On How The Shape Of A Sound Shapes Us


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”


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.”

On The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes The Mind

Seth Horowitz’s The Universal Sense is an exhaustive, lucid, and entertaining neuroscientific foray into the many ways hearing, listening, and sound shape the mind–how sound affects the way we think, feel, and act. Horowitz is a professor of neuroscience at Brown University who specializes in studies of comparative and human hearing. He’s also an enthusiastic sound generalist, driven by a conviction that “much of the inner life of sound dwells beneath conscious thought” and gleefully sharing story after story on a dizzying array of topics related to human and animal perception of sound and music. Among these topics: Horowitz explains why some sounds are irritating (nails scratching on blackboard) or ominous (buzzing wasps), the unsettling effects of subsonic and infrasonic sound, movie soundtracks and jingle music, and the vibratory phenomenon that causes us to fall asleep while driving on long and straight roads. In sum, The Universal Sense is an inspiring read that further confirmed my own conviction that music and sound-making are very special ways of knowing the world indeed.

The more Horowitz explains it, the more our sense of hearing and sound perception seems very remarkable. Sound is the swiftest of emotional triggers, and our hearing is a faster sense than vision (“vision maxes out a fifteen to twenty-five events per second, hearing is based on events that occur thousands of times per second”). And hearing outpowers taste, touch, and smell by allowing us to perceive the world around us at great distances. But with this speed and power come vulnerabilities as well. Horowitz explains the many ways sound can “hack” the brain, and how we can engage sound or silence to deliberately hack our own minds. We can, for instance, limit the sounds that reach us to increase our focus (hello noise canceling headphones!) or voluntarily expose ourselves to loud sounds to give up control–as if under the spell of a hypnotist. I don’t know about you, but by these measures I am most definitely a mind hacker.

Horowitz also explains how sound can have particularly powerful effects on us when it makes deep perceptual demands. In one passage that reminded me of the challenges of perceiving polyrhythms (more than one rhythm sounding simultaneously), Horowitz explains that a key to musical entrainment is having multiple sonic inputs that are diverse yet also acting together: “To get massive amounts of brain entrained to a single rhythm, you need complicated input from a number of sources all acting in concert. One method is to use binaural beating…”

From here, Horowitz details how we perceive two pitches that are tuned slightly different from one another–like the gongs in an Indonesian gamelan tuned closely but not exactly the same–as having a “beating” effect. As we are reminded over and over again in this book, sound, even though immaterial, has very physical effects: the acoustic has affect.

Finally, Horowitz reminds us that affect is all important in how we understand sounds–whether the sounds of our favorite music or the sounds our own voices. Indeed, “the emotional basis if communication relies not on what is said but on the acoustics of how we say something.” Consider saying, Horowitz tells us, the word ‘yes':

“Now say it as if you had just found out you won the lottery. Now say it as if someone had just asked you a question about something in your past that you thought no one knew about. Now say it as if this is the fortieth time you’ve answered ‘yes’ in a really boring human resources interview about how much you love your job […] What you changed was how you said the words: overall pitch, loudness, and timing.”

Inspired by Horowitz’s discussion of “yes” I remembered a humorous video called “50 Shades Of Hey” in which an actor demonstrates dozens of different ways to say the word “hey.” The video demonstrates the musical and affective qualities of everyday speech and how easily we can discern shades of meaning out of slight variations of tone and delivery. From this perspective, making and listening to music is just one of the ways we make sense of the world through hearing sound.

On Flavors, Tastes, Sound And Perception: Thinking Through Ruhlman’s Twenty

“Clear your way. Always be thinking.” – Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman’s Twenty

First, let me say the obvious: if you like to cook and want to know more about the science and craft of cooking, you’ll probably enjoy Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty. The book provides much to think about by explaining fundamental techniques and ingredients in a sensible and accessible way. Having said the obvious, there are other interesting things happening in Ruhlman’s Twenty. In the midst of the cooking theory, tips, instruction, and recipes, Ruhlman spends a fair amount of time talking about taste perception. Here are two examples:

“The complexity that comes from the intense sourness offset by a parallel sweetness goes especially well with…” (100).

“Does this sauce have the depth of texture and satisfying nature that I’m after? If not, fat may be the solution” (134).

Complexity. Sourness. Sweetness. Depth of texture. The overarching theme of this book is how we create and perceive specific tastes, and Ruhlman wants us to “always be thinking” about what affects what in the alchemical world of the kitchen. As it turns out, in the world of cooking, everything affects everything else. In the chapter “Acid” Ruhlman writes: “When you taste anything, ask yourself, What would make this better? Often the answer is acid.” He then discusses the effects of adding a drop of vinegar to a spoonful of soup. Ruhlman describes the taste as brighter: “Bright is an element of flavor that takes some imagination. I don’t mean literally brighter, but synesthetically brighter: vinegar has a brighter flavor–clear, clean, crisp” (92). Similar discussions ensue in chapters on salt, sweetness, and other tastes.

In the end, cooks work with essentially six distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, metallic, and umami–a Japanese word that roughly means “savoriness.” And while it may be difficult to put into words what these different tastes do and the complex ways they interact with one another, good cooking can’t happen without their presence in various ratios. Think about a favorite daily sauce: vinaigrette. Oil (fatty umami), vinegar or lemon juice (sharp sourness), a pinch of salt (saltiness), and maybe some honey (sweetness). That’s four of the six essential flavor components. No wonder salad is so tasty!


As in cooking, so too in music?

Just as food presents us with a range of tastes, music presents us with a range of heard and felt vibratory perceptions. In music, we speak of low-, medium-, and high-range pitches or registers. Low-pitched sounds vibrate at a slower rate than do high-pitched sounds. Moreover, low-pitched sounds are often considered to have a “dark” tone quality or timbre (think of a low note bowed on a double bass, or the sound of a deep gong softly struck) while high-pitched sounds have a “light” quality–or like Ruhlman’s vinegar taste, are “brighter” (think of a shrill piccolo sound). A musical instrument’s design, its mode of vibration, and the material it’s made out of also affect its timbre. It’s for this reason that a flute and a violin sound different and distinctive even when they play the same pitch. When composers score works for different instruments (violins and brass say, or electronic sine tones and pad sounds) they create new hybrid timbres that are more than the sum of their parts. In music as in cooking, one can mix and match to create new depths of perception.

I’ve been thinking about Ruhlman’s book as I’ve been working on some electronic music pieces. I’m in the mixing and balancing stages of a project, listening through to make sure all the sounds are sitting in the right proportion to one another to create a pleasing soundscape. As I listen it strikes me that sounds are like flavors–each one has a different taste. I don’t mean to say that there are six basic sounds that correspond to sweet, salty, and so on. But I do mean to say that different sounds, like different flavors, affect us in many different ways. Put another way, sounds have a feeling dimension just as flavors have a taste dimension.

The five electronic music pieces in my project each have over a dozen parts–including marimba samples, sine tones, Rhodes, glockenspiel and celeste, tom toms and cymbals.  There are a lot of layers and each layer has a distinctive pitch register and timbre profile. The parts were improvised and recorded many months ago: chord progressions were worked out, harmonies, basslines, and rhythmic counterpoint among the percussion added. Then everything was put into order so the pieces have a basic arc shape (each is some 20-plus minutes in length). Now I’m experimenting with different combinations of these layers, tweaking their volume, their tone, their pitch, and adding bits of delay and reverb effects to augment and change them. It’s a lot to think about and the possibilities for tweaking can feel endless.

But like Ruhlman’s story about the effect of a drop of vinegar on the taste of a spoonful of soup, I’m finding that small changes can have large effects on the overall feel of the music. For instance, tuning tom-toms to the tonic note of a section adds a deep euphony. Or pitching a hi hat sample up one octave makes it feel more metallic, crisp and brittle. Or maybe one part needs an EQ scoop (lowering the volume of its middle-range frequencies) to make it flatter, softer, and more transparent. Of course, the sound really isn’t any of those things–it’s basically a sawtooth wave sound–yet that’s how it feels as I listen and so I adjust parameters according to this imagined profile. All this tweaking is done intuitively, until the sound of the music feels right.

Finally, I’m surprised at how different the pieces sound as I return to them day after day. Same headphone volume, but a slightly different listening me, I guess. Taste is like that: it’s not entirely in the flavor, the ingredient, or the sound, but neither is it entirely in our perception of these phenomena either. It’s a combination of the two and that’s what makes the intersection of flavor, taste, and perception so interesting: it’s an unstable and ever-changing encounter for our senses.

On Our Din And Roar II: How Noise Is Not Always Bad And Quiet Not Always Good

On my last blog post, I may have inadvertently given readers the impression that I wear earplugs wherever I go, so intent I am in the pursuit of some kind of urban quiet. (One worried family member even weighed in: “When you wear the earplugs, do you miss any cautionary sounds–like the sound of an oncoming car?”) Not so! In fact, as I sat in a Uruguayan bakery this morning, it occurred to me that I often flee silence in a deliberate pursuit of noise. And like I said about choosing to be a percussionist–it’s complicated!

But not that complicated. I go to this bakery regularly not because the hot beverages are relatively cheap (though they are, as are the pastries) but because the space offers a level of noise that’s conducive to writing. (Kind of like the subway, where I’m typing these words on a phone.) At the bakery there’s always ambient noise in the form of espresso machines, patrons talking among themselves (in Spanish) and several large screen TVs showing music videos and football matches (also in Spanish). For some reason–including the fact that I don’t speak Spanish, for one thing–all of this ambient sound adds up to just the right degree of din that I can easily tune out. In other words, being surrounded by a mix of different noises helps me concentrate on something else entirely.

And this is what was perhaps misleading about the ear plugs post. Plugging one’s ears means shutting out the sounding world around you. And I do this sometimes–though the shutting out is really just reducing the world by about 33 decibels (if we’re to believe Heroes Earplugs’ health claims). But what’s even more interesting to me is how we shut out or filter the sounds of the noisy world around us simply by concentrating–entering a state of focus that itself benefits from that same noisy world. It’s as if the noises let one part of you know that you’re ensconced in conviviality (noise indexing the lively embrace of social life), which then frees another part of you to relegate the sounds to a background hum and just coast on them.