brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: Technology

On The Music In Apple’s FaceTime Commercial

“Seeing music as a model could seem cold or trivializing. But the urgencies and the passions of living are among the things that music models: music doesn’t belong to the detached world of mathematical modeling. And there is nothing trivial about the musical enterprise: it is far removed from toy model airplanes or fashion models on runways. Certainly we are not consciously engaged in modeling when involved with music. Nobody turns on the stereo, kicks back and says, ‘Now for a little temporal modeling.’ If music is modeling at all, it is preconscious, participative, processual modeling: not the sort of model you stand back from and consider as you might a model to scale of the Colosseum in Rome. You live it.”
-David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body: A Musical Perspective on the Construction of Time, p.69.

***

A while ago I noticed a particularly affecting commercial for Apple’s iPhone FaceTime, a technology Apple describes as allowing us to “be in two places at once.” What struck me, besides the length of the ad (one-minute ads feel astonishingly long), was its music. After a few listens, it becomes clear that Apple continues to use sound in their branding work in a distinctly Apple way–specifically to convey a sense of wonder and enchantment that their mobile technology makes possible. I have written previously about the musical construction of wonder in Apple Siri commercials, and the sounds in this FaceTime ad are not so different style-wise. This time around, the music is the instrumental piece “Green” composed by Rob Simonsen. Simonsen has written music for other Apple iPhone 5 commercials, and co-wrote the score for the film 500 Days Of Summer with Mychael Danna. (A film filled with many of its own moments of musical wonder. It’s worth a listen.)

What can we say about Simonsen’s music? It’s scored for the familiar sound of the piano–not a grand piano sound, but more like a homey, old upright piano. The music is tonal and consonant, for the most part moving between E and A major triads. There’s some pedal and reverb to add ambiance and sparkle. It has a fast tempo, it’s repetitive with a steady-pulsed anchor pitch, and is fairly simple in its designs; it almost sounds improvised. It’s mostly in the mid and upper range of the piano. Finally, the rhythm has some groove about it: a slight swing lilt, and from the opening measure accentuation on the off-beats. All these qualities work to convey a sense of homespun wonder, clarity, and simplicity that Apple may want us to associate with its technological products. As one YouTube commenter and fan of the music astutely observes, the ad “makes you feel wistful and like you share in the human experience if you have an iPhone.”

There’s also a deeper subtext to this ad: connection. As the music flows along, the ad shows individuals fluidly connecting with one another–reaching out through the techno-mediation of their devices to capture and share a moment through video and audio. Just because we’re separated from one another in time and space doesn’t mean we can’t share a virtual experience of coming together. And what better way to model the feeling and affect of this experience of being “in two places at once”–an actual here and a virtual there–than to use music?

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.

On Techlust II: Native Instruments’ Maschine In Colombia

Recently an email from Native Instruments (NI), a music technology company, appeared in my inbox. NI occasionally sends out ads for its products, limited time discount offers, software updates, and so on, and as a NI software owner I always happily read these emails and then ignore them–unless we’re talking about the software updates, in which case I go and follow the links. Such is the nature of electronic music technology: once you buy into a brand, you’re constantly “attended to” by the company and encouraged to buy and update more and more. In this way, the lines between consumption and production and advertising are not only blurry, but overlapping too.

But back to that recent NI email. It was a promotion for NI’s successful hardware/software rhythm instrument, Maschine. I wrote about first experiencing this technology “in the flesh” (“in the plastic”?) in a blog post here last year. In this Maschine email, NI included a video of a musician using the instrument to improvise a sample-based music. The musician is Mario Galeano who lives and works in Colombia and leads the group Frente Cumbiero. (I’ve just begun listening to them.)

The video is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, Galeano is a combination of record collector, DJ, composer, and musicologist-historian who uses his love of traditional cumbia music to inform his electronic music making. This leads to me to a second interesting thing, which is that Galeano’s music isn’t your run of the mill electronic dance music. Rather, it’s built on syncopated samples of acoustic instruments from old cumbia records. Galeano’s music sounds–to use a clichéd way of distinguishing a music–more organic than synthetic. And this, in turn, may also be a by-product of the third thing that makes this NI video interesting: Galeano’s improvising on Maschine’s squishy square buttons to perform his music. At 2:10 in the video, we seem him play around with audio samples from old records from the 1960s and 70s.

It’s for these reasons that this NI video is such an effective promotional tool. It’s about a seductive technology, sure, but this technology is socially situated in a real musician’s life and naturalized by being shown to be a practical help to his ways of working– helping him sample old records and then play back those samples in what Galeano describes as “a very tactile way.” The meta-message? If this piece of gear helps him do all that, imagine what it might help me do?

You can read more about Galeano and Frente Cumbiero here.

In Praise Of Slowness: On Writing On Cellphones

It stuck me recently that I might say something about how the blog posts at bretttworks.com are written. So here goes:

I write them on my phone.

***

Most of the writing happens in those moments that could otherwise be wasted moments–while waiting for the subway, standing in line somewhere, sitting on the subway, sitting in the pit. I’m often outside while I write, often under neon lights, often just waiting for something else to happen. Sometimes I even write while walking–yes, making me one of those people you really hate seeing on the street: eyes glued to the glowing orb in their hands, a body not looking where it’s going. (But in my defense: it’s usually late at night while I’m walking home on deserted streets, you see …)

The point is, I usually write the posts either while waiting for transit or while in transit, and what makes this possible in the first place is the fact of the phone itself. Let’s unpack this a little more by asking a question: What does it mean to write on a phone?

For one thing, the screen is quite small and the letter keys even smaller. This makes whatever I’m writing literally feel and look, well, quite tiny. No matter how expansive I hope the thought might be, its material expression is, for the moment, just tiny text on a tiny two-inch screen. And this is comforting to me. I like it because the micro-smallness of everything creates a kind of intimacy. It feels like writing in a diary–albeit one with a bright screen and a perpetual Internet connection!

The tinyness of the phone’s screen and keypad has another, perhaps more important effect: it slows me down. It’s really hard to write fast on the phone because you’re reduced to one-finger typing (or in my case: a left thumb and a right index finger). Trying to type fast while being constrained by the phone leads to missed keys and letters, which in turn leads to the phone’s strange auto-correct kicking in. In that sentence before last, for instance, I was offered “wired” instead of “write” and then, in the next sentence, “steam” instead of my intended “strange”. (And just now, “intense” for “intended”!) Dealing with this further slows me down and frustrates me, sure, but in the process of backing up for a moment–“of” not “if backing up”!–to correct the auto-correcting, I buy myself a few seconds that I have come to believe are used on some level as time to think about the next sentence, the next thought.

Writing on the phone then, seems to slow thoughts down to the glacial pace of one letter at a time, one auto-corrected word at a time, the message and message-writer having to wait for the medium to catch up. Overall this is a good thing, for me anyways. Why the rush anyway?

And of course, once I’m done, I can email the post to myself and then copy that email directly into WordPress and we’re off and running. This alone continues to impresses me: the fact that at no point does oxygen ever hit this text. It’s all digital, all virtual, but then so is almost everything else these days.

On Grid Matrix Sequencers: The ToneMatrix

The most exciting game for me is the space game, the search of possible space shapes, that is to say the logical and concrete building of various layouts.”
– Ernő Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s Cube

If there is a guiding shape for electronic music making in our time, surely it’s the grid matrix–that 4×4-, 8×8-, or 16×16-squared box into which we program musical events.  The grid matrix almost seems like the two-dimensional descendent of Ernő Rubik’s glorious 3-D mechanical puzzle, the Rubik’s Cube:

Just look around the electronic musical instrument landscape over the last thirty years and you’ll see the grid matrix everywhere.  For example, there’s the classic Akai MPC sequencer–

the Novation Launchpad–

and the ultra-minimal Monome controller–

to name just a few.

Yet another spin on the grid matrix is an internet instrument called the ToneMatrix. Developed by André Michelle, the ToneMatrix is a sine wave synthesizer triggered by a 16-step sequencer.  The 16 horizontal steps control where a note occurs in the 16 pulse (or 4/4 meter) timeline and the 16 vertical steps allow the user to trigger different pitches.  How do you “play” the ToneMatrix?  Just click anywhere on the grid and listen to the music develop!  (I would love to see an instrument like this used to study creativity among infants:  What kinds of patterns would they build?)

Notice that as you click more and more buttons on the grid, the music gradually grows in density and syncopation.  To my ear, the sounds made on this machine have an uncanny similarity to the additive structures of American composer Steve Reich’s music, reminding me of something his fellow composer John Adams once said about minimalism: that it was the first true machine music.

Click here to go to the ToneMatrix.

On Techlust: Native Instruments’ Maschine

I’m at Tekserve, in the audio department, and I spot a beauty: Native Instruments’ Maschine, a hardware-software rhythm machine.  I move in for a closer inspection.  Its top is made of metal and I run my fingers across the smooth, cool brushed surface.  I pick up the musical object off the display table and assess its weight: a solid few pounds.  I put it back down and continue exploring.  Its dials are smooth and rotate infinitely, and I so I twist them around and around, imagining what parameters they might control.  Its buttons produce subtle clicks–confident sounds that will surely respond to my touch and help me, one day, switch something on or off in an instant.  And then there are those sixteen beautiful 1.5 inch square rubber pads.  Soft like gummy bears, they’re mini drums that can absorb the impact of an incoming finger, and so I start drumming on them, my fingers playing silent patterns across the four by four grid.  Feels nice.  I pick up Maschine again, rotating it in my hands, and even consider smelling it–after all, I’m sizing up a potential musical mate. (This from someone who regularly smells his Kindle as if it were a paper book!)  What, I’m wondering, might I do with this thing?  Will this be, finally, the instrument that allows me to create fluidly, or will it lure me down a wormhole of complicated procedures that will blunt the creative process?

Maschine is a recent example of electronic music software assuming a physical presence in order to attract musicians. The thinking is that we like tangible things–vibrating strings, membranes, or even smooth moving knobs and smushy rubber pads–with which to interact and make music.  But the fascinating paradox about the tools of electronic music is that as the palette of sound possibilities has increased exponentially with software innovations, the music making process has become increasingly less physical.  There are two ways to think about this.  On the one hand, the shift has encouraged many people without traditional music training to just go ahead and make music.  On the other hand, those of us with training are always looking for a foothold, a link to the physical.  So far, this foothold or link comes in the form of MIDI keyboards and other controllers such as the Akai APC series and the Korg Kaoss touch pads.  Maschine harks back to hardware instruments from the late 1980s and early 1990s such as Akai’s MPC workstations, like the unit in the pic below:

These instruments are still popular with hip hop beat makers who program their patterns like a potter plays with and molds clay: the boxes allow them to feel like they’re getting their hands dirty.  This is a good thing, because our hands often know as much or even more than our minds, and letting our hands play with instruments is a direct route to new ideas.  Maschine is both an attractive piece of hardware and a powerful piece of software, hence its appeal for electronic musicians.  Below is a Native Instruments promotional video for the instrument featuring Jeremy Ellis hammering away on those rubber pads:

On The Most Human Human

In his book The Most Human Human, an engaging account of competing in the annual Turing test, Brian Christian ranges far and wide through the literature of AI (artificial intelligence), linguistics, computer science, philosophy and even poetry to figure out what exactly makes us distinctly human and distinctly different from machines.  The Turing test was conceived by Alan Turing, an English mathematician, in 1950.  The test is whether or not a computer can fool a human into thinking that it–the computer–is also human through interrogation only.  If a computer can fool us, then it could be said to “think.”  Today, the Turing Test pits both computer software programs and human “confederates” against one another, each trying to convince a human judge that they are human and not machine.  The catch is that each interaction has a 5 minute time limit.  The winner in the human confederate category, of course, is deemed “The Most Human Human.”
One of the more interesting of the book’s digressions is Christians’s discussion of chess playing, specifically the different ways humans and software programs approach this decision-making terrain.  Chess is a space for thinking about what makes humans human precisely because the game offers such a vast array of possible moves to get one’s brain around.  And the amazing thing–at least from the perspective of a non-chess player such as myself–is that the very best chess players can navigate the terrain of possible moves by intuitive means.  What this means is that not only can a Gary Kasparov draw on vast experience but he can also make unusual choices as to how he proceeds.  Case in point: making a somewhat random opening move is a great way to stymie a computer software opponent like Deep Blue, who, of course, proceeds through the game only by crunching millions of possible moves per second.  The human player has the poetics of randomness and intuition on his side, against which the machine can only number crunch the relative merits of the next move.  Here Christian hits on an important point about human creativity: on some level it requires the practitioner/artist to not know exactly what he or she is doing.  Or in the words of Donald Barthelme, one of the interviewees in Christian’s book: “Not knowing…is what permits art to be made.”  Barthelme is referring to that aspect of the creative process that is  inherently random, accessible only by our vaguest of intuitions.
This discussion of randomizing one’s opening moves had me thinking about how I begin working on a new piece of music on the computer.  For some time now I have fretted over the sheer number of possibilities open to me as I try to decide how to proceed with a piece.  The software programs on my laptop are like a chessboard in that they invite millions of possible creative moves from me.  It’s a deeply exciting prospect but also potentially paralyzing.
In the past, I would try to systematically think my way through the “best” option: maybe I’d start by searching for a nice pad sound and then…The problem is that my systematic thinking would always be interrupted by a rogue sound, an unexpected by-way, or an accidental juxtaposition that would instantly charm me, as if asking: “But have you considered this?”  Well, no, I hadn’t considered that because I was under the impression that I was doing something else.  And then I would fret some more about having let myself be undermined by my own digressions . . .
After reading The Most Human Human, I decided to try applying the idea of randomizing an opening move to writing music.  What I did was just jump into making sounds–any sound that seemed interesting–so that I could get the music “game” underway and remove from the equation my anxiety about having too many options.  Randomizing my opening move–“Let me just build a little pattern using this drum sound…”–let me get on with the more satisfying business of interacting with and building a new sonic organism that could grow.
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