thinking through music, sound and culture

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article by Alex Ross on the music and career of Bjork, and the idea of musical genre.

“Stream, delta, border, boundary: we keep reaching for geographical metaphors as we speak of genres and we sense that the real landscape of musical activity ultimately has little to do with our tidy delineations, or indeed with the dismantling of them. Fluid and shifting, music is spread out like populations around urban centres, and certain communities could plausibly be assigned to one city’s suburbs or to another’s. Genre may be a kind of gerrymandering practised by musical politicians. Indeed, composers routinely complain when they are described as busters of genre or crossers of boundaries; they tend to view themselves simply as artists working with various kinds of material.”

2. An interview in The Quietus with fiddle and recorder player Laura Cannell about improvisation and the mixing of folk and medieval musics.

“Whenever you do music you’re always trying to tap into something a little bit magical, something difficult to contain or describe. That’s what makes you love it: the thing that you can’t explain that happens in your head when listening or playing. So yeah, not on purpose, but I just want to do something that I think sounds brilliant, that I really love. Again, I don’t want to say “anti-classical”, but I think it is anti-classical because (in that tradition) you can get very restricted, it becomes very much about the performance and the notes and what shoes you’re wearing. Being the right sort of performer. And I hate that, I feel like I’ve had a reaction against it; I want the music to move me.”

3. A piece about ragas (scales) in North Indian classical music. Basant Bahar is a compound raga, associated with springtime and interpreted in different ways by leading performers of various gharanas (schools) in the videos below.

Reflections On Richard McGuire’s “Here”


“I had this motto that I was going to make the big things small and the small things big.”
– Richard McGuire (quoted in The New Yorker, November 17, 2014).

Richard McGuire’s Here is a graphic novel that presents a poetic mediation on place and time. The book focuses on a single room in a house from the perspectives of different past, present, and future time periods. The room is a living room, and we see it as it looks and is inhabited circa 1959, 1983, 2015, 1774, and also on other dates, hundreds or thousands of years further back or forward. As the time periods change, we see fashions, decor, and social conventions shift. But we also see how similar humans are over time. The specifics of the place may change, but an underlying energy of the people in it persists.


One of McGuire’s visual narrative techniques–besides inserting the date on the corner of every page–is to divide the page into smaller windows of alternate time frames. In this way, we see the room as it looks in 1971, but at the same time see a corner of it as it is in say, 1791. This allows McGuire to show how different times and places interpenetrate one another, acting as mutual portals for sharing meaning and resonance across the ages.


Here gets you thinking about how things happen and are uttered repeatedly but in different forms over time. Here’s another example from the book that juxtaposes the deep past with the more recent century:


Naturally then, the book’s structure had me thinking about its musical resonances. One of McGuire’s techniques for shaping the book’s text (sporadic and brief as it is) is to show how bits of dialogue (“So what did you say?” “Did you hear that?”) echo and call and respond with one another through different eras. These utterances suggest how specific sounds can remain the same over time, yet have different local meanings.

This is common in music: a riff or a phrase or a composed gesture or a rhythm can travel through time and space, moving from the past to the present, from somewhere there (West Africa, say) to somewhere here (the United States, say)—like a meme. Or sometimes people say very similar musical things in vastly different contexts. And then there is the idea of musical quotation, and the fact of digital sampling. In fact, the musical world as we can experience it today thanks to so many musics streaming at our fingertips is deeply interpenetrated. Like those little windows in McGuire’s Here, we hear musical pasts in our present, and also endless lateral connections–from the East, West, and all points in between. So I guess what I’m saying is that this thought-provoking graphic novel had me thinking about a musical history (in the form of a graphic novel?) that would trace just a few small golden nuggets of sound along their travels to show how deeply music–itself an evanescent kind of space and place–connects us all.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article by David Pogue about Neil Young’s PonoPlayer.

“The results surprised even me. Whether wearing earbuds or expensive headphones, my test subjects usually thought that the iPhone playback sounded better than the Pono Player.”

2. An article about Mickey Guyton and black women in country music.

“The song is lyrically substantive in an era of eye-roll-inducing “sweet little somethin’” trivialities. It is instrumentally rich in an age of drum machines and handclaps. And it’s unapologetically retro at a time when country’s men are chasing every EDM and hip-hop trend to the point of desperation. Factor in the passion and conviction with which Guyton delivers the song’s climactic bridge, and there you have a recipe for a soon-to-be smash hit that will resonate with country fans of all kinds. Guyton may just leave country music better than she found it.”

3. An article about Ferran Adria’s creativity foundation.

“You don’t have to be passionate to be creative; you can just be professional about innovation.”

4. An article about Iggy Azalea and the white appropriation of hip hop.

“Rap music will always be rooted in the immutable allure of black masculine cool, but it’s no longer an exclusive expression of black urbanity. (…) As for her delivery, it’s a needling imitation of a black Southern voice, with syllables that twang in the wrong direction and vowels that curve into sour shapes. It’s pantomime devoid of personality. An empty white echo.”

On Soloing A Part: Listening To Eddie Van Halen’s Electric Guitar

Thanks to a recent post by Open Culture, I recently listened to the electric guitar part to Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “Panama.” Just to be clear, it’s a recording not of the song with the full band of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Just Eddie Van Halen’s guitar in complete isolation, up close and personal.

It’s a virtuosic performance. The groove is relentless and forward-moving, the timbre is weighty with its wonderful distortion, there are nice bits of harmonic work, a brief solo (in this case, a solo within a solo), and a surprising amount of dynamic contrast. The other thing I noticed is how efficient “Panama” is as a pop-metal concoction. It says its thing, sets off some fireworks, and then it’s over.

When I was a kid I must have heard this song hundreds of times as ambient sound. Whether it was on the radio or on TV, this music, this celebration of bombast just seemed to be omnipresent for a time. I wasn’t even a fan of the band, but that didn’t stop the music from finding me. And so as I recently listened to this guitar-only version, I was surprised at how many little details–the quality of the distortion, those harmonics–I was already familiar with, as if they were traces that had been lodged deep in my memory of half-listening to the song all those years ago.

If you are interested in learning more about Van Halen’s cultural and historical moment, a super fine account is John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reaktion Books, 2012). A very fine cultural history of the electric guitar is Steve Waksman’s Instruments Of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard U. Press, 2001) And a probing discussion of the connection between the disorted, overdriven sound of heavy metal and the construction of power can be found in Robert Walser’s classic study, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness In Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan U. Press, 1993).

Notes On Aphex Twin’s “Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2″

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. A video by Steven Feld of Nii Otoo Annan in Ghana playing bell patterns while listening to the late night rhythms of common toads.

“Using the toad rhythms as a stimulus and calculator, he enumerates dozens of time patterns on the bells while creating an exciting array of sound colors.”

2. A video about an orchestra of robots that can read human hand motions.

“In the hands of musicians—electronic or otherwise—perhaps this could yield more symphonic sounds down the road.”

3. An article about how listening to music can boost high-intensity workouts.

“What is interesting is that their power output had been substantially greater when they were listening to music. They were pedaling much more ferociously than without music. But they did not find that effort to be more unpleasant.”


Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An interview with poetry critic Henlen Vendler.

“I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem. You stand behind the words and speak them as your own—so that it is a very different form of reading from what you might do in a novel where a character is telling the story, where the speaking voice is usurped by a fictional person to whom you listen as the novel unfolds.”

“I write to explain things to myself.”

2. An article by Leon Wieseltier about the place of the humanities and the unquantified self in a technology-saturated world.

“The machines may be more neutral about their uses than the propagandists and the advertisers want us to believe. We can leave aside the ideology of digitality and its aggressions, and regard the devices as simply new means for old ends. Tradition ‘travels’ in many ways. It has already flourished in many technologies — but only when its flourishing has been the objective.”

3. A short documentary about the DJ-producer Harry Rodrigues (he of “Harlem Shake” fame) as a field recordist traveling in search of sounds to sample and remix.

“I just knew that I wanted to do a project where I could go record sounds myself and try capture the rarest, craziest sounds and build the ultimate sample pack. That’s how the idea started.”

“I’ve been using those sounds and totally transforming them, transposing them. Taking one thing and making it totally different. It’s just cool to be able to use these new sounds and transform one thing into another.”


Brett’s Sound Picks: Toumani And Sidiki Diabate’s “Rachid Ouiguini”

Spiraling interlock, joyful sadness, around and around four inevitable chords, imprinting hope through groove, the kora music of Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté makes the case for acoustic duets:

On Music, Thinking, Dreaming, And Gender: Two Chords In A Lego Commercial

“Music’s ability to conceal its processes and to communicate nothing/everything ‘directly’ is largely responsible for its peculiar power and prestige in society.”
– Susan McClary and Robert Walser, “Start Making Sense!: Musicology Wrestles with Rock.”

Every once in a blue moon I watch a TV commercial that stops me, holds my attention, and generates the semblance of real feeling. For instance, I have written here before about ads by Apple and Rolex that pack a punch. Recently I enjoyed the minute-long “Inspire Imagination” commercial for Lego toys. (Ahh, Lego. I love Lego.) The ad depicts a young girl playing with Lego as she imagines various occupations and carries out various tasks–from being a doctor and flying a helicopter to guiding a hamster through a maze and putting on a shadow puppet show. The girl is alone in each scene, yet clearly engaged with her Lego-enabled activities. Near the end of the ad we hear her say, in a voice over, “You taught me how to think, and how to dream.” The girl is addressing her proud mom, yet she’s also referring to her Lego.

The Lego ad is popular, in part because it promotes creativity, and also gender equality by showing a girl with what has often been assumed to be a boy’s toy. (Lego was pioneering in this regard. Check out this “Dear Parents” manifesto they included with their toys in the early 1970s.) On Twitter and YouTube, viewers have praised the ad, calling it “empowering,” “inspirational,” and “melancholy.”

What held my attention while watching was the soundtrack. Created by an advertising agency called Cut & Run, the music is the main source of the ad’s affective power, and helps construct viewers’ sensation of empowerment, inspiration, and melancholy. Let’s take a listen:

The music is simple. Scored for a close-mic’d acoustic piano, with bits of acoustic guitar and long string tones in the background, it consists of arpeggios around two chords: an A-flat major triad with a 6th added, followed by a c-minor triad. If we consider the key to be A-flat major, what we hear is a I-iii chord progression, over and over again. On top of this, in a higher register, the right hand of the piano part plays a fleeting melody that emphasizes the fifth, fourth, and third notes of the A-flat scale. The overall sound is reminiscent of Erik Satie’s moody Gymnopedie pieces; it also evokes the romantic-minimalist sound of Michael Nyman, some Thomas Newman film scores, and the intimate electronica of Helios. (Who, curiously enough, created his own take on minimalist Philip Glass’s Truman Show film score for an Apple commercial.) In short, this piano music has a familiar ring to it, and hearing it we kind of know how to feel.

The music works on two main levels. First, there are those two chords. Every major scale has within it three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord. The Lego chord progression–moving from a chord built on the root or first note of the A-flat scale, to a chord built on the third note of the scale–is inherently happy-sad sounding, because it moves from a major chord to a minor one. So, in a sense this progression encapsulates the music’s sense of melancholy. The I and iii Lego chords also share two notes: C and E-flat. As they are arpeggiated in the ad, the C in particular keeps insistently popping out of the arpeggio, bobbing to the surface of the chords. The C seems energized, empowered and inspired to both keep the rhythm going and act as a glue between the happy and sad I and iii chords.

The music also conjures feeling through that piano sound. For a long time now, the piano has been the ultimate symbol of the middle-class home and of having the financial means, time, and space to take music lessons and practice. The instrument might also be coded as having a feminine sound. In the Lego ad, we never see the young girl playing piano, but we might imagine her being able to play something like this two-chord progression. Finally, the piano sound is an acoustic touchstone that we can relate to as the sound of an instrument that many of us learned to play–a little or a lot–when we were children. Its resonance and warmth suggests an interior world of thinking, imagination, and creativity.

Which brings us back to what makes this commercial empowering, inspirational, and melancholy. The music doesn’t signify these qualities, but it evokes them by gesturing in their general direction through its notes and its timbre to help us feel. As the saying goes, with music, it’s all about the vibe. There is nothing remarkable about a girl playing with Lego, and here the music simply reminds us of the fact that the toy can spark wonder in girls too.

On (Mis)Trusting Music: A Subtext To This Blog


I don’t trust music.

Music shapes and directs my perception too much–telling me when and how to feel. How can it do that? Not just, what gives it the right to do that, but practically speaking, how does it pull off this trick?

I can’t see or touch music, or ever seem to get to the bottom of how it works. It’s a unmaterial thing–like a breeze or a shadow, or like phantom gears for an unseen machine.

Or music is a liquid, always escaping its containers (stylistic, historical, social) and getting away before I can interrogate it.

Powerful, invisible, flexible and fluid, music is some kind of loner.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 143 other followers