Give The Drummer Some

In the histories of hip hop and electronic dance music, the creative uses of sampling are much discussed, especially musicians’ taking drum and percussion “breaks” from old R&B and soul records and using them as the basis of new tracks.  With samplers, MPC workstations, and computer software, musicians and DJs since the late 1980s have foraged far and wide through the dustbins of used record shops in search of the good instrumental bits to sample and loop.  (You can read a related post of mine on Secondhand Sureshots here.)  With the push of a button, the creative labor of acoustic musicians is captured as digital grist for the electronic music mill.

It is perhaps no surprise that amid the enthusiastic talk about sampling and sampers, scant attention has been paid to the artists whose work has been lifted.  For example, James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” is perhaps the most sampled piece of music (certainly in hip hop), thanks to drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s very groovy drum break.  Below is a YouTube clip of the original song.  If you are curious about the drum break, it starts at 5:16:

But while Brown eventually got paid by samplers of his songs, it turns out that drum breaks–unlike lyrics and melodies– aren’t protectable intellectual property.  This means that Mr. Stubblefield, now 67 years old, never made a cent off of the countless songs that have sampled his drum breaks.  Today, Mr. Stubblefield lives in Madison, Wisconsin, playing gigs with a local band.  Meanwhile, his grooves live on countless tracks.

You can read more about this story in the New York Times here.  Also, the debates over musical sampling as well Mr. Stubblefield’s work are the basis of a new documentary DVD, Copyright Criminals.

W.S. Merwin On The Music Of Poetry

Years ago I stumbled upon a poem somewhere among W.S. Merwin’s many volumes that articulated perfectly the connection between musical sound as a space for housing memories.  (I can’t remember the poem, but will search for it and let you know.)  I remembered how much I enjoyed Merwin’s work when I spotted a recent interview with him in O Magazine, where the poet talked about how and why we read poetry.   For me, Merwin could have been referring to our approach to musical sound, or even tasting fine cuisine. When it comes to our interactions with carefully designed, affective objects, we don’t engage in a rational process, but instead find intuitive, resonant responses to things and phenomena that move us:

“People say they don’t read poetry because they don’t understand it.  But you don’t start by understanding it; you begin by physically responding to it: You’re hearing something. You’re moved.  It’s not because you just understood a calculus problem—something’s got to you, you’re not quite sure why and how.”

On The Prospect Of Acoustic Lies

In his Harper’s (April 2011) essay “Seeing Through Lies”, the English art critic John Berger (author of the classic 1972 book Ways Of Seeing, an exploration of how we look at and experience visual art) discusses the revelatory quality of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork, specifically its ability to cut through the noise of our time and communicate deeper truths:

“Confronting his work, or being confronted by it, has little to do with High Culture or VIPs but a lot to do with seeing though the lies (visual, verbal, and acoustic) that are imposed on us every minute.  Seeing those lies dismembered and undone is a revelation”(46).

Before reading this, I had never thought about the idea of acoustic lies.  What does this or could this mean?  Can sound and music actually lie to us–be less than honest and forthright?  If so, how can we know when this is happening?  Can sound and music deceive?  Can we be so deceived?  Is electronically reproduced sound–the sound coming out of your home stereo speakers or headphones– inherently an acoustic lie?  Is the sound of the auto-tuned voice an acoustic lie?  Is any intensely commercial popular music an acoustic lie?  Conversely, what is “truth” in sound and music, and is it connected to that quality so many of find essential: authenticity?   And following Berger, how exactly does great music help us listen through acoustic lies?

On The Pleasures Of (Unmediated) Hearing

There’s a wonderful short satirical piece by Ellis Weiner in this week’s New Yorker (March 28, 2011) on the virtues of going outside and leaving the electronic and virtual world behind.  What do we gain by engaging with this “comprehensive experiential mode” of going outside?  For one thing, we get a reminder of how finely tuned our senses are–we see, touch, smell and hear with a clarity unavailable to us through any digital recording/playback technology, no matter how “HD” it may claim to be.  So here’s Weiner’s humorous take on hearing outside:

“Delivers ‘head-free’ surround sound.  No headphones, earbuds, speakers, or sound-bar arrays required–and yet, amazingly, you hear everything.  Sound is supported over the entire audible spectrum via instantaneous audio transmission.  As soon as a noise occurs and its sound waves are propagated to your head, you hear it, with stunning realism, with your ears.  Plus, all sounds, noises, music, and human speech arrive with remarkable spatial-location accuracy.  When someone behind you says, ‘Hey, are you on drugs, or what?,’ you’ll hear the question actually coming from behind you” (59).

On The Monome Community Earthquake Disaster Emergency Album

The other day I talked about music in terms of its having no specific meanings, and so available for us to project what we want onto its designs.  But this doesn’t mean music can’t be made in the service of a worthy cause besides its own pleasures.

In the days immediately following the recent huge earthquake in Japan, a number of electronic musicians who use hardware controllers made by monome (a very interesting company based in NY state) coalesced and composed new music.  Many of the tracks on this (free) release are based on sampled and synthesized representations of seismic data collected from the earthquakes.  Usually, basing music composition on this kind of non-musical “input” can seem contrived, but in this case it feels like an appropriate response.  The musicians write that their compilation is “intended as a cathartic response to the impermanence of our existence on this planet.  If you are moved by these musics, please donate something to aid the ongoing rescue and reconstruction efforts in and round Japan.”

The music on this compilation is very strong, and gives you a sense of the kinds of exciting things electronic musicians are doing in 2011 with computers, software, and very, very cool open-ended hardware controllers such as the monome (see pic below).

The download is free here and you can also donate to aid organizations:



On The (In)significance Of Musical Experience

Sometimes when I’m in the middle of listening to a podcast interview with a writer talking about information theory, or art history and design aesthetics, or the philosophy of work, or the politics of technology, I find myself thinking about the purpose and relative (in)significance of music.  Musicologists have long studied the formal properties of music, mapping the relations among its parts; anthropologists have shown the social uses and meanings of music within communities of players and listeners, and cultural historians have located music within the circulation of music sound reproduction technologies, the technology of musical instruments, and discourses (real and imagined) about what it all means.

But there is an absence at the heart of music and sound that keeps them forever puzzling to us: there is no there there.  Music, that most vaporous of phenomena, seems to be, to borrow a phrase from G.W. Trow, a “context of no context”: music is about nothing and then spends its time chronicling that nothingness.  (Trow used the phrase to describe the conceptual space of television.) The relations among music’s parts can be mapped and described, but they don’t constitute a language with a stable set of meanings; in fact, on person’s “happy chord” could be a sad sound for someone else.  Furthermore, music’s sounds don’t really reflect real world things.  At the core of music seems to be an inherent insignificance–an agreed upon pseudo-discourse onto which we project elaborate systems of meaning and significance.  In this regard, it might be reasonable to say that music is an elaborate Rorschach Test in sound.

But this is not to say that music isn’t terribly important to our day-to-day lives, because it often is.  Could it be that music’s significance lies in its very insignificance?  This in itself tells us important things about what it means to be human: that we appreciate the contours, relations, and timbres of music for their own sake, and for how they combine in infinite ways to make us feel deeply.

But consider another perspective.  Perhaps our ability to extract feelings from music has something to do with how it draws on the particular faculties of our minds, specifically our memories and our ability to project past experiences onto the future.  In a talk on the Zocalo Public Square podcast (which I highly recommend), the neuroscientist Antonio DAmasio discusses the nature of human memory:

“We live every moment, every second of our life, poised between the lived past and the anticipated future.  The anticipated future exists as a set of plans that we have formulated.  And those plans have been committed to memory.  So what you have is something particularly bizarre, which is to have memories of the future…”

Memories of the future.  So maybe some of the pleasures of music arise out of our projecting what we think might happen next based on our previous listening experiences?  The nature of this interaction between our past experiences and our present exposure to a music is surely incredibly complex, since we all have vastly different (and idiosyncratic) listening histories.  No wonder music can seem perpetually new, since, as Damasio says later in his talk, we are ourselves continually changing, “moving in time, relentlessly, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”  The best we can do is take snapshots with the help of this moving Rorschach Test in sound.  At the very least, listening to music makes us aware of our fleeting “here and now moments.”

On Irish Traditional Music

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here is a clip of an Irish music session at someone’s home in Ireland a few years ago:

Despite my Irish heritage, I don’t know enough about this music to tell you the name of the tune.  I can say that it is a traditional reel, which is a type of folk dance as well as dance tune.  Reels are always in duple time, with an emphasis on beats 1 and 3, and they have a slightly swinging, forward moving rhythmic feel to them.  It’s an optimistic, lively sound (making a perfect soundtrack to eating cereal).

On The Posthuman Soul of James Blake

For many months now I’ve been hearing about this young English musician/DJ/singer James Blake.  The BBC cited him as a musician to watch in 2011 and Blake just released his first full length album, James Blake.  This self-titled recording is a striking collection of pared-down songs comprising mostly auto-tuned/processed voice, analog keyboards or piano, and the most minimal and spare electronic percussion one could have.  Here’s an interview with him on the BBC:

Here is his single, “Limit To Your Love”:

So what’s the big deal?  So many things are striking about this recording it’s hard to know where to start.  First, Blake has figured out a way to use auto-tune/digital voice processing in an emotionally moving way.  Here’s the thing: he can really sing so auto-tune isn’t used as a crutch or as a cliché sound.  Rather, it’s a timbral effect used musically, allowing Blake to wildly experiment with tuning, harmonies and extreme registers.  Auto-tune (or whatever he’s using) allows Blake to turn his singing voice into an even more subtle instrument of affect.

A second thing about Blake’s recording is its incredible sense of space. There aren’t really consistent basslines in this music, freeing the midrange for gauzy keyboards.  Percussion is little more than kick drum, cross stick, and the occasional hi hat or metallic sound (I heard a fleeting Roland 808 chime somewhere), reminding me of the micro-minimalism of Alva Noto.  This makes for austere textures in which every sound has a place to resound.  And don’t forget silence: Blake incorporates little breaks of Zen nothingness between verses (drum fills are so last century!) and so some songs end abruptly, looking over the edge of silence’s chasm.  Track 2, “The Wilhelm Scream” illustrates well this spacious texture:

Blake’s music doesn’t fit into the normal stylistic “frames” of electronic music or the pop music continuum either.  Consider, for example, the song “I Mind”, a great example of Blake’s pushing musical boundaries.  Built around a three-chord piano progression (that vaguely recalls Radiohead’s “Everything in its right place” meeting Arvo Part’s “Fratres”), the song builds over this vamp by endlessly modulating Blake’s sampled vocals, blurring the lines between live and electronic sound.  “I Mind” is a great example of Blake’s voice cloned and multiplied all over the map, giving us a whole chorus of voices that sound like a digital gospel sound from the future.  You can listen to the track at here.

Music can make us feel things that are new to us–it presents us with new ways of feeling by modelling that feeling through its sounds. (I never cease to wonder how this is achieved.)  At the same time, as we listen we draw on every music we’ve ever heard to help us map the coordinates of this new affecting space.  James Blake’s album is powerful because it really does lead us into new spaces of feeling where we keep grasping for prior musical references but soon give up and start focusing on the contours of this new space.  While electronic music is the vehicle, it doesn’t define the feeling conveyed–a remarkable achievement considering how pre-determined electronic music can sound.  No, this is much more fluid territory.  Blake’s world conjures up desire meeting cold empty spaces, his processed voice like someone trapped in a hard drive.  But there is an adventurous sense of play here as well–the mark of someone who knows their craft–and the music never strictly repeats.  Like feelings, it keeps changing.

Xenakis On Intelligibility In Music

Composer, theorist, and architect-engineer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) made substantial contributions to the application of mathematical models to music composition, and is recognized as one of the most  important post-war avant-garde composers. He was also influential on the course of electronic music, and as an architect worked under modernist Le Corbusier and designed the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.  In his book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (2001), Xenakis writes on the workings of musical communication:

“The quantity of intelligence carried by the sounds must be the true criterion of the validity of a particular music” (ix).

The idea that the value of a music is a function of its “intelligibility” or “quantity of intelligence” is both intriguing and deeply problematic.  On the one hand, it is worth thinking about what kinds of meanings are signified or otherwise conveyed by your favorite musics (or even just your favorite sounds).  Do feel particular ways when you hear certain chords?  Are you (literally) moved by rhythm?  Do you get a kick out of deep bass?  Do low-fi, 8-bit timbres fill you with nostalgia?  And while we’re at it, which sounds compress and encapsulate the most meaning for you?  On the other hand, we know that music making has a social life in that it gets out and about weaves its way into the fabric of our lived experiences.  And since music is a social thing, all music is equally intelligible, for somewhere there is a community–however small it may be–that makes or consumes this music, believing it to be, on some level, quite intelligible, thank you very much.

So, to reiterate: Which musics are most intelligible to you?