thinking through music, sound and culture

Notes On Tiger C. Roholt’s “Groove: a phenomenology of rhythmic nuance”


Tiger C. Roholt’s Groove: a phenomenology of rhythmic nuance is a splendid, rigorous, and brief (140 pp) book that makes a compelling case for something many musicians already know something about: groove. Groove is the feel of a rhythm–that quality of musical time that can make it seem as though the music is pushing ahead or laying back. How a single musician, let alone an entire ensemble, has groove is somewhat mysterious. In a way, the ability to produce and perceive groove is a kind of body knowledge and its feel aspect “is a musician’s datum” (105). Roholt designs his book around four propositions: first, grooves have a feel; second, grooves somehow involve the body and its movement; third, to understand a groove is to feel it; and finally, feeling and understanding a groove does not occur in thought or in listening, but through the body (2).

Roholt introduces his topic through a fascinating account of an early Beatles recording session and two versions of the drum track for the song “All My Lovin’.” The example serves to illustrate how an identical rhythm can sound radically different when played by different drummers with different grooves. Feel in music is the result of numerous nuances that musicians bring to their performances. In the case of grooves, small timing differences can make all the difference between whether a music sounds right or sounds off.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Groove is how Roholt draws on the work of other philosophers and music scholars to make his case that understanding how groove works is best approached not as an analytical project but as an experiential one. In particular, Roholt astutely draws on the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), a French philosopher who wrote compellingly about the role of the body in perception. Here is Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception in a passage that could be describing how we respond to groove:

“A movement is learned when the body has understood it, that is, when it has incorporated it into its ‘world’, and to move one’s body is to aim at the things through it, or to allow one’s body to respond to their solicitation, which is exerted upon the body without any representation” (Merleau-Ponty in Roholt, 95).

To build his argument for how we perceive groove through “a practical, prereflective, non cognitive sort of understanding” (99), Roholt cites Merleau-Ponty’s concept of motor intentionality, which describes a non-cognitive way of knowing, a bodily understanding. Motor intentionality is “a kind of bodily feeling that informs our body’s practical grasp of its environment” (103). Though it may seem obvious, when we perceive and enjoy a groove we do so by grasping its feel through our bodies.


In a way, Groove is part of a larger academic project over the past thirty-five years aimed at explaining, and more importantly, validating, groove across a range of musics. Some other books concerned with groove include John Chernoff’s African Rhythm and African Sensibility (1978)Steven Feld and Charles Keil’s Music Grooves (1994), Anne Danielsen’s Presence and Pleasure (2006) and Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2010), among others. John Collins’s video Listening To The Silence: African cross rhythms also adds to this conversation. Groove–as much as melody, harmony, timbre, or song lyrics–conveys a lot information that we process on an almost unconscious level. Groove is the trace left by music as it moves through time, and it’s also a deep and reliable marker of both musical style and musical competence. It’s for these reasons that Roholt’s book is essential groovology reading for guidance on how to systematically think through musical time–to understand why groove is so groovy. Next time you’re listening to a musician or band play, pay attention to their groove. It will tell you a lot about things your body might have already begun to figure out.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

1. An article about fade-outs in popular music.

“…the fade-out allows a song to live on beyond its physical self; the listener senses that it never truly ends.”

2. A video of a musician using an Elektron Octarack to improvise electronic music.

3. A video about a drummer who imitates machine-made patterns.

“People started to program things that a drummer could no longer do. They came purely out of the syntax of programming vocabulary.”


On Peter Mendelsund’s “What We See When We Read”


Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read: A Phenomenology With Illustrations is a remarkable study of perception in the experience of reading. Just his book’s title suggests, Mendelsund explores what exactly it is that we “see” in our minds eye when we read. It’s an interesting question or set of questions really–What do we imagine when we read words on the page? Does each word trigger a micro-vision in out minds eye, or does the triggering happen in the spaces between words? “Is it that we imagine the most, or the most vividly, when an author is at his most elliptical or withholding? (In music, notes and chords define ideas, but so do rests)” (30). This book is full of probing insights and musings like these that stop you in your tracks and make you think.

Mendelsund makes a few references to music in his book, no surprise given that he’s a trained classical pianist. This background in music and his general analytical mind may explain how he views characters in novels “like a set of rules that determines a particular outcome” (34) and how “we hear more than we see while we are reading (39). Page by page, What We See When We Read methodically yet playfully investigates the reading experience through examples culled from the Greats–from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky to Virginia Woolf to Joyce and Kafka. And each of these examples is graphically illustrated in a way that demonstrates the very concepts they embody. What do those and other authors actually tell us through their writing–as opposed to what we read and imagine through it? This engaging phenomenology by one the publishing industry’s leading graphic designers sets out to engage this territory.

Being musically oriented, I was most taken by Mendelsund’s discussions that offer insight on the musical experience. For example, when he talks of reading bringing one into “a liminal space”–a “polydimensionality” of being in many places at once (61)–I immediately thought, but of course, this is what listening to music is like too. Words are also like musical notes in that they each have contexts. In music, add a second note to a single tone and you generate the context of a chord by which to understand the two sounds together. And the element of time is key to both reading and music listening. Our perception in both depends on being able to time travel back and forward to help us make sense of the passing literary or sonic moment. “In order to make sense of a book’s words and phrases we must think ahead when we read–we must anticipate” (94)…At once, we read a sentence, read a few sentences ahead, keep track of what we’ve already read, and imagine events yet to come” (104). For Medelsund, reading “is not a sequence of experienced ‘now’s” (107)–it feels more flowing than that. And of course, that’s one of music’s supreme charms too: to make sequences of notes conjure a seamless and emotionally powerful virtual environment that makes ideal use of the passing of time.

So what do authors bring to our table? They orchestrate the experience and guide our imaginations: “The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much” (125). When the textual experience is calibrated just right, it feels so real because it’s as if all the details could be no other way. Or as Medelsund puts it, “My delight is my tribute to the author’s having paid close attention to the world” (136). But the reader is the other crucial part of how writing generates its meaning. In an illustration that depicts a conductor through whose transparent body we can see a concert audience, Mendelsund draws on the metaphor of performance to illustrate: “We perform a book–we perform a reading of a book. We perform a book, and we attend the performance….(As readers, we are both the conductor and the orchestra, as well as the audience)” (160). In other words, reading is an active process of meaning-making, obviously, but also an act of trust and of faith even: “When we read, it is important that we believe we are seeing everything” (162). There’s a lot at stake in the act of reading insofar as no matter what the subject, we get to inhabit the consciousness of another. “Books allow us certain freedoms–we are free to be mentally active when we read; we are full participants in the making (the imagining) of a narrative” (192).


By a certain point in Medelsund’s book, it becomes clear that he’s a believer in a view that novels aren’t really representational at all. In a passage that reminded me of the music of J.S. Bach, the author frames it thusly: “The relational, nonrepresentational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found. Not in mental pictures of things, but in the play of elements” (245). In other words, when we read or listen to music, “we don’t see meaning” (265); rather, meaning is something created out of the work’s component parts. Here, Mendelsund gets increasingly abstract, wondering whether we can “picture the medium or dimension in which things reside? (281), and muses about the role of memory in our imagining: “Memory is made of the imaginary; the imaginary made of memory” (299). He also returns to musical examples, drawing on American composer Aaron Copland’s three levels of listening–the sensuous, the expressive, and the semantic/musical (310)–to think through how we read through what is essentially a “nebula of illusory material” (342).

In the end, we read and listen and manage to make sense out of the words or sounds before us through an act of synthesis. “It is the synthesis that we know. (It is all we know.)” Writers and composers and readers and listeners are all synthesizers. “Authors are curators of experience. They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can–out of disorder they create narrative” (402). Similarly, readers take what they can from the words, conjuring something the way eyesight merges two separate images into the illusion of one. “Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read” (415). In music too, something is said and that something is heard and interpreted by a listener. Hopefully–remarkably–meaning arises from this exchange. Mendelsund ends his delightful book with the same literary example he began with, pointing out that, as is so often the case, what is there–on the page, in the music–and what we perceive to be there are not the same thing. We think we see or hear something clearly, but it was always blurred.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article about a search for a folk music in Greece.

“There is a belief among the people of Epirus that their music is deeply curative: that it reverses certain strains of heartache and expands certain joys, that it’s a panacea for certain existential and physiological ailments. Chaldoupis sees what is broken, he says, and begins the fixing. In Epirus, this is not some sort of reconstituted folk ritual, trotted out for curious, authenticity-starved interlopers, like the luaus staged in the manicured side yards of sprawling Hawaiian resorts. It is merely the way people think about music.”

2. An article about the Rorschach inkblot test. Isn’t it interesting that there is no analogous associational test for musical sound?

“…psychologists have frequently used the various aspects of people’s responses (e.g., inkblot focus area) to make judgment calls about broad personality traits.”

3. An article about a man who spent a year walking across the United States while taking a self-imposed vow of silence.

“As far as my silence goes, it was a gut feeling that it would be a beautiful action and a beautiful experience, but I went into it very blindly.”

Meta-Review: Considerations Of Musical Invention In Aphex Twin’s “Syro”


In an interview some years ago, the electronic musician Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, once said that he didn’t care much for the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. James pointed out two things: Stockhausen’s music had no groove and no basslines. I remembered both the irreverence and pointedness of that comment recently as I have been listening to–and grooving on–James’ recent return to electronic music, Syro.

Syro is a compelling listen for a few reasons. First, each track grooves hard–not in the generic, boom-boom-boom-boom 4/4 way that so much contemporary electronic music does, but in James’ distinctively loose yet hyper tight and syncopated style. Hard to put into words, but the music has its own sound. Second, each track changes constantly by morphing, developing, unraveling, changing direction, and in general, surprising the ear. Third, each track uses a fairly limited soundset of analog-ish electronic timbres. (James even includes a list of all the equipment used to make this record. Whoah.) The limited soundset acts as a constraint–maybe for the composer, and certainly for us listeners. As we listen, we can follow the sounds–including dry kicks and snare drums, squelchy bass tones, slightly out of tune pads, and delay effects–as they enact their constant changes. It’s in this way that James’ music ranks among the most satisfying out there by literally being a process in constant flux. Finally–and this relates to point two above–the arrangements of sounds and the structure of each track are lean, meticulous, and always seem to create a sensation of balance. Everything just seems so, with nothing extra or unnecessary–be it repeats or a melodic theme. Syro is inventive, groovy, well-designed, and efficient music.


What are others saying about Syro? Here’s a sampling of quotes from some reviews.

From Resident Advisor, here’s Jordan Rothlein:

“Tracks morph, pressurize and reorganize—but never break down, exactly—following a completely unpredictable if utterly natural logic.”

From Pitchfork, here’s Mark Richardson:

“Sixty-five minutes of highly melodic, superbly arranged, precisely mixed, texturally varied electronic music that sounds like it could have come from no other artist.”

From The Quietus, here’s Joe Clay:

“…a master of his machines, an accomplished musician and producer showing off his vast skills.”

From The Guardian, here’s Tim Jonze:

“…every time he playfully mangles a rhythm or throws in a disorientating series of bleeps or robot gargles just to keep you on your toes.”

Another from The Guardian, here’s Piers Martin :

“Everything he creates has a beautiful cohesion to it: whether it’s serene ambient electronica, laser-guided acid, or disconcerting, dystopian glitch, the work clearly comes from a singular mind but one that is not affected by outside trends.”

From The Washington Post, here’s Chris Richards:

“This is a largely instrumental album that creates, obeys and breaks its own rules, seemingly at random. Rhythms establish themselves through familiar configurations and recognizable timbres, then erode and regroup in new patterns. Synthesized sounds are used to signal melody, or texture, or both, or sometimes neither. Everything is tethered to a grid, but nothing feels fixed.”

From the L.A. Times, here’s Randall Roberts:

“As if by stubbornly refusing to acknowledge many aural signifiers and non-Aphex EDM evolutions of the last decade, the artist has presented an utterly human, mostly nonverbal defense of his aesthetic: atmospheric, occasionally funky and meandering instrumental electronic tones, lovingly crafted, with imaginative internal logics.”

From NPR, here’s Tom Moon:

“Where some producers set up a foundational beat and then let it repeat endlessly, Aphex Twin drops in slight changes from one measure to the next.”

And finally, here is James himself talking about musical technologies in a recent interview in Rolling Stone:

“It’s taken people a long time to work these new tools out, and now it’s just now kind of like an acoustic guitar. We’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers – our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains.”

Here is Syro‘s first track:

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. A video in which the Kronos quartet explains how its members communicate with one another in performance.

“The way you play your note is deeply affected by the way the person right before you plays their note.”

“What I should really be practicing in anything I do is…flexibility.”

2. A passage from Sean Wilsey’s More Curious that evokes the essence of performing music:

“Skating is a feeling. If you really want to get it, you have to do it” (92).

3. A concert review that illustrates the difference between a music’s intentions and the reality of its sounding.

“It’s important to remember that music has both aesthetic value and use value, though at live performances, it’s generally the first of those things that gets priority.”

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. A video showing soba noodle master Tatsuru Rai at work. The rhythms are amazing!

2. An article about about why you and your friends might like the same music.

“Whether you turn it up loudly and sing along, wearing the music’s emotion like garlands of your own inner feelings, or just use it as nonintrusive background noise while you work, your choice of music may be telling the people around you more than you realize about your personality and values.”

3. An article about the Frankfurt School’s contribution to understanding popular culture.

“One way or another, the Frankfurt School mode of criticism—its skeptical ardor, its relentless scouring of mundane surfaces—has spread far.”

A Creative Heuristic That Has Helped Me In Music And Writing


Perform (improvise material to render a moment)


Multiply (expand material)


Edit and Refine (subtract material)


A Result That Surprises, Feeling Like More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

On Less Is More: Lorenzo Senni’s Music

Lorenzo Senni has an interesting musical thing going on. On his recent recordings Superimpositions (2014) and Quantum Jelly (2012) he makes a kind of electronic trance music that does away with the beats, leaving only pulsing, echoing, and arpeggiating synthesizer chord sequences. Without the metrical context of the relentless 4/4 thump, the synth chords are like bird formations against a clear blue sky–darting up and down in sync, careening en masse, tracing large arcs against nothingness. It’s a repetitive music, yet it manages to stay interesting.

In a YouTube video, Senni talks about his interest in understanding the structure of trance music, especially its dramatic build-ups and breakdowns–those moments just before the beats drop back in. He also talks about his interest in laser light shows to accompany his work.

All in all, Senni’s aesthetic is compelling for at least three reasons. First, it’s a dance music denied its beats–but intriguingly, not its rhythm–perhaps so it can gain entry to art gallery performance spaces. Second, it sounds like nothing else around in electronic music. Third, it demonstrates that sometimes you have to take away stuff to reveal the shape of a thing.

For the curious, an incisive piece on how Senni’s music may illustrate philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “pointillistic time” can be read here.


Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article about the resurgence of vinyl records.
“People still want objects with personality…”If it’s just a nostalgic or hipster-elitest thing, where does that leave us in 10 years? It might be the last gasp of an expiring culture before we all get sucked into the [digital] cloud.”

2. An article about the relationship between bass in music and the sensation of power.
“Experiment 1 found that music pretested to be powerful implicitly activated the construct of power in listeners. Experiments 2–4 demonstrated that power-inducing music produced three known important downstream consequences of power: abstract thinking, illusory control, and moving first. Experiments 5a and 5b [...] found that music with more bass increased participants’ sense of power. This research expands our understanding of music’s influence on cognition and behavior and uncovers a novel antecedent of the sense of power.”

3. An article about the relationship between music training and educational achievement.
“People have to actually play an instrument to get smarter. They can’t just crank up the tunes on their iPod.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 129 other followers