thinking through music, sound and culture

On Leaving Space In Music


The other evening I felt like listening to some “zone out” music on my way home from work, so I put on Harold Budd’s Perhaps, a collection of piano music.

As I walked the last few blocks from the subway I took measure of the great space in Budd’s improvisations–in the spaces he leaves between his chord clusters and melodies that hang like tree branches. In addition to his attractive note choices, what stands out in Budd’s playing are those spaces just after the melo-harmonic resonances are fading away. Taking measure of these spaces in the music, I tried counting the number of steps I was taking between each chord and was surprised to find that the average was between eight and twelve steps. That’s a lot of space!

While I have enjoyed Budd’s music since I first encountered it a few years ago, I never realized that maybe part of how it works is through what could be called its generosity of space-providing. As you listen, the music offers you ample room to think about what you just heard, count your steps if you’re so inclined, or make other non-musical associations. Most music we listen to isn’t like this. Most music is about fullness and density–richly layered, textured, orchestrated, and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. But such music doesn’t invite us into the listening encounter the way Budd’s space-providing piano playing does.

You can read more about Budd here and here and here.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff Online


1. An article by Hua Hsu in The New Yorker about global music influences in electronic music.

“Future Brown’s stylistic promiscuity aspires to a future built on eclecticism and color rather than on hierarchy and canon, velocity and rhythm rather than sing-along harmonies and riffs.”

2. The music critic Paul Morley interviews composer Max Richter.

“When I was studying I thought there were some very interesting ideas happening in the academic world but it was like they had switched their ears off. It was an ideas-led thing, the working-out of a theory, and the score was like the manifesto of the theory. But it wasn’t about sound. The studio is all about sound and not theory.”

“Everything is everywhere and culture is no longer A then B then C; it is just a fuzzy cloud where everything points in different directions. It’s very difficult to find solid ground to stand on.”

3. An article by Ethan Hein on sampling and ownership in music.

“In a world saturated with recordings, creating more music ex nihilo is not the valuable service to humanity that it once was. I make sample-based music because I feel like it’s more worthwhile to identify existing sounds that have been overlooked, to bring them to fresh ears, and to give them fresh meaning in new contexts.”

Production Stories: Sharing A Process Of Making (Electronic) Music


A friend of mine recently passed along my Singing Bowl Music II to a friend of his, Charlotte, who is a yoga teacher. A few weeks later, Charlotte got in touch with me via email to say how much she and her students had been enjoying their practice with my music as background sound that “creates a contemplative, calm atmosphere.” The students were curious to know how I created the recording. They assumed that I had used a number of different bowls, each one of a different pitch, and even wondered if I had a YouTube video showing me making the music? For a second, I considered telling Charlotte that, yep, I had performed every tone myself by playing a vast collection of custom-tuned instruments ranging from four inches across to four feet around. It would have made for an impressive performance story, but the truth is that’s not how I made the music.

I explained to Charlotte how I recorded two tones from a single Nepalese singing bowl: the first, a long tone using a wooden dowel pulled around the bowl’s edge, and the second, a struck tone using a rubber mallet on the bowl’s side. These sounds I then put into Ableton Live software. From here I fashioned several Sampler instruments I could play using my keyboard (my controller of choice because my fingers know its terrain well), one for the long tone (Singing Bowl Music), one for the struck tone (Singing Bowl Music II), and two others to make the soft background “pad” chord sounds. In other words, all of the sounds were derived from one singing bowl. Then I explained how the pieces were built upon two improvisations: first, a chord sequence, and then a melody to go along with it. Other parts were derived from these initial performances. I also mentioned that the improvisations weren’t edited: I kept what I played or else ditched it and started anew.

After I wrote back to Charlotte I worried that I had taken the mystery out of the music. Does talking about music ever really help its case? Does music depend on our explanations of it? I was also revealing that though they were derived from performances, these singing bowl recordings are constructed and computerized things, sampled sound arrangements once removed from their acoustic source—even if they aren’t heard like that. But Charlotte’s question got me thinking and that’s why I decided to share the story of how I made the music. Explaining my process to an already engaged listener didn’t lessen the credibility of the sounds, and besides, the truth is that I could not have made these recordings any other way.

You can listen to the music here and here.

Brett’s Sound Picks: Second Storey’s “Reserved”


I found the artist Second Storey while browsing through a huge BBC new music playlist put together by DJ Mary Anne Hobbs. Second Storey’s track “Reserved” has a few compelling things going on: tightly syncopated percussion sounds playing individual start and stop patterns that dovetail; a sense of ambiance created through a combination of dry and echo-y in the mix; a bass part that is all sustain and volume swells; and best of all, a beguiling four-chord progression played on a strange hollowed-out pad sound that glues everything together.

Are you listening on good headphones?

Here is a video interview with Storey who describes how he works with Ableton Push:

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff Online


1. An article about the inspiration for a Max for Live device (software for use within Ableton Live) that injects realistic timing into multiple computer generated parts.

“The timing of each individual note is dependent on every single note that both players had already played – a minor timing hiccup near the start of a piece will continue to affect every single note after it, up to the last notes. And when you play a duet every note your partner plays affects your playing, and every note you play affects your partner: a two directional information transfer is happening.”

The software is inspired in part by a study of the general properties of musical interaction and how musicians synchronize their rhythms.

“Some neuroscientists think that rhythm – not just in music but in movement and speech – is how we spot the ‘uncanny’, the unnatural, even how infants recognise other animals of the same species. In short, human timing is very important.”

2. An article about misophonia, a condition in which certain sounds can drive someone crazy.

“So, will misophonia exist decades from now? As knowledge of the brain improves, sensitivity to sounds may be included among other psychiatric or neurological conditions. But for now, the diagnosis remains a godsend to many.”

3. An article about drones in and outside  of music.

“A drone in music is a sustained note held for most or all of a piece. It’s an essential part of musical traditions around the world, from the continuous bleat of a bagpipe, to the om-like hum that gives Indian ragas their spacious feeling, to the cavernous burr of a didgeridoo. Classical composers have used it to evoke sounds of nature and a sense of something ancient, rustic or outside of time: Think of the gentle hum that opens Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the almost inaudible whine at the beginning of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 or the E flat at the bottom of the Prelude to Wagner’s “Rheingold,” which seeps into the listener’s consciousness like water.”

Outsider Music II: Notes On Moondog’s “A New Sound For An Old Instrument”

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“I’m into swing. I get that from the American Indians like the Sioux, the Arapahoe and the Apache. They have this drum-beat, heart-beat. Bom, Bom, Bom…I got that influence when I was six years old in Wyoming. My father took us to an Arapahoe Indian reservation. The chief let me sit on his lap and beat the tom-tom for the Sun Dance. So, that goes back to the early ’20s for me.”

– Moondog (interviewed by Jason Gross, 1998)

Moondog (1916-1999, born Louis Hardin) was a mysterious composer, percussionist, and musical instrument inventor known as the “Viking of 6th Avenue” because of the Viking costume he wore as he walked the avenue from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. Moondog was blinded in accident when he was a teenager and although often mistaken for being a homeless man dressed in costume, he wasn’t. He was a skilled artist whose rhythmic, modal, and contrapuntal music influenced New York composers, including two who would become infinitely more famous, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In fact, Glass is quoted as having said he and Reich took Moondog’s work “very seriously and understood and appreciated it much more than what we were exposed to at Juilliard” (quoted in R. Scotto, Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue, New York: Process, 2008, p.12).

I recently came across Moondog’s 1979 recording of organ music, A New Sound For An Old Instrument. (I loved the title.) The audaciously-titled recording sounds somewhat odd and out of step with the modern era–as it were the soundtrack to The Hobbit or Lord Of The Rings–but also because it truly does its own (timeless) thing. The pieces on A New Sound are mostly built out of multiple melodies set up as canons. (Moondog was a huge fan of the discipline of canon writing.) These organ melodies are rhythmic and percussive, singing in short tones, which gives the music a light, dancing feel–unlike so much lugubrious and somber organ repertoire. Accompanying the organ is Moondog’s distinctive stomp and jangle homespun percussion parts, which are sometimes in odd and complex meters and filled with their own layers of accents and patterns. How did Moondog record this album? Did he overdub all the parts himself? I’m not sure but the music has a great feel to it.

Anyway, listening to Moondog’s music is fascinating because it’s as if in it you hear faint traces of other more well-known composers and styles, as well as intimations of musics that could have been, might have been, but for some reason never were. It’s as if these organ pieces trace a stylistic path that leads us down a forest trail that suddenly ends at an old locked gate. What music was/is/could be sounding beyond that gate?

Here are two of my favorite pieces from A New Sound, “Single Foot” and “Mirage”:

You can read an interview with Moondog here.


Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

1. A brief interview with the composer Steve Reich who talks about contemporary music.

“A lot of people who use computers are gonna come up with junk; most of the people who use notation came up with junk, too. But there are the Brian Enos – people who have imagination for a new way of working that fits with their intuitive gifts – that come up with great stuff. A few things will turn out to be enduring. Well made, and in a new way.”

Here is part one of Reich’s “Radio Rewrite” which is based on a song by Radiohead.

2. A brief documentary the follows DJ Diplo’s project Major Lazer on a trip to Jamaica where they meet the legendary producer King Jammy, composer of the original “Sleng Teng” rhythm that ushered in digital dancehall music.

“If you confidently own the uniqueness of your voice, people will love you.”

3. An article about the hardcore music scene in New York City in the early 1980s.

“Hardcore was born as a double-negative genre: a rebellion against a rebellion. The early punks were convinced that rock and roll had gone wrong and were resolved to put it right, deflating arena-rock pretension with crude songs and rude attitudes (…) The idea was to out-punk the punks, thereby recapturing the wild promise of the genre, with its tantalizing suggestion that rock music should be something more than mere entertainment—that it should, somehow, pose a threat to mainstream culture.”

4. A trailer for an upcoming documentary about the xylophone music of the Sambla Baan people of Burkina Faso.

On Outsider Music I: Lubomyr Melnyk’s “Cloud Passade No. 3″


“The piano and its sound are as much a part of the music as the notes.” – Lubomyr Melnyk

I recently came across some piano music of Lubomyr Melnyk. He makes what he calls “continuous motion” music which involves playing rapid and continuous patterns up and down the keyboard for very long stretches while keeping the sustain pedal down. The effect is a hypnotic, waterfall-like sound wall. The music is very tonal and consonant harmonically, and has a steady, if somewhat frantic, 12-beat pulse. The continuity, consonance, and length of Melnyk’s pieces create a kind of heightened state. As you listen you hear little inherent patterns within the patterns as your ears latch onto different note combinations, and if you’re like me, feel non-musical things. (Isn’t that the point of music?)

Here is a three-minute excerpt taken from three-quarters of the way through a 17-minute performance of Melnyk’s “Cloud Passade No. 3:

A few observations about the music. First, despite its speed, Melnyk’s playing doesn’t feel physical or strenuous–it just feels flowing, which is itself a musical-technical accomplishment. Second, his chord choices are subtle and unusual–they don’t seem to follow the conventional logic that this style of music would suggest. Third, the music is reminiscent of some classic minimalist fare–leaning more towards Philip Glass’s romanticism than Steve Reich’s asceticism–yet Melnyk’s work has its own agenda too. Fourth, this piece raises the question of musical canons and repertoires, and insiders and outsiders vis-a-vis musical traditions–specifically about how it comes to be that some composers rather than others have their voices widely heard, and how it is that some musical gestures rather than others are spread far and wide and ultimately accepted. Finally, as I listened to this piece I found that I wasn’t thinking about music per se, just enjoying a waterfall sound wall. As the music constructed an array of emotions in me, I stopped thinking about its precedents or its stylistic brethren. That’s often a sign that a music is doing what every music aspires to do: create a space in which feeling and intellection can celebrate together over the sounds’ meaningful fire.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. A question-answer about Spotify’s shuffle algorithm.

“Working at Spotify has taught me a few things, one of them being is that it’s really, really, really hard to build something that a human will genuinely feel is shuffled. People still constantly come up to me at parties and tell me that the shuffle functionality is not random.”

2. An article about how musical training is good for the brain.

“The latest findings add to mounting evidence that musical training not only gives young developing brains a cognitive boost, but those neural enhancements extend across the lifespan into old age when the brain needs it most to counteract cognitive decline.”

3. An article about sound pollution’s impact on how we hear nature.

“This gift that we are born with – to reach out and hear things hundreds of metres away, all these incredible sounds – is in danger of being lost through a generational amnesia…There is a real danger, both of loss of auditory acuity, where we are exposed to noise for so long that we stop listening, but also a loss of listening habits, where we lose the ability to engage with the environment the way we were built to.”

Reflections On Melody: Listening To Shivkumar Sharma (Again)

The music of Shivkumar Sharma has an enduring appeal for me. Sharma is a master santoor player who combines the best of percussion playing and melody-making. Performing to the accompaniment of a tabla drummer, Sharma weaves line after line of dulcimer melodies within the rhythmic cycles outlined by the tabla. It’s groovy and endlessly tuneful.

Here he is performing:

As I listened to his music recently I reflected on how we often think about melody in terms of “tunes” or “themes” that are somehow distinct, catchy, and memorable. The melody of a song is supposed to be a singular thing. For example, something like The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”

or the zippedy up and down opening of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”:

or the less exaltedly tuneful hook to last year’s pop hit “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith which, by the way, is eerily similar to Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” (Petty was rewarded writing credit for what he called a “musical accident.”)

The point is, melodies are ideally these valuable things that are instantly recognizable, cherished, and in our era, copyrighted and protected.

But back to Sharma. When I listen to his playing I think about melodies differently. I’m reminded of how endless they can be.

Maybe that weaving-cloth metaphor I opened with isn’t apt after all, because melodies in Indian classical music have a liquidity and fluidity and fungibility about them. Whether sung by a vocalist, plucked by a sitar player, or hammered by a santoor player like Sharma, melodies in this music just endlessly flow along their ornamented paths through time. As I listen to Sharma I get the sense that the melodies he improvises coud be poured into one another, mixed and heated, changed into different states.

Thinking about melody this way–as an improvised practice that moves from moment to moment to shape the unfolding music–helps me reign in the notion of melody being a composed, exalted thing. Speaking of which, are we really well served by this idea anymore? Maybe not. Maybe this ear-blinds us the potentially vast expanses of melody’s landscapes.

You can read more about Sharma in an older blog post of mine.


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