Here are three brief audio files I made for use as ringtones. They are 100 percent organic and locally sourced. Enjoy!
Here are three brief audio files I made for use as ringtones. They are 100 percent organic and locally sourced. Enjoy!
Thom Yorke’s musical project, Atoms For Peace, brought together a number of fine musicians to jam out and record rhythmically propulsive grooves which Yorke and the producer Nigel Godrich then edited together. The result, AMOK, is a lean, hybrid acoustic-electronic work that has been described in The Guardian as “surprisingly accessible for one so extensively jammed then spliced together by machines. The sound design is immaculate; the grooves palpable.” I have to agree with this assessment, and here are some further observations:
1. It uses just a few sounds: Yorke’s plaintive voice, an analog-sounding bassline and few keyboard chords harmonizing it (at the interval of a 10th), programmed kick drum, cross stick, and hi hat. Further along in the song we also hear an electric bass and guitar and a few additional electronic percussive sounds and effects here and there. All of the sounds–including Yorke’s voice–have a dry, reverb-free an up-close proximity to them.
2. The bassline and keyboard outline a six-measure progression in C minor that repeats. But because the progression begins on and keeps returning to G (the fifth degree of the scale), it has a perpetual sense of unresolvedness and thus musical tension. The harmonies from this cyclic progression remind me of the music of Arvo Part. Also, against the underlying 4/4 meter of the song, the progression’s six-measure length is pleasingly un-obvious; six-measure phrases are not the norm in popular music.
3. The tempo is a fast and energized 130BPM. The rhythmic feel is syncopated–the cross stick hits are always on the “and” of beats two and four. The feel of this beat reminds me of another track I recently wrote about: DJ Rashad’s “Feelin’, particularly the quickfire 123-123-12 kick drum pattern.
4. Yorke’s voice isn’t privileged in the mix; it’s about the same volume as the other sounds. This has the effect of making the words he sings just another part of the affective sense of the music.
5. The music doesn’t have a verse-chorus-bridge structure found in so much pop. There are no harmonic modulations, only subtle shifts. For instance, at 1:28 the keyboards become momentarily angular and syncopated, highlighting a three feel over the 4/4 meter; at 2:26 (on the album version, not on the YouTube clip below) the electric bass enters and Yorke’s vocals are multiplied as background parts are panned hard left and right. Subtle shifts like that.
6. The piece is concise, moving through its different moments swiftly and ending once it has made its musical point.
I recently watched a few episodes of the animated HBO series, The Ricky Gervais Show (based on the popular audio podcast of the same name), on which Gervais and fellow comedian and writer Stephen Merchant chat with their perfectly round-headed friend Karl Pilkington on any topic they feel like just to hear what Karl might say. The voices of all three are engaging, but it’s that regular bloke Karl who steals the show.
Karl has a simple yet startlingly original take on life. Gervais and Merchant ask him for his opinion on a variety of topics with the aim of making fun of him, yet Karl always manages to surprise and elicit delight both because and despite what he says and the monotone way in which he says it. Karl’s voice is small, tentative, and deadpan, but he is always strangely thoughtful.
Here are some Karl Pilkington quotes that pertain to sound and listening:
“Normally you can’t hear you’re own voice because you’re talking over it.”
“They say it all started out with a big bang. But, what I wonder is, was it a big bang or did it just seem big because there wasn’t anything else to drown it out at the time?”
“Every noise has been used at least 5 times, because there’s only so many noises in the world. It’s like a piano, and there’s only so many notes. There’s just so much stuff, the same noises are being used again.”
“Noise stresses me out. I wonder if less deaf people die of stress than people with working ears do.”
“I might talk to some people on the phone, but then I get bored with that… About 5 minutes in, I realise I’m not listening anymore.”
“I’ve tried earplugs to drown out background noise. I didn’t like it ‘cause I could hear my heartbeat.”
“All I’m saying is, bird noises are relaxing…but not for the worm.”
“If you just talk, I find that your mouth comes out with stuff.”
“I mean, the whole beauty of radio is that you can listen to it in the dark.”
“You don’t whistle when you’re fed up. Whistling’s a happy thing.”
These videos are a little raunchy, but here’s a clip where Pilkington elaborates on his whistling practice:
And here is Pilkington on limits to the world’s noises:
Walking down Main Street without music in my headphones, I Iook up and see three balloons–one red, one yellow, one white–tethered to a string, hanging just above a store awning, moving. As I watch the balloons I wonder just who the string attaches to: Someone flying the balloons like they’re a kite? What celebration might they colorfully announce?
Then I notice the balloons are floating ever higher–further above the store awnings now, gaining height and speed, pushed by the wind to bobbling assent. The piece of string to which the balloons are tethered, I see, is itself attached to nothing and no one. Yet the balloons celebrate their own motion by accelerating ever upwards, and as I watch the buoyant balls ascend into the pure blue sky and become like two-dimensional cardboard cut outs, an unexpected wave of joy passes over me, cleansing the moment. The balloons are doing musical work without making a sound, suggesting a narrative with only motion to tell the tale.
Go for it!
Go for it!
Release and expand,
drift towards the bird’s-eye view,
weightless and coasting,
I keep looking up, straining, but lose track of them. There’s still no musical soundtrack, and the red, yellow, and white balloons are now gone.
While I was in Ottawa last week, timing would have it that Christian Marclay’s epic video installation piece The Clock was showing at the National Gallery. I of course made a point of going to see it.
The Clock is a 24-hour video collage composed of thousands of film clips (culled from the entire history of global cinema, not just Hollywood), each of which makes visual reference to time via glimpses of all manner of clocks and watches. At any given minute in the 1,440 minutes that make up its twenty-four hour length, The Clock shows one or several visual representations of that precise moment in time. And here’s the best part: the work is synced to the real world time zone you happen to be in as you’re watching. So as I wandered in the National Gallery with a friend at 2:45pm on a Friday afternoon, Marclay’s movie was showing clips of time pieces showing 2:45pm. Very cool.
Marclay creates in a variety of media, but is particularly well-known for his pioneering sound work as a turntable artist, manipulating records and record players in live performances since the late 1970s. One of the pleasures of The Clock is that Marclay brings a DJ’s sensibility to the film’s soundtrack. You can hear it as one clip segueways to another, the incidental sounds from one scene dovetailing seamlessly with the next in endlessly inventive ways. The soundtrack never cuts, only flows, which lends the visuals an enhanced coherence. And while The Clock as a whole may not mean anything specific–aside, I suppose, from chronicling the passing of time itself and documenting its representation in film–as you watch you can’t help but search for meaning and connections through its endless stream of clips. It’s quite the immersive experience too: sitting on the couches in the pitch dark room watching the large screen, you sense the real minutes effortlessly ticking away. Watching The Clock feels like watching a clock, only it’s a clock that is constantly metamorphosing and superimposed with multiple visual and sonic narratives.
By the way, I watched The Clock with a somewhat impatient friend for about 15 minutes. Ironically enough, he kept looking distractedly at his phone to check . . . the time!
Here is a short BBC news report on the work:
And a fascinating profile of Marclay in The New Yorker is here.
“In my perspective … science and computer science is a liberal art, it’s something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life. It’s not something that should be relegated to 5 percent of the population over in the corner. It’s something that everybody should be exposed to and everyone should have mastery of to some extent, and that’s how we viewed computation and these computation devices.” – Steve Jobs
The lights are off,
the dark space peaceful,
and we sit quietly on our mats,
legs crossed, hands prayed in front
of our chests –
With one unison breath
we chant Om
centering and togetherness
through collective sound.
We’re a choir of Om.
But there’s a problem.
Some guy–there’s only a few of us guys in the class–
is way out of tune.
Like, way out of tune.
He chants a rogue note
about a flat major sixth below
the women’s voices
(and a flat third above mine)
and this deflated, nauseous tone
creates instant dissonance,
The rogue chanter
clearly listens to his body,
follows his inner voice
but the rest of us
hear only his outer voice
tearing at our consonance,
a threat to our euphony.
So what to do? What to do?
But no one says anything.
We’re too busy
is now over.
In a recent article by the always interesting Bikhard Bilger in this week’s The New Yorker (April 25), we learn about David Eagleman’s research on the brain and time perception. Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College, wants to understand how we experience time, an especially interesting question considering how subjective time can feel in those moments when it seems to race ahead, or stand still, or slow down. How much is our perception of time regulated by our brain structures, and how much is shaped by external forces?
In early 2011, Eagleman conducted a research project on musical time in London at the studio of music producer Brian Eno. Eno was curious to know whether or not drummers’ timekeeping acuity is evidence of unique brain structures or brain functioning. Eno wanted Eagleman to answer the question: “Do drummers have different brains than the rest of us?” Eno, an adventurous thinker himself, was inspired by an experience he once had while recording the band U2 in the studio. During one studio session, the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen Jr., claimed that he couldn’t play with the computer-generated metronome click track because it was ever so slightly off–a tiny tad behind the beat, to be precise. To Eno’s surprise, Mullen was right: the click track was in fact clicking behind the beat–by a mere 6 milliseconds. How could a drummer know and perceive this?
Eagleton had a number of professional drummers and percussionists visit Eno’s studio to take part in a series of timing tests while hooked up to wireless EEG monitors clamped to their heads (!). The tests were conducted on a laptop computer, with a software program asking the musicians to do four things: 1) keep a steady beat, 2) compare the length of two tones, 3) synchronize a beat to an image, and 4) compare rhythms to one another. Perhaps not surprisingly, the initial results demonstrated that the musicians excelled at keeping a steady beat, wavering on average by less than 10 milliseconds as compared to the 35 millisecond variance of non-musician control subjects. But I’m curious: Is this ability with musical time the result, as Eagleton says, of “something anatomically different about them [drummers]“, or is it the result of a body-mind skill set cultivated through years of specialized rhythmic training? Neither Eagleton nor Bilger (nor Eno for that matter) comments on this. However, Bilger does speculate on what it might feel like to possess a drummer’s sense of timing, or even to have “perfect timing”–a rhythmic blessing analogous to so-called “perfect pitch”–that “may just make a drummer more sensitive to the world’s arrhythmias and repeated patterns.”
If I may weigh in here as a drummer: I think there is some truth to the idea that drummers sometimes hear rhythms in everyday soundscapes that others may not notice. (I’ve had my own pleasurable moments of picking out a rhythm in the sound of subway train, or even in the pattern of my dog drinking water . . .) But what’s more interesting to me is that one of the qualities Eagleton’s test overlooks is how a good drummer generates a sense of kinetic, forward-moving musical motion–colloquially called a good ”groove”–by not being perfectly steady, but rather by being subtly elastic. Metronomes and click tracks, just so you know, are never elastic (unless they are tempo-mapped to subtly speed up or slow down over time). So as I write this I’m starting to wonder why I once spent so many years dutifully practicing to metronomes . . .
Likewise, if you’ve ever wondered why some electronic music sounds “stiff” it’s because instead of a human drummer incorporating little pushes and pulls on the time (or what the ethnomusicologist Charles Keil once called “participatory discrepancies”), the groove is machine-generated and locked in or “quantized” to a rigid temporal framework that squares off notes to the nearest sixteenth- or eighth-note. It’s the exact opposite of elastic: stiff. And we hear stiffness as being “cold” or even as a kind of deadness–as if a chilled rigor mortis has set in on the music. So, perfect timing is not really the thing for musicians. In fact, good timing for a drummer means to be imperfect, albeit in a reliable and groovy way. It’s a difficult dance to master, maybe because, as the late Senegalese cultural theorist Leopold Sedar Senghor once observed, “rhythm is the most perceptible and least material thing”–and immaterial things are hard to grasp, let alone master. At any rate, great drummers make the task of making good rhythm with good time look and sound effortless while lesser drummers make it look and sound as if something is subtly but oh so deeply wrong!
Here, then, are just a few examples of excellent musical timekeepers in action:
From India, the great tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain:
From the USA, the great jazz drummer Tony Williams:
From Puerto Rico, the great conga drummer Giovanni Hidalgo:
From the USA, the great frame drummer Glen Velez:
“We live in a world where information passes from machine to machine. We know that when it’s stored in material forms and when one machine talks to one another, something is happening there that doesn’t need human intervention. And so it makes sense logically to speak of information as independent of us.”
“Then you start thinking: That snippet of music has a life of its own (…)–when you can’t get a song out of your head or when an idea takes hold of you…”
Gleick then goes on to describe these little pieces of information that can self replicate as “memes”, a term he borrows from Richard Dawkins (who coined it in his book The Selfish Gene). Memes, says Gleick, have “a living stability and the ability to mutate.”
It’s interesting to think about information and memes in the context of those little bits of music that somehow lodge themselves in our heads every once in a while. Recently, I had a song by Bruno Mars pop into my head one morning. I didn’t ask for it, and I like to think I don’t even like this song and can’t remember when I last heard it, but no matter: there it was on loop mode in my head.
There’s a name for these kinds of cognitive itches: earworms. Any music can become an earworm and I suppose that constant exposure to a song might help the earworming process along, but oftentimes earworms just appear full blown. Also, earworms are kinds of (sonic) memes and as such are intensely contagious. In fact, it has often happened to me that I have “caught” an earworm from simply hearing my wife sing a snippet of a song at home. Moments later I find myself humming the same song without knowing why. I only realize what has happened when she rightly accuses me of “stealing” her song (!) But as Gleick points out, that’s in the nature of information/memes/: it’s independent of its hosts/transmitters. In the case of earworms, perhaps we are all just nodes in a vast network helping musics circle the world.
You can read an article on earworms here.
On a different note, Gleick also weighs in on the challenges posed by the flood of information that’s easily accessible with our digital devices. He makes an incisive point when he notes:
“It’s harder than ever to be original when you can instantly find out
what everybody else is doing.”
On the other hand, as connected information-breathing citizens, we have responsibilities too:
“We need to think of ourselves not just as passive consumers of information, but also as its creators and its guardians.”
If you have an interest in writing about musical experience (as a student, critic, academic, or simply as a music blogging individual) you may find Tony Herrington’s notes on music criticism particularly edifying (I know I did). Herrington is a contributor to The Wire, one of the best sources for insightful writing about exciting new music.
Here are some of what I found to be Herrington’s most probing suggestions:
“Music criticism should wrap urgent despatch (what is happening, where, when and who does it involve?) and instant philosophy (what does it mean?) into one volatile and unruly package.”
“The music critic has to decide immediately whether a work is inert or active, a closed circuit or a pathway to universality.”
“The music critic must respond to local initiatives by thinking cosmically on their behalf. They should ask of them: do they expand and elevate existence, or do they diminish it?”
“The music critic should be aware of a work’s world-historical significance, its cultural capital, and if that work has no such status, be prepared to construct a new world in which it will have.”
“The music critic should aspire to the status of the autodidact. They should eschew academic and systematic study in order to amass an idiosyncratic and syncretic personal cosmology from the stuff of the world around them as a way of both better understanding and negotiating a way through that world. This will result in an approach to the critical process that will by definition be non-doctrinaire, non-hierarchical and anti-dogmatic.”