brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: piano music

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 Grid Music Antidotes: Harold Budd’s “Quadari”

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Like a lot of people, I listen to a lot of “grid” music. Grid music is any music with a clear, consistent, and steady meter. By this definition, most music is grid music. Electronic music–especially the kind with steady beats, which is sometimes referred to as electronic dance music–is uber grid music. All of its sounds are organized around (usually) a 4/4 metric grid, quantized to the grid, and flowing along the constraints of the grid. Even electronic musicians in whose work the rhythmic fabric is unusually loose and funky–like tracks by Flying Lotus, say–the music remains organized in relation to an implicit grid.

Harold Budd though, is off the grid–way off the grid. And this is what makes his music so refreshing. While I have written about Budd and his music before on this blog, I don’t know much about his musical philosophy (if in fact there is one). Wikipedia says that Budd creates his slow and sustained piano soundscapes using an approach he calls “soft pedal” but that doesn’t fully explain the sound. (The soft pedal is the leftmost of the three piano pedals. When depressed it softens the sound of the instrument.) Whatever Budd’s method, the result sounds free and spacious, soaring above the conventions of the nearest contemporary musical style landmarks such as ambient or new age or post-minimalist classical. And the music is off the grid not only rhythmically, but harmonically too. His chords–maybe they’re not quite chords, but rather the result of the sustain pedal blurring sequences of notes together?–don’t create a sense of goal-oriented motion. Instead, they just float and slowly hover like clouds. The music is vaguely episodic, as if composed of various snapshots of some kind of nature setting. However it might be described, Budd’s musical voice is a singular voice. It does its own thing, creating its own kind of space to inhabit, and this is good.

On Piano Lessons: Tricia Tunstall’s “Note By Note”

“An instrumentalist is an athlete.” –Tricia Tunstall

For many people, taking piano lessons is an initial gateway to learning to make and understand music for themselves. Knowing that 88-key terrain of black and white tones and semitones is a giant step towards understanding the pushes and pulls of tonal music, and piano playing makes mind and hands dexterous, connecting the physical with the emotional through sound. Last but not least, taking piano lessons–probably, it’s safe to say, more so than taking guitar or drum lessons–is a marker of social class and badge of having a well-rounded education. If you’ve learned and practiced your scales, played Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, some atmospheric Debussy maybe, or even mastered a clinical Bach invention or fugue, you’ve partaken in the canon of western classical music–that grand 1000 year-old behemoth that continues to inform and influence so much other music around the world even as it risks becoming a museum piece itself.

In her book Note By Note (2009), Tricia Tunstall explores the experience of teaching piano, that “weekly session alone together, physically proximate, concentrating on the transfer of a skill that is complicated and difficult” (3). Tunstall, a veteran teacher of children and teenagers of all ages and stages, conveys well the relationships among herself, her students, the piano, and the notes on the page in this fluid, insightful, and eminently readable memoir. Every student has different needs, interests, and abilities, yet each must learn how to really listen to sound and learn how “to rescue music from its ubiquity–to pull it from the background to the forefront, free it from its uses” (7). Piano lessons, Tunstall says, are about (re)situating music as an autonomous practice–to save it from being merely a thing downloaded and listened to as a soundtrack for something else. Note By Note captures the piano lesson itself as a kind of autonomous practice. It’s a space to learn about the development and limits of skill, concentration, and the musicking body.

Young children especially seem to intuitively understand music as an object of inherent pleasure, taking delight in finding the right keys and “enjoying pure sonority” (18). But as their piano lessons progress over time and make music increasingly a process of serious study, the lessons also discipline the students in ways that will curtail that intuitive enjoyment of pure sonority. As Tunstall notes, sometimes the acquisition of a musical skill comes at the expense of a musical impulse” (18). For example, for many piano students, learning to read notes on a page entails “the death of the improvisatory impulse” (21). Tunstall admits to being uneasy about this fact of western music enculturation: on the one hand, one needs to learn how to read in order to have access to all that great music; on the other hand, as our eyes become adept at interpreting notes on the page as “music” some of the subtle connections between the ear and the “improvisatory impulse” are muted. Tunstall addresses this fact by having all her students improvise at the end of their lessons. It’s not a perfect solution, but it reinforces the idea that music is a living activity and not just an acquired skill of note-decoding.

Not surprisingly, popular music is of great interest to many of Tunstall’s students, and some of the more interesting sections in Note By Note chronicle the author’s assessing the musical qualities of rock, jazz, pop, and especially hip hop musics as she helps students figure out how to play their favorite songs on the piano. Many sample-based hip hop songs are, of course, impossible to render (for how does one render spoken word and a rhythm track on a piano?) and it’s fascinating to learn how Tunstall negotiates the terrain of rhythm-based musics while her students look at her expectantly with a please help me figure out how to play my favorite song look.

But for all her attempts to engage with popular music, Tunstall’s allegiances are firmly in the classical world, which she considers “still the most eloquent and compelling manifestation of the musical language we all know” (85). (A minor quibble here: Who is this homogenous “we” Tunstall addresses? “We” don’t all know this musical language–many of us speak in alternate tongues…) And, remarkably, as her students “use their iPods to construct their own musical neighborhoods out of the vast territory of what’s available” (117), somehow classical music finds a way into their listening lives, over and over again. Tunstall marvels at this, but doesn’t take it for granted; she’s receptive to students wanting to learn music that they once heard somewhere and were hooked. For Tunstall, this is simply evidence that the canon of classical piano music has a power “to move those spirits that are open to being moved” (82).

Which brings us to Eddie, one of the dozen or so students whose progress Tunstall carefully maps over the course of her book. Eddie is smitten by Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor) and desperately wants to learn to play it. Tunstall worries that Eddie has neither “emotional experience nor aural image to guide him” (129), yet Eddie is undeterred, driven by a musically-triggered desire to make Beethoven’s music his own, to get it into his fingers and embody its notes. And so student and teacher embark on the slow process of learning the sonata together. Eddie eventually learns to play it, note by note, and play it well too. “Through playing” Tunstall observes proudly, “he was actually learning a new way to feel” (130).

Some Notes On The Usefulness Of Improvisation

The problem with improvisation is, of course, that everyone just slips into their comfort zone and does sort of the easy thing to do, the most obvious thing to do with your instrument.” — Brian Eno

My friend Lee is always asking me to write music for him to sing over–”we just need an A and a B section!” he likes to say in endless encouragement–but as much as I try I usually come up short.  A few nights ago I turned on the computer and loaded up an acoustic piano sound and tried (again) to do something for my friend.

But I really just wanted to improvise.  As a player of somewhat limited means, the kind of playing I’ve always gravitated to is modal–that is, music that stays in the same scale or group of notes for the duration of the improvisation.  I also tend towards keeping my hands moving–often in an interlocking fashion where the left hand crosses over the right–to make a continuous rhythm. Most of all, though, I like experimenting with different “shapes” of my hands over the keyboard to make chords or note combinations that sound (and look) new to me.  My hands keep trying new configurations in search of new sounds that make me feel anew.  It’s not as much a matter of expressing my feelings through the keyboard as much as unearthing a sensual “language” for expressiveness.  So, a chord doesn’t so much embody a feeling as much as seems to refract it through its juxtapositions of notes and intervals played with varying dynamics and rhythm.

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As I play, I begin by trying out some kind of pop-sounding chord progression. But it sounds contrived; it’s too simple, too boring to my ear. And as much as I try, I can’t ever seem to get my chord progressions simple enough.  There’s always something a little off–like I’ve missed some fundamental concept of music theory. And besides, I’m feigning interest in a musical idiom in which I’m only a tourist (listening to songs while driving, for instance).

It’s at this point that I momentarily “give up.”  It’s a key moment because what I’m giving up is the pretense of actually trying to accomplish anything specific (like actually writing a song–ha!).  Also, I’m giving up a sense of being in control over the outcome of my improvisation–of knowing and directing where it will go and how it will go.  So “giving up” is a turning point where I lose all ambition (sorry Lee: there will be no “song” tonight) and just get into the experience the music is offering me.

I like the piano because it has such a large range of registers, a rounded tone, and a sustain pedal that allows me to st r  e   t    c     h my playing and let sounds ring.  And the amazing thing is that once I begin I forget that I’m using a little 61-key plastic midi controller hooked up to the computer via USB and triggering digital piano samples.  The sounds fool me enough that I can lose myself in them, my body tricked into thinking this is a real piano and interacting with it accordingly, pressing those plastic keys as if they’re ivory.

I try playing with an electronic metronome click track (in case later I might want to add other parts to the piano) but it feels constraining.  When I play the piano without other sounds, I want sp a  c    e  to play with dynamics and tempo, so I mute the click and just choose a fluctuating, personal tempo that feels appropriate for this late hour.  Ahh, much better.

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After a false start, I hit record and improvise for five minutes.  Listening to it now, it seems to have captured something of the moment.  It captures less a feeling or a mood (though it does seem to have that) and more just musical thinking in motion.  I like improvising because it moves at the speed of my thought (and the mechanical limitations of my piano technique!)–no slower, and certainly no faster.  My improvisation (which hasn’t been edited in any way) has some space to it too, in the form of little pauses where I let notes ring out while I consider what just happened and where I might go next.

For me, improvising on the piano like this is a fun and useful exercise in listening and concentrating.

From Geoff Dyer’s Criticism To Keith Jarrett’s Pianism

In his recent collection of essays, Otherwise Known As The Human Condition, novelist and critic Geoff Dyer writes beautifully and incisively about photography in a way that I wish more writers would (or could) write about music.  Here is Dyer writing on Idris Khan’s work (pictured below) that digitally blends hundreds of photographs into a single composite image:

“Each art form has its own unique advantages and limitations.  Words and music unfold successively, through time.  Photography is about an instant.  By analogy it can ask the impossible: in this case, what if you could hear every note of Beethoven’s sonatas in an instant?  What would it look like?  And when we think of a piece of music that we know well, don’t we sometimes remember it not phrase by phrase, but in its amorphous entirety?

It is often said that photographers freeze time but Khan does the opposite.  This can be seem most clearly in his remixes of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of the 1880s [...] Muybridge used fast shutter speeds to break action into moment-by-moment increments, rendering movement stationary.  Kahn takes these sequences of isolated moments and unfreezes time by combining them in a single image.  Muybridge’s strictly mechanical record of a man getting out of bed becomes a vision of the unconscious lifting clear of the body, a dream of waking…” (84).

Lucky for us, Dyer does briefly turn to music in a later section of the book, writing about artists as varied as John Coltrane (and his versions of “My Favorite Things”), Indian singer Ramamani, and 1980s rockers Def Leppard.  The most compelling essay here, however, is “Editions Of Contemporary Me”, Dyer’s personal account of encountering new music through the ECM record label.  (The essay’s title is a play on the record label’s name.)  ECM is the brainchild of Manfred Eicher, who started the label in Germany in 1969 as a vehicle for releasing new and interesting sounds that span and fall in between the stylistic boundary lines of jazz, classical, and world music.  Probably due to Eicher’s artistic vision and curatorial ear, there is a distinctive ECM aesthetic: think minimal designs, contemplative and vast open spaces, and sounds roaming free in reverberant halls.  Some have argued–somewhat disparagingly–that ECM was a pioneer of what has come to be called New Age music.

A longtime ECM artist is piano virtuoso Keith Jarrett, about whom Dyer cannot say enough good things.  As it happens, during the time I was reading Dyer on Jarrett I cleaned my closet and out came tumbling Jarrett’s Koln Concert CD, his 1975 recording of an improvised concert at the Cologne Opera House that is the best-selling piano record of all time.  The details surrounding the concert are well-known by now: a half-working piano delivered to the concert hall by mistake that sounded thin in the bass and upper registers, Jarrett’s fatigue and back pain (not to mention his irritation with the piano situation), and a late night, 11:30pm showtime.  Under these less than auspicious conditions, Jarrett pulled off a historic performance in front of 1700 entranced listeners, making do with he had, and more than that, structuring his performance around the limitations of his instrument.

Listening to Koln Concert two things stand out for me.  The first is how Jarrett can sustain the listener’s interest by creating long lyrical melodic lines that keep shifting–in their harmonies, their patterns of accentuation and dynamics, their register, and in their length.  These melodies are simple yet elastic and endlessly adaptable.  Listening to them you feel like you’re hearing a good story.  A second thing that stands out is Jarrett’s relentless and precise groove, especially that left hand of his that builds rhythmic ostinati on top of which he spins his right hand melodies.

But let me add one more thing.  The music gets even more interesting when both of these qualities–long melodies and relentless grooves–blur together to make a kind of melodic drumming on the keyboard.  In the YouTube clip below of Part II B, you can hear this especially beginning at the 6:45 mark through to the end of the clip.  Here, melodies and harmonies form a single and constantly morphing sound mass.  What’s neat about this is that you hear Jarrett seemingly moving through (or channelling?) all kinds of musical idioms–from early 20th century French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel to Middle Eastern modes to American minimalism and beyond–with just the shift of a semitone here and there.  Here is the clip:

Overall, Koln Concert is a good illustration of Dyer’s assertion that the most alive jazz has always been that which tries to escape the idiom’s well-worn stylistic paths in search of new territories to assimilate.  I don’t know if Jarrett was thinking about any of this during his Koln concert, but you can nevertheless hear something very modern here, as if Jarrett/jazz is trying to get outside of himself/itself.  Jazz is omnivorous, able to digest just about any other music and make it its own.

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