On Headphones

In a recent New York Times article on the dangers and downsides of headphone us, Virginia Heffernan makes the case that headphones–those little earbuds that are placed inside the ear, actually–put users at risk for early hearing loss.  Not only that, but they isolate us from one another; headphones are an antisocial technology.  Herffernan elaborates:

“Headphones work best for people who need or want to hear one sound story and no other; who don’t want to have to choose which sounds to listen to and which to ignore; and who don’t want their sounds overheard. Under these circumstances, headphones are extremely useful — and necessary for sound professionals, like intelligence and radio workers — but it’s a strange fact of our times that this rarefied experience of sound has become so common and widespread. In the name of living a sensory life, it’s worth letting sounds exist in their audio habitat more often, even if that means contending with interruptions and background sound.”

There is a lot to like here and also probe further.  First, I think it is a good thing that this “rarefied experience of sound” has become accessible to people besides sound professionals.  Why?  Because experiencing the multi-dimensional world of sound through a good set of headphones is a thrilling cognitive ride.  Even those little ipod ear bud headphones pumping out low-resolution MP3 files can sound decent enough.  And I think this immersive experience of headphone listening can be a part of living a good “sensory life.”  Second, “letting sounds exist in their audio habitat” is something that is in fact hard to do if you’re wearing headphones all the time.  So, yes: take some time to listen to your soundscape, to try to discern the endless layers of foreground and background sounds wherever you may be.  Finally, from a musician’s perspective, we need to remember that headphones are invaluable for close listening: it enables us to examine sounds as if under a microscope.  This may not be “natural” or how sounds are perceived in the everyday acoustic world, but listening to sound over a good set of headphones is to encounter the microworlds of sound.

Categorizing (One’s) Music

If you want to set up, as I recently did, an artist account at CDBaby to sell your music, you will be directed to a screen where you will be asked not only to succinctly describe your sound, but also categorize the material in terms of pre-existing labels. For my description I wrote this:

This collection of ambient electronic instrumental music features haunting modal harmonies, lush textures, and evolving percussive patterns to create a contemplative soundscape.”

I felt that this blurb was pretty accurate in describing the elements of the music collection I had submitted (“instrumental” and “modal” music with “percussive patterns”) albeit a little subjective too (are the harmonies really “haunting” and is the overall mood really “contemplative”?).  The truth is that it’s difficult to describe the workings if music (especially one’s own) because how music works on us is not entirely a direct result of how it works itself.  In fact, the sounds of music both create and co-opt our social lives to weave their spell.  Music is, to use critic Robert Christgau’s memorable phrase, “a rather insidious socializing agent.”

But I digress.  It’s one thing to describe music, and it’s another thing to categorize it in terms of pre-existing labels.  CDBaby makes available a huge list of styles from which to choose.  The idea is that if you can fit your music into a neat box, others will more easily be able to find (or avoid) you.  So, you make electronic music you say? Well, be a little more specific and choose one additional qualifier from the following list:

acid house, acid jazz, acid techno, alternative dance, ambient, Baile Funk, Big Beat, Baltimore Club, Breakbeat, Breakcore, Broken Beat, Chicago House, Chill out, Chiptune, Dance, Dark/Terror/Speed-core, Deep House, Detroit Techno, Disco, Down Tempo, Drum ‘n Bass/Jungle, Dub, Dubstep, Electro, Electro House, Electroclash, Electronica, Euro-Dance, Experimental, Folktronic, Freestyle, Funk, Gabber, Ghetto House, Glitch, Happy Hardcore, Hard House, Hardcore Techno, Ni-NRG, House, IDM, Illbient, Industrial, Latin Dance, Latin Freestyle, Lounge, Microhouse, Minimal Techno, Nuskool breaks, Nujazz, Pop Crossover, Progressive House, Progressive Trance, Psy-Trance, Schranz, Soundscapes, Synth-Pop, Tech-House, Techno, Techno-Dub, Trance, Tribal House, Trip Hop, Virtual Orchestra

Lists like these, while useful, are problematic because each of the electronic music styles listed above have deeply intertwined and overlapping histories as well as countless musicians working within their parameters.  Also, lists are inevitably one step behind musical innovation, and new labels are popping up all the time.  (Where, for instance, is Turntablism?  Where is UK-based Wonky?)  And if you think that your music is definitely situated in one established style such as say, ambient, don’t be so sure: What about Electronica, or IDM, or Minimal, or Experimental, or Soundscapes, or Field Recordings?  Chances are that your music falls between the categorical cracks that are out there to help us make sense of it.

But perusing lists can also inspire new understandings of one’s music.  When I’m asked to select a second stylistic category to describe the music I’ve uploaded, I take a chance and choose New Age.  Okay, well be more specific and choose from the following list:

Adult Alternative, Ambient, Celtic New Age, Contemporary Instrumental, Energy Healing, Environmental, Ethnic Fusion, Healing, Meditation, Nature, Neo-Classical New Age, Progressive Alternative, Progressive Electronic, Relaxation, Self-Help, Shamanic, Solo Instrumental, Space, Spiritual, Techn0-Tribal, Yoga

Now this begins to feel odd because I’m becoming aware of the wishful thinking involved in this “what exactly is my music?” check-the-right-box process.  Is this healing music?  (I hope so.)  Music for yoga?  (Yes, that might work.)  Space music? (I like the sound of that!)  Music for meditation?  (Maybe.)  I want to choose “contemplative” but there is no such category, so I settle for Progressive Electronic because I’m taking “progressive” to mean proceeding in steps and moving towards change.  And with that I am done: the sounds could be categorized as progressive experimental ambient electronic music.

The 1980s Revisited: Synthesizers, Drum Machines and La Roux

In the early 1980s, just as I was getting seriously interested in music, electronic musical instruments were getting seriously interesting and affordable.  I spent a lot of time lurking around the back section of music stores and even home organ stores (yes, they used to have such places; do they still?) fiddling with the then brand-new Roland Juno and Jupiter 8 synthesizers, wonderstruck by their sounds and excited by where they might take music.  These instruments were, of course, really just elaborate keyboards, but oh, they were so much more besides: gateways to new soundworlds and tactile introductions to sound synthesis (remember: these synthesizers were full of knobs and sliders that allow users to shape sounds beyond presets).

In 1982, Yamaha released a portable monophonic analog synthesizer called the CS-01 (part of their Producer Series which included a headphone amp, mixer, and headphones) which I received as a gift from my parents.  Miniature as it was, the CS-01 was a full-blown synth complete with waveform selector, ADSR envelope, frequency modulation, octave selector, and a few other capabilities too.  I loved it for its otherworldly vibe and it was my introduction to electronic music.

Here is a YouTube video of the CS-01 in action.  (I chose it pour vous because it’s in French!)

I also got a Synsonics drum machine around the same time.  Manufactured by Mattel, this hybrid electronic drum/sequencing unit was perhaps more of a toy–it was no Roland TR-808, for sure–but it nevertheless introduced me to the idea of programming drum patterns–rather than just playing them on a real set if drums.  In retrospect, a funny thing about this is that I didn’t find the notion of programming music antithetical to music making at all: it just required a momentary cognitive shift to adjust to the new tool at hand.  (BTW: most drum programmers who were never drummers probably never even think about this.)

Here is a video of the Synsonics in action (and by the way: who are these people who lovingly resurrect old technologies and then film themselves giving demonstrations?):

Somewhere in my archive of home recordings I have a medium quality chrome cassette tape or two full of my low-fi experiments with the Yamaha and Synsonics technologies.  Since I’m sparing you listening to those recordings I’ll describe the kinds of things I did most often: play a mono lead on the synth while playing a left hand bass part on the piano to the white-noise accompaniment of the Synsonics chugging away in 4/4 (amplified through my boom box).  Sometimes I would take a recording like this and play it back on my boombox, play along with that recording, and record the two sound sources onto another cassette machine.  It was primitive overdubbing technique for the era, to be sure, but it served my purposes well.

At the time, my personal music culture was orbiting fairly intensely around 1980s synth pop, so perhaps it’s no surprise that as I type these words I began hearing those sounds again in my mind’s ear.  But wait!  The music I’m hearing is actually very recent–from 2009 in fact.  If you listen to English duo La Roux’s song “In for the Kill” you get a very authentic rendering of that early 1980s stripped-down synth pop soundworld that I once inhabited.  And take note: La Roux were born in the late 1980s–right around the time I had retired the CS-01 and the Synsonics from my toolbox.

So today’s lesson: you never know when a set of “outdated” sounds will make a return to the social life of music . . .

Addendum On The Unwanted Sound

There is one other point I wanted to make note of regarding Garret Keizer’s The Unwanted Sound Of Everything We Want. At the end of the book in a discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s case Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989) Keizer makes the offhand observation that “rock music . . . may be the most apartheid cultural institution left in the Western world” (246). As inflammatory as this statement might sound to some rock music lovers, I was glad to read it.  I have nothing against rock as a musical idiom, but I have long wondered why so many listeners treat it as the only real (read: serious) popular music–as the main narrative and musical vocabulary that somehow we all share.  I have noticed this bias in the classroom too, when half the class are “rockists” extolling (with impressive discrimination of detail) what makes “classic” rock great while the others wonder what all the fuss is about.

And Keizer’s use of the term apartheid is not casual either, reminding us how exclusive rock music as a cultural institution has become over the decades.  We might do well to remember that rock is a music which, however much cultural prestige it has accrued over the years (e.g. remember the recent reverent hype over the Beatles’ music catalog coming to iTunes?), does not, in fact cannot, tell all of the stories that are out there to be told.

Euphony Groove And The Prospect Of New “World” Music

From 2000-2006 I was part of a most interesting (to us, anyways) music ensemble called Euphony Groove.  Euphony, meaning “wellness of voice” and groove, “a rhythm that repeats” formed the group’s mantra: music can make us well, over and over again.  Euphony Groove brought together musical traditions and sounds from Turkey, North Africa, China and Australia to create what I would describe as a hybrid, improvised, introspective, modal and sometimes even ecstatic music. We performed in all kinds of alternative performance spaces around New England including lofts, art galleries, colleges and high schools, industrial spaces, and nursing homes.  We even performed live on college radio stations a few times.

The instrumental timbres of EG fit well together: I played the Chinese yang-qin hammered dulcimer, Fred played the Turkish ney flute, Todd played North African frame drums, and Matthew played the Australian natural horn, the didgeridoo.  We sometimes thought about those timbres by analogy: the yang-qin as rushing water, the ney as billowing fire, the drums as solid earth, and the didge as a cyclone of turbulent air.  Beyond their timbres, the instruments co-existed well volume-wise too: we could play together in a room and hear one another clearly, without amplification.

Here is Lumos, the first track from Live At The Loft (2001).

What was most exciting about Euphony Groove was its repertoire, or rather, how little “solid” repertoire it had.  Most of what we did was improvise around what were, in retrospect, very loosely agreed upon structural constraints.  For instance, a “piece” might consist of agreeing to play in a b-minor mode, in 4-beat meter, at a glacial tempo, for a long, long while, and then somehow metamorphose into a breakneck tempo in a relative major key.  No music scores, no notes, no “head” or theme, no conductor (obviously)–just our memory of what we had agreed to do.  Sometimes we pulled off our plan, but more often there emerged these wonderful moments of rupture–usually cued by a frantic glance indicating that one group member had no idea where we were or where we were going–that blew things wide open: we were improving without a net, and it felt exhilarating. Fred wrote in the liner notes to Live At The Loft:

Perhaps the listener could guess that our music is constructed in motion.  We hope that this recording suggests the social chemistry that allows that to happen.  The essential idea of Euphony Groove is to juxtapose timbres and musical strategies in new combinations that seem useful in the her-and-now.  In constructing these pieces we borrow freely from the musical ideas of our four respective traditional soundscapes, and combine them with new concepts that we have created specially for our collective fifth geography.”

Over the years of working within the Euphony Groove geography, some repertoire stapes did emerge: Slow Reach, Athens KyotoFunk (not funk as you probably know it), Tumblemeter…I realize these titles are meaningless to my blog readers, but to us they signified pretty heavily, and after a while we knew we could always revisit these musical templates with some measure of security.  Having said that, however, we didn’t go back to them that much; we just pushed forward.  In this regard, Euphony Groove was experimental in that we wanted to get ourselves into musical places from which there would be no clear exit.

We gave one another solo opportunities too.  In every concert there would be room for each of us to make an entirely solo statement.  This was a favorite part of the evening: just to listen to my band mates making extended essays on their instruments.  It’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you play the frame drums or the didgeridoo.  I single out these instruments because they don’t have recourse to melody like the ney and the yang-qin do, and remember that melody is a widely agreed upon way to build a musical “narrative.”  But Todd and Matthew could hold an audience’s attention however long they needed to through texture, timbre, dynamics and rhythm-making.

Perhaps because of our musical interests and our instrumentation, drone figured fairly prominently in our sound.  The didgeridoo, of course, is a drone machine par excellence, and I enjoyed making drones on the yang-qin through tremolo rolls.  And three of us indulged our interests in overtone singing (or what Tuvans call khoomei).  Who doesn’t like to overtone sing?  It’s kind of the ultimate euphony or “wellness of voice” and we incorporated this singing technique into our pieces.  Here is a piece called “Midnight” from The Montreal Sessions (circa 2005?).  It opens with solo yang-qin, soon joined by the drone of khoomei-style singing, and finally the didgeridoo.  You can listen to “Midnight” here.

A typical rehearsal schedule was to assemble the evening before our concert and talk, joke around, and generally procrastinate until late into the night, until we finally started to think about what we might do the next day.  Sometimes we tried out new musical ideas, but more often we just started to play together, to establish a conversation through sound.  So we talked, we played, we talked so more, we had food and drank some, I tuned (and re-tuned) my axe, we laughed, and so on.  No matter how “organized” we endeavored to be, this was the method to our madness: empty out our expectations during that evening “rehearsal” as if to remind ourselves that we really had nothing “new” to say and that we were ready to face, head on, our impending concert the next day.  (Butterflies in the stomach just thinking about it.)  In short, we were procrastinating because we knew that our music would really most meaningfully grow out of our encounter with our audience.

Who showed up to a Euphony Groove performance?  Usually there were between 15 and 90 people at our concerts.  When we performed at The Loft in Brattleboro, Vermont, there were many regulars who returned again and again to hear us play; some even travelled great distances to hear us.  For about 10 bucks, they got an evening of sonic uncertainty, but also little epiphanies of synchrony and euphony along the way.  And our listeners were very much part of the equation: they talked to us before, during, and after the show, they bought some CDs and T-shirts, they made “song” requests (“Play Boomerang!”), they slow-danced in the aisles to pieces with 7-beat meters, they requested encores, and they asked us when we would be returning to play again.

One of my favorite things about Euphony Groove was the way in which it was deliberately limited.  There were only four timbres, and we could only play in few keys.  There were two reasons for this: the tuning of the yang-qin (certain keys like G, D, C major and A minor are easier to play in) and the didgeridoo (which can only play one tone at a time).  We worked with our limitations by maximizing the affect we could extract from subtle musical shifts of note placement, dynamics, modulation, entrances, exits, and silence.  Sometimes, the most powerful thing was hearing what might be called the presence of someone’s absence for six or seven long minutes, until suddenly–baam!–they were back in: all presence!  In an age of infinite timbre available at our fingertips (as anyone who makes electronic music can attest), Euphony Groove was minimal and old-fashioned.  It was simple.

This simplicity became to topic of conversation on more than one occasion when we had discussions and disagreements about whether or not to “modernize” Euphony Groove–whether to add new electronic sounds, triggers and samplers, textures and tones to spice things up.  Some members wanted to race forward into the electronic age, while others were, ahem, happy with exactly where we are, thank you very much.  I recall saying that we were candle makers and book binders in an age of downloadable content, and I didn’t mean that as a criticism of the group.  I thought our limitations were cool precisely because they meant that we couldn’t do everything.  Like any living thing, we were finite.

Playing in an ensemble like Euphony Groove–a self-directed, off the grid, improvising-heavy ensemble–shapes how one sees the broader music industry.  We weren’t part of any mainstream, we weren’t signed to a label, we didn’t try to sell ourselves (or at least, weren’t very successful at it).  We just made music together.  And if we had tried to market ourselves as some kind of new “world” music, I doubt that would have led us far.  Four white men (including two Canadians, but still) playing a motley collection of instruments in and around New England?  What kind of world music is this again?  Umm, that sounds pretty local to me.

And yet.  I’m reminded here of some things Michael Chanan says at the end of his history of music and recording technology, Repeated Takes.  Chanan talks about issues that Euphony Groove tried to address head on, describing the kinds of things that happen when different musics collide, so to speak, with one another in their recorded forms, or otherwise:

“musical cultures of every type develop new dynamics.  Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce independently, in musical revenge against technological alienation.”

Is this not what Euphony Groove was participating in?  An acoustic revenge against technological alienation?  Yes, yes, yes!  Chanan also asks what it means that the musics of different cultures come into contact with one another, and indeed, are changed by one another: “Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?”  Well, yes again!  I think that Euphony Groove was an example of one of many authentically local cultural undercurrents just trying to make musical sense of the world’s music cultures colliding with one another.

It was a good musical and social hang, it brought us together and pushed us apart, it prompted us to do things we probably would not have done on our own, and of course, it was deep, deep fun.