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).