don’t even bother
searching through the preset sounds
just work with the default,
with what you have,
simple and unadorned.
It’s a saw wave sound,
not so special or shaped
to your liking,
but what does your taste
have to do with it?
Add an effect to color the wave,
maybe a reverb to give it space,
crank it up to outrage proportion,
to make the sound longer,
give it a tail.
No searching, just play with it–
the sound that a minute ago
was hardly cool
because it had nothing to do with you.
“I had to bust up the silence.” – Drake, “One Dance” (2016)
That Drake song is playing again—it’s always playing when I’m at the gym. Do I like it? I’m not sure. Does that matter? Nope. But I’m already humming it.
The kick drum is so prominent, so artificial in its bass contours, in its sub wobble, the way it seems jump out to fill the whole room even though the speaker on the ceiling is so small. It’s a super drum: I’ve never heard a real, acoustic drum sound like this. Maybe the sample is four drums into one? Or maybe it’s about the mix: How did they mix this song? What magical compressor-expander did they put on everything to make the sound spectrum so tall, so exaggeratedly long from its low frequencies to its highs? Music invites so many questions.
“One Dance” features the vocals of Kyla, a British house music singer. Actually, her vocal is a sample from her own 2008 song, “Do You Mind.” (See video below.) At times she sounds slightly out of tune and is left that way–it conveys being susceptible or vulnerable or not quite in control. Her sound is sampled because it sounds flirty, as if she’s interested in being here with Drake in this new context. Anyway, Kyla has such a tiny role on this song—all she gets to say, a few times, is Baby, I like your style. Meanwhile Drake is enthusiastically describing the scene at the club where he is having one last dance while talking, talking, talking—Grips on your waist/front way, back way/you know that I don’t play—while we can imagine Kyla smiling a polite frozen smile (who is this guy?) waiting for her chance to say her five words again when her interlocutor finally shuts up. The vocal conversation, such as it is, isn’t balanced, is it?
I try a few dips and keep listening. “Once Dance” has a tempo of about 104 beats per minute and a dancehall-esque beat. The tempo and easy syncopation give it a global appeal—it’s not too fast, but it does hum along, pleasantly. (The song hit number one in numerous countries.) Drake sings/melo-raps so softly within such a limited melodic range that it conjures him humming in the backseat of a car. I imagine the car is air-conditioned and the singer is on his way to the airport to go to a gig. Even better: he’s singing along to this very song which is playing on the car radio at this very moment, creating this interesting double-vocal effect that catches the attention of his driver who glances back through the rear-view mirror, smiling. This scenario comes to mind because there’s little else in “One Dance” to grab hold of as I listen while sitting on a weight machine, contemplating my next moves of resistance. Well, there’s those short little sampled piano stabs with their vintage slap-back echo glued to create a little fleeing resonance in the song. Everything else is so dry and up front.
What do we do with music like this when we encounter it, so dry and up front, over and over in public places? Can we use it, harnessing whatever power it might have? And if so, how do we do that? Can we imagine ourselves within its narrative? (No.) Is it a mini-movie in sound? (Sort of!) Are our memories surreptitiously attaching themselves to the song’s contours right this very moment, to be later unleashed years down the road, long after the song has outlived its relevance but not its circulation? (Oh I remember that song, you’ll say, remembering almost nothing to go along with it, surprised that your sense of recognition could float free of specific meanings like that.) Sometimes it’s worth thinking about such things when you have no choice as to the music you’re exposed to—like right now at the gym where I’m listening despite myself.
Today’s lesson then: every tiny moment of musical action can be exploded through analysis, leaps of association, and sometimes, insight.
“It’s a strange notion, this: digitisation has become so comprehensive and penetrating it is now able to express the fundamental categories within which we perceive reality itself–but of course this is merely an image, like any other.”
• An article about sound collecting.
“Everyone should listen more. But they should just start with what they’ve got. I’ve traveled a lot, but still the most awesome sound I’ve ever heard—the most beautiful, the most rich, the most musical—is the blackbirds in my garden.”
“As sampling techniques continue to evolve, so too does the debate over the validity and the artistic merits of sample-based music.”
“This experiential music is the one I can speak about with certainty.”
– Sarah Bakewell, At The Existentialist Cafe, p. 41.
“If I want to tell you about a heart-rending piece of music, phenomenology enables me to describe it as a moving piece of music, rather than as a set of string vibrations and mathematical note relationships on which I have pinned a personal emotion. Melancholy music is melancholy; a sweet air is a sweet air; these descriptions are fundamental to what music is. Indeed, we do talk about music phenomenologically all the time. Even if I describe a sequence of notes as going ‘up’ or ‘down’, this has less to do with what the sound waves are doing (which is becoming more or less frequent, and longer or shorter) than with how the music plays out in my mind. I hear the notes climbing up an invisible ladder. I almost physically rise in my chair as I listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’; my very soul takes flight. That’s not just me: it is what the music is” (42).
“A new study finds that toddlers have trouble learning words when there’s too much background noise…’It’s not that everything needs to be in quiet, but that at least some of the day the children should have an opportunity to hear language where there aren’t lots of other sounds in the background,’ such as TVs, radios, loud toys, or media devices.”
“The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness.”
“It’s a real trap making music for other people. I think we’re reaching the end of the audience–it’s just a conversation between different people doing different things.”
Imagine that you’re a bell pattern.
Your name is Timeline.
You were born somewhere in West Africa.
And you sound like this: 3 + 3 + 2.
That’s eight counts long but unevenly divided into two threes and one two.
People like you because your unusual design makes you syncopated, endlessly interesting, and fun to hang out with.
In fact, as a kid you loved to play with dance drumming groups in the village where you grew up.
You hardly ever slept!
You were the little guy who repeated your high-pitched part insistently while the other musicians smiled and played their own angular patterns. Everything meshed together like a finely woven kente cloth that spun itself out and out and out–a communal musical loom.
Since traveling to the Americas centuries ago (itself a long story) your services have been in high demand in all kinds of music, far too numerous to track. But even today everyone wants a part of your designs, your energy, your rhythmic wonder.
You’re a hit machine! Listen to yourself in some pop hits of the moment for instance:
In the guitar part in “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers:
In the keyboard part in “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris:
In the keyboard part in “Cheap Thrills” by Sia:
In the guitar part in “Treat You Better” by Shawn Mendes:
And with little variations (you’re easily bored) in the keyboard part “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” by Mike Posner (Seeb remix):
Well done Timeline. You’re a bell pattern who traveled far.