Notes On Music Criticism from Tony Herrington

If you have an interest in writing about musical experience (as a student, critic, academic, or simply as a music blogging individual) you may find Tony Herrington’s notes on music criticism particularly edifying (I know I did).  Herrington is a contributor to The Wire, one of the best sources for insightful writing about exciting new music.

Here are some of what I found to be Herrington’s most probing suggestions:

“Music criticism should wrap urgent despatch (what is happening, where, when and who does it involve?) and instant philosophy (what does it mean?) into one volatile and unruly package.”

“The music critic has to decide immediately whether a work is inert or active, a closed circuit or a pathway to universality.”

“The music critic must respond to local initiatives by thinking cosmically on their behalf.  They should ask of them: do they expand and elevate existence, or do they diminish it?”

“The music critic should be aware of a work’s world-historical significance, its cultural capital, and if that work has no such status, be prepared to construct a new world in which it will have.”

“The music critic should aspire to the status of the autodidact.  They should eschew academic and systematic study in order to amass an idiosyncratic and syncretic personal cosmology from the stuff of the world around them as a way of both better understanding and negotiating a way through that world.  This will result in an approach to the critical process that will by definition be non-doctrinaire, non-hierarchical and anti-dogmatic.”

The Neuroscience Of Music

In a recent article posted on his always interesting neuroscience blog at Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer writes about the neural basis of how music listening makes us feel emotion (or at least the semblance of emotion).  Citing a recent study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Lehrer discusses how music stimulates a brain region called the caudate.  Specifically, researchers found that caudate activity reached a climax of stimulation in the seconds just before “a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming.”  Our anticipation of what is to come in the music creates in us an intense sense of wanting or desire.  Composers (and here I would include good improvisers too) exploit this habit of how our minds listen to tonal music by setting up patterns that play with our expectations as well as our sense of resolution.  Good music makes us feel by keeping us wondering: What will happen next?  Where is this piece going?  Drawing on the pioneering work of musicologist Leonard Myer’s Emotion And Meaning In Music (1956), Lehrer notes:

“The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. That is when we get the chills. […]  The uncertainty makes the feeling–it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next.  And so our neurons search for the underlying order, trying to make sense of this flurry of pitches.  We can predict some of the notes, but we can’t predict them all, and that is what keeps us listening, waiting expectantly for our reward, for the errant pattern to be completed.  Music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation.”

There is a lot that makes sense here, especially when we are taking about the teleological thrust of good old tonal music–whether it be the familiar sounds of classical or pop.  But one of the things Lehrer doesn’t discuss is how musics that aren’t deeply rooted in chord progressions and their associated tonal tensions go about creating musical interest.  How does music in these other contexts go about its business of making us feel?

How, for instance, does repetition work on us in many electronic dance musical idioms to be not boring, but rather infectious and stimulating?   Similarly, what about the repetition-oriented musics outside of the Western pop continuum such as American minimalism, or farther afield–for instance, Indonesian gamelan or West African drumming traditions (with which I have some hands on experience)?  By what processes and structures do they make us feel?  (And is this feeling of the same cloth as that engendered by say, Beethoven?)  It seems to me that there is a lot to explore between the commonplace views of repetition as either groovily trance-inducing or merely redundantly boring.

Also, what about intensely melodic musical traditions that do not function tonally the way western classical and pop musics do with their use of harmony?  I am thinking here about the classical, soloist-oriented traditions of North and South India and parts of the Middle East.  In these traditions, elaborately decorated melodies are improvised from single ragas or maqams (scale types) to build large-scale forms.  Suffice it to say, different musics work on us by different means.

You can read Lehrer’s article here.

Bad Music, Good Music: How We Assess Sound

How do you know when some music is just plain bad?  Not bad as in really good (“That was badass!”) or badly performed, badly executed, but just stylistically bad–bad as in: “That’s terrible, awful music.”  What do we mean when we utter such a harsh critique?  And–to paraphrase Napoleon Dynamite’s brother in the scene in the movie Napoleon Dynamite where he hears Napoleon sum up the lameness of their uncle Rico’s home movie that chronicles his squandered quarterbacking potential (“This is pretty much the worst movie ever made.”)–how can we know this?  Do we even have the right to such judgement?

I was thinking about what makes bad music this morning as I gave a listen to a CD passed on to me by an acquaintance.  My judgement was instant, reflex-like, almost a revulsion like being fed artificial sweetener en lieu of the real thing.  My wife pleaded for me to make it stop.  It wasn’t the “fake”, sampled instruments or the overly lush orchestration or the easy listening vibe that sealed the deal either.  Was it the hackneyed chord progression?  Maybe.  Was it all of these things together?  Maybe.  The answer still eludes me, but I just knew.

The truth is, answering the questions Why is some music is bad and how do you know that? is a complex business.  All of us are constantly assessing the good-bad ratios when we listen, expressing our tastes vaguely by way of “I like this” or “I don’t like this.”  However, it’s hard work uncovering the deeper underpinnings of our aesthetic valuations–realizing that we have an unspoken aversion to dance musics, say, or that we find the sound of acoustic strings an instant turn off.  We’ve been enculturated without ever having given our permission (imagine!), picking up notions about how music should and shouldn’t sound like from our parents, our friends, our general social milieu, from advertising, from inherited tradition, from music teachers, from our desire to be different from our teachers, friends and family, and from our time.  What all this means is that how we come to know what we like or don’t like is not always obvious even to ourselves.

The ethnomusicological position on this is that all the world’s musical traditions are equally valid as human expressions, and thus equally good too.  But the ethnomusicologist would want to understand more about the music I heard and disliked this morning: Tell me more about who made it and their reasons for making it.  How does the music connect to their life experiences?  What makes the music good for them (rather than bad for you)?

If you follow the stylistic innovations in a particular musical idiom such as electronic music, you realize that a lot of what makes a music “good”–even in some instances, innovative–happens incrementally, an accruing of little details and changes that mean something to a community of practitioners and fans.  Here we are reminded of anthropologist-cybernetician Gregory Bateson’s notion of information as “differences that make a difference.”  As we learn about style–as practitioners and listeners–we learn how to pick up on these differences that can mean all the difference in whether or not we deem the music to be good or bad.  Amass for yourself enough of this understanding of style and how one style relates to or overlaps with another and pretty soon you’re making what feel to be very natural assessments of the goodness or badness of a music.

Having said all this, there are always loose ends in matters of aesthetic critique.  One particularly tricky issue is the possibility of ironic intentions, where we encounter a music that seems to be metaphorically winking at us knowingly by way of stylistic allusion, reframing a dated instrumental timbre say, or revisiting low-fi sound fidelity in an obvious way (“Hey, I recorded this on my vintage 4-track cassette recorder!”) just because…Because it signifies a new brand of cool, a new difference that makes a difference.  This requires us, as listeners, to be in the know, to be with it, in sync with the subculture or zeitgeist, to get it, to be open to the cool, to know when something might be bad–but in a good way–and so be good after all.  We need to be able to heed anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s advice to make “thick” assessments of social things, distinguishing all the subtly different ways someone’s eye wink–or musical wink–can mean something.  When we do this, we move away from the question of whether something is good or bad into a more fruitful realization: someone took the time to organize sounds in this particular way because it felt right to them.

And so, as the saying goes, it’s all good.

Microsoundscapes In Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist


For me, there is something magical in just about all animation in how it abstracts reality and transforms it into something other–something more vivid and thus more hyperreal.  Sylvain Chomet’s movies The Triplets Of Belleville (2003) and The Illusionist (2010) partake in this tradition while also bringing new things to the viewer’s attention, including, surprisingly enough, a focus on sound.

In both Chomet’s films, there is almost no dialogue per se.  Instead, characters communicate through an invented ad hoc language–snatches of French and English, grunts of affirmation, deep sighs of relief, and little melodies of curiosity–while using few real words.  For the most part, they don’t converse at all and this is precisely where things get interesting.  In Chomet’s world, people are almost mute beings who communicate through garbled, non-sensical speech.  In a way, by being freed of conventional language use, these characters can focus in on the deeply expressive hue of everyday social interactions–that is, what happens when people come face to face with one another.  Without recourse to speaking much, these interactions become living, whole body gestures.

The lack of dialogue also allows the viewer to focus in on the finely articulated soundscapes of the movies.  For instance, in The Illusionist we are anchored in through all kinds of environmental microsounds, including: footsteps, snapping fingers, cracking backs, creaking doors, springing couches, rotary dial phones, gurgling bath sinks, bubbling kitchen soup pots, gnawing rabbits, decrepit cars shuffling down a mountainside, single-syllable-uttering acrobats (!), buzzing neon signs, foghorns in the distance, crackling fireplaces, rain and wind, among many other things.

The film allows ample acoustic space for us to really take in these sounds and focus on their completeness, or how they can communicate volumes of affect and delineate physical spaces.  In fact, as you get (re)attuned to these everyday sounds, they start to seem, like the animation generally, hyperreal.  You also come to realize how deeply sound creates the aura of a particular place and locates us at its center, in perfect position to follow Chomet’s microsounds outwards and around us, transforming the richly rendered 2D animation into an even weightier 3D perceptual experience.

Here is a trailer for the film:

From Quadraphonic To Good Enough Sound

Why did quadraphonic sound never catch on? Was it because no one wanted to have to set up four speakers instead of two?  Was it just too expensive and cumbersome?  Was it because its various formats were incompatible with one another?  Or did folks somehow collectively decide that stereo was good enough?

Quadraphonic or “Quad” sound was first developed for consumer use in 1970 and is the earliest version of what would be known today as 4.0 surround sound.  Quadraphonic sound systems use four speakers positioned at the four corners of the listening space, reproducing four discrete audio channels.  If you trace its history back further, you’ll find early experiments with surround sound associated with Walt Disney’s 1940 animated movie Fantasia (they ditched it after encountering too many technical problems) as well as experiments by Karlheinz Stockhausen (his electronic piece Kontakte featured quadraphonic sound) and Edgard Varese (whose piece Poeme Electronique used 425 loudspeakers set up in the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair).  While quadraphonic sound never caught on, by the 1990s it had re-emerged, albeit somewhat mutated, in the form of surround sound home theater speaker systems.

While I stopped keeping track a few years ago, last I heard surround sound was up to 7.1–that’s two audio channels up front (left and right), two on either side of one’s ears (left and right),  two in the back (ditto), and also a sub-bass channel (usually in the middle of the room) for the low frequencies.  You can hear the immersive glory of surround sound whenever you go to the movies.  Dolby Digital is behind current surround sounds developments.   Here is what 7.1 looks like:

But while surround sound formats–from quadraphonic all the way to 7.1–have undeniable sonic charm, it is pretty clear by now that most listeners accept the artifice that is stereo sound reproduction.  Even though we are physically equipped to hear quadraphonically and beyond– after all, we can precisely locate sounds not only anywhere around us in a 360 degree sonic field, but also above and below–stereo sound seems to provide us with a good enough approximation of how we go about hearing.  (An aside: Can dogs hear with accurate directionality?  I wonder about this because I often find our own dog, Sadie, looking the wrong way when she rightly hears a sound off in the distance.  I really do need to finish reading What A Dog Knows and report back on this…)

How can we be satisfied with such compromised dimensions for our sound reproduction?  One theory I have is that  stereo sound is good enough for us because our imaginations can “fill in” or otherwise make up for the missing dimensions of our listening-scape.  If you think about it, this is precisely what happens when we read a novel: we work along with the author’s descriptions of people and places, cross-referencing them with places and people from our own experiences.  It’s a collaborative process and we’re co-creators: novelist providing the grist for us to imaginatively process through our mill of experiences.  Perhaps listening to recorded sound demands the same kind of cognitive work out of us?  Then again, maybe stereo is good enough only because we have developed other priorities when it comes to listening to music?

What are these priorities, you ask?  To start, who would have guessed that the development of recorded media technology–from turntables and LPs to cassettes and tape recorders, samplers and computers–would lead us headlong deep into what Kevin Kelly calls our “recombinant” or remixed era.  From this perspective, what is important is not so much sonic fidelity–is the sound in mono? stereo? surround?–but a matter of intertextuality or how we relate one sound to others in our increasingly dense soundscapes.  I mean to say: figuring out the connections between various sounds and pieces of music and styles of music and micro variants on those styles is one of the challenges faced by anyone who wants to listen closely and make sense of the tangle of competing, connecting sound worlds that constitutes our time.  Certainly the rise and popularity of MP3s, despite their relative low fidelity, points to the possibility that we have lots of other priorities when it comes to music: copying music, circulating music, storing music, remixing music, mutating music.

Whether or not we are in a recombinant era, technology marches on towards ever better fidelity, better resolution, better sampling rates, better bass, higher definition (HD), Blue Ray, and so so.  Lately, 3D video is being touted as the next revolution in seeing with dimensionality–kind of like surround seeing, right?  3D video works by presenting slightly misaligned images to our eyes, which forces our minds to reconcile the differences and create the optical illusion of depth.  But will 3D help us watch the news or the sitcoms or sports?  Will our desires be shaped down the road simply by what will become possible or will we decide that 2D video, like stereo sound, is good enough (for now)?

On Audio Cassette Technology

Today I went to a local dollar store to buy a plastic storage bin and while at the checkout counter I noticed they were selling Maxell blank chrome cassette tapes.  I did a double take–it was a little like seeing an old friend for the first time in years–and almost tripped over myself while waiting for my change.  My trusty analog friend is still alive and kicking!

From sixth grade through the end of high school, my musical life revolved around cassette tapes.  I bought music on cassette, I recorded sound off the radio onto cassette (hours of jazz drum solos, classical, fusion, and even instrumental New Age), I made mixes onto cassette, and I recorded and overdubbed my own music onto cassette.  Somewhere I even have a cassette recording of my prepubescent high-pitched voice talking on the phone–a secret recording of one side of a phone conversation.  I had one of the first Sony Walkman portable cassette players too (and many subsequent incarnations of it).  Post-records and pre-CDs, cassettes were my go-to, vitally useful technology.

One thing I remember about cassettes is how finicky they were–how sensitive to environmental conditions, perhaps even to the sounds that I recorded onto them.  In the 1980s, I spent hundreds of hours methodically hand winding my tapes and cleaning the tape heads and capstans of my boomboxes and Walkmans in an ongoing effort to prevent the dreaded “wobble” sound: your cassette plays back unevenly, usually at a slower speed.  Tape wobble, for me, was the ultimate example of technology not functioning transparently, and it was a major drag (though in retrospect, perhaps wobble was a kind of liminal moment that I couldn’t yet recognize?).  That being said, its spectre inspired my almost superstitious flights of preventative care–note to self: keep tapes tightly wound and of sunlight–in the hopes of keeping my audio technology running smoothly.

I became a bit of an amateur expert on cassette tapes, scrutinizing the sound quality differences between normal UR (type 1), XLIIS (CrO2) or chrome, and–the gold standard– MX (pure metal particles) or metal tapes.  I usually chose chrome, but had a few metal tapes for special projects.  I also marvelled at those strange long distance beasts one could only find at Radio Shack: the 180 minute tape!  But use such things at your own risk.  Once I made the mistake of recording three hours of late night jazz radio onto a single tape.  Bad idea.  Suddenly, the tape gets jammed mid-recording, and yards of that wafer thin 180-minute spaghetti tape is oozing out of my boom box.  Experiences like these remind tech-heads how resolutely physical and fragile analog technologies can be.

A reliable tape I used often was that exact Maxell chrome tape I saw at the dollar store today.  In 1979, Hitachi Maxell, a Japanese company famous for its blank cassettes, ran a TV commercial and print ad that became an iconic representation of the cassette’s sound quality.  The so-called “Blown Away Guy” commercial features a man sitting low in a chair, getting blasted with some seriously loud recorded audio (actually, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”) that is, presumably, recorded onto a Maxell cassette.  As Wikipedia weighs in, this image in this ad “became the de facto standard of those who believed their stereo equipment had sufficient power or accuracy to move the mind and the soul.”

Here is the TV commercial:

During college I moved my music consumption to CDs, and then, like millions of listeners, my music went virtual onto MP3s and wave files. Today, of course, “record stores” are practically obsolete in North America, and cassette tapes are just one more fetishized object (like the LP in certain circles).  There are odes to cassette culture out there, though, including novels that revolve around the “mixtape” or homemade music compilations recorded onto cassette (see Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Rob Sheffield’s Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time), books on the aesthetics of mixtapes themselves (see Thurston Moore’s Mixtape: The Art Of Cassette Culture), even a fine ethnomusicological study of cassette culture (see Peter Manuel’s Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology In North India).

I guess objects, though, always have the ability to conjure and cast spells–or at least inspire flights of remembering– partly through their very objectness (or what art anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong might call their “affecting presence”).  Will downloaded MP3s ever engender this kind of magic?  Or is the remix culture/fungible audio paradigm of today without any substantial vapor trails of its own?