thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: music performance

On The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics III: Acousmatic Sound And Authenticity At The 2012 Grammy Awards

“All cultural change is essentially technology-driven.” – William Gibson

This year’s Grammy Awards featured the first ever performances of live electronic dance music, showcasing the DJs David Guetta and deadmau5 with R&B singer Chris Brown, rapper Lil Wayne, and the rock band Foo Fighters in what the Los Angeles Times aptly called “a confused, if well-meaning, picture of dance music’s place and influence in current pop.”

There were two catches to the performances. The first is that they took place outside the Staples Center in a tent designed to resemble a 1990s rave–complete with lazers and audience members wielding glowsticks. Evidently, turning the main auditorium into a club space wasn’t going to happen; better to keep “serious” popular music safe (for the moment) from electronic enchroachment. The second catch to the performances is that both DJs–Guetta and deadmau5–were paired with other artists, telegraphing the message that manipulating digital turntables still does not quite constitute a “performance.” What are we supposed to look at? And where exactly is the demonstration of instrumental virtuosity? So as Guetta worked his turntables on his infectious song “I Can Only Imagine”, Chris Brown and Lil Wayne stalked the stage in Auto-Tuned perfection to reassure viewers that this was pretty much like a traditional show—except that Guetta’s DJ rig replaced the whole band. The TV cameras occasionally showed close-ups of Guetta’s hands moving fast over wheels, buttons, and sliders. But unlike a typical epic DJ set, the song lasted just 3 minutes.

Next up were the Canadian producer deadmau5 and the Foo Fighters. deadmau5 had remixed the Foos’ song “Rope” in 2011 and their collaboration at the Grammys was a demonstration of how remixing works. First, the Foos performed one-and-a-half minutes of “Rope” in the song’s original rock incarnation. As the song’s finishing chords rang out, deadmau5 entered with a quantized (and slightly slower-paced) four-on-the-floor stomp, and the Foos played along as if resigned to the metronomic pulse. This collaboration lasted all of 55 seconds (hey, it’s for TV after all) and seemed to drain the song of its original energy. Then deadmau5 played one minute of dubstep from his song “Raise Your Weapon.” It was probably the most musical moment of the whole 6-minute performance–just pure dubstep groove–though Deadmau5 is known more as a house music producer than as a bonafide dubstepper. And just as Guetta had Chris Brown and Lil Wayne on hand to provide visual spectacle, deadmau5 wore his tradmark giant LCD-lit headpiece to give us something to look at. Unlike the Foos’ hands which could be seen picking away on those electric guitars, deadmau5’s hands and his DJ rig were hidden from view.

And it’s precisely this that’s at stake when people talk about what makes rock/pop music authentic and electronic music lacking in authenticity: we can see rock/pop musicians generating sound, while the techniques of electronic musicians are either hidden (we can’t see what they’re doing to make sound) or diffuse in the sense that their music making was done over the days, weeks and months of a solitary and private production process that assembled a track bit by bit. So when it comes to time to “performing” an electronic music mix, it’s not always clear to the concert-viewer what the DJ/producer is doing besides playing back a track and tweaking a few elements here and there. (Was Guetta doing anything substantial to “I Can Only Imagine” or were his rapid hand movements just to convey a sense of musical busyness?) This is most of all a problem of what the French musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer in 1955 called acousmatic sound: sound one hears without seeing its source, sound emanating from a loudspeaker without a musician in view who is the unmistakable creator of that sound. Even today, this makes some people in the popular music establishment nervous, especially considering that electronic music seems to be eating rock and pop music wholesale, one song at a time.

The complete Grammy performance of all five artists is here:

On Simon Reynold’s Retromania

Recently I spun through the New York City FM pop radio dial and in the space of a few minutes heard a slew of old music from the past few decades, including The Animals’ version of “House Of The Rising Sun”, Brian Adam’s “Run To You”, Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”, AC-DC’s “Back In Black”, and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” among many other songs.

Depending on where I stopped the dial, you could be forgiven for thinking it was still the 1960s, 70s, 80s or 90s.  This, of course, is how radio works: playing us the hits of today sure, but especially whacking us with the hits of yesterday (which today will itself become as soon as tomorrow comes around).  In 2011, evidently there’s still strong interest in old songs–songs that bring us back to earlier times in our listening lives.  Nostalgia kicks in when we hear these old songs–for me it’s 1980s music when things went all MIDI-sequenced and synth-electronic–because not only does the music trigger vague (and sometimes specific) memories, but it also beckons us to re-listen to it.  So if you’re like me, you crank up the volume and have another close go-around to hear what you always noticed or maybe missed back in the day.  For the record, let me just tell you that MJ’s “Billy Jean” sounds as great as ever, with its silken, deceptively simple 4/4 beat drummed by Ndugu Chancler, its pulsating bass (is that a synth or a real bass? I still can’t tell), and that horn section panned way over to the right side just so.  Produced by Quincy Jones, the song is pristinely recorded and meticulously arranged right down to its smallest sounds.

So old music that refuses to leave our midst thanks to continuous radio airplay triggers one kind of nostalgia.  Another kind of revisiting our aural past is evident in contemporary bands and composers–especially prominent during the last decade it seems–who deliberately resuscitate and imitate bygone musical sounds and styles.  There are so many examples of this it’s hard to know where to start, but this kind of “retro” fetishizing is all over the place.  For instance, bands will go to great lengths to use vintage sound recording equipment to get an “old” sound; and they’ll use digital tools to process their sound to the same effect.  Artists also work strictly within the sonic conventions of a musical period from a bygone time.  For example, La Roux’s 1980s synth pop sound:

or UK Electronic musicians Boards Of Canada use of wobbly tape and gauzy keyboard timbres to evoke 1970s Canada Film Board documentaries:

or the late Amy Winehouse’s homage to American Motown music:

The mash-up music of artists such as Girl Talk might also be relevant here, as it mixes and matches snippets of popular songs from the past to trigger our nostalgia of recognition (“Hey, I know that song!”):

Or even TV commercials that revisit an earlier musical era like this Geico ad that traffics in 1980s synth, drum machine and electric guitar sounds:

Finally, classical music composers make use of old sounds too.  Consider the work of the master Estonian composer Arvo Part, much of whose music has a late-medieval polyphony choral sound:

In his exceptionally thoughtful and timely book Retromania (Faber & Faber 2011), Simon Reynolds has written an exhaustive account that chronicles the rise of retro in contemporary popular culture since the 1960s.  The book approaches so many important big questions, including: Why do fetishize our artistic past so much?  What does this say about our cultural moment and are there consequences for our love of all things retro?  And what, if anything, constitutes genuinely new music today?

Among Reynolds’ many piercing observations is the notion that old musical styles have become empty signifiers: “What style now signified was style itself” (305), “a ghostly signifier detached from any real-world referents” (307).  In other words, while we make use of old sounds and styles they don’t really mean much anymore, nor do they have genuine power to shock and effect change.  Perhaps part of the problem here is how easy it is for anyone to instantly access music’s past through that collective creative commons–indeed that “whole field of cultural practice” (59)–otherwise known as YouTube.  In the Internet-connected world where one can obsess over and study the obscure details of many musical eras, creativity, says Reynolds, is reduced to “taste games” (141) played by artists negotiating idiosyncratic pathways through “a grid-space of influences and sources, striving frenetically to locate exit routes to the beyond” (427).

The problem, says the author, is that our love of retro in music is in fact evidence of “a kind of cultural recession” (422), a situation in which our love of recycling old artistic styles “became structural features of the music scene, substituting novelty (difference from what immediately preceded) for genuine innovation” (408).  And while there are noteworthy examples of artists such as say, Vampire Weekend who have managed to forge productive paths through musical eras and styles using a well-honed “meta-critical sensibility” (415), the question remains: Will we ever again hear something genuinely and startlingly new as the styles of rock, punk, hip hop, or minimalism once were in their day?  Will we? Reynolds remains optimistic that something big and change-inducing may be just around the corner, but doesn’t pretend to have final answers.

It’s hard not to read a book as comprehensive as this one in its scope (Reynolds also talks extensively about fashion and art in order to situate music making as an embedded cultural practice) without thinking about whether or not the retro trend in popular culture today is the inevitable result of our being swamped in the flood of information that is our own recorded history of production and consumption.  Where are the new musical styles that critique and make sense of our historical moment? Are they already upon us?  And if so, would we recognize these sounds when they sounded?

On James Blake Live At The Bowery Ballroom

The most interesting part of James Blake’s live show at the Bowery Ballroom last night was his trio’s seamless use of technology to bring to the stage some of the electronic and otherworldly textures of Blake’s debut album, James Blake.  Blake was playing a Prophet synthesizer for his gritty analog keyboard textures along with a Nord stage piano for his acoustic piano sounds.  But Blake’s microphone (and his piano) was also feeding into a sampler operated by his guitarist, enabling Blake to be looped and overdubbed and harmonized with himself, building up cumulative textures.  The guitarist spent more than half his time “playing” this live sampled material by hitting small rubber pads on the sampler, sometimes playing deep dub basslines on it as well.  One wouldn’t think that watching a musician poking away at a little 10-inch plastic box could be much fun, but it really works because you get into the musician’s concentration* once you figure out which sounds in the band’s texture he’s producing.  Blake’s drummer used a hybrid electronic-acoustic set up: real hi-hat and cymbals, an electronic kick drum and a multi-pad percussion controller.  What this means, for those of you who don’t play such instruments, is that the drummer can trigger any sound he wants on his electronic pads. Thus, one moment he’s playing a crisp, sampled cross stick sound (so key to a lot of dubstep music), the next moment a deep gong sound, and then suddenly a bamboo xylophone-type sound.  What’s exciting about this is how the drummer becomes a sample-triggerer, commandeering any sound that has been set up beforehand, making it easy to duplicate the textures of electronic music in a live setting.  And of course, seeing all of these sounds played in real time by a stick-wielding musician, connects the listener to the conventions of traditional live music performance.  Oh, and before I forget: the band didn’t play to a click track and so the time was elastic and subtle and no one needed headphones.  Beautiful.  In the end, that’s what made this concert work so well: three musicians were able to produce a whole lot of sound in a truly live way–keeping it self-contained by sampling and triggering themselves, and leaving room for improvisation too.  It’s a testament not only to the skill of the musicians, but also to how far electronic music technology has come that performers can use its machinery in such transparent, creative and pleasurable ways.

* There’s a story that the composer John Cage tells of having attended a ballet performance with a friend.  The ballet dancer is holding still on stage, almost motionless and not appearing to be doing much, but is riveting nonetheless.  Cage’s friend turns to him and asks: “How does she do that?  How does she hold my attention?”  And Cage replies: “You’re held by her concentration.”

On Making Music Tangible

“How physical is music?” asks Clive Bell at the outset of a recent article in Wire magazine on the English musician Richard Skelton.  Part of what makes Skelton unique is his approach to trying to make music making a more physical thing than its evanescent sounds might suggest.  Thus, the composer-musician embraces a unique recording process: he brings his instruments (violin, guitar, mandolin) out to the remote countryside of Northern England and records instrumental sounds in situ, capturing both instrumental sonics as well the grain of the natural environment (wind, water, goats, etc.).  On the production end, Skelton self-publishes his music on the Sustain-Release label in the form of one-of-a- kind artifacts–CDs housed in hand-wrapped slip covers, or polished wood boxes with 100-page booklets (personalized with the purchaser’s name on them), sometimes even including a twig or vial of water from the landscape in which the music was recorded.

Sounds quirky and over the top you say?  Perhaps.  But Skelton is looking for a high level of integration between music and our physical lives.  Here he is on his rationale for recording outside in the field:

“I’d take my instruments answer myself up there.  I’d make a recording in one of the [bridge] arches and then play it back in the other one.  Record it, so you get the reverberation.  But the important thing for me was coming and playing here, and the recordings themselves weren’t the objective.  It was a document.  I was trying to get the idea of the music becoming part of the landscape” (Wire, April 2011, p.46).

Skelton also weighs in on the importance of music as a recorded object (CD, LP, tape):

“There will be a whole generation of people who consume music as a series of noughts and ones.  But for me, part of the process of consuming music was about the physical object” (48).

So, back to Clive Bell’s question about the physicality of music. Yes, music is a most immaterial thing–in both live performance and recorded playback.  But many of us listeners like stuff we can put our hands on and touch, and so we can understand where Skelton is coming from.

On Becoming A Virtuoso Of Knobs, Buttons, and Sliders

In the course of preparing for a paper on laptop music making as creative practice I’m giving this summer at Cambridge University, I’ve been thinking about how exactly one goes about performing music with/on a laptop: What are the decision-making and problem-solving processes musicians use in performance and in preparing for performance?  I’m approaching topic as a “traditional” musician who is used to grappling with sticks and membranes (drumming), vibrating strings (dulcimer playing), and fingers on a keyboard.  And composing for me has been, up until now, a linear kind of thing where I play or improvise parts to build pieces with beginnings, middles, and ends.  Even my recent electronic recording, Views From A Flying Machine (which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog), was “through-composed”–layered one part at a time.  Kinda old-fashioned.

But now I’m moving forward and being a futurist!  One of the aims of my paper is to explore how exactly an electronic musician who uses a laptop goes about rendering a piece of pre-composed music in performance.  Many musicians augment their laptops with a MIDI hardware controller of some kind.  This allows them to literally control various parameters of the software running on their laptops.  So, if a musician uses Ableton Live as their software (as I do), the knobs, buttons, and sliders on their MIDI controller can be “mapped” to whichever Ableton parameter the musician would like to control.  A simple mapping might be an effect send, such as a delay or reverb.  Map that effect to one of the knobs on your controller and voila: when you turn the knob, you activate the effect.  The idea is to allow the musician to feel as if they have some tactile control over their sounds (something perhaps taken for granted by acoustic musicians, I might add).

On the website of Livid Instruments, a company that makes beautiful, hand-made controllers, co-founder Peter Nyboer points out that musical instruments are no longer the only controllers in town and that new electronic products offer creative possibilities:

“Strings, reeds, and resonating bodies are no longer the only musical controls, but the industrial conveniences of knobs, button, and sliders have augmented musical reality such that they demand their own vocabulary of virtuosity.”

I like this quote.  First, I never really thought of instruments like the piano or drums as “musical controls.”  Rather, I thought of them as pretty simple extensions of the human body that wants to make sound. (Note: the piano is a far from simple instrument!)  Now that I think about it, no musical instrument is simple.  It’s just that after years of playing, an instrument can feel like it’s an extension of my body, when in fact it remains an object with which I am constantly negotiating! Second, there is no question that electronic music controllers have “augmented musical reality.” Configured the right way, the twist of a knob could trigger exponential musical processes and seismic sonic changes.  It all depends how one sets them up.  Which brings us to Nyboer’s third point: these controllers make their own demands on us, specifically how we think about our musical processes, the software programs we use (or write!), even our philosophy of what music should be. Thus, Nyboer’s “vocabulary of virtuosity” is not just a matter of getting good at knob-twiddling, button-pushing, and fader-sliding.  What is hinted at here is nothing less than using an electronic “black box”–the best controllers, by the way, are pretty much blank slates upon which we can map whatever kinds of musical systems we want–to bring our music making to a new place outside the box.

Here is a clip of the DJ/Producer Eliot Lipp using the Livid Ohm64 with Ableton Live.  Notice what he says at 3:56:

“To me, I’m trying to set up [his controller] in a way where I can have the ability to do a live remix of a track.  Even if it’s something I just brought into Ableton.  If I want to play it out that night, I have all these parameters set up so I can do live edits of the track: loop it wherever I want, and deal with the blend from one track to the next.”

Here is a clip of another intriguing, blank slate controller, the monome, in action:

Musical Collaborations: Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

Mandinka kora music is among my favorite sound worlds. The kora is a 21-string harp-lute traditionally played by oral historians in many parts of West Africa. I travelled to Mali (home to many Mandinka people) in 2002 to learn to play the kora.  Though I didn’t get all that far in three weeks, I learned the basic building block pattern (kumbengo) for an old piece called Allah lake and started to get a feel for how variations (birimintingo) are spun from this rhythmic web.  You play the kora using just two thumbs and two index fingers. To a complete novice like me, it feels tricky to negotiate those 21 strings in such a small space.  Even more daunting is playing a melody, its accompaniment, and variations on them–all while keeping alive that cycling smooth groove that makes kora music hum with life.

Here is a short clip of famous kora player Toumani Diabate showing how the elements–what he calls here the “bass”, the “accompaniment” and the “improvisation”– of a kora piece called “Salaman” are all woven together:

Ballaké Sissoko is a jali from Mali and also a virtuoso kora player.  I first learned about him through his duet recording with Toumani Diabate, New Ancient Strings (1999).  Recently, Sissoko collaborated with French cellist Vincent Segal to make Chamber Music (Six Degrees Records), a series of duets.  Here is a clip of the two musicians making music together:

It is perhaps notable that Chamber Music is distributed through Six Degrees, a record label specializing in hybrid musics that aspire to be truly global in scope (or at least in ambition), especially those that blend styles from the “world music” canon–musics from outside of the Euro-American pop and classical traditions and made by an international roster of artists–with the technologies, sounds and structures of electronic musics.

Sissoko and Segal’s Chamber Music isn’t electronic music in any way, but it is an overt kind of fusion of traditions–what the Six Degrees website describes as “a quieter, more refined ‘world music’”–and it reminds me of some observations of Michel Chanan which I quoted in an earlier post:

“Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce . . . Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?  Is the idea just another form of cultural expropriation and exploitation or could it possibly represent a true growth of awareness of other musics?”

At least within the realm of the Sissoko and Segal’s music making together, there does seem to be “awareness of other musics” on display.  You can hear, for instance, Segal play some of those kumbengo bassline-like patterns, melodies are traded back and forth, drones are offered in mutual support, and so on, in a musical dialogue that includes improvisation and new takes on old compositions.  One could probably safely say that for both musicians, “techniques are extended” too.


On Shivkumar Sharma

One of my favorite musicians is North Indian santoor player Shivkumar Sharma.*  The santoor is a 72-string box zither of Persian origins.

Here is a painting of Iranian women playing the santoor’s predecessor, the santur, circa 1669:

Sharma was the first musician to use the instrument in North Indian classical music, giving his first performance in 1955.  One plays the santoor with it sitting on one’s lap, striking its strings with two wooden mallets.  Sharma (and now his son, Rahul Sharma, as well) is a master player, coaxing all manner of shadings from this modest box with strings.  One thing to remember about North Indian classical music is that it is predominantly a vocal soloist’s music, with instrumentalists emulating the infinite flexibility of the voice.  Thus, Ravi Shankar’s sitar playing or Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod playing–fingers plucking strings, sliding and bending notes–are, in a way, trying to approximate the flow of the singing voice.  With that said, the santoor player has yet another mediating object between him and his instrument: those little wooden mallets.  What I think Sharma does quite magically is use a tremolo technique that involves making what looks and sounds like one-handed buzz rolls.  It’s almost a sleight-of-hand and what the listener hears is a smooth flow of sonics, one note melting into another, tones luminously extended into specters of pitch.  In those buzzing moments, it’s almost as if Sharma is not playing a percussion instrument anymore–he’s singing.**  You most often hear Sharma tremolo-buzzing during the slow-paced introductory section of a performance known as an alap.  Here’s a clip of an alap:

In the later sections of a performance, when things are heating up so to speak–the tempo has increased, themes are being explored in ever-densifying improvisations–Sharma brings what I can best describe as a drummer’s funkiness to the proceedings.  What we need to remember here is that even though those santoor mallets can be an obstacle to expressivity (after all, it’s another thing between the musician’s skin-touch and his instrument), they are also a variety of drum sticks, and as such turn hands into drummer’s hands capable of idiomatically drummistic things.  Put more simply: playing an instrument with sticks invites and encourages certain percussive “ways of the hand” (to borrow David Sudnow’s phrase).

Here’s another clip of Sharma digging in and creating both a melody and a groove at the same time.  He is accompanied by the singular Zakir Hussain on tabla.  (Notice around 1:25 Sharma stops to re-tune a note without missing a…beat.)  I recommend you watch all 4:43 minutes of the clip.

*If you’re wondering why this post is about Sharma and not any of the many other virtuosos out there, I am a zither-playing percussionist myself, so I’m kinda biased.  (I play the Chinese yang-qin zither and studied briefly with Zhentian Zhang in Boston–an entry for another day perhaps.)

**This idea of “singing” at one’s instrument is a useful way of conceptualizing both its limitations and possibilities.  I’m having flashbacks here to my undergraduate studies in percussion, where my teacher Russell Hartenberger demonstrated timpani technique and we explored whether grand hand-arm gestures after a drum stroke in fact influence one’s perception of the sound’s duration . . .To this day, I’m not entirely sure how this all works, only that on some level it is real.


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