brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: perception

On Music For Thought: Dub (Re)Mixing As A Metaphor For Mindfulness

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After reading Paul Sullivan’s excellent Remixology (Reaktion Books, 2014), a history of dub music and dub aesthetics from Jamaica to their infection of electronic musics in cities and scenes around the world, it struck me that remixing is an interesting metaphor for cultivating mindfulness.

Dub pioneers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, The Scientist, and others innovated ways of creating instrumental versions of popular songs. In the recording studio, these producers and sound engineers dismantled tracks and put them back together in altered forms known as “versions” or “dubs.” The technology they used in their work was the standard equipment of the studio from the late 1960s until quite recently: the multitrack mixing console, magnetic tape, and effects processing units. What Perry and others achieved with their best versions was nothing short of game-changing, especially for anyone interested in electronic music, groove, and remixing. In a way, those Jamaican dub pioneers were the first modern music hackers.

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The notion of “life-hacking” is popular these days insofar as our interest in quantifying and optimizing ourselves physically, cognitively, and otherwise increasingly seems like a useful and progressive thing to do. It’s in this spirit that I suggest thinking metaphorically about the processes of the dub remixers as containing concepts that can be applied to our lives.

To start, consider some dub remixing techniques and aesthetics:

stripping things down.
The remixer mutes parts, silences voices, and reveals the essence of the music.

substituting one element for another, recontextualizing.
The remixer plays with different sounds, re-arranging and having them play new roles.

foregrounding groove.
Stripping down the music the remixer reveals its bass and drum rhythmic backbone.

EQing to emphasize or shape sounds.
The remixer brings out various frequencies to reveal sound colors or timbres that were in the mix all along, just hidden.

creating space by adding reverb and delay effects.
The remixer builds a huge, immersive environment for the music, letting it bounce off virtual surfaces at various rates of speed and play.

noticing malleability, fungibility.
The remixer finds every musical element flexible to the nth degree, capable of shape-shifting and mutation.

engaging creativity, imagination, audacity.
The remixer uses the music–as much as the music uses the remixer?–as an experiment in re-design and thinking anew.

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Practically speaking, how exactly would one apply these dub concepts to one’s life? I’m not sure. Scanning through the list though, I notice that they’re all fundamentally oriented around perception and altering elements–of music, of consciousness–with the goal of changing how they appear to our senses. This alone is music for thought and maybe useful advice in other realms too.

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David Hockney On Perspective

I’ve been reading more Lawrence Weschler lately, this time his engaging study of the painter David Hockney, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney (University of California Press, 2009). I first encountered Hockney’s work in the mid-1990s at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit was a show of Hockney’s English countryside landscapes. They seemed simple on their surface, but there was something going on in them with regards to perspective: the works seemed to capture multiple viewpoints at once, drawing you in. To make a musical analogy, they were visually polyphonic. I bought a poster and had it framed.

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Anyway, what makes Weschler’s book engaging is its story of Hockney’s seemingly boundless obsession with perspective in visual art. One fulcrum for this obsession is his interest in how and why European art underwent a profound shift in perspective, precision, and realism around the 1420s. Hockney thinks the reason is due to the use of optical projection devices. Hockney, who even wrote a book about his (controversial) theory, Secret Knowledge (2001), expresses his curiosity about the matter in the form of a question: “How come awkwardness seems to disappear completely from Western European art for three hundred years and then just as quickly reappear? It all just happens by itself? That would be the loopy theory” (133).

Weschler traces how Hockney arrived at his interest and along this journey are several series of works that I found interesting. One early series consisted of photo collages built out of dozens of Polaroids. Hockney took photos of his subject matter–his living room, a swimming pool, a California highway, the Grand Canyon–from a multitude of viewpoints. Then he organized the photos in a way that requires the viewer to slow down and move through the pictorial space, one segment after another–back and forth, up and down–always scanning over time. Here are two:

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One interesting thing about these collages: each photo is a self-contained viewpoint. Another thing: the effect is at once unrealistic in that you notice the artifice of Hockney’s technique and also hyper realistic in that you find yourself noticing that this is actually how we see the world: in and as a series of glances, instants, and angles that enter our field of perception for a flash before we turn our attention elsewhere. The effect is pure art: simple, yet it gets you thinking.

As I read and looked at the pictures I thought about how all this might pertain to musical practice. (I also wrote about perspective in music here.). Music, of course, is different from visual art in that it requires time to unfold. You can’t listen to a symphony in a second–you have to wait it out and keep paying attention, moment by moment. But the fact that some musics–intensely polyrhythmic musics or polyphonic musics, for instance–make deep perceptual demands on us insofar as they pack a lot of information into each moment reminded me of how Hockney’s works seem to chase after ways to model themselves on how we apply our senses over time.

Incidentally, when Hockney spoke of the “awkwardness” in art reappearing after three hundred years, he was referring to Cubism. Picasso, Hockney told Weschler, wasn’t trying to “deconstruct” his subject matter. Rather, he was trying to faithfully convey a sense of how we behold the world around us. “The monocular claim to univalent objective reality is falling away once and for all,” he says, “and we are being thrust back on ourselves, forced to take responsibility for the way we make and shape our realities, with eye and hand and heart” (143).

On Creative Analogies: Lessons From Coi

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“Perfect food is born of perfect order.” – Daniel Patterson, Coi

I have written previously on this blog (see culinary arts posts) about connections between cooking and music. To add to that mix, I recently read Daniel Patterson’s excellent Coi cookbook. The book is structured around a series of short narratives that provide context for his recipes. For me, the narratives steal the show insofar as they engage with the themes of perception, taste, memory, style, and creativity.

Patterson makes a distinction between being able to perceive and distinguish among different tastes, and having the know-how and experience to understand what these perceptions and distinctions mean. They key, he says, is having a well-honed sensory memory: “Sensory memory is the most important attribute of a cook. Without a database of experiences to contextualize flavor, a good palette means nothing” (142). Patterson’s dishes grow out of his experiences–many of them fleeting, by now only traces of a memory of an experience. One dish, “Summer, Frozen In Time” (plum, frozen meringues, yogurt), he describes in terms of references that seem more experiential than specifically food-related:

“This is a dish of memory triggered by form and smell, with points of reference that are so varied that they defy easy categorization. I created it thinking about the way time seems to move differently during the warm months–one minute lasting an eternity, the next passing in a rush” (146).

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Drawing analogies with writing and music, Patterson also discusses style in cooking–that combination of elements that add up to a recognizable imprint: “In writing, it’s called voice. In music, it might be called sound, the combination of tone and rhythm that makes a performance unique” (180). In Patterson’s case, some of his style, his voice, is the result of removing the non-essential from his dishes, or distilling his ingredients down to their essence. In a passage on what makes minimalism (in cookery or the arts), the chef quotes the architect John Pawson: “The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction” (242).

Ultimately, what makes Coi so interesting is how poetically it describes the varied sources of Patterson’s creativity. Chefs are like composers and writers and artists in this regard–they receive inspiration and ideas from all over. The techniques of their craft are ways to reign in and organize this inspiration and these ideas, but the creative process remains fickle–always an open-ended, ever-shifting flood of sensations to pay attention to, distill, and make sense of. And the smallest details matter. Patterson: “sometimes the hardest part of the creative process is finding that one grace note, that little twist of technique, seasoning or texture, that lifts a dish, making it extraordinary” (198).

Near the end of his book, Patterson recalls San Francisco when he first arrived there from the East coast in the late 1980s. One evening, a cab driver tells him about a time in 1968 when he saw the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk standing alone by the roadside, looking up at the sky. Patterson, who plays piano, recalls listening to Monk when he was a kid:

“[Monk] was my hero, with his jerky syncopation, idiosyncratic voice, and harmonic dissonance that would resolve, when you couldn’t stand it anymore, into the sweetest melody you’d ever heard. His sense of balance was perfect: complexly wrought, deeply human” (282).

None of this seems to have anything to do with the book’s final recipe on the facing page. Or does it?

 

On Presence And Perception

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“When I look at the world now, my posture is not one of focus but rather of attention.”
– Robert Irwin

At the heart of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name Of the Thing One Sees (1982/2009), Lawrence Weschler’s biography of the artist Robert Irwin, are two intertwined and reoccurring ideas: presence and perception. Irwin (1928-), an American conceptual/installation artist, began his art career in the 1950s with paintings of lines and dots, then, in the 1960s, moved to painting round aluminum discs. By the 1970s he had gone beyond what he felt were the arbitrary edges of canvas and art object to take on the museum spaces themselves as the subject matter of his installation art. Since the 1980s, Irwin has worked on permanent outdoor installations intended to enhance their environments. In the process, his work has become ever less material, and increasingly concerned with getting us to experience a perceptual state in which we notice ourselves noticing.

As Weschler meticulously documents his subject’s evolution through copious interviews, what happened was that Irwin, a self-taught artist, came to realize that art is not about the art thing as much as the experience such things (or spaces) can engender. “It’s about presence, phenomenological presence” (61) he says. Irwin came by his realization organically, early in his career. While working on paintings, he became frustrated by the tendency of his images to signify and the impossibility of a “neutral gesture” (60). Was there a way to escape this? A way to “maximize the energy or the physicality of the situation and minimize the identity or idea or imagery of the situation”? (90) What Irwin wanted was presence without representation, “a reduction of imagery to get at physicality, a reduction of metaphor to get at presence” (200). Presence as affect, as materiality, as spirit, as feeling, as structure.

Remarkably, Irwin came to his insight about the importance of presence by spending massive amounts of time just staring at his works in progress. In looking for extended periods he began noticing differently: “paying attention to my own sensibility and taking stock of it and deciding that too many things in there simply didn’t make sense” (67). Tweaking his work, removing material instead of adding it, Irwin developed a stance in relation to his work that could enlist boredom as “a very good tool” (73). In paying attention, he “just attended to the circumstances, and after weeks and weeks of observation, of hairline readjustments, the right situation would presently announce itself” (74).

Eventually, the right situation would entail jettisoning the conventional equipment of art making and taking on, literally, less material projects. Irwin tells Weschler that some of the inspiration for this shift towards installation art came from drives he took into the California desert. Here and there, Irwin would sense (“intuition is about sensing facts before they materialize” [143]) something powerful and stop the car to go investigate on foot. He realized that it would be pointless to artistically “mark” such spaces with his own designs, yet was nevertheless inspired by how a naturally occurring space could have such powerful affect. Ultimately, for Irwin presence and perception are a set of relations that constitute the real subject matter of art. “We’re not really aware of what takes place otherwise, the so-called incidentals, the information that takes place between things,” he says, “the kind of things that happen around, the multiple interactive relations” (148).

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Reading as I often do with musical things in mind, I found Seeing Is Forgetting one of the more energizing books I’ve come across in a while. To start, it got me thinking about the idea that music is not in the musical object (e.g. score, performance, sounds) but in our perception of it. (True, musics have social lives too, but that’s another matter.) In other words, we pursue music in pursuit of various kinds of presences that give rise to various perceptual shifts. Second, the book also got me thinking through a sonic analog of its title, which might read: Hearing Is Forgetting The Name Of What One Hears. In other words, Irwin reminds us to focus on the what rather than the what does it mean aspect of creating. Lastly, Irwin’s work–not to mention Weschler’s elucidation of it–is a reminder of the vitality of the arts as a kind of intuitive, presence- and perception-oriented inquiry that is open-ended and without goals. As Irwin tantalizingly sums up the equation that implicates us all: “we are the question, and what we are is what we have to contribute” (120).

On Ken Dryden’s “The Game”

Ken Dryden

When my brother and I were kids, we spent a lot of time playing ball hockey in the driveway, taking shots at one another with a fluorescent orange “sting” ball that really did sting when it was frozen from the cold and hitting you in the face. One of our always followed conventions of the game was that we would announce which famous player we were that day, and both of us always wanted to be “Dryden”–as in Ken Dryden, the goalkeeper for the Montreal Canadians during the 1970s. Dryden was an iconic figure for us because of his great athletic skills and his mysterious identity hidden behind that tribal-looking protective mask he wore while playing. A superhero with precision reflexes who stopped pucks like no one else, Dryden captured our imagination.

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In his stellar sports memoir-ethnography, The Game (1983/2013), Dryden renders with lazer detail his experience playing his last season with the Canadians. It turns out that during all those games when his teammates were dominating their opponents at the other end of rink, Dryden, alone in his goal crease and leaning against his propped up stick, was observing and thinking about everything going on around him on the ice. In many ways, The Game reads like a micro-study about the performing artist and human behavior. Dryden conveys the mix of attention, anxiety, and flowing, in the moment thinking/non-thinking often felt by expert performers at one time or another in their work. But unlike many a memoir, Dryden backs up his personal observations and reflections with deep historical perspective on the past, present, and future of his sport. Most athletes and performers don’t have the ability or interest to get outside themselves like that–to see, describe, and analyze the contexts in which they work. In this way, The Game provides a masterful insider’s view of dozens of different people, situations, and dynamics, while maintaining a guiding authorial voice.

Speaking of voice, sparkling here and there in Dryden’s text like little gems are sentences that articulate new ideas, have affect, and provoke thought. Reading them as gems of advice, here are a few that I enjoyed:

Then the present slowed down and the future changed direction.

It had to do with what he did and what he didn’t have to do because of how he did it.

It is in free time that the special player develops.

He invents the game.

Running Music


(Listening on headphones recommended.)

On How The Shape Of A Sound Shapes Us

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I noticed a simple thing the other day while working on some music. The sounds I was working with were long tones with slow attacks and long decays. (Can you guess the instrument?) What I noticed was how instantaneously the shape of the sounds shaped me. The sounds literally slowed me down–making me feel as if I was resonating along with their contours and slow rhythms. I’m somewhat astonished that I had never noticed and articulated this perceptual phenomenon in my own musical experience until now, but there you go.

To re-phrase that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: Be careful what sounds you make, for surely you shall become one with them!

On Salvador Dali’s “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”

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There is something unsettling about Salvador Dali’s The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1954).

On the face of it, it looks like an outdoor scene composed of water, sky, and mountains.

But what about those rectangular blocks and melting clocks?

The blocks convey one time sense moving forward in an orderly way. But the blocks encounter several melted clocks along their path, suggesting perhaps that time is not as “straightforward” as the blocks’ orderliness might suggest. (Melting clocks first appeared in Dali’s earlier 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory.)

The image also depicts underwater and above water scenes. Yet a glance to the far left of the image reveals that what appeared to be a water line is in fact just a cloaked surface pinned up to some trees that are themselves without grounding.

So what is holding everything together?

Behind the rectangular blocks moving in an orderly way, behind the underwater and above water scenes, and behind the mountains, is a blank field of being. Sky and water now seem like apparitions.

There’s nothing holding this together.

Surreal? Certainly. And thought-provoking too.

On Rhythmic Instabilities And Brand New Feelings: DJ Rashad’s “Feelin””

“The technology’s so on point now: we can sample almost anything now.”
– DJ Spinn

One of the talked about music releases of 2012 is DJ Rashad’s Teklife Vol.1: Welcome to the Chi. Rashad is a Chicago musician who makes music to accompany a dance style known as footwork. Footwork is characterized by its hyper fast foot movements, and footwork dancers often compete against one another in dance battles where they spin gliding moves that resemble tap and hip hop dancing sped way, way up. Footwork music is a sample-based idiom that supports this dancing through its fast and frenetic rhythms.

The first track on Rashad’s Teklife Vol. 1, “Feelin'”, is a case study in how to maintain musical interest through constant rhythmic intensity and instability. The track features crisp and TR-808 drum machine-ish snare, cross stick, and crash cymbal. Along with this percussion is a constantly snaking and wobbling sub bass line/detuned kick drum, a few Rhodes keyboard and wah-wah guitar samples, some horn lines, and snippets of a woman’s voice singing just two lines: “I just had a brand new feeling, yeah/until you came up on me in the night…” Tonally, “Feelin'” oscillates around a single pitch and feels like a pulsing and hyper drone.

Like a lot of footwork tracks, the tempo is fast–160 beats per minute fast. This lets us listeners (and those footwork dancers) feel the music as simultaneously fast and slow. The overriding rhythm of the piece reminds me a lot of a mechanical version of a popular West African bell pattern or timeline that goes like this (bell hits are on the bolded counts):

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2, etc.

But this rhythm is constantly undercut by Rashad’s varying all of the instrumental parts. There is one particularly striking passage from 1:48-2:24 in which the cross stick plays the most cutting of cross-rhythms against the fast 4/4 feel: it sounds like a kind of displaced six-against-four rhythm (six equally spaced cross stick hits in the time of four beats). I love this kind of instability because it keeps my ears engaged. You can still feel the 4/4 grid, but it’s pushed to the background. The vocal samples are also cut up, pitch-shifted, and displaced all over the place–individual words and phrases repeated to make melo-rhythmic lines that dovetail with the music.

As I listened and re-listened to “Feelin'” a number of times, I thought about how different musics invite different kinds of responses from us. For instance, you can’t really daydream to this track–it’s just too intense for that. But you can let yourself enjoy all the syncopations of its angular rhythmic flow. It’s an interesting track to listen first thing in the morning or late at night, if only just to jolt you awake. Actually, I’m doing that right now!

And speaking of jolting ourselves awake, it might be fun to transcribe and learn the changing rhythms for a piece of music like this. In their stuttering and shape-shifting instabilities, machine-made rhythms can sometimes teach us new ways to approach musical time. And this reminds me–jolted awake as I am–of Kodwo Eshun’s description of rhythm itself “as a kind of an abstract machine.”

Here, then, is “Feelin'”:

And here is a short documentary video about the footwork dance and music scene that features some other footwork DJs, including DJ Spinn and Traxman. There’s an interesting bit from 2:45 to 3:26 where Traxman describes his interest in the robotic aspect of German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

Haruki Murakami On Repetition


Haruki Murakami, master novelist and enthusiast of long distance running, makes this observation about the repetition of writing, and the experience of repetition itself as a perceptual tool for tweaking the senses:

“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.

I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

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