On Four Tet Remixing “Thriller” In Ten Minutes

I recently watched and re-watched a wonderful video in which Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) remixes Michael Jackson’s Thriller as part of the “Beat This” series. The challenge is to make a remix in ten minutes. The catch is that Hebden can only use sounds from Thriller. What makes the video wonderful–even a little thrilling–is seeing and hearing a producer work in real time. The time constraint is actually useful, because it serves to compress a series of steps and decisions Hebden must take and make in order to whip something up. What we’re left with is the essence of transforming one work of music into another.


With the clock ticking, Hebden begins. For the first thirty seconds, he skips the stylus around side one of Jackson’s 1982 record, sampling a few bars from a few songs. He wastes no time, taking bits from the openings of “Beat It”, “Billy Jean”, “Human Nature”, and “P.YT.” Satisfied he has enough material to work with (clock is ticking!), he turns off the record player and turns to his laptop. Next, he loads the Thriller samples into a Drum Rack in Ableton. The Drum Rack simulates the series of rubber drum pads that one might find on hardware drum machine, each pad assigned to a sound sample. With the sounds loaded in, Hebden can move around their waveforms, listening for interesting bits.

At 8:19, Hebden isolates the kick drum from the “Billy Jean” beat, and draws in a four-on-the-floor MIDI pattern that triggers the kick. He also quickly EQs it to bring up its bass frequencies. With the repeating kick as an anchor, he isolates the snare drum sound from the same song, putting it on every fourth beat, and the hi hat sound from “P.Y.T”, putting it on every 8th note offbeat. By 6:35 he has a dance music rhythm going. At 6:00, Hebden has found a small bit from “P.Y.T.” and re-pitched it. He keeps wandering about the “P.Y.T.” sample, only to return to the bit he likes around 5:25. Next, around 5:00, he draws in a three-note MIDI rhythm, and uses this rhythm to trigger the opening sound of “Beat It.” (How did Jackson make that sound, by the way?) By 3:30, Hebden is working on the Arrangement page, organizing his repeating parts into a larger structure. At 1:19 you can hear how ominous one of his re-pitched voice samples has become. In fact, for me, this background ambiance is now the hook of the remix.

Finally, the ten minutes are up and Hebden has something. When asked by one of the cameramen if he likes the piece, Hebden says he does, joking that he’ll play the remix exactly as is at a club in London that coming weekend.


In sum, the video offers us a few lessons. First, even a very short window of time is enough time in which to make something–or start something. Hebden, ever skilled with his software and experienced ear, managed to create a tight arrangement in a few minutes. Second, we see a musician working with a limited set of materials–brief samples from four songs–to make something new. But the materials aren’t really that limited. Notice, for instance, the thirty seconds during which Hebden scrolls back and forth along a sample, listening to it at various points (6:00-5:25). He chose just one loop that sounded good, but there were probably dozens of others that were just as interesting. Third, the video offers a case study in decision-making. With the 10-minute clock ticking down, Hebden has to decide which sounds he likes. There’s no time to waste: if something catches his attention, he goes with it. Those dozens of other loop candidates will have to wait for another day (or forever). Fourth, the video shows Hebden working with a very simple studio: a turntable, a computer, an audio interface (to get the turntable sound into the computer), software (Ableton Live), and two speakers. Given all the gear available these days, this set up is beautiful bare bones, and more than enough to work with. Finally, and this surprised me, watch Hebden’s eyes and hands. His eyes dart back and forth, tracking things on his screen, registering tiny details his ears have noticed. Meanwhile, his hands move the mouse and tap keyboard shortcuts–moving, dragging, cutting, and pasting musical material about the virtual environment of the software. This is the electronic musician’s body, engaged in concentration for ten minutes.

You can read more about Kieran Hebden here and here.

On Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer’s Re: ECM


The record label ECM has long interested me, ever since I used to buy second-hand jazz LPs as a teenager. (And I wrote earlier ECM-related blog posts here and here.) The brainchild of German producer Manfred Eicher, ECM is as famous for the beautiful and atmospheric recording quality of its releases–Eicher loves to record in naturally reverberant spaces–as for the stellar contemporary classical, jazz, and world artists whose musics the label records. A few years ago, Eicher agreed to let techno musicians Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer remix ECM’s catalog of music. Over a few months, Villalobos and Loderbauer combed through recordings looking for instrument sounds, voices, and even empty resonances to sample and work with. With the samples as raw material, they then constructed new pieces using electronic sounds and processing. The result is a double CD called Re: ECM.

In a video about the remix project, the producers–well Villalobos, mostly–discuss the aesthetics of the music as well as their creative process in assembling it. One observation was how there is a fairly limited range of frequencies available for the production of electronic music. By sampling the acoustic sounds on ECM recordings, the producers could significantly expand their timbral palette and make more “organic” music. Another observation concerned creative process. Villalobos explained that he and Loderbauer made loops out of all the sounds they sampled (whose repeating structures are almost impossible to actually hear in the music, by the way). They then improvised in the studio:

“It is an improvisation, where the elements are looped in a definite length and always repeat themselves in a certain way and also intertwine in a certain way…The mixing board becomes an instrument as well, and also the synthesizers, of course.”

For the most part, the music is dark, atmospheric, and quite abstract. This isn’t dance music by any stretch, and it isn’t an easy listen. My favorite track is “Reblazhenstva”–a remix of Russian composer Alexander Knaifel’s “Blazjenstva” that actually caused me to stop walking up some subway stairs so stunned was I when I first heard it. The piece has a slow 6-beat meter, an ominous low-end via kick drum and bass synth tones (sounding once every 3 beats), choir and solo voice samples from Knaifel’s piece, sampled snare drum hits, occasional percussive interruptions (bow on the bridge of a cello), bits of static, bits of string section, and solo violin. Lots of bits really, but incisively chosen bits. The sampled snare hits, the kick, and the bass synth tones glue everything together as the other sound sources come and go like clouds. For me, the most impressive aspect of the way the electronics were programmed/improvised is that the finished track doesn’t sound like beats were simply added to ECM samples or that the samples were grafted onto the beats. Instead, each sound sounds as if it were meant to be in the company of the others. It’s music like this that make me glad I take the time to listen.

Not surprisingly given ECM’s strict control over the circulation of its music over the Internet, I couldn’t find “Reblazhenstva” on YouTube. But I did find a stellar performance of Knaifel’s original composition. You’ll have to seek out the remix on your own.

Content, Form, And Versioning A Song Everybody Knows: Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know”

Sometime not overly long ago, Gotye’s song “Somebody I Used To Know” went very viral–becoming a song meme that was (and still is) hard to escape, whose video on YouTube has been viewed an astonishing 259 million times (or by some 518 million ears!). At least two or three of those views were mine, the first of which took place a few months ago while I was waiting on some take out fish. Curiously enough, I remember that I was at the fish place that afternoon because I was so impressed by the simplicity and contagiousness of the song. Plus, it features a child’s play xylophone part as one of its musical hooks. Hook, line, and sinker–I picked up my fish while glued to my phone watching and listening to the catchy song.

Born in 1980, Gotye (Wouter De Backer) is a Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter. In July 2011 he released “Somebody I Used To Know” as the second single from his record Making Mirrors. The song has an old-fashioned twang about it, built around just a few acoustic guitar chords in d minor, with some small Theremin-like electronic flourishes, bits of flute, some bass, and that dry-as-sand staccato xylophone refrain. Gotye shares the singing duties with New Zealand singer Kimbra. But perhaps most significantly for a pop song in 2012, “Somebody I Used To Know” is without a drummer besides the guitar part slapping the strings on beats two and four. Despite having a partial rhythm section, the song unleashes itself in the chorus as Gotye pushes his voice from a mumble into vintage Sting-like high reaches of affect. That’s the main charm of the song: it’s mellow and dark for the most part, but then takes off in the choruses. The other charm of the song is its timbre. Gotye’s motley collection of instrument sounds (some of which may or may not be samples: see the KCRW performance below where a laptop is in play) have a vintage aura about them–like they have been run through the audio equivalent of the Instagram photo app. Gotye, by the way, records and releases his music himself.

Perhaps because of its instrumentation, its catchy chorus, its vocal performances, or its subject matter, “Somebody I Used To Know” slowly grew on listeners even without much radio play in Australia or anywhere else. Something about it resonated authenticity–real music as opposed to industry-created fodder. And then, thanks to few celebrity Tweets and some television appearances, Gotye’s song exploded, eventually reaching number one on the Billboard charts in not one but twenty countries. Talk about a hit song.


When a song becomes popular, people not only talk about it but record cover versions of it too. This is the ultimate musical compliment–it’s as if your fellow musicians recognize the endless capacity of your sturdy song to withstand alternate versions. Sometime this summer, I noticed a version of Gotye’s hit booming from the bass-heavy stereos in cars slinking around my New York neighborhood. In full nerd-sleuth mode, I would stand still as the booming car drove by, looking like my dog sniffing the air for answers, trying to register the audible differences: the tempo is faster, there’s an electronic drum part…Is this a remix? Why yes, yes it is a remix by DJ Mike D. This version packed more dance punch that Gotye’s original, thanks mostly to its added electronic drum track. But perhaps because it’s a remix, the vocals seemed a tad more out of place: happy to be along for the ride in the new machine, sure, but from a different place.

Another Gotye cover is Mike Dawes’ remarkable instrumental rendition on acoustic guitar. Using fingerstyle techniques, strumming, hammer-ons, and harmonics, Dawes effortlessly coaxes all of the melodic and harmonic details of Gotye’s original version out of his six strings. His groove is impeccable too.


Something that comes to mind as I think through the popularity of Gotye’s song is the friction between an artist’s original statement (the “content” as it were) and its absorption into the public music sphere (the alternate “forms” as it were, such as cover versions and remixes, etc.). Simply put, when a piece of music widely connects with many, many people, it suggests not so much the machinations of the music industry at work (though industry is always at work) but of the labor of an artist–and in Gotye’s case, quite an independent artist–who has said something singular in a way that resonates honestly. And even when it’s possible to digitally mix and match anything with anything, like add an electronic beat to a Gotye song or do an instrumental cover version, this isn’t the same thing as making that original statement–saying something singular that resonates for many folks and gets ball rolling. That for me, is why songs like “Somebody I Used To Know” are significant: they remind us that there’s always room at the top for thoughtful and new quirky creative stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The complete Grammy performance of all five artists is here:

(Im)Perfect Congruence: On Dancing To Music

There’s a funny and almost disturbing video on YouTube that shows a couple apparently dancing to the angular beats of Autechre. The video is funny and strangely compelling because of its unlikely pairing. On the one hand, the video looks to be from the 1970s or 80s–some kind of European (Greek?) television program featuring a couple demonstrating basic “disco” dance moves. The couple glide in easy unison around the stage, even going into slow-motion at times (1:02), and are eventually joined by a bunch of other dancers near the end of the three-minute clip. The music, on the other hand, is of more recent vintage: specifically, it’s the track “Cfern” from Autechre’s album Confield (2001). So of course, the couple never actually heard Autechre and certainly weren’t dancing to it. Yet somehow the dancing and the music work well together. Who ever thought about assembling such a video?  (Oh the weird intelligences YouTube catches in its net . . .)

The YouTube viewer comments include this one: “movements are perfectly congruent to the music, AE themselves couldn’t dance better to their own stuff. Just psychedelic trance disco.”


What we’re laughing at, I think, is the same thing as what keeps us watching. First, there’s the odd contrast between the dated video and the cold, digital sounds. Notice too the moving gaze of the camera (focusing on the woman’s face at 2:45 and the man’s feet at 2:56) that makes us feel like voyeurs, the close-ups and the music working to reveal what feels like the inner lives of the dancers. Next, there’s all those smooth synchronies where footwork glides perfectly into marked beats: it looks like so much fun! Finally, but equally important, are the strange ruptures between the dance moves and the music. The ruptures are those spaces where body and sound don’t quite match up–those points where you wonder “How did they come up with that move to this sound?” And this is precisely what gets you thinking about how strangely dance and music mutually reinforce one another: one a visible trajectory in space that requires a soundtrack to add emotion to its narrative, the other a presence heard but always in need of bodily representation.

Sometimes audio-video remixes allow us to glimpse juxtapositions that we wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to experience. And if we let them, pastiche videos like this one spur us to imagine alternative–and yet unrealized–worlds where the collision of music and body sensibilities make for new ways of dancing free and strange.

On Marcus Boon’s In Praise Of Copying

Marcus Boon’s recent book, In Praise Of Copying (Harvard University Press, 2010), is a timely argument in favor of our freedom to freely copy one another in the name of healthy creativity.  Boon, a professor of literature at York University (as well as a DJ and contributor to Wire magazine) notes that the word copy derives from the Latin “copia” which means “abundance, plenty, multitude” (41).  Copying is everywhere, and Boon eloquently argues that not only is copying an integral part of being human, but that “we could not be human without copying, and that we can and should celebrate this aspect of ourselves, in full awareness of our situation” (7).

Part of what makes this book so authoritative on our situation is its own sheer copiousness and wide-ranging mobilization of ideas from philosophy, religion, critical cultural studies, anthropology, and music.  Anchoring the book’s argument are some ideas from Buddhist philosophy, through which Boon makes deep and abstract observations about copying, beginning with the fact that nothing is ever truly original and that everything comes from something, thus everything in the world is a copy.  We ourselves are copies too: namely, DNA copies (thankfully mutated ones!) of our parents (and their parents…).  For the world as we know it, it’s copies all the way down.

One of Boon’s main case studies is that of the Luis Vuitton handbag–the original LV which costs thousands of dollars and the many knock-off LV copies which look and feel practically identical but cost much less.  One interesting point here is how originals need copies in order to assert their originality; there’s a subtle dialogue between the two that Boon argues is essential to the original’s thriving.  So in the case of the LV bags, the knock offs are actually what give the original its imagined and real (i.e. dollars and cents) value.  The idea Boon is getting across is that the essence of things is never fixed, for if it were, “it could not be transported to the copy, and imitation, even as a degradation of the original, would not be possible” (27).

Musical practice is another useful locus for examining copying.  The reason for this is due to both its evanescence and its resistance to being controlled and regulated as a thing.  Music, notes Boon in one particularly luminescent passage, “appears and disappears fleetingly […] constellates into infinite sonic chains, precipitates collective joy, is eminently portable, and resists being turned into a thing or property–which is why folk cultures have such love for it” (65).  Boon cites folk music and hip hop as traditions that each thrive on copy-based practices.  Folk music cultures “are always cultures to whom nothing belongs, from whom everything is taken” (72), using and  transforming whatever is at hand as the basis for a shared repertoire.  (Think of all those simple chord progressions upon which countless songs are spun!)  Hip hop too is a music culture built on copying, a response “to the industrial world” (69) through the reappropriation of technologies of sound playback (think about the turntable) for copying purposes.  In both traditions, copying is at play “in the repetition of generic motifs and devices such as particular songs, rhythms, patterns, and practices…” (194).

Of course, musicians and composers–whether they work in folk/popular or classical music idioms–have always copied one another, but the issue of copying went into overdrive with the advent of the dub remix in the 1970s, then with the (disco) DJ spinning two copies of the same record to extend rhythmic breaks, and finally with the arrival of the digital sampler and the personal computer.  Now anybody can copy just about anything and make “endless copies of a tune” (67).  Indeed, we are truly in what Kevin Kelly calls a “recombinant moment.”

Overall, In Praise Of Copying offers an abundance of material to process and think through.  Boon’s book also helps the reader make sense of our recent digital music revolution.  Remember back in the early 2000s when Napster was so popular, when peer-to-peer file sharing of MP3 files seemed to be the future of music, and then how the recording industry shut it all down? (Napster is now a for pay subscription service.).  Napster was loathed because it eroded the idea of a music recording as a charged object of desire with value due to its manufactured scarcity.  Napster was also loathed because it effectively made any music that was in MP3 format a fluid, copyable thing again.  And Napster was inherently pro-copia and consumers loved it–free music!–while the recording industry hated it.  In Napster’s wake, of course, came Apple’s iTunes, digital rights management (which prevents you from making endless copies of all those songs you bought for 99 cents apiece), and a return to what Karl Marx would call “commodity fetishism” (183).

And here we come to the crux of the matter: music was never meant to be an object, but rather a shared, impermanent experience.  But with industrialization, capitalism, recordings (copied sound objects), and copyright law came the notion of music as property and the possibility of manufactured scarcity (and our fetishizing of commodities).  Copia, our abundance and shared heritage of creative work, has been, in our era, hijacked by commercial interests.  And yet . . .We remix, we mash-up, we digitally cut and paste and juxtapose, we auto-tune speech into melodies…Copia is, in these ways at least, alive and well.

Boon offers you a copy of his book to read here.

And for more reading on copying, see Jonathan Lethem’s excellent article “The Ecstasy of Influence” here.

Remixing Is A Curious Thing

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” – Igor Stravinsky

To a composer used to putting together notes on a page (or notes on the virtual page of a music notation program), the craft of remixing can seem like a curious thing.  Its original meaning, in the context of Jamaican dub music, was to literally re-mix reggae songs, usually taking out the vocal tracks and foregrounding the drum and bass tracks to make a spectral instrumental version of the original.  Since dub’s heyday through the work of Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, the remix art migrated to disco DJs and electronic dance music remixers.
Today, remixing is ubiquitous and we seem to be in the midst of what Kevin Kelly calls a “recombinant” moment.  In fact, remixing is a creative option for anyone with a computer and some cheap audio recording software.  Sounds can be recorded onto one’s cellphone, dumped into the computer, stretched, cut and pasted, superimposed, pitch-shifted, played backwards and filtered to an inch of their original acoustic lives.  It’s almost too easy, with too many options ready at a mouse click.
So why is remixing a curious thing to a pencil-paper composer?  For one thing, it challenges the notion that a piece of music needs to be a linear thing–beginning with a premise that develops systematically towards a conclusion.  Remixing makes music cyclical and it’s comfortable with non goal-oriented repetition.  Put more colloquially: remixes tend to groove pretty hard, and this is a good thing for almost any music.  But by making music comfortable with its loopability, remixers threaten the kinds of rigorous thinking composers like to think as their privileged domain.  Remixing mixes up our cherished musical narratives, making endings new beginnings, turning basslines into melodies, giving the voice a whole new set of clothes.  Remixing reveals new meanings and spins new stories from what were once thought to be finished statements.  And so the composer’s sense of “This is what I feel at this point in time” modus operandi is undermined and shown to be provisional, grist for some mill in the future.  How equalizing!  How destabilizing!  How dangerous!
Another threatening thing about remixes is that they can take a piece of music so far from its original version that it gets homesick.  Remixes can also mutate sounds so that they can’t even recognize themselves.  And remixes bring us into strange new sonic territories where the composer’s old constraints–meter, scale, tonality, the timbral palette of acoustic instruments–are not necessarily enough to keep us oriented. But these moments of confusion in the face of new soundscapes are potentially liberating too, for they remind us that music always wanted to be free of our imposed constraints, and perhaps remixing helps us loosen those chains that shackle its spirit.