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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.
When my brother and I were kids, we spent a lot of time playing ball hockey in the driveway, taking shots at one another with a fluorescent orange “sting” ball that really did sting when it was frozen from the cold and hitting you in the face. One of our always followed conventions of the game was that we would announce which famous player we were that day, and both of us always wanted to be “Dryden”–as in Ken Dryden, the goalkeeper for the Montreal Canadians during the 1970s. Dryden was an iconic figure for us because of his great athletic skills and his mysterious identity hidden behind that tribal-looking protective mask he wore while playing. A superhero with precision reflexes who stopped pucks like no one else, Dryden captured our imagination.
In his stellar sports memoir-ethnography, The Game (1983/2013), Dryden renders with lazer detail his experience playing his last season with the Canadians. It turns out that during all those games when his teammates were dominating their opponents at the other end of rink, Dryden, alone in his goal crease and leaning against his propped up stick, was observing and thinking about everything going on around him on the ice. In many ways, The Game reads like a micro-study about the performing artist and human behavior. Dryden conveys the mix of attention, anxiety, and flowing, in the moment thinking/non-thinking often felt by expert performers at one time or another in their work. But unlike many a memoir, Dryden backs up his personal observations and reflections with deep historical perspective on the past, present, and future of his sport. Most athletes and performers don’t have the ability or interest to get outside themselves like that–to see, describe, and analyze the contexts in which they work. In this way, The Game provides a masterful insider’s view of dozens of different people, situations, and dynamics, while maintaining a guiding authorial voice.
Speaking of voice, sparkling here and there in Dryden’s text like little gems are sentences that articulate new ideas, have affect, and provoke thought. Reading them as gems of advice, here are a few that I enjoyed:
Then the present slowed down and the future changed direction.
It had to do with what he did and what he didn’t have to do because of how he did it.
It is in free time that the special player develops.
He invents the game.
“Coldness is about more than just a sound and a look, and it’s more than the coldness of a technological being, too. Coldness is what we fear lies beyond human capability. Coldness is the gap between human intentions and outcomes. It’s the uncanny valley of the human reflected in the non-human.”–Adam Harper
In his marvelous essay “On The Digital Animation Of The Face” (from Uncanny Valley: Adventures In The Narrative, 2011), Lawrence Weschler writes about his experiences hanging out with the programmers and animators at Industrial Light & Magic and DreamWorks to learn about their work in digitally rendering the human form. One of their steepest challenges is how to realistically render faces. Faces and facial expressions are complicated to digitally model, in part because they’re complicated. For instance, we have many small muscles that are (unconsciously) deployed in thousands of ways in the service of even the simplest of expressions. These micro movements need to be noticed, “captured and programmed” (8) by animators. Also, there is the question of skin tone, texture, and its myriad hues, of “the subtlety and complexity of the way light radiates out from the inside” of a person’s face (5). In their complexities and subtleties, our faces seem to radiate our consciousness. And if the past failures of AI (artificial intelligence) are any indication, consciousness is tough–impossible?–to simulate.
Weschler also observes that we’re finicky when it comes to assessing the realism or fakeness of our digital models. In fact, we seem to have a tolerance threshold for the simulated real: when something seems realistic but is still slightly off, we get creeped out. Here, Weschler draws on The Buddha In The Robot (1981), a pioneering book by Japanese robot engineer Masahiro Mori. Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe that small yet large gap between the simulated/machine entity and the real/living entity. Weschler sums up Mori’s concept:
“When a replicant’s almost completely human, the slightest variance, the 1 percent that’s not quite right, suddenly looms up enormously, rendering the entire effect somehow creepy and monstrously alien (no longer, that is, an incredible lifelike machine but rather a human being with something inexplicably wrong–part of Mori’s point being how incredibly finely attuned we humans are at perceiving those infinitesimally disquieting failings)” (15).
In sum, the purported goal of digital animators is to transcend the monstrously alien and move their work ever closer to looking and feeling real. And for that to happen, as Pixar founder Alvy Ray Smith notes, “we’ll only be able to get there using human actors, with all their idiosyncratic mannerisms and specificities, as our models” (17).
As I read Weschler’s essay I thought about what has been happening in electronic music since at least the early 1980s. For thirty years, electronic musicians have grappled with the question of how to make their music sound more realistic–how to make MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) sequencers, quantization, sampling, and other technologies work in a way that doesn’t sound artificial but as if a real person is behind them. Pick up a music magazine–then or now–and you’ll find story after story about techniques aimed towards these ends. Moreover, each generation of technology promises ever better quality, ever more realism, ever higher sampling bit rates, and sounds that feel less cold and more warm–like the real thing. The race for perfect simulation and modelling is ongoing, yet how close do we want to get? Is the goal to fool ourselves, to make the electronic sound acoustic?
I have written before on this blog about electronic music and the real. One post cites a passage by Jaron Lanier about the limitations of music post-MIDI. Another post describes some of my frustrations with the sounds of electronic music. In my own work, I had the experience over the past year of spending time listening to different sounds in my software and finding that the ones I liked best were those that fooled me into thinking that they were real instruments. But these sounds were few and far between. Tired of searching for glimpses of realism within my computer, I finally sampled one of my percussion instruments. And what do you know? I was surprised at how engaging its sound was, made of fundamental, overtones, and little imperfections. It sounded real because it is real. And so I began to work with it.
One of the animators at DreamWorks that Weschler spoke with, Lucia Modesto, opined that the quest for creating a believable digital human has essentially become a quest for quest’s sake. But for her, animation “ought to be about what you can’t get in reality” (13). Like say, creating Shrek. Maybe that’s the best case scenario for electronic music too.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Martin Mull
Walking across a recently re-designed section of Times Square last week I had a pleasant sensation that the design was working on me, on us pedestrians, guiding us along certain paths and shaping our sense of space. Sometime last year I read a New Yorker article about the architectural changes in store for Times Square. The city had hired the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta to make the area more people friendly. The firm studied patterns of pedestrian movement and found that despite the existing walkways being closed to traffic and painted bright and non-street like colors, folks still preferred the sidewalks–in part because the sidewalks were raised higher than the street and thus felt safer. The proposed renovation (to be completed by 2015) aims to get rid of this height differential between road and sidewalk, unifying everything with a series of interlocking and slightly contoured concrete blocks. Here’s Snøhetta’s description of their design:
“clear and simple ground surface made of pre-cast concrete pavers creates a strong anchor for the space, allowing the excitement of Times Square’s commercial components to shine more brightly above [...] The area’s new two-toned custom pavers are embedded with nickel-sized steel discs that will capture the neon glow from the signs above and playfully scatter it across the paving surface. In addition to simplifying the ground surface by consolidating both moveable and permanent sidewalk and street elements, Snøhetta’s redesign also addresses practical issues such as drainage and maintenance and programmatic flexibility.”
And here’s a close-up of the concrete blocks:
It wasn’t until I walked on the blocks in a completed section that I felt the power of Snøhetta’s design. What was most striking is that the space seemed to foster a sense of expansiveness and possibility as I walked around it. Something about its subtle textures and angles re-oriented how I felt the plaza.
Walking about the Snøhetta plaza, I thought about how music shapes and directs our sensations. In fact, it does this so effectively that sometimes we hardly notice the sounds working on us–whether they be steady beats that induce dance, noisy and distorted timbres that suggest aggression or maybe defiance, or static drones and long tones that invite contemplation. Of course, each of us bring our experience to our listening, yet the shape of the musical object remains primary. Like the interlocking and angles concrete bricks at the Times Square plaza, the design of a music works on us, sometimes despite us. We go in feeling one thing, but soon start feeling something else.
As I took in the environment of new textures, shapes, and angles, I also remembered a book by architect/philosopher Christopher Alexander called A Pattern Language (1977). It’s about the aesthetics of architecture and urban design, proposing a set of some 253 different design patterns found in human-built environments that encourage meaningful living. From the public patterns of town, neighborhood, and street design, to the patterns of home and garden, A Pattern Language suggests that it’s the relationship between the small elements of ordinary places that create the good feeling we get when we’re in them. These relationships explain why we find say, a reading nook at the top of the stairs “safe”, an archway “mysterious”, or a stone walkway out to the garden “inviting.” Whether we’re talking about the design patterns of spaces or music, our environment matters.
I sometimes forget that much of my everyday music listening comes to me by way of established channels–whether these be record labels, music streaming recommendations, or tips from music reviews. So I’m surprised when one of those channels leads me to something off the well-trodden path of what is critically admired at the moment.
Last month as I flipped through Wire magazine, I read about a compilation of work by Laraaji (Edward Larry Gordon, b. 1943), an American electronic zither player and student of Eastern mysticism. Laraaji’s repetitive music is percussive and rhythmic, trance-like and drone-ish, exuberant and sparkling. Most interestingly, it’s unique–like a music culture of one that lies outside of the established and tacitly agreed upon conventions of idiom and style–”electronica”, “global”, “folk”, “noise” etc.–that even adventurous publications like Wire adhere to on some level.
My favorite piece is “I Am Sky.” Structurally, it’s built on a steady pulsation in a 4/4 feel, with a regular accentuation on beats two and its offbeat (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and). Harmonically, the piece calls to mind an Indonesian-sounding five-note scale (g-sharp, a, b, d-sharp, e). Using this limited palette of notes, the groove continues until 4:30, where Laraaji switches from using mallets to his bare hands, which make a thumpy flesh of the palms and fingers sound, and for the next minute the music switches to double time feel and becomes more syncopated. The concluding thirty seconds shift downwards by a tone (a surprising key change) and sound a free form cascade of falling notes.
But talking about musical structures sometimes only gets us so far. What strikes me most about “I Am Sky” is its ability to convey a sense that its sounds proceed by a logic different from one we can comfortably analyze. Even as I try to put my finger on it, the music has its own goals.
Musical memory is an interesting thing. Sometimes we remember with great clarity bits and pieces of a music–a beat, a catchy hook, a lyric, a chord progression. My wife’s memory seems to work this way: she has total recall of the words and melodies of just about any song she’s ever heard. Another kind of musical memory works in more amorphous ways, leaving us with only traces of what we listened to. These traces often take the form of a remembered gestalt–kind of like a compressed snapshot of the music. My memory often works this way. Having listened to a favorite piece a few (or many) times, I begin to mentally play back the sounds in a condensed form. The entire piece becomes a short loop of favorite parts juxtaposed together that I can somewhat hear in my mind’s ear. I say “somewhat hear” because I recall the overall vibe of the music more than any part in particular detail. Something about it has left a trace, and this trace–a memory of my repeated encounters with the sounds–is enough to help me recall the vibe of the music and keep me thinking and writing about it.
Here then are a few favorite musical moments that left traces here at brettworks in 2013:
Dawn of Midi, “Dysnomia”:
(read more here)
(read more here)
James Blake, “Digital Lion”:
(read more here)
(read more here)
Max Richter, “Recomposed, Winter 3″:
(read more here)
Walking home from the local grocery store, I found myself at a steady but slower than normal stride, moving my head up and down, and yes, beat boxing a beat and a bassline. I may have even spun a move over the curb, skipping along as the plastic bag with the peanut butter bounced off my hip. Then I caught myself mid-beat: “What am I doing? And what is this song?”
The song was “Red Baron” by the jazz-rock fusion drummer Billy Cobham, from his 1973 debut solo album Spectrum which I bought as a discounted cassette when I was a teenager. The beat and bassline on “Red Baron” impressed me. It’s a perfect example of what musicians call “in the pocket” playing: something about the timing of Cobham’s relaxed yet authoritative beat placement creates the sensation of thickness. Listening to track today on Spotify, I noticed how much the drummer’s presence can (still) be felt. The presence is in Cobham’s weighty drum sound, but also in the spaces within his playing, such as at the ends of phrases where he plays a fill and then seems to pause a nanosecond before resuming the beat. The nanosecond pause–real or imagined, I’m not entirely sure–makes all the difference in how the music feels. Cobham takes his time no matter how intricate his playing and creates a musical flow that is perfectly steady yet the opposite of metronomic. “Red Baron” breathes easy like someone struttin’ down the street and embodying the essence of funk. No wonder its forty-year old groove stayed in my head all these years. It must have made an impression.
In his recent New Yorker essay on creativity in jazz and popular music (drawing on recent biographies of Duke Ellington and The Beatles as his case studies), Adam Gopnik makes a distinction between idea-based and action-based notions of creativity:
“Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by the fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than work, to think that the new idea ‘contributed’ by the work matters more than the work itself” (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, Dec. 23 and 30, p. 123).
In the music world, critics are ever alert to characterize and describe the next big idea that manifests itself through an emerging style–whether it be minimalism or dubstep, post-classical or vaporwave. But how easy it is to forget that creativity in music lives on the ground, at the intersection of body-minds and instruments, unaware of its outside interpreters trying to make sense of it. And while any individual musician-composer may not overtly “know”–that is, be able to tell you with certainty–why they do what they do and what to call it, the value of their work remains within the practices that constitute it.