaps less genuine knowing. Finally, Beck articulates a situation that many music fans face yet rarely talk about: “Today, almost every person I know has more music on his computer than he could ever know what to do with. You don’t need to care about music to end up like this—the accumulation occurs naturally and unconsciously. My iTunes library, for example, contains forty-seven days of music […]In the 21st century, we are all record store clerks.”

After reading Molotkow and Beck I wondered about the reasons anyone should read or write about musical experience. And the best reason I can come up with is that we should read and write about music (and sound more broadly) because they’re vital forms of social action, sites of cultural formation, and most significantly for me, entryways into the limitless dimensions of the human imagination. Yes, we get the gist of music within seconds of hearing it (and forming an opinion of it), but there’s so much to discuss regarding the interface of listener and sounds listened to! Writing about music then, should begin and end by describing the feel of an encounter between the writer/listener/musician (I am certainly all three) and the musical experience in which he/she is so feelingly immersed.

On Reading Online Consumer Reviews

I’m fascinated by consumer reviews and I read them regularly on Amazon.com. You could even say that review reading is a hobby of mine. What’s fascinating about reviews is how they illuminate people’s thinking by expressing their passion and enthusiasm, a high level of analytical detail, and a steadfast belief in themselves. No matter what the product–books, headphones, salad spinners (yes, I’ve searched for all of these)–there’s a community coalescing around it, arguing over its magical merits or its serious shortcomings.

It’s remarkable how much detail people include in their reviews. They write about the product’s packaging, the ritual-like experience of opening it (!), how it compares to similar products, how it works (or ceases working) after a few hours, months, or years, the texture and feel of its design, and how it’s loved or hated for these and many other reasons. Reviewers go on for paragraph after paragraph rendering the product’s Quality–not so much how well it’s made, but quality in its holistic and philosophical sense (hence the capital Q): how the product has presence and enhances our lives. In the products we review we find our values manifest in tangible things. As reviewers we describe and rate the Quality of products to explain them to ourselves and alert others of what to expect.

Consumer reviewers also tend to be quite sure of themselves. In their single-mindedness and belief in their opinions, reviewers remind us that there’s no single right way to see the world. The same product can inspire a wide range of assessments from one to five stars, each convinced of its perspective. Over and over again you’ll find the same product both “great” and “terrible.” And, impressively, most of the reviews provide evidence for why the product is great, terrible, or somewhere in between.

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Consumer reviews of music recordings are particularly insightful, especially if you read about music you already know well. In the course of thinking through music fandom, I’ve been reading a lot of reviews of familiar recordings and what’s most striking about them is how descriptive, impressionistic, and metaphoric the average listener is when trying to put into words the experience of listening to a particular piece of music. As with reviews of other products, music reviews achieve their analytical detail through floridly associative description. Thus, a music is never just good or bad, but usually about something–reminding the listener of something else non-musical.

In fact, if you read music reviews you’ll be convinced of music’s ability to communicate quite specific things with its communities of listeners. And different musics build their own kinds of consensus too. What I mean by this is that most people who take the time to review a music are fans of it and want to broadcast their fandom to others. So it’s not surprising that most reviews are positive rather than negative.

Consider a few of the Amazon.com reviews for electronic musician James Blake’s eponymous debut album released in 2011. In three of the twenty-nine reviews we see a cross-section of writing approaches that are by turns analytical, associative, and even advice-oriented. For example, Scoundrel (Sept 28, 2011) writes:

“Blake’s interest leans on the possibilities of the manipulation of his own voice […] takes familiar R&B tropes and converts them into a quiet, creeping sadness that builds upon its silences while slowly filling the empty spaces with buzzing layers of sound.”

Then D. King (July 22, 2011) talks about how the music “evokes a mournful, elegiac feeling, as if it’s an album recorded by a soul in transition…mourning the loss and mistakes of one life, with a glimmer of hope for the next.”

And finally, G.Gillen (August 9, 2011) gets practical with some sound listening advice:

“Play this on a real system. With a sub. Otherwise, you’re just robbing yourself. You gotta have the sub on for dubstep.”

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