On The American Singing Voice: American Idol, Glee and The Sing-Off

If you’ve been paying attention to popular TV shows you might have noticed how important the singing voice is to the North American popular culture moment we’re in.  Three shows in particular highlight the singing voice: American Idol (Fox), Glee (Fox), and The Sing-Off (NBC).  All of these shows remind us how powerful the singing voice is as a site for representing and constructing personal identity, social group cohesion, and a means of generating emotion, desire and affect out of the aether.

The mother of all singing competitions, American Idol, has been running for 10 years now, chronicling the discovery and manufacture of aspiring American pop singers.  On American Idol, the singing voice stands in boldest relief in the early days of each season, as singers audition a cappella for the judges.  Here we hear the unvarnished voices rendering parts of famous songs without the support of a backing band.  We hear voices trying to render a musical style–a rock voice, a gospel voice–through phrasing and dynamics and timbre (or tone “color”), this last quality being somewhat out of the singer’s total control.  In his book Image-Music-Text (1977), French literary critic Roland Barthes speaks of the “grain” of the voice to describe its particular quality and more:

“The ‘grain’ of the voice is not–or is not merely–its timbre; the significance it opens cannot better be defined, indeed, than by the very friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and unwise the message)” (185).

One the best ways to understand what makes a good singer is to hear a really bad one, or even just an average one.  The voice is such an infinitely flexible musical tool that when we hear it used in a compromised, less than optimal way, it reveals–or at least points towards–those intangibles that make for a great singing voice.  The differences are usually more than simple matters of intonation (Randy Jackson: “Uh, That was a little pitchy for me…”).  There is rhythmic phrasing, for instance, something not easy to do with only one’s own internal clock to go by.  And there is always that mysterious quality–Barthes’ “grain” of the voice?–which may in fact be the result of a whole bunch of qualities put together: the quality that lets us determine after a moment or two whether or not we’re moved enough to care.  Is this an authentic and true singing voice?

Put a bunch of singing voices together a Capella (sans backing band) and you have the premise of The Sing-Off, an American singing competition which made its debut in 2009.  Glee clubs date back to the Harrow School in England in the 1870s and have been mainstays on some American college campuses since around that time.  “Glee” refers not to the generally “happy” sound of these singing groups, but rather to the glee, an English part song popular from 1650 until about 1900 in England.

Because there is no band on The Sing-Off, some of the singers must fulfill an instrumental role–singing a bass part, beatboxing a drum kit, and so forth.  Here, musical blending is key, but so is the arrangement–that is, the ways in which the singers decide to render their song and divvy up the parts and divide their harmonies (not to mention the orchestration of the harmonies themselves: there are a lot of ways to voice a chord!).  In the midst of an electronic music-based popular music industry, the singing on The Sing-Off invigorates because it is so live, so acoustic, and so dependent on the performers listening closely to one another.

But if synthetic is your thing, look no further than Glee, a musical drama that also began in 2009.  In the Glee world, every singing voice is pristine, auto-tune perfect, and otherwise enhanced.  The Glee singers also benefit from a real world impossibility: whenever they sing in the classroom or onstage, a lush band sound magically arises behind them.  This is high-tech karaoke at its most highly mediated: you watch real singer-actors lip-syncing to their own pre-recorded vocal tracks of show tunes and contemporary hits.  The auto-tune and other sonic enhancements have reached the point of rendering the singers close to cyborgs in their perfection: not a note is out of place, befitting the airless milieu of the fictional high school where the show takes place.

The Glee recipe has revived many older pop songs, and Glee versions of them are released on the Apple iTunes store the week they’re featured in an episode. Thus, in an age of ever decreasing music sales, Glee recordings have sold many millions.  This is not just a function of mass marketing (though it is certainly that too), but rather a pandering to our collective memory/nostalgia for songs that have receded into the past (even if that past is a few months ago).  In this regard, Glee, The Sing-Off, and American Idol all have something in common by being elaborate apparatuses for reviving and giving new life to old music.

On Musical Desiring-Machines

The notion of “desiring-production” and “desiring-machines” comes to us from the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book Anti-Oedipus (1972).  For Deleuze and Guattari, desire is imagined as a kind of mechanical thing, a desiring-machine that acts as a circuit breaker in a larger matrix of machines it is connected to.  Not only do desiring-machines produce desire themselves, but they are also a part of a larger network. They are a like bots inhabiting the larger social machines we inhabit everyday:

“There are no desiring-machines that exist outside the social machines they form on a large scale; and no social machines without the desiring machines that inhabit them on a small scale” (340).

Music, of course, is a desiring-machine par excellence.  The sounds and structures of music can produce desire in themselves–think about the system of Western tonal music in which certain intervals seem to want to resolve themselves to a tonic (or home) note to produce a sense of closure, of cadence.  Tonal desire is like that: it always wants to resolve itself.  Even the lyrics of countless popular songs are desiring-machines, making explicit the whole gamut of desire-related feelings that express longing, wanting, needing, and sensual dreaming.  From Elvis Presley’s shake, rattle and rolling on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956

to the Beatles’ singing “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” live in 1963

to Justin Bieber pleading “Baby, baby, baby, ooh…” in a bowling alley

desire is that omnipresent force which, within the apparatus of the popular music spectacle at least, reduces us all to pleasurable babble.

But this is all preamble.  What got me thinking about the idea of desiring-machines in music recently is an infectious (literally) electro-pop song by Barbadian singer Rihanna (featuring a brief cameo by the Canadian rapper Drake) called “What’s My Name”:

This is the kind of song that you play while you’re driving; actually, it’s the kind of song that rips you away from the quiet drone of NPR and beckons to be played very loudly.  Rihanna, that oddly empty, affectless blank slate of a singer is a perfect vehicle for this particular desiring-machine, as she babbles the hook about twenty times in the course of the song:

“Oh na na, what’s my name . . .” (repeat)

The pitches of the melody move from a falling fourth (“Oh na na”) to a falling semitone (“What’s my name”).  (Curiously, it’s the same notes of the bassline for Weather Report’s 1970s hit “Birdland” just reordered.  But anyways.)  After three repetitions of this hook, you’re snagged.  And then Rihanna drones on, in a skeletal melody:

“Not everybody knows how to work my body / Knows how to make me want it . . .”

The listener can project his or her own desires onto lyrics like these, imagining that body, imagining the contours of its wanting.

The lyrics and Rihanna’s emptiness and almost machine-like quality–she sounds like a singing mannequin someone programmed to sing the song–has the effect of furthering our curiosity.  Who is this woman and how can she produce desire like this?

Part of the way Rihanna becomes a desiring-machine (besides looking the part and articulating desire through lyrics that play the part) is by being a part of the larger sonic machine that are the sounds on “What’s My Name.”  The song was written and produced by Stargate, a Norwegian record producing and songwriting duo comprised of Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen.  You can read more about the duo here.

The Stargate sound is an electronic, synthetic R&B, with light, transparent textures (they like to use gentle harp-like sounds), well-crafted melodies, and crisp beats.  Most of their songs sound as if they were played on a MIDI keyboard and recorded straight into the computer.  In the Stargate sound universe, there is little real oxygen save for the air pushed by the singer’s overdubbed voice.

“What’s My Name” is a fairly typically austere Stargate production.  It consists of just a few sounds: kick, snares, hi hat, some tom-tom fills, a warped elastic-sounding harp sound, a gated, tempo-synced synth lead, and little else.  Significantly, there is no bass sound in the song.  This not only make the overall sonic texture more transparent–you feel as if you can “see” each sound more clearly–but it opens up a space for turning the kick drum into a substitute tunable bass (a practice that can be traced by to the 1980s when hip hop producers used the Roland TR-808 drum machine in a similar way).

Throughout “What’s My Name” you can clearly hear every instrumental part of the song interlocking to make the cycling-spiraling-looping desiring-machine groove tick.  Rihanna’s voice hooks us by highlighting the tightness of the groove, and we’re wired into the a cybernetic feedback loop of a steady-state wanting to hear more.

When Deleuze and Guattari speak of desiring-machines as “the nonhuman sex, the molecular machinic elements, their arrangements and their synthesis” (294) I think about “What’s Your Name”: Rihanna’s cyborg quality and the digitally-fabricated sounds and structures in which she sings.

“What’s My Name” works on us as good pop should: it keeps us desiring more from the sonic machine, but also content with our suspension in a an infectious, perpetual Now.  And that’s the thing about desiring-machines: they’re contagious and they infect us, making us feel for a time, perhaps even using us as hosts to pass themselves along to others . . .

Memory Palaces and Music

“A memory consists in the awareness, first, of the diminished intensity of an impression, second, of its increased ease, and third, of the connections it entertains with other impressions” – Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p.31.

In the New York Times Magazine this past weekend there was a fascinating article by Joshua Foer on “memory athletes” — a strange breed of person who is capable of (and interested in) quickly memorizing huge quantities of information.  In the article, Foer learns how to train his own memory and ends up competing in (and winning!) a national memory competition.

One of the key techniques used by memory athletes is a trick that dates back to Simonides of Ceos, a poet of ancient Greece.  The technique is called “method of loci” or the “memory palace.”  The idea is to visualize a mental walk through a place you know well–like a room in your house–which you can fill with objects (or people), each of which represents one of the items you’re trying to memorize (a number, say).  Once you’ve made the associations, remembering your items is then a matter of re-visualizing the space–playing it back in your mind’s eye– and observing its contents.  Foer elaborates on how modern-day memory athletes use the memory palace technique:

“Memory palaces don’t have to be palatial — or even actual buildings.  They can be routes through a town or signs of the zodiac or even mythical creatures.  They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as they are intimately familiar.  The four-time U.S. memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts to help him memorize the entire 57,000-word Oxford English-Chinese dictionary.  In the 15th century, an Italian jurist named Peter of Ravenna is said to have used thousands of memory palaces to store quotations on every important subject, classified alphabetically. When he wished to expound on a given topic, he simply reached into the relevant chamber and pulled out the source.”

This idea of remembering one thing by using a spatial mnemonic technique that places it somewhere else has me thinking about how musicians memorize vast quantities of music. One way you do it is through sheer repetition of practice: playing a phrase over and over again until you can “chunk” all of its notes into one block in your memory.  Musicians who play traditional instruments also have some spatial experience built into the very experience of playing.  For instance, a pianist, a drum set player, or a violinist all have to negotiate their instruments in terms of particular “pathways” to make sure their fingers travel the right routes to make the required sounds.  In the case of the drummers, they need to trace a pattern in space around a collection of instruments as well as between their four limbs to produce the required rhythm.  Finally, instrumentalists who play melodic instruments have melody itself as a guide to help them remember a sequence of notes.  (I bet melodies help us remember words too…)

I don’t have extensive experience memorizing music, but during college I did spend many hours memorizing marimba pieces, in part because I couldn’t read the marimba scores fluidly enough to not impede my playing.  Reading Foer’s article reminded me of how important muscle memory was to my musical memory.  A marimba, for those of you unfamiliar with the percussion world, is like a giant xylophone, with a keyboard layout just like a piano.  One usually plays with marimba with four mallets, and it takes some dexterity to manipulate what are essentially four giant mallet appendages jutting out of one’s hands at awkward angles.  Learning marimba pieces often involved breaking them down into small sections, each section in turn comprising a sequence of hand movements over the terrain of the marimba.  This memorization work had to be done methodically and at very slow tempos to commit the note sequences to memory.  While I didn’t use memory palaces in terms of visualizing specific spaces in which to store the notes I wanted to memorize, I did visualize sections of music in vague bodily terms.  Entire sections could be “cued” in memory just by a sticking pattern or the shape of my hands at a particular register of the instrument.  It seemed to be mostly a matter of body knowledge–knowing by feel–and to this day I’m not entirely sure how it works, only that, in music at least, remembering involves some kind of interaction between listening, muscle memory, and anticipating or “pre-hearing” in ones’ mind’s ear what hasn’t even happened yet.  This last point is perhaps the most interesting part about music, for it is, as musicologist David Burrows once put it, a curious perceptual phenomenon: music is time-bound and thus continually exists in a liminal space of the Now, on the leading edge of its own absence.  In other words, as soon as you hear a note, it is gone and you’re onto the next one.

So my goal in memorizing music was always the same: to be able to play the piece fluidly at speed without needing to “think” about it.  Memorization was key because in performance there was little to no time to think about where one was going next.  Musical experience is all about the Now, and so the notes had to come automatically to me so as to not derail the flow.

Joshua’s Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything comes out next month.

The Kittler epigraph to this blog post comes courtesy of Erin Mizrahi’s interesting blog post on memory palaces.

On The Beyond Digital Morocco Project

Over the past few weeks I discussed two examples of sound collecting in West Africa.  The first was the Digging 4 Gold project, the second was the Music From Saharan Cellphones project.  While these projects are not without their problems–foremost among which is the question of whether or not any of recorded musicians will ever be compensated for their work–they do go some way to circulate sounds from one part of our big world to other parts.  Clearly, new ways to “release” music are evolving all the time.

Over at DJ Jace Clayton’s mudd up! blog, we learn about an interesting fieldwork project that is slated to happen this summer.  Clayton and a small crew are headed to Marrakesh, Morocco, to explore how “creative adaptations of global digital technologies. . . are helping to transform youth culture and suggesting powerful alternatives to Western concepts of digital literacy.  One focus will be the use of technologies such as Auto-Tune in Berber folk music.  The goal of the Beyond Digital: Morocco project is to engage in a month-long art project with Marrakesh youth through teaching, collaboration, and documentation.

It will be interesting to watch what happens with this project as it looks like it could be a dialogue between musicians rather than just a taking of music . . .

You can watch a video about the project here.

On Music From Saharan Cellphones

I recently came across some interesting field recordings assembled by Christopher Kirkley, a music blogger who writes at sahelsounds.com.  Kirkley’s blog is about sound and music and his research interests include making recordings in the Sahel region of Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal.  The recordings in question are compiled on two releases, Music From Saharan Cellphones, Vol. 1 and 2.  What makes the releases (downloads) interesting is that Kirkley acquired the music from the MP3 memory cards of cellphones in the Kidal region of northern Mali through a casual process of trading music files with folks he met on the street. According to Kirkley, “the cellphone is such a fixture of west Africa. Everyone has a phone even in villages lacking reception.  They’re not just phones, they’re all-purpose media devices. In the west we maintain a repository of data on hard drives, in Sahel, the cellphone does the same thing.”  Contrary to some of the stories circulating around this project that describe it as derived from a collection of discarded cell phone memory cards (see for instance, a story in the Guardian here), Kirkley in fact copied tracks from other people’s phones, offering some country music in return: “In the effort of cultural exchange, I traded for a few Townes Van Zandt albums; we’ll see if they’ve survived next time I’m back in Kidal.”  Once Kirkley had a number of tracks, he put them onto cassette, which was then dubbed back into MP3, making for a low-fi chain of copying.  Observes Kirkley, “It’s a weird chain of analogue to digital to analogue to digital.”

You can download Volume 2 here.

If you do download these tracks, notice on Track 1, “Mdou – Niger” the heavy use of Auto-Tune on the voice.  Yes, you guessed right, Auto-Tune has made its way to the African Sahel.  (More about this in a later post.)

For some observers, the Music From Saharan Cellphones releases fill a “niche” in music releases from the African Sahel region.  Consider, for instance, this comment from Other Music (a wonderful record store in NYC) on another Kirkley-compiled release, Ishilan n-Tenere: Guitar music from the Western Sahel (Mississippi Records):

“Despite the ever-increasingly visibility and popularity of the guitar music of the African Sahel, its local context remains obscure.  Records by groups like Tinariwen, Tartit, and Etran Finatawa are prepared for export in well-appointed studios, and presented through the tourist-friendly Festival in the Desert and on the circuit of any number of Western “world music” showcases, but there’s been precious little presented of what’s listened and danced to in the poor neighborhoods, remote villages, and encampments of the Sahel.  Don’t get me wrong, the music made by the likes of Tinariwen is sublime but Ishilan N-Tenere is an exceedingly welcome addition to the catalog.”

Likewise, over at Pitchfork.com, Mark Richardson writes about Music From Saharan Cellphones in terms of “musical scarcity.”  For Richardson, Kikley has unearthed not simply some obscure tracks, but also a new way to ascribe value to what we listen to.  Simply put, if the compilations are unique and out there enough, they seem scarce and thus have value:

“In my world, this music is unheard and thus in its own way rare.  I don’t know what it is, or who made it, or when it was recorded.  I only have words like “Niger” and “AutoTune”, and otherwise I’m left with just sound.  No one else that I know has any idea what it is, not surprising considering how it was assembled and disseminated, so it seems more valuable.  Projects like Music From Saharan Cellphones Vol. 1 are satisfying at this moment because they create the illusion of scarcity.  Yes, I downloaded the tape from Megaupload, and you and a million other people could go there right now and do the same thing.  But the process of the tape, the lack of information, and the unusual origins of the music make it feel special…”

On Secondhand Sureshots

The idea behind the documentary DVD Secondhand Sureshots (Dublab Collective 2010) was to invite four DJ/Producers to each build a new track based solely on their vinyl finds in California thrift shops. (Out Of The Closet Thrift Stores for you collectors out there.)  The DJs Daedalus, Nobody, Ras G, and J. Rocc (see pic below) would each have five dollars to buy any five records they could find (and which could not be previewed at the store). The rules for assembling tracks were equally strict.  A track can only be built out of sounds sampled from the  found vinyl, and only cuts and effects (reverb, etc.) can be added to the track.  No drum machine beats, other instrumental sounds, or extra samples can be used in the compositional process.  The goal, as the opening credits frames the game, is for each musician “to make musical magic out of dusty thrift store records.”

And so the four DJs set about combing through the detritus of 20th century material culture, excavators of our sonic past.  As the camera pans over the thrift store aisles full of used odds and ends it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe for how much sheer stuff North Americans plow through each year, most of it eventually consigned to either the trash or stores like these.  But there is rebirth here too: the thrift store as a space where (durable) objects sit quietly waiting for the next phase of their lives.

The DJs rifle through stacks of LPs, beginning their search by assessing the coolness of the record covers.  They’re not necessarily looking for funky looking records, but rather anything that seems like it may have the potential to offer a few seconds of loopable bliss.  As J. Rocc notes, “it’s all about looking…you can see the audio.”  The DJs are feeling out whether they may be able to “discern a moment that stands free from the song”–intros, outros, a novel chord or sound combination that will suggest the makings of a future (funky) track.

How do they know when they’ve found something good?  Intuition, gut feeling, or they’re just plain taking a chance on a cool cover.  There are a few odd rules though: stay away from Concord Jazz and Barbra Streisand records, for instance. (their sounds are too recognizable?), and easy listening records usually have cool sample moments.  (Lesson: Very uncool music can eventually become cool again.)

Ras G refers to records as feminine presences, speaking of “taking her home.”  When asked how he cleans his records, Ras says that no, no, dust is good: the audible crackling it creates functions as “seasoning.”  Then he finds an LP of traditional Japanese koto music and says: “this guy is about to get molested…musically.”  Ras also has vision of blending it with a Deep Purple find so he’s justifiably stoked by the prospect of this sound combination (probably never before achieved given that Japanese koto and Deep Purple don’t generally travel in the same social circles).

With their five vinyl finds in hand, the DJs return to their home studios to start listening, chopping and sampling sounds.  Listening involves having the patience to scan through entire albums, waiting for anything interesting to jump out.  But interesting isn’t all in the sounds themselves.  The DJs also bring their experienced ears and sensibilities to bear on their records.  Says Ras:

“It’s all how you hear it…You want to hear it in the machine…It’s you breathing life into the machine.  I’ll throw it onto the machine, [but] there’s nothing in it.”

Chopping, as J. Rocc puts it, involves “editing the sample to the parts I would want to use.”  Rocc and Ras use an Akai MPC to do their sampling and chopping, Daedalus uses Pro Tools, and Nobody does his work on a keyboard.  But regardless of their working methods, each DJ aims to make something new and personal out of something old and discarded because it was thought to have lost its value.  As Daedalus notes: “The game isn’t to make it unrecognizable; the game is to make it your own.”

After the tracks are finished they’re mastered and pressed to vinyl and the DJs meet to listen to one another’s work and share their vinyl finds.  (J. Rocc eventually picked up an old Barbra Streisand LP after all.)  Meanwhile, a new piece of composite record cover art has been rendered from shards of the twenty LPs used to make the new tracks.  Assembled onto one disc in this new composite record sleeve, the work of the DJs now forms yet one more piece of vinyl destined for…you guessed it, the thrift shop.  And so, in the final scene of this efficient, under 45-minute movie, we watch Daedalus, Nobody, Ras G and  J. Rocc return to the thrift stores and secretly drop off copies of their new creations into the dusty bins.  (Some people call this practice “shopdropping.”)  “Remixed and recycled” roll the final credits, “the music lives on…Now, make some music of your own.”

Secondhand Sureshots makes a few things clear. First, without question there is enough recorded music in our world to form the basis for new tracks for many years to come!  Why throw out old music when it can form the DNA for new hybrid mutations such as koto-Deep Purple lifeforms? (Actually, why compose new music at all?)  Second, whatever your view of sampling–Is it theft or a creative practice of building new musical texts out of old ones?–it’s hard not to see the skilled musicians in this film as anything other than kinds of sonic anthropologists/archeologists doing work that reveals new meaning in discarded relics from another time.  Extending the legacy of hip hop sampling, not only does this crate digging and record collecting feel like important archival work, but it looks like endless fun too.

On Daniel Lanois’ Soul Mining

“Letting something you don’t understand come to fruition is an intelligence in itself.”

It’s not that often that a renowned record producer/engineer/musician/composer shares his thoughts on the creative process–from the nuts and bolts of technical things all the way out the mystical side of how to carefully, mindfully mine one’s life and create meaning in addition to hit records. In his book Soul Mining (2010), Canadian producer Daniel Lanois lets us in his musical life and we learn many fascinating things. Lanois has worked with some of the biggest names in popular music, from U2 and Peter Gabriel to the Neville Brothers, Brian Eno, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.   Many of these artists found Lanois either through his sound or through his recognized ability to connect with artists in the recording studio.  Having a distinctive recorded sound is no small feat, especially considering there are virtually limitless ways to get a sound by using recording equipment such as microphones and mixers in particular ways.   It is equally difficult to extract incredible performances from the musicians you are recording by capturing those precious moments “flying by, those molecular pieces looking for congregation.”  It’s about having a Voice and Connecting–not just wires, but people to one another, and to a time and a place.

Some of Lanois’ techniques are low-tech.  For instance, he explains the value of One-Point Source recording, where several sounds are recorded by a single microphone. This technique, by the way, was used to make the earliest records, where instrumentalists would position themselves in the studio, gathered around a single recording horn, according to which instruments would be foreground and which ones background
(vocalist up front, etc.).  One-Point Source recording may seem antiquated today, when every sound usually gets its own track in the digital domain, but it does have a particular kind of blended, unified sound.   As Lanois observes: “Get your source right, and your end will be right.”  For Lanois, “record makers are illusionists” in the sense that recordings are artificial things that must conjure through strong performances, a clean recording, and artful use of sound processing.

One of the most valuable insights Lanois offers concerns the philosophy behind some of his working methods.   One high-tech technique concerns how to build what Lanois calls a “fifth dimension” to the recorded sound by using sampling machines (tape machines back in the day, digital recording devices today) to record bits of the songs and then amplify them somehow.  Imagine taking a photo of a Persian rug, zooming in on a section, then repeating the motif by cutting and pasting it.  While the new creation might look unrecognizable, it will have a DNA connection to the original rug.  Lanois describes his process:

“I use sampling machines to catch fragments with the view of spinning them back into the song with a new texture.   This technique allows me to build an orchestra of sounds that relate to the song because they come from it (…) I’ve spent hours sampling, enhancing, and spinning these kinds of samples back into songs so that artists can have a beautiful custom sonic orchestra at their disposal.   It has taken me twenty years to master this technique.  The Zen of it appeals to me.  The results are unique and original.”

If you’re curious about how this technique can sound, take a listen to a recent Lanois-produced recording by Neil Young called Le Noise (2010). If you listen closely, you can hear guitar parts doubled octaves below to make a booming bassline, Young’s voice doubled and echoed, among other sound that contribute to the overall feel of the recording:

In the video below, Lanois describes how he recorded Young and processed his sound using a technique he calls “black dubs” (a reference to Jamaican dub mixing?) to produce ever-changing, fifth-dimension
textures.  Says Lanois (4:19): “I’m trying to find ways to enter the future with sonics…I want to build new sounds for the future…”:

The Sound of Vuvuzelas

I hate it when I go to a vuvuzela concert and then people start playing football!  It’s so annoying!” – YouTube viewer

In last month’s Wire magazine, Marcus Boon wrote a thoughtful end piece on the phenomenon of vuvuzelas at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa.  If you remember, vuvuzelas are those small plastic horns that many South African fans blew at the football matches, creating an unbelievably loud (around 120 decibels) and insistent communal drone buzz.  It was, as Boon points out, noise in the signal of the Word Cup TV broadcasts; television couldn’t filter out this insistent sound of the people just enjoying themselves.  And while here was much talk of banning vuvuzelas from the games, the sound of these instruments was also a reminder of the sonic power and affect of noise, as well as how drone can bring people together.  But what does the vuvuzela drone-noise signify exactly?  It’s hard to say.  Here’s is an extended excerpt from Boon’s take on the sound:

“I cam to think of it, perhaps naively, as the sound of the global South, the buzzing hive sound of the people of the world, contaminating the otherwise clean hyperspace of the globalised spectacle of soccer, now trademarked and sold to us by FIFA.  A reminder that (. . .) if you listen to the messages of global capital, they will always be accompanied by their subaltern support, the global multitude (. . .)

To me, it was also a reminder that drone music is not a technique invented by the minimalist avant gardes, but one of the sounds of the people, spanning a very broad historical and geographical continuum, from the bilbical horn that blew Jericho down to the sound OM that gave birth to the universe in the Hindu scriptures, on to all the various folk musics that rely on sustained tones.  Drone music is easily configured as a collective technique, if only because playing sustained tones together is a simple method of amplification in a non-electronic culture–for example, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, where monks blow massive mountain horns simultaneously to produce the raw blast of sound that invites the deities to the ritual.”

From YouTube, here is an informative video on the vuvuzela put together by Dr. Dan Russell, a physics professor at Kettering University:

On Becoming A Virtuoso Of Knobs, Buttons, and Sliders

In the course of preparing for a paper on laptop music making as creative practice I’m giving this summer at Cambridge University, I’ve been thinking about how exactly one goes about performing music with/on a laptop: What are the decision-making and problem-solving processes musicians use in performance and in preparing for performance?  I’m approaching topic as a “traditional” musician who is used to grappling with sticks and membranes (drumming), vibrating strings (dulcimer playing), and fingers on a keyboard.  And composing for me has been, up until now, a linear kind of thing where I play or improvise parts to build pieces with beginnings, middles, and ends.  Even my recent electronic recording, Views From A Flying Machine (which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog), was “through-composed”–layered one part at a time.  Kinda old-fashioned.

But now I’m moving forward and being a futurist!  One of the aims of my paper is to explore how exactly an electronic musician who uses a laptop goes about rendering a piece of pre-composed music in performance.  Many musicians augment their laptops with a MIDI hardware controller of some kind.  This allows them to literally control various parameters of the software running on their laptops.  So, if a musician uses Ableton Live as their software (as I do), the knobs, buttons, and sliders on their MIDI controller can be “mapped” to whichever Ableton parameter the musician would like to control.  A simple mapping might be an effect send, such as a delay or reverb.  Map that effect to one of the knobs on your controller and voila: when you turn the knob, you activate the effect.  The idea is to allow the musician to feel as if they have some tactile control over their sounds (something perhaps taken for granted by acoustic musicians, I might add).

On the website of Livid Instruments, a company that makes beautiful, hand-made controllers, co-founder Peter Nyboer points out that musical instruments are no longer the only controllers in town and that new electronic products offer creative possibilities:

“Strings, reeds, and resonating bodies are no longer the only musical controls, but the industrial conveniences of knobs, button, and sliders have augmented musical reality such that they demand their own vocabulary of virtuosity.”

I like this quote.  First, I never really thought of instruments like the piano or drums as “musical controls.”  Rather, I thought of them as pretty simple extensions of the human body that wants to make sound. (Note: the piano is a far from simple instrument!)  Now that I think about it, no musical instrument is simple.  It’s just that after years of playing, an instrument can feel like it’s an extension of my body, when in fact it remains an object with which I am constantly negotiating! Second, there is no question that electronic music controllers have “augmented musical reality.” Configured the right way, the twist of a knob could trigger exponential musical processes and seismic sonic changes.  It all depends how one sets them up.  Which brings us to Nyboer’s third point: these controllers make their own demands on us, specifically how we think about our musical processes, the software programs we use (or write!), even our philosophy of what music should be. Thus, Nyboer’s “vocabulary of virtuosity” is not just a matter of getting good at knob-twiddling, button-pushing, and fader-sliding.  What is hinted at here is nothing less than using an electronic “black box”–the best controllers, by the way, are pretty much blank slates upon which we can map whatever kinds of musical systems we want–to bring our music making to a new place outside the box.

Here is a clip of the DJ/Producer Eliot Lipp using the Livid Ohm64 with Ableton Live.  Notice what he says at 3:56:

“To me, I’m trying to set up [his controller] in a way where I can have the ability to do a live remix of a track.  Even if it’s something I just brought into Ableton.  If I want to play it out that night, I have all these parameters set up so I can do live edits of the track: loop it wherever I want, and deal with the blend from one track to the next.”

Here is a clip of another intriguing, blank slate controller, the monome, in action:

Digging4Gold: Record Collecting or Pilfered Music?

Imagine for a moment that you are an explorer traveling to West Africa in search of new soundworlds to capture and bring with you back home.  You’ve come equipped with a recording device and a mind open to cultural difference; in fact, you’re open to being changed by your encounters abroad “in the field”, as an anthropologist would call that space where they carry out ethnographic research.  In some ways, your trip does have the contours of field research, albeit in condensed form. For instance, your search for new soundworlds leads on you on local adventures and your life suddenly becomes entwined with people who actually live here. Even the spirit world is aroused by your presence (especially since you ran over an old woman by accident and she just may have put some kind curse on your research efforts), necessitating the pouring of libations and even the sacrifice of a small animal before good fortune bestows upon you permission to go ahead and pursue your sound collecting with a clear conscience.  This is sounding like one of those anthropological narratives where the author renders a social milieu in rich detail, in part to bring the reader into a lived world, and perhaps also to demonstrate the high stakes of the research and how difficult this cultural exploring can be.  Sounds fun though, right?

The scene I just described was in fact a synopsis of a short article I came upon called “Gold Mining In Ghana” at the tumblr site digging4gold.tumblr.com.  The “explorer” is a guy called Juan who has travelled to Ghana (Kumasi in particular) in search of old vinyl recordings of African popular music–Afro-funk, disco, High Life, etc.–from decades past.  He carries with him one of those portable turntables that plugs into the USB port on your computer, allowing the transfer of analog record grooves into digital files.  Juan is assisted by his local friend Lion, whose father is the one who suggested the libation pouring and animal sacrifice to clear the way to the pair’s successful hunt for rare vinyl.  And yes, Juan and Lion do indeed find some really cool, really obscure records that contain sounds that people back home have probably never heard of.  So far so good.

But at the end of the tumblr post, Juan says:

“Here’s a choice selection of some of the records we’ve acquired over the past few weeks.”

And then there’s a link to mediafire.com, and yes, dear reader, you can freely download (as I did) a dozen MP3 tracks collected by Juan in the field.  Vintage and obscure West African popular music for free.  Juan also includes a disclaimer:

“*Please note: All songs will be recorded by a portable turntable, converted into a lower bit rate (due to the slow connection while I’m on the road) and designed strictly for previewing purposes only.  In other words, All Sertato aficionados might be out of luck.”

I think this disclaimer is a little weak considering that the average music is listener is not an audiophile and probably can’t tell the difference between a lower bit rate recording and a higher one.  Also, the notion that listeners will download tracks just for “previewing” and later buy the real thing is unlikely.  (Further, in BMG vGonzalez, the defendant was charged with illegally downloading music from a peer-to-peer website.  The defendant tried to claim fair use claiming that they were merely sampling or previewing tracks in order to determine whether to legitimately purchase the tracks at a later date.  The court struck down this fair use defense claiming that one could not illegally download music even for previewing purposes even if it led to the bona fide purchase of the song.  In the age of iTunes, there are plenty of avenues to legitimately sample parts of songs without taking them wholesale.)  To put it plainly, most people just want free music for their iPods.  It doesn’t have to be top quality, just new stuff they can listen to.  Finally, downloaded music these days is often viewed as a virtually disposable commodity anyways, and for better or worse, Juan’s free offering of African rarities fills a niche in our listening habits.

I’m torn about this “release.” On the one hand, this is a great example of using the Internet to effortlessly spread the sounds of musics we might not otherwise have heard about.  On the other hand, many of the artists “discovered” by Juan have had their music released on record labels and you can still easily find their tracks and albums from recognized sources.  Spend a few minutes on iTunes, for instance, and you’ll find that the Senegalese Orchestre Baobab has releases on Stern’s Music, World Circuit and Nonesuch (and is currently touring and has a MySpace site!); Bunzu Sounds has releases on Luaka Bop; Dr. K Gyasi has music on Soundway Records (specifically, on the compilation Ghana Special – Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968-81); Franklin Boukaka’s song (with Le Bucheron Africa) “Ata Ozali” is on a self-titled record (compiled in 2010 by Tamasha Corp. Ltd.); Ghanaian-Canadian musician Pat Thomas has an album called Mo Mme Menye (2008 Owusek Productions); Bunny Mack has an album called Let Me Love You (2008 Defected Records); Rwandan musician Matata’s song “Gimme Some Lovin'” is available on his album Feelin’ Funky (1994 President Records Ltd. London); and Ebo Taylor recently released a record called Love and Death (2010 Strut Records).

So what is the big deal here?  Why should we care about Juan’s vinyl finds when a lot of this music is already available to us from legit sources that may actually pay some of the artists? (Yes, most of the artists are still around!)  So: Go out there and buy some of this music (if you like it) and try to support the artists who make it and the labels that bring it to you.

But the story doesn’t quite end here.  I originally heard about Juan the vinyl collector via an enthusiastic Twitter post from actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (No, I don’t follow him on Twitter; the post was just brought to my attention!)  Here’s his pitch:

“My good friend from way back, Juan, has been adventuring around West Africa these days, looking for records.  Stupendous badass.  This guy’s been turning me on to good music since we were in high school.  At the bottom of this post, there’s a link to download fourteen beautiful, rocking, soulful songs he’s digitized from the vinyl he’s been collecting over there recently.”

Gordon-Levitt runs hitRECord.org, an online collaborative production company that allows filmmakers, actors, artists and musicians to work together on projects.  A lot of  hitRECord projects consist of artists remixing and juxtaposing one another’s work, and now I’m wondering why Gordon-Levitt would endorse his friend’s vinyl pilfering while he is so careful to remind hitRECord members that any content they upload for sharing/remixing must be their own?  Do you think Juan could get away with uploading to hitRECord.org some obscure vintage tracks of West African popular music?  (They might make a good soundtrack to someone’s short film.)
You can read the Gold Mining In Ghana post here.