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thinking through music, sound and culture

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On The Drumming Of Tony Allen

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In his memoir Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat (co-authored with Michael Veal, Duke University Press, 2013), the eminent Nigerian drummer recalls the influence of American jazz innovators on his own musicianship. It was in the playing of the African Americans such as Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Max Roach that Allen heard a familiar sound:

“The way they were drumming, it had all the spirituality and all the celebration in it. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t Western. It wasn’t what Gene Krupa was doing. It was a whole different language. We should have been playing the drum set like that in Nigeria. After all, it originally came from here. They took it, went there to the Americas, polished it, and sent it back to us in Africa.”

“Guys like Max and Elvin and Blakey and Philly Joe [Jones], they were telling a story on the drums. Krupa wasn’t doing that. These guys were telling a story by playing different rhythms, and they were doing it with independent coordination. That’s the way the drums should be played, man” (46).

Intriguingly, part of Allen’s inspiration for his polyrhythmic Afrobeat style came from his initial misunderstanding of what he heard the American jazz drummers doing on their recordings. “To me it was impossible” he said, “that it was only one guy playing all this stuff” (50). Allen recreated the sound of what he thought was more than one drummer playing at once.

Here is Allen drumming Afrobeat in the recording studio. Notice how supremely light and relaxed his touch is:

My full review of the book is here.

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A Wishlist Of Musical Plenty

Give me better music,
more interesting and compelling music,
more groovy music,
more transcendent music,
more euphonious and euphoric music,
more logical and sensible music,
more noisy, out-of-tune, lifted-up-over-sounded music,
more unpopular music,
more unforgettable music,
more peopled music,
more anonymous music,
more goal-oriented music,
more soundscape music,
more mindful music,
more wandering music,
more religious music,
more quieting music,
more dubbed-out music,
more not-for-sale music,
more generous music,
more enduring music,
more award-lacking, unheard-of music,
more flowing music,
more off the grid music,
more unplugged music,
more spontaneous and improvised music,
and more plentiful music.

On The Rhythms And Sounds Of Running

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Running in the New York City marathon a few weeks ago I had ample time to think about the rhythms of running, pacing and tempo, on-the-course sound, and fatigue. Along with some 50,000 other runners, I lined up on the Staten Island bridge and then moved through the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and finally, Manhattan. I was in Wave 1, which was full of cheery folks focused on keeping a sprightly pace.

For much of the race I held steady and thought about my tempo. While I took the Staten Island bridge too slow (it was cold and windy) and mile 2 too fast, I soon settled into a consistent groove. I compared my pace as measured by my GPS watch and the giant clocks every mile with my body’s sense of how the speed felt. It felt challenging. It also felt rather arbitrary–a pace determined by a hoped for finish time rather than by what felt agreeable moment by moment. And, depending on one’s temperament, so it should be: the marathon is a race against the immutable judgement of the ticking clock. Run boy, run!

Surprisingly, the bands and DJs playing music on the course did little to motivate me. Some of the bands (in parts of Brooklyn) were rhythmically rough around the edges, playing spirited but sloppy cover versions of songs like “Eye Of The Tiger” that annoyed even back in the day because such songs are rousing yet one-dimensional; other bands (in Harlem and the Bronx) played funk so super tight that I wanted to stop and listen. There was also a few too many bands playing doomsday hard rock music. Not the most inspirational repertoire, but maybe the power of this music motivates some runners? I don’t know. On the whole though, I didn’t pay too much attention to the bands. There was no time!

I did take notice of sound at two particular spots in the race. Crossing the 59th street bridge from Queens into Manhattan I heard the sounds of howling wind and runners’ footsteps. For that lonely uphill mile, running felt ancient again and I had an acute sense of the effort required to hold steady on a climb, fifteen miles into a journey. I also had the sensation of being a part of a strange tribe fleeing some unseen force, moving in sync and banded together in silent effort. A few miles later, in the Bronx, I noticed sound again as I came around a turn smack into the middle of a giant DJ rig whose volume was so loud I felt the music as an ocean wave carrying me forward on big beats and bass. (It was a Chris Brown song.) I instinctively turned on the jets, flying around the turn at an increased speed, so energized was I by the low frequencies. But once out of earshot of the DJ, I once again felt the physical demands of my pace more acutely. At mile 22, a thought: this is getting hard.

No matter what its soundscape, the last few miles of the marathon bring about a penetrating fatigue that alters one’s perception and chisels joy into something less euphoric and definitely…darker. Feeling this sensation I thought about the limitations of “training” plans for running, or anything for that matter (like preparing for a music performance, say). Training makes all the difference, but what it is needed is experience with the thing itself in context to truly understand the feeling–whether euphoric or dark–it brings about. With running, run for a few hours, then try to keep going fast on your depleted energy supply. The body says, “seriously?” Yet some people can do this with grace and speed. Amazing. In the final miles of the marathon, one’s body keeps going even while one’s mind starts conspiring. I found myself feeling time pass more slowly: When is this going to end? I’m slowing down a bit, glancing at my watch to calculate the time my reduced tempo might bring forth. Soon the race will be over, its finish its own reward.

For a phenomenology of running through images, sound, and text, watch my Running Music here.

On Shameless Plugs: Evernote

For a long time I used the yellow note pad app on my Apple phone to write these blog posts. But every once in a while I deleted notes accidentally. The problem: that little trash can icon is right next door to the email icon! Touch the trash by mistake and your note is gone–without even a preventative “Are you sure you want to delete?” prompt. So I made some deleting mistakes. And then things got strange. A few times I deleted an old note and then other notes mysteriously deleted themselves as well. This past May was particularly bad in this regard: a whole month’s worth of notes vanished. Maybe the app was open while the phone was in my pocket and I mass deleted stuff? I just don’t know. I should have backed up the notes in the cloud you say? Yes, I should have, but alas I didn’t.

So, I don’t normally use this space to plug products (musical or otherwise), but I’ve been using an app that has been directly useful to the blog so I thought I would mention it.

The app is Evernote. It’s free. It’s simple, clean and green. And it’s hard to accidentally delete notes. In fact, I don’t yet know how to delete a note within the app. Useful for me, and maybe for you too.

Highly recommended. Evernote is here.

On Another Kind Of Wonder (part III)

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My recent recording Another Kind Of Wonder is now available on Spotify.

Go here to listen.

On Music For Ringtones

Here are three brief audio files I made for use as ringtones. They are 100 percent organic and locally sourced. Enjoy!

Some Observations On Atoms For Peace’s “Unless”

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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.

Free Of All The World’s Heaviness: Karl Pilkington On Sound And Listening

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.”

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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:

A Silent Palette Cleanser

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,

silent,

free.

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.

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