Resonant Thoughts: Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s “Portable Stereo” (2017)

 

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“Listening to music on a smartphone is not like listening to music on a Walkman. Again, the phone’s functions undermines one another. We are perennially subject to interruptions and temptations. Dead time—waiting for the bus, waiting in line, and so on—is filled by checking Facebook instead of letting our minds wander. While the Walkman fended off boredom during those same kinds of moments, its effect on our minds could not have been more different. It was a machine for daydreaming.”

-Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Portable Stereo, p. 106.

Aim

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aim—[verb] point or direct at a target; from the Latin aestimare ‘assess, estimate’

When I’m playing music I’m continually aiming and re-aiming my attention as the music goes along, and my aiming happens on different levels of perception. Since I play mallet percussion, there’s a spatial aiming of my mallet-holding hands along the marimba keys, where the keys are like small targets I need to accurately and reliably locate and hit over and over again. When the tempo is slow or my part is sparse, I have time to make sure my mallets meet every note where and when I need them to. But when the tempo is fast and my part is denser (e.g. chromatic runs up and down the keyboard), I have little time to think through mallet landing points. My aiming relies on a muscle memory that is practiced and quite reliable, though not infallible. Sometimes somewhere along a difficult passage I notice a glitch in my body recall—I’ll slightly overshoot a semitone distance say, or overestimate how fast the fast tempo requires me to play (it’s fast but not that fast). I can practice the difficult passage slowly (which I do from time to time), but I can’t practice aiming for its notes in the charged moment of performance: there’s the aiming one practices in practice, and then there’s the aiming that one pulls off (or not) in performance. Since I perform the same music each week and I have repeated opportunities to practice merging my practice and performing aiming, my goal has become how to more consciously make performing an ongoing practicing.

Another kind of aiming I do when I’m playing music is to latch onto extra-musical ideas that seem to be by-products of the music itself. In contrast to the aiming I do with a musical instrument, this aiming is fuzzier in execution and is best described as being like a radio receiver tuning in to faint signals from various extra-musical realms. Something about playing music seems to facilitate this mystical-sounding stance. These “signals” include memories (personal ones, as well as noticed connections to other musics you’ve encountered over the years), body feedback (e.g. my energy level, posture, tension and relaxation points), information from and on fellow musicians (e.g. I ask questions: Why are they playing just like that? What does that gesture right here and now mean? Are they on auto-pilot, or are they responding to the music as it unfolds? Are they listening to me or just playing in sync with me?), and emotions that arise in the course of playing music.

Of all these signals, it’s music’s emotional effects that are the central target in my aiming. My memories, my body feedback, and my information from and on fellow musicians are all peripheral to music’s power to conjure feeling. When I’m performing, my conjuring goal is to figure out how to make the music as emotionally expressive as it can be. Usually this involves me trying not to get in music’s way by doing only as much as it seems to require. As with many things, less often works out to be more. (Encountering a musician getting in music’s way by doing too much—by overplaying—is a distressing, un-musical experience.) When I’m composing, my conjuring goal is to find sounds, patterns, and juxtapositions that feel like something powerful, something moving. Here too, less is often more. Whether you’re a musician or not, you aim yourself in the direction of life’s faint emotional signals as a grasping after what really matters: Is this experience doing anything to you?

Listening To Studio Monitors

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I’m at an electronics store, in the studio monitors listening room. It’s dark and the temperature feels about 50 degrees. I wish I brought hat and gloves—it’s frigid in here. The salesman turns on the song “Deacon Blues” from Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja, which is probably the most listened to album by people demoing monitors because is was expertly recorded and has such a lush, hi-fi warm analog stereo, this-is-how-real-musicians-play sound. The salesman turns up the volume to an unpleasant level so I can feel the thump of Steely Dan’s super-tight rhythm section (Steve Gadd is on drums: that snare sound—wow!). The music comes out of one set of speakers for about ten seconds, then switches to another set. The salesman is touching a computer screen, making the speaker changes, but not telling me where he’s going next. I look up to locate the new sound location then glance over his way with an Oh it’s over here now? It’s like a real life video game: using my ears, I have to find the correct set of vibrating speakers and then quickly shuffle left or right to position myself at the mid-point between them to listen for a few seconds before the salesman assigns the music to another set. I wish he’d slow down though. The scene is funny, except since we’re the only ones in this cold room no one else is around to laugh about it.

What am I listening for? No one tells you what to listen for (a fact that applies to music generally too). I think I’m listening for speakers that “sound good” but more importantly, that sound true—meaning that reflect what is actually happening in the music without “coloring” it in any substantial way. For instance, a speaker might accentuate the low frequencies in the music, which will give you an exaggerated sense of what the bass in your music is doing. This is not good. Instead, what you want, as much as possible, is a speaker whose “flat” frequency response doesn’t exaggerate any one band of the music’s frequency spectrum. In audiophile and professional recording parlance, flat monitors are crucial for accurately reproducing the music as it actually is. This is important when you’re mixing because you need assurance that the levels you’re adjusting reflect what is actually there. This all gets metaphysical pretty fast because music’s sound and location—music’s is-ness—are never static facts. Where exactly is music’s there? Just as live music sounds different depending on where you are in relation to it—Are you the performer? The listener? Where is the music happening vis-a-vis where you are?—recorded music sounds different depending on the speakers or headphones you’re using to reproduce it. How music sounds also depends on the acoustics of your listening room, but that’s for another discussion.

After a few minutes of Steely Dan, we listen next to Miles’ 1959 album, Kind Of Blue. I immediately hear a faint hiss from the speakers—it’s the room tone of the studio in which Miles and his band recorded—and remark to the salesman how this phenomenon doesn’t exist anymore in contemporary electronic music’s airless digital and auto-tuned realm. The room tone makes it feel like the salesman and I are with Miles, turning this cold listening room into the studio where he recorded. Over the room tone I hear the bass introduce the question mark theme of “So What”, the piano and horns answer it, and panned very hard to the right speaker is the shimmering ride cymbal of Jimmy Cobb. It’s like Cobb is three feet away. “The ride sounds amazing” I say with an emoji smile. The salesman remarks how great a sound they got back in the 1950s at those famous old New York studios. Kind of Blue was recorded (in two days) at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio, also known as “The Church” because the space was originally the Adams-Parkhurst Memorial Presbyterian Church. (Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Pink Floyd’s The Wall were also recorded here.) “It’s incredible that they recorded a sound with that kind of detail without even having good monitors” the salesman says. I never thought about it that way. “But they did have good microphones” I offer.

The salesman then taps his screen again and we listen to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a song that until today I had only ever heard coming out of televisions speakers. Nirvana’s music isn’t as crisp in its high frequencies as either the Miles or Steely Dan recordings. In fact, it sounds rather ugly—kinda grungy, actually—like it was recorded hastily and the musicians insisted that their levels to be in the red because it sounds more lumberjack plaid jacket aggressive that way. The music isn’t helped by the salesman turning up the volume ever higher, perhaps under the impression that I’m a rock fan even though I keep backing ever farther away from the wall of speakers as the song punches itself along. Cobain keeps repeating A denial! A denial! A denial! and I realize that I always thought he was saying Turn the lights out! Turn the lights out! Turn the lights out! Oops. As he says at the end of one verse, Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Just make the music stop. After numbing ourselves with Nirvana we talk some more about the build quality of the various speakers. I’m still freezing but focused. “I’m not a fan of Genelec’s metal casings” the salesman says, tapping its shell, “they don’t sound as warm as wood because, you know, wood ages.” We also marvel at how far consumer-priced pro audio equipment has come over the years. “Your average Joe Consumer isn’t going to pay a thousand bucks for a set of speakers anymore. You got podcasters and video editors using these things—it’s a whole new ballgame now.”

Standing in front of the speaker wall, listening to one set at a time and alternating among brands, I’m still finding it difficult to find substantial differences from one set to another. They all sound more than adequate for my needs. Okay, maybe the Mackies sound the most spacious (“They’re my favorites!” the salesman says), until I hear the JBLs (“Great speakers, no doubt”), which makes the Mackies sound a tad muted, until I hear the Focals, which sound punchier than the JBLs, until I hear the Adams (“You can’t go wrong with them”) whose ribbon tweeters make all of the other monitors sound a tad strained. Maybe if Miles were in here with us he would set us straight (The speaker doesn’t make the music he might say, in a whisper).

I clear my voice a bit, “Do you have anything…Classical? Like strings? Or piano?” I can’t believe I just asked that. The salesman probably hears: “Do you have any music that’s more relaxing that Nirvana? Something more…mellow?” But Nirvana at 100 decibels won’t help me discern anything about sound reproduction. After  scrolling through the iTunes playlist the salesman finally finds us a stray Mozart symphony and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” We listen to Mozart’s cheerful strings for a bit and then switch to Beethoven’s brooding piano. “That shit was written a few hundred years ago and still sounds great” he says. I agree. “Remember, the audiences back then never heard music on speakers—ever. They had to go to a concert to hear that. That’s why those concert halls were designed so you could hear everything.” We listen in silence for a while as the Beethoven piece unfold itself, one slow and inexorable arpeggio at a time. “The speaker just disappears into the music, doesn’t it?” I say. Or maybe great music overtakes the speaker? The salesman nods. “That’s the idea.”

 

 

 

Theory As Poetry: Rosalind Krauss’s “Grids” (1979)

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The grid is an introjection
of the boundaries of the world
into the interior of the work;
it is a mapping of the space inside the frame onto itself.

It is a mode of repetition,
the content of which
is the conventional nature of art itself.

As we have a more and more
extended experience of the grid,
we have discovered
that one of the most modernist things about it
is its capacity to serve as a paradigm or model
for the antidevelopmental,
the anti narrative,
the antihistorical.”

-Rosalind Krauss, Grids (1979), pp. 61, 64.

On Ray Hudson’s Verbal Poetics

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“Not by accident, nothing capricious about it, nothing fortunate
–it was insightful, questioning football.”
– Ray Hudson

If you are a soccer fan and you watch it on TV, as I do, you may have encountered the splendiferous voice of Scottish announcer Ray Hudson. Hudson played as a professional with Newcastle United from 1974-77 and then with various US teams until 1991. Since 2004 he has been a commentator for GolTV, a sport channel that broadcasts games from La Ligua. Alongside fellow commentator Phil Schoen, Hudson covers big Ligua matches, including the “El Classico” duels between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

When you watch these big matches you hear Schoen doing most of the play by play commentating. He’s the sensible one, tracking the ball from player to player. His is a reassuring voice, slightly low-pitched, with that page-turn quality that lends it a I wonder what will happen next? cadence. Schoen is a pro’s pro, adeptly narrating the flow of the game in a way that I could listen to all day—or least while I’m cooking. But sometimes sports TV is more than ambient sound, and during La Ligua broadcasts the X factor here that draws me in deeper is Ray Hudson. Relying on Schoen as his straight-arrow wingman, Hudson plays the role of exuberant interrupter, riffing on the game like a preacher with a microphone driving himself to exhaustion, yet somehow willing his body to keep going because the game unfolding in front of us is simply that good, that magical.

Hudson’s verbal poetics depend on two essential techniques. First, he improvises a seemingly never-ending stream of analogies to express his enthusiasm for how remarkable the goal that just happened really was. Hudson is a particularly rabid fan of one of the sport’s living legends, Barcelona’s diminutive forward, Lionel Messi. Hudson analogizes all around Messi’s goal-scoring. I have heard him say that a defender trying to stop Messi from scoring is like someone trying to stop “a twisting dragon in vaseline.” Or: “The placement is emphatic, the power 1.21 gigawatts.” Or: “Like Oliver Twist, he wants more. He just never says ‘Please, sir.’” Or this: “He could follow you through a revolving door, and come out first.” Or this: “Dynamite at the end of an electrical attack.” Or my favorite: “Defenders try to follow him on Facebook, and he comes out on Twitter.”

The second key Hudson technique is the intensity of his passion. He’s the only commentator I have ever heard who runs himself ragged calling the game, so involved is he emotionally with the unfolding action. As co-host Schoen holds it together, I imagine Hudson slumped in his chair, all but spent before it’s even halftime. On more than a few occasions I have found myself glued to a game hoping to hear Hudson do his thing—which can be grandly summed up thusly: breaking through the glass ceiling that exists on any occupation by transforming it into something else. What’s the secret? It has something to do with the effect intensity has on how we perceive something done. Hudson brings incredible energy to his verbal riffs, careening from ad lib to ad lib as he tries to render for us the level of his engagement with the game. What more could one ask for?

Freestyle: Music Aphorisms 3

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Your resistance to a music is a measure of the music’s capacity
to destabilize notions you didn’t know you hold dear.

The singer of the pop song assumes that if she repeats the chorus enough
someone will believe her.

Classical music’s contemporary uses illustrate how the music has always been, among other things, an aspirational tool and badge—a way of making social class audible.

Music used in advertising prostitutes itself in the sense of misusing its talents
and sacrificing its self-respect for financial gain.

Music is not a way to “express oneself” but a window
onto understanding the mechanics of expression itself.

“Music” is the on-life-support thing that musicians practice all day in conservatories; “music” is the empty promise of every new product in the music store catalog; “music” is riffs strung together and improvised solos transcribed and learned; “music” is the abstract idea pondered by philosophers; “music” is the social presence observed and deconstructed by anthropologists.
And yet…music thrives!

One day at rehearsal the band played the music at 3/4 speed.
“It grooves more” declared the piano player.
“Fast tempos never really groove.”

Drumming for dancers teaches that articulations and accents
need to be exaggeratedly obvious
because your listeners are thirty feet away, not looking at you, and in constant motion.

One way to distinguish “relaxing” music from “contemplative” music
is to check if you’re getting drowsy.

On Spotify’s Vastness Versus Listening’s Smallness  

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The other day I was browsing through Spotify’s seemingly endless genre categories (a subject for a future blog post), marveling at how the company’s algorithms manage to carve music into so many micro-genres. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not just about rock, hip hop, EDM, and classical anymore: through Spotify’s eyes, there’s a musical niche for everyone, no matter how idiosyncratic you think your tastes might be. Scrolling through some classical music playlists (wondering why and how Rachmaninoff and Max Richter came together) I noticed a playlist called “Indian Classical Music For Studying.” And in case you’re wondering if this list has been carefully calibrated for studying, I would say probably not—it’s just a collection of some of the world’s finest Indian classical musicians including Ali Akbar Khan, Imrat Khan, Ravi Shankar, and others. The playing is so expressive and interesting I don’t know how anyone could study with this music on—unless of course you’re studying melodic improvisation, in which case this playlist is an encyclopedia. (Side note: Why isn’t Indian music required transcription material for western musicians? High school stage bands could be arranging these improvisations instead of playing “Birdland.”)

I decided to give the playlist a chance and started listening to Ustad Sultan Khan playing rag Shuddh Kalyan. Khan (1940-2011) was a prominent sarangi player and vocalist. The sarangi, one of many stringed instruments used in North Indian classical music (the most well-known of which is the sitar), is short-necked lute with many strings that produces a hollow, echoing sound. When a musician imitates vocal sounds on the sarangi using little shakes (gamaks) and sliding movements (meends) on the strings, it can sound eerily like singing. It’s for this reason that I like listening to this kind of music because it’s a change from my regular diet of sharp attack, short-decay percussive stuff. Khan plays the Kalyan raga, which is a set of pitches that sound somewhat like the western major scale, though not at all exactly. Khan explores the raga through a thirteen-minute alap, which is the slow and unmetered opening section of an improvisation that introduces the raga over a drone backdrop. I find alaps the most interesting parts of Indian classical music performances because they build so much tension and intrigue before the tabla drums enter and things get more regimented (i.e. a meter is introduced) and therefore predictable (i.e. phrases end in unison on beat one of the meter, etc.).

All of this is digression from my main point: as I listened to Khan’s spaciously expressive alap I thought about the disjuncture between the vastness of  Spotify’s algorithmically-organized content and smallness or specificity of how musicians actually create and listeners actually listen. Listening to Khan (several times now), I marveled at how many tiny details he incorporated into every beautiful phrase. One could spend hours on these ten minutes, finding lessons on phrasing, form, and affect. One could conceivably ignore all of Spotify’s other offerings and spend a year studying “Indian Classical Music for Studying.” I won’t do that, but one lesson from this encounter is that sometimes it’s worth thinking about what the music itself offers. What meaningful sense impression or insight can you extract from its sounds? Does the music leave memory traces? Does it contain moments that resonate with you? Having all the music choices in the world is wonderful, but one can also excavate endless interest within a single performance.