thinking through music, sound and culture

On Words With Resonance: Matthew B. Crawford’s “The World Beyond Your Head”

“The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this isn’t the main thing–there is such thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument.”
-Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015), p. 128

Brett’s Sound Picks: Rachel Grimes’ “Book Of Leaves”

If, as the composer Steve Reich once said in the liner notes for his Desert Music, the evolution of tonality can be imagined as a raft bearing a flickering flame floating slowly downriver towards unknown waters, then the modern composer’s use of harmony is always worth thinking through. Pay attention to the colors and shades of light elicited in the tone combinations of say, Debussy, Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen, Toru Takemitsu, Reich, and Arvo Pärt  (to name just a few bright lights among my list of favorites) and it’s as if you’re hearing that floating raft of flickering tonality sailing out to uncharted waters, bobbing on the currents the those composing imaginations.

Rachel Grimes’ beautiful piano music strikes me as doing compelling harmonic things too, building itself up and down through simple chord cluster dissonances that shift and evolve and hold their tensions, one small interval at a time. I like all of the pieces on her recording Book Of Leaves, but here are two especially moving ones:

“Mossgrove” plays swiftly pulsating chords in a slow descent from high registers to low ones, texture thickening while fading in volume like dying light, just in time for a harmonic resolution that brings the music to a close. (The version below has strings added–not quite the same version I heard on Book Of Leaves.)

“Bed Of Moss” is a slow climb, playing quarter and half note arpeggiating chords, root bass in the left hand, colors in the falling right, both hands moving inwards until they meet and the middle and the music has spoken. (This video also introduced me to the stunning visuals of Kurtis Hough.)

On The Ergonomics Of Music: Reflections On Flow In Steve Reich’s “Drumming”

“But how the paths sounded to me was deeply linked to how I was making them. There wasn’t one me listening, and another one playing along paths. I listened-in-order-to-make-my-way.”
-David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand (MIT Press 2001, p. 40)

Every once in a while warming up before a show I noodle around by playing a bit of Steve Reich’s Drumming on the marimba. Composed in 1971, Drumming is over an hour of continuous percussion music entirely built on just a few pitches arranged in a constellation of eight beats over twelve pulses. This is the core melo-rhythmic pattern:


As I played Reich’s pattern I thought about what makes it so idiomatic for the drummer’s hands. First, there its short-short-long-long rhythm whose composite sounding has the feel of a three against two polyrhythm. Next, the truncated scale: four notes of a minor one, but without the other three notes that would tell us more about specifics. Finally, Reich’s pattern on these four notes bring my left hand on an out-in-out motor pattern, moving from the g-sharp (out or away from me), up to the b-natural (in or towards me), and then from the b-natural down a semitone to the a-sharp (in to out). Simply put, while the right hand stays perched up on the c-sharp, the left hand motor pattern traverses a small in-out path that flows like crazy!

As I played and enjoyed the flow of the pattern I wondered how it would sound and feel in different keys, so I transposed it downwards one semitone at a time to try it out on eleven other starting pitches. But none of these transpositions felt nearly as natural as playing the pattern on g-sharp. Interesting. In fact, some of the transpositions–starting on b-natural, for instance–were seriously awkward to play. Now I wondered: Would Drumming have worked had it been done in a different key? Had it been tried in different keys? Was motor pattern flow a factor in deciding on its key? (So many questions.)

Playing the core pattern of Drumming had me thinking about some other matters related to composing and playing musical instruments. Had the pathways of this pattern, in this key, on this instrument (and not the tuned bongo drums that are featured in the piece’s opening movement), been the impetus for Drumming? I also reflected on how it is that a piece of music that works so well–that sits so well in the hands–can help define a lexicon of movements that are possible along the terrain of an instrument. If you write music for marimba, it’s difficult to ignore the enduring influence of Reich’s distinctive syncopated patterns on your understanding of the instrument’s idiomatic potentials and expressive sweet spots. Even if you’re just noodling around, warming up before a show by playing bits of Drumming, the fact that the piece continues to sound and feel as good as it does as ergonomic percussion music is enough to make you reflect anew on how closely writing and performing music are connected.

Here is part two of Drumming:

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff Online


1. A conversation between electronic musician Robert Henke and musical instrument designer Tom Oberheim.

Henke: “A lot of successful artists I admire know surprisingly little about technology, and this allows them to use the technology with innocence, but also with informed, artistic ideas. This is extremely powerful. This is not a working path because I understand what’s going on. The type of resonance I need to seek between the machine and me is a different one. I need to find the fascination among the things I know, or on the edge of the things I know. I’m not fascinated anymore by turning the cut of the frequency of the filter.”

2. An article about thinking and complexity.

“Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.”

3. A 1966 interview with saxophonist John Coltrane, animated.

“It’s only when something is trying to come through that I really practice.”

Brett’s Sound Picks: Alva Noto’s “Xerrox”

Two pieces from Alva Noto’s Xerrox that I like:

The first piece, “Xerrox 2ndevol”, has three layers at work: a soundscape of buzzing, a drone-chord that oscillates between a root note and its relative up a fifth, and a bubble lead tone that bounces among a few pitches, creating suspense.

The second piece, “Xerrox Radieuse”, is formed out of a slowly pulsating synthetic chord wash in a three count, underneath which are three sub bass tones–three pulses long on the first two, six on the third–daring you to follow the meter. The music is enveloping and majestic. As its textures build they create the feeling of a giant safety net, scooping you up.

Brett’s Sound Picks: Nosaj Thing’s “Medic”


Nosaj Thing’s “Medic” is two minutes of a falling four note melody that catches you off guard melo-harmonically and rhythmically–a low register becomes a higher one, a quarter note becomes a quarter note triplet, a slow tempo is revealed as a fast 4/4–reminding you of music’s power to surprise. Here is an excerpt:

On Diagrammatic Thinking

Here are some concepts that have helped me in my work:

1. Keep going straight until you have to turn.



2. Find the points of overlap among your projects.

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3. Notice the resonances outwards from your initial idea.


4. Make things in series.


Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff Online


1. An article about a new way to play old recordings without touching them with a stylus.

“The technique relies on a microscope to create images of the grooves in exquisite detail. A computer approximates–with great accuracy–the sounds that would have been created by a needle moving through those grooves.”

2. An article about modern protest music in the UK and elsewhere.

“…music is just as political as it ever has been–it’s just that now, it explores politics through artists’ own lived experiences, rather than by replicating the staid traditions of the past.”

3. An article about using global warming data to create music for string quartet.

“Each instrument represents a specific part of the Northern Hemisphere. The cello matches the temperature of the equatorial zone. The viola tracks the mid latitudes. The two violins separately follow temperatures in the high latitudes and in the arctic.”


On How Composers Listen To Their Own Work


Having recently finished a project and waiting for it to be mastered, I found myself spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces. I did this listening while doing other things like making toast or tidying up the apartment, and more often than not I listened from another room, letting the sounds move down the hallway and bend around corners so I could take them in from a distance. Why was I listening and what was I trying to notice?

A first reason for listening was to get to know the music. The pieces had been done relatively quickly—quickly enough that prior to finishing the music I had never quite gotten to know it. Over the past few years, my composing has been partly based upon improvisation. (Isn’t all composing at some point improvisation?) This means that I end up reaching for things in one-time performances without fully knowing what it is that I’m reaching for. I just play—trying to make something that seems balanced and enchanting in the moment, or at least not immediately annoying. Later, when I’m editing, I’ll listen to the pieces repeatedly, but since I’ll be focused on the minutiae of fixing little annoying errors, I won’t hear how the pieces flow and won’t understand what it was that I had originally been reaching for. It’s only once the pieces are done (little errors now minimized) that I can begin listening while doing other things and get to know the music in a general way. Now I can hear the performance almost as an outsider would—as if observing it from a distance. This explains why I’ll listen from another room.

I was also listening for something more amorphous: how the music makes me feel, its overall mood, and how it sustains and paces my feeling for the duration of its sounding. Let me re-phrase that: music probably doesn’t make us feel anything—we arrive at feelings with the help of the music. Listening, in other words, is an encounter between the hearer and the sounding. Listening from another room while doing other things is an encounter that helps me gauge how the music inflects those other things I’m doing, as if the sounds are scents, or casting shadows. In a way, I was trying to assess if this music could be actually useful. For instance, could I, or someone else, make toast or fall asleep to this music? I’m happy to report that the answer to both these questions is yes!

A third thing I was listening for was durability: how do these pieces hold up over repeated listenings? How do they wear as I get to know them better? Do some pieces become more annoying, more cloying, the more I listen to them? Do some pieces get better or simply hold their value? Here’s an example: there was one piece in the series—originally the ninth piece, now the fifth—that had always struck me as slightly better than the others. Even though all the pieces were created the same way, each one based upon brief musical improvisations, this particular piece had a weight to it. If it wasn’t better, it at least sounded more assured, almost as if it were a model for the others to aspire to. Maybe I got lucky with it, or maybe, since it was originally the ninth piece in a series of twenty, I had begun to hit my stride with it? In any case, repeated listening did two things: it confirmed my initial positive impression of this model piece, and it confirmed the durability if not of the piece, then at least of that initial positive impression. This was an important realization insofar as there are times when a music seems to change over time simply because my tastes have changed. Funny how that works.

A final reason I was listening was to let go of the music. While I’m working on a project and listening to it over and over, its sounds loom large in my mind’s ear and I often hear bits of the pieces on repeat in my head when I’m least expecting it, as if I’ve created my own earworms. I began this project one year ago, then left it for a time, then came back to it. During that time, the pieces were in the foreground of my attention. But now I need to shift them to the background. I’m done with this music and the fundamental reason I’m spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces from another room while doing other things is to say goodbye to them.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff Online


1. An article about the voice work of loopers.

“Loopers are voice actors whose work begins after the show or film is shot and edited. Their job is to record what people in the background of a scene could be saying. Their dialogue is never really heard at full volume — and it’s mostly ad-libbed…Loopers add texture and dimension to a scene — filling in those blank spaces between dialogue. For 37 seconds of TV screen time, there could be six layers of looping — and there are many more for a major motion picture.”

2. An article about what ancient Greek music may have sounded like.

“Between 750 BC and 400 BC, the Ancient Greeks composed songs meant to be accompanied by the lyre, reed-pipes, and various percussion instruments. More than 2,000 years later, modern scholars have finally figured out how to reconstruct and perform these songs.”

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3. An article about Rhythm Necklace, an app for creating multi-layered polyrhythms. The app was inspired by Godfried Toussaint’s book The Geometry of Musical Rhythm.

“Rhythm necklaces have been used in fields like radio astronomy and nuclear physics to visualize repeating patterns…NYU computer scientist Godfried Toussaint uses them extensively in his book The Geometry of Musical Rhythm, which shows how music from disparate cultures is built around surprisingly similar geometric patterns.”


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