brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: performance

On The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.

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There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:

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In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

On Musical Systems And Four Tet’s Good Musical Sense

“I don’t want to sound like anybody else.” – Kieran Hebden

I have written previously on this blog about the music of Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet). Hebden not only has good musical taste but also a thoughtful and unique approach to using technology to create his work. In this video from Red Bull Music Academy, Hebden explains to students his electronic gear set-up and how he uses it in performance.

What is interesting here is how Hebden uses a combination of software (Ableton and Cool Edit Pro) running on two computers and other bits of hardware such as loopers and MIDI controllers to re-create his compositions live. This musical system reflects specific performance goals and also illustrates Hebden’s admission that he doesn’t even know some of his software very well (“I don’t know much about Ableton at all and the sorts of things it can do…”). This is key, because it frees him to pursue a quite unique-sounding creative path.

Here is the video:

On The Influence Of One’s Musical Teachers

In his New Yorker piece “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, pianist Jeremy Denk reflects on taking piano lessons from the time he first took up the instrument at the age five through his college years. Denk’s teachers helped him learn to better practice, interpret and think musically. “Learning to play the piano” says Denk, “is learning to reason with your muscles.” Denk’s most influential teacher was the great Hungarian pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) who spent many years teaching at Indiana University. Sebők was a master who made “the concepts behind the notes” come alive. Sebők could conjure worlds from the piano that felt “like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.”

Sebők’s playing a dual role of “spirit guide and physics teacher” in Denk’s life is something that any of us who have closely worked with a music teacher will recognize. Sebők aimed to “bridge the gap between boring technical detail and the mysteries of the universe.” Denk expands on the subtleties of Sebők’s approach as it relates to the complexities of the piano:

“He would make you focus on the myriad hinges of the arm and wrist, sometimes looking for the arm to resemble a sewing machine, with up-and-down linear simplicity, other times looking or curves, circles, spirals. The mechanism of bone and muscle brought to bear on the piano is very complex; the hidden responding mechanism inside the piano is also very complex; and the interaction of the two is a lifetime’s study.”

Particularly interesting for me is Sebők’s belief “that matching one’s motions to the gestures within the music was essential to unlocking the emotions of the piece.” Sebők considered it perverse “to play a phrase with body language that was opposed to the musical idea itself.” Denk’s essay also conjures the deep value of masterclass sessions with Sebők, describing them as “beautiful acts of attention, in which the revelatory detail is cherished for its own sake, freed from the narrative necessities of performance.” Reading this I recalled some of my own practicing during college, but also realized that there are everywhere opportunities for beautiful acts of attention. The  key, I suppose, is learning how to really notice things.

After Denk had finished his studies with Sebők and moved to New York, he did some teaching himself and got some sense of what Sebők may have experienced with his pupils. “When you give ideas to students, they tend either to ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque.” Which leads Denk to reflect on the nature of one’s identity–musical or otherwise: “what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of the struggling student do you see what you’re really about.” Whatever the case, Sebők’s teachings have remained with Denk. Having dinner with another one of his former teachers at, of all places, an Applebee’s in Florida and reminiscing about Sebők, Denk is surprised that twenty years after his lessons with the Hungarian master he still carries with him memories of how Sebők played Bach and made it feel like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.

Here is a video of Sebők discussing the relationship between feeling and music followed by a riveting performance of Bach:

On Negative Achievement: The XX Perform In New York

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“The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement.”
- Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose

If you are a fan of musical minimalisms, atmospheric indie rock, and electronic beats, there was a lot to like about the xx’s poised and elegantly understated performance at Hammerstein Ballroom last week. The young Mercury Prize-winning trio from the UK is Romy Madley Croft on electric guitar and vocals, Oliver Sim on bass and vocals, and Jamie Smith on electronic percussion and keyboards. Theirs is a stripped-down, austere and moody sound that relies on just a few echo-y guitar chord progressions, a handful of sliding bass notes and spartan beats to conjure deep feeling. Against this musical backdrop is Croft’s and Sim’s deeply affecting singing–a singing that is only possible with close mic’ing and serious amplification. Many xx songs feature Croft and Sim taking turns singing the lines of the songs which has the effect of making the song sound like voicing shared secret stories between them that we are listening in on. In concert, the quiet singing sounds powerful and intimate and the minimalist musical textures richly transparent.

While Croft and Sim sing and play at the front of the stage, it is percussionist/programmer Smith standing behind them who is most interesting to watch. (I plead guilty here to a percussion bias.) Smith had an array of electronic drum pads and sample/sequencer machines set up at three different stations across the stage. On most songs you could see him doing something I have only recently thought about as a bona fide kind of musical activity: electronic finger drumming. Standing in front of a hardware controller, Smith used his index fingers to slam out sampled kicks, snare drums, hi hats, hand claps, and other percussive shards in real time. On one song he even played steel pan–though I couldn’t see an actual pan. (And does this matter if Smith used real pan mallets and the sound was real enough?) The pleasure of watching Smith was that you could see him truly controlling the percussion parts–playing little fills, leaving silent spaces at the end of phrases, and, most importantly, keeping his own perceptibly imperfect time that didn’t ever sound quantized (save for a few pre-sequenced patterns he would trigger here and there while busy with something else). Thus, even in those moments where a song had a four-on-the-floor kick drum part you could hear Smith’s small imperfections. Smith also had a single crash cymbal set up at one station center stage. On one song, the percussionist’s right hand held a stick to play a ride pattern on the cymbal while his left hand index finger drummed away kick and snare patterns on tiny rubber pads. What a striking contrast between the acoustic and the electronic! But thanks to Hammerstein Ballroom’s powerful amplification, it all gelled together. If Smith’s finger drumming skills weren’t enough, he also played  keyboards here and there. Hats off to his heavy musical lifting.

With the xx, less really is more. The band can extract drama and maintain musical interest from the most seemingly threadbare of materials, and their songs rarely follow popular music’s verse-chorus-bridge conventions. The xx will repeat parts and stay in a place for a while, letting intensity build by other means. It turns out that those threadbare materials–cycling around the notes of a minor triad, say–are anything but. And while I sometimes found myself wanting a little more –a few more strange chords, or maybe some denser rhythmic stuff–the xx make music their way, and theirs is as much about all the things they choose not to do.

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“Angels”, the opening song on the xx’s recent album Coexist, is effective for reasons both musical and sonic. Musically, there are just four sound sources: Croft’s voice, electric guitar, electric bass, and drum programming. By the standards of multi-layered contemporary pop, it’s a simple instrumentation, but the music fits together in a powerful way. Each part itself is simple too: the guitar plays a 2-note riff that moves around, plus a few chords; the bass slides over a few notes, first in the upper range, then in the lower; the drum programming eschews pretending to be a conventional kit and alternates between sparse scattershot snare drum rolls and concert bass drum hits; and Croft’s voice rarely gets beyond whispering a melody within the tight confines of the first five notes of a minor scale.

“Angels” is also sonically striking. Each instrument inhabits a distinct space in the mix. The guitar is deeply reverbed to sound distant–distant as if off in a far corner of a cathedral; the bass is in a drier and closer proximity to sound like its amplifier is but a few feet from the mic; the drum programming is surreal: the concert bass drum so huge that it momentarily obliterates the other instruments each time it’s sounded, while the snare drum swims in a long tail reverb yet still sounds closer to us than the guitar; finally, the Croft’s voice has a super close-up and dry sound, as if Croft is whisper-singing with a hoodie on and her mouth an inch from the mic. On the one hand, “Angels” sounds like a realistic recording: like four musicians located at varying locations around a single microphone. On the other hand, the song also presents an impossible listening perspective that places the listener at the center of each sound. “Angels” is a simple song, but its arrangement and its recording give it reams of deep resonance.

On Music In Its Context: Noise Musicians Improvising In The Subway

The Union Square subway station in New York City is a pretty loud place. As the N, R, L, 4, 5, and 6 trains pull into the station there’s some serious, 90-plus decibel metallic screeching happening when the cars hit their breaks and come to a stop.

Given this noisy soundscape, I was both surprised and not surprised to encounter two noise/free-improv musicians holding forth on the 4, 5, and 6 platform. One guy plays the saxophone, the other an electric guitar fed through some effects pedals. Their music is noisy, ad hoc and chaotic, the sax player ripping through atonal lines, squawks and wheezes, while the guitarist strums a constant rhythmic drone in the upper octaves of his instrument. Sometimes it’s not even quite clear how their parts relate to one another. And while there are moments of melody and space, for the most part this isn’t easy listening material. It’s intense.

Their music making is a perfect example of the importance of hearing music in its context of production. I’ve watched some listeners look at these musicians and shake their heads derisively, as if saying: “Why on earth are you making noise in this already noisy place?” But another way to listen to them is as commentators on our environment–interpreting the industrial sounds around us and transforming them into a variety of music. It’s in this way that music has always felt like a kind of alchemy.

Not everyone is buying it though–some folks just plug their ears and shake their heads as they walk by. But I gave the guys money because their music and choice of performance venue made me stop for a moment and think.

Musical Appropriation Or Just A Shoe That Fits? : Dirty Loops’ Pop Reversioning

“Hey, we’re on to so much knowledge and the music industry won’t let us use it in a creative way.”
– Aaron, drummer for Dirty Loops

“Could you please make a cover of every song in existence?”
- Dirty Loops YouTube viewer comment

There’s a lot that’s interesting going on when you watch and listen to Dirty Loops, a trio from Sweden, blaze trough their über-funky cover versions of pop songs by Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Adele, and others.

First, you’re surprised to see, well, three very young-looking Swedish guys making such a funky and soulful sound that draws so heavily on the harmonic conventions of jazz and gospel. Plus, the keyboardist also sounds like Stevie Wonder. But I’m setting myself up here. I was going to say that as far as stylistic appropriation goes, Dirty Loops pulls off a virtuosic feat. This might be unfair though because why should we say that Dirty Loops are appropriating anything? Don’t their clear musical skills suggest a kind of ownership of the musical idioms and eras they’re working in? Does it matter if those idioms– like the jazz-funk fusion on display in Dirty Loops’ pop song covers–have been around since the 1970s? And does it matter that the members of Dirty Loops were not even born until well after the heyday of these musics? I think the group’s airtight playing makes such questions moot.

A second interesting thing going on when you listen to Dirty Loops is that you get to revisit some very well-known pop songs that have been transformed through re-harmonizing and intricately syncopated arrangements. Part of the pleasure here is hearing how light pop hits like Bieber’s “Baby” can be transformed to yield so many riffs, off-beat unison hits, big spacey jazz chords, spirited Wonder-esque vocal runs, Jaco Pastorious-esque bass solos, and drum clinic drum fills. But as you listen with not a little astonishment at Dirty Loops’ instrumental virtuosity, you also wonder if it’s really true that the tune is most important thing in music (the quality of the tune is what makes a song valuable), or whether what matters is what the musicians do with/to the tune (the quality of the musicianship is what makes a performance of a tune valuable). In the case of Dirty Loops, I’m not sure I know the answer.

Real/Fake Drumming On A Fake/Real Keyboard: Thinking About Virtual Musicianship

The photo is me–playing a percussion part on the keyboard. This is one of the stranger wonders of the digital turn in music over the past quarter century: triggering sounds with instruments or controllers that themselves have nothing to do with those sounds. I don’t mind playing drums on the keyboard though. In fact, I’ve become pretty adept at it–learning to play snares, kicks, tom toms and cymbals by switching among those plastic black and white keys. Sure, I could get a fancy controller with squishy rubber pads to drum on (and maybe I just will and report back to you on that), but squishy rubber pads are still not real drums now are they?

I took this photo while in the middle of working on a project precisely because I was so immersed in the moment, experimenting with different tom-tom patterns. Like a deep sea diver coming up for air, I suddenly gasped at the strangeness of me drumming away on a plastic MIDI keyboard and not really caring about it one way or another, so focused I was on the sounds and the patterns. How far I’ve come in my electronic music enculturation! Or should I say: How low I’ve fallen! Whichever it is, how did I get to this musical place and is it a good thing or a bad thing or a neutral thing that I’m here?

Having been a percussionist for a fairly long time now, I still filter any music I hear or make through whatever skills and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike. Here’s a simple example: When I listen to the drum/percussion part of a song, I imagine the physical moves required to play this rhythmic pattern on an instrument like a drum set. It makes little difference if the part I’m hearing is human- or machine-generated–either way I hear it as a physical possibility. In this sense, I resonate as if in sympathy to the pattern, trying to feel it as I might execute it.

This is as it should be: acquired music making skills shape how we listen to music. But there are limitations here too. Indeed, how hard it is to free ourselves of thinking through our existing musical skill sets to imagining worlds beyond them! This, of course, is one of the reasons why musicians practice all the time: to keep expanding the range of what is possible to do at an instrument (and therefore imagine at an instrument). Practice is one way to expand. But what my plastic MIDI keyboard points towards is ways of accessing putting together rhythms that have nothing to do with the experience of drumming.

I find this prospect both fascinating and dismal. Fascinating because just about anything is theoretically possible when patterns can be programmed instead of played. Dismal because I wonder if the Royal Order Of Musicianship is ultimately under long-term threat from the programmers. I’m kind of joking with all that haughty capitalization, of course, but I’m serious about some kind of oral tradition lineage ultimately being endangered. (Seriously: What are the stakes for our using electronic simulacra of acoustic musical instruments?)

What is ironic is that I’m negotiating this landscape of worry myself as I make music on my computer, thinking about how my musical skills are simultaneously atrophying in some ways while truly expanding in others. And I can feel the tension as I cling to older ways of making music. For example, I still build my patterns “by hand” as it were, playing them one note at a time on the keyboard, because it’s only in the process of playing that I feel like I can exercise my musical sensibility. I could draw the notes in or cut and paste them around, I suppose, but these processes don’t feel real enough for me. It’s easier to just play and see what I can come up with on the spot. Playing also encourages me improvise and build phrases that lean towards longer than shorter.

This, finally, is why I took the photo of my finger drumming on the keyboard. It’s just a lot more fun to play something than to turn a knob, or tweak, filter, or process a sound. And so that’s what I was doing in that musical moment: playing a pattern, one note at a time.

On Gary Marcus’s “Guitar Zero”

About five years ago I began playing acoustic guitar. I played off and on for a while, learning chord shapes, and trying (without success) to build callouses on my fingertips. I also experimented with alternate tunings and used a capo, recording a number of chord progressions I thought sounded interesting (hear the audio file at the end of this post). As a musician familiar with the keyboard’s horizontal layout of black and white notes, the guitar presented a puzzling new geography that was both horizontal (notes getting higher as you move from left to right) and vertical (notes spanning the near low strings to the high ones located further away, down towards your feet). I learned a bunch of chords but also realized that it would take me years of practice/enculturation to groove a relationship and any kind of musical fluency with the instrument. Plus, I never really felt like a guitarist, only like a guy playing guitar. So I did the sensible thing: I quietly put away the instrument.

I thought about my guitar experience recently as I read psychologist Gary Marcus’s excellent Guitar Zero: The New Musician And The Science Of Learning, a memoir and neuroscience exploration of learning to play a musical instrument. The book is a story of the author’s journey learning guitar from scratch at age 39. Can he do it? He’s not especially young, and to make matters worse, he’s admittedly somewhat unmusical too–cursed with what he humorously describes as “congenital arrhythmia.” So this is the book’s conceit: Can dogged persistence, practice, close listening, and a good teacher set Marcus on his way to a musical life? Well, yes, kind of. Through the book we follow the NYU professor over the course of a sabbatical year from teaching as he takes lessons, learns chord changes, practices with metronomes, performs songs (on bass guitar) at an NYC children’s rock music camp, and even tries his hand at songwriting. Marcus doesn’t become a virtuoso but does achieve a newfound balance in his life through his guitar playing. Music, it seems, has a unique power to make our experiences meaningful: it gives us the sense of having a voice while simultaneously drawing on an array of physical and cognitive skill sets to make that sense possible in the first place.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of Guitar Zero is its fresh take on the cognitive complexities of learning and playing even the simplest of music. Rarely do we reflect on skills we already have, but any experienced musician reading this book will be energized to do just that, thinking through his or her own journey of coming to know music making as a physical-mental-spiritual presence by following Marcus’s progress. If nothing else, the reader may reflect on how making music requires a high degree of perceptual mastery (e.g. sound pattern recognition), the coordination of multiple muscles (e.g. think about the four limbs of the drum set player, each doing something different), and the engagement of memory and anticipation (for musical experience has no past or future, only the fleeting present). In terms of engaging, whole body-mind workouts, there’s simply nothing like making music.

But learning about the author’s musical progress—a story which in fact is fairly brief—is just one of the charms of this book. Other pleasures await in the many byways he opens up alongside the main story of learning to play guitar. These byways address a number of pressing questions about music, and they had me enthusiastically marking passages on my Kindle. What follows are elaborations on some of those questions.

To start, what makes great musicians great? While there are as many answers to this question as there are great musicians, one answer might be that great musicians have an ability to continuously monitor their performances, learn from them and then improve–a cycle that lead to their skills getting better and better and better over time. Case in point: the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who tells Marcus that he makes detailed written notes after every performance which then become study guides for what went wrong and what went right. “A good part of expertise” says Marcus, “comes from diagnosing one’s own likely mistakes.” Surely not every great musician makes notes like Metheny, but setting up a feedback loop for continuing refinement seems to be a hallmark of expertise generally.

This idea of musical diagnostics brings us to the question of what makes a great teacher. Marcus observes a number of skilled teachers and notes that they’re all highly perceptive, with ears and eyes sharply attuned to spot technical and physical problems. Great teachers can propose solutions to musical problems too, connecting with their students by maintaining their attention and motivating them to improve. It can even be fun. One teacher observed by Marcus, J. Cirt Gill from Weaver Academy in Greensboro, NC, impresses the author in how he guides students to design their own podcast projects for his music production classes. Here, the teacher functions as a spark used by students who go on to light their own fires.

Marcus also considers the fire that is music performance and how performers–especially improvisers–know and create through their actions in the moment. A key question in this context: What’s the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge in music? The distinction between the two is important for aspiring artists studying master performers for clues–that is, for ways to extract theory from performance. But the catch is that procedural knowledge is all about working by feel in the moment. Here, Marcus cites the great jazz pianist Bill Evans as a model of procedural knowledge. Evans’ improvisations innovated new varieties of harmonizing that were only later codified into (written) theory. So, there’s good reason to believe that artistic innovation comes about not by consciously thinking about it (“I want to innovate…”) but by letting “the ways of the hand” (Sudnow 2001) do their thing, in the heat of the moment.

Marcus also examines the alleged connections between music and language, unpacking the sources of music’s omnipresence. “Why is music virtually ubiquitous” he asks, “when many other arts have a smaller presence in daily life?” Why is it that music is so pervasive in everyday social life no matter where you go in the world? No one knows for sure, but music’s ubiquity has led many to wonder whether or not there’s a music “instinct” in our DNA. Is there? No, there isn’t. Our “being musical” is the result of neural circuitry that’s been finely tuned over the course of human evolution, though not for music per se. Music isn’t the product of evolution, “but the product of artists evolving their craft in order to tickle the brain in particular ways.” Music’s ubiquity, then, is just something we’ve cultivated.

And perhaps music’s staggering variety of idioms reflects its ongoing cultivation. Indeed, there also seems to be a connection between the variety of personality types in the world and the varieties of musical taste. Marcus tells of how the perceived value of a piece of music “derives partly from the temperament of the listener.” Thus, extroverted types are said to prefer energetic and rhythmic music, and so on. This is interesting stuff to think about as a way of understanding the roots/routes of one’s own musical affinities.

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One of the most compelling ideas in the book is the author’s contention that music itself is a technology “refined and developed over the last fifty thousand years, in no small part to maximize flow.” This experience of flow can be felt in the euphoric feeling experienced while “jamming” with other musicians or while improvising. And what an invention music is! Consider a few things about it. First, its complex formal structures allow us to experience both novelty and familiarity at the same time. Second, because music unfolds over time and we can’t remember all of its details at once, it’s perpetually new. Finally, the physicality of music and its connection to our sense of motion makes it immersive and flow-inducing. What a package!

Many of music’s innovations are intellectual and not physical. For example, Marcus reminds us that the plainchant practice of 9th-century monks singing two different pitches at the same time (as opposed to singing in unison) lead to the development of organum, harmony, and eventually chord progressions as a way to organize music’s melodic flow over time. Likewise with the innovations of steady rhythm: “Virtually every song you hear on the radio nowadays” Marcus says, “combines these two musical techniques–harmony and steady percussion–both of which in essence had to be invented.”

As a technology, music has changed quite radically over the centuries, the two-dimensional quality of that 9th-century plainchant (“like paintings from before the discovery of perspective” says Marcus) giving way to the multidimensional, flow-inducing properties of harmony (which become increasingly expressive over the centuries). As a technology of sounding, music adapts to our ever-changing appetites, as each “new generation of artists craves new ways to broaden the palette, and hence better ways of keeping both listeners and performers entranced, in a state of flow.” Thus, electronic and digital technologies of 20th- and 21st-century music such as multitrack recording, synthesizers, electric guitars, microphones, and computers “are the musical equivalent of new species, which open up new niches and are in some ways better adapted to the environment than many of their predecessors.”

Finally, to return to music’s unique power, Marcus describes the philosophy of eudaimonia–the sources and cultivation of long-term, slow-burning human happiness. Making or listening to music, says Marcus, is a special way of being in the world “because of its potential for combining the hedonia of enjoying [it] in the moment with the eudaimonia of a constant sense of progress, as the musician continues to learn new techniques, create new songs, and make new discoveries.”

Guitar Zero, then, documents a wide-reaching musical trip. There’s a lot of material here, yet it’s covered in an accessible and engaging way that makes the journey fun. Yes, Marcus learns to play guitar decently. Yes, he performs with a band in front of a crowd. Yes, he even composes his own song. But, for this reader at least, the author’s worthy practical goals have also provided the perfect excuse to unravel some of music’s most enduring questions and experiences.

On (Making) Recordings Versus (Living) Live Music

“Record stores”, a friend of mine once memorably observed as we drove past one, “are where music goes to die.” And with the demise of record stores, music recordings–and by recordings I mean CDs–have had a tough time surviving since MP3 downloading became the primary way most people get their music. For musicians, it used to be a big deal to make your own recording. Once upon a time you needed money to go into a studio and record, and you needed more resources to have your music mastered, packaged and promoted. If you had distribution, your recording might even find its way into a bin at Tower Records, where it would sit and be mostly ignored. But these days any musician with a computer and an Internet connection can make a recording and distribute it around the world to anyone who may want to listen (and getting people to listen is harder than it may seem). So our recordings don’t go to die in record stores anymore; they just languish in relative obscurity among the billions of other bytes of sound swirling out there in cyberspace.

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In his recent New Yorker article “Flight Of The Concord”, classical pianist Jeremy Denk artfully describes the process of recording and editing a piece of solo piano music. The music is Charles Ives’ “Piano Sonata No.2″ (1920), also known as the Concord Sonata, an eclectic piece in whose transcendentalism-inspired polytonal and polyrhythmic juxtaposition of musical styles–from marching band music to quotations from Beethoven all mashed up together–one hears a musical postmodernism well before its time.

In explaining the process of recording Ives’s difficult music, Denk conveys the challenges raised in a typical studio session–from the way microphone placement affects (and often misrepresents) an instrument’s sound, to matters of musical interpretation and fidelity to the piece’s printed score. There are so many moving parts to capturing a live performance that it’s a minor miracle that any studio session ever goes right, especially considering what Denk calls the “tragedy” of recording itself. As busy as the musician (and the sound engineer, the producer) is “engaged in a task of reproduction, you keep coming up against the irreproducible.” In other words, what makes music music is very hard to capture and reproduce on a recording.

In pointing towards this ineffable quality of music as the source of its mystery, Denk gets to the core of the dilemma of recordings for performing musicians. Recordings are not the real thing, they’re simulacra, “manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away.” And I imagine lots of musicians reading Denk’s article will have a good idea of the considerable physical and mental effort involved in learning a piece to the point that the music is internalized and can be performed (for those listening microphones) convincingly. Recordings may capture performances, to a degree, but they’re also entirely different beasts. They circulate one’s music, sure, but what is circulating is not the sonic-social transaction of the performer and his/her audience but rather an edited snapshot of a pseudo event that is the recording session.

It’s no wonder, then, that Denk concludes his finely tuned article–with his finished CD in hand, by the way–anticipating his next live performance of Ives’ Concord. Next time, he assures us, it will be totally different…

You can read Denk’s writing here.

On “Going Classical”: Popular Music Played With Orchestras

It seems as if there always comes a time in the life of a rock band or pop artist to team up with a symphony orchestra. Usually this involves re-arranging songs for strings, winds, and percussion. Move over electric guitar, bass and drums: we’re going classical.

Recently I saw Peter Gabriel perform with an orchestra on David Letterman. Gabriel was singing an old hit “Red Rain” (1986) and as I listened I tried to find something in this new version that improved on the old. The original track, by the way, had been meticulously assembled in the studio with top flight musicians to create a dense soundscape that was unusual for pop music at the time. The new orchestral arrangement seems a little stiff in comparison.

Here’s the original song:

Here’s the orchestral remake:

Sting has also had some of his songs arranged for orchestra:

And the hard rock group Metallica dialed down its volume a little for performances with the San Francisco symphony:

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These kinds of rock/pop-orchestral collaborations highlight two musical facts. First, pop melodies are generally different beasts from classical ones. They tend to be short and simple in structure, and rely on insistent repetition to achieve their affect. Also, they’re not usually polyphonic or lushly harmonized. This means that the orchestra’s vast instrumental resources are often wasted on pop melody’s more austere demands. Second, the orchestra and the pop music outfit are entirely different timbral beasts as well. The sonic profile of say, a string section playing unison long tones of fourths and fifths is different from an electric guitarist playing a “power chord” of fourths and fifths through a distortion pedal and an amplifier. And so timbre is not merely a musical parameter: the same notes played on different instruments can make us feel very differently. Maybe this is why pop music played by orchestras can sound limp.

So, here’s a question: why do popular artists keep returning to the orchestra–especially at later stages of their careers? Is the orchestra just a novel soundscape waiting to be explored? Or are some popular musicians on a (secret) quest for high culture legitimacy, trying to situate their songs alongside the canon of works by the classical greats? In a 2011 interview, Gabriel acknowledges the cliché of the pop musician gravitating towards the orchestra. He also thoughtfully describes the challenging process of working with one:

“The most difficult part of the orchestral project is to get it funky. You don’t have a natural James Brown rhythm section. [The orchestra] has a certain gravity to it and you’ve got to (a) nail the arrangement, and (b) nail the conducting and the playing to get it to groove in a way that I’m used to underlying my songs.”

Here is the full interview:

What we come away with after listening to these pop-classical encounters is that, whatever the musicians’ motivations, it can only be a good thing for the popular and classical idioms to continue to get to know one another, revealing each other’s sound tendencies, aesthetics, constraints and ability to make us feel something.

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