Lessons From A Sick Computer

We are limited.  We need something more, we need that added extra in life.  Technology provides all we need.  Technology dominates a large part of our unique relationship with the exterior world.  I have never wanted to hide behind technology.  I have always wanted to use it, to control it, to display it.  It has always puzzled me why one would want to hide one’s hearing aid away from the world.  Why do that?  Do you understand?  It is an extension.  That’s all.  Part of us . . .”
– Lee Rourke, The Canal, p.66.

Bringing my sick laptop computer into the repair shop, I look around and see people sitting quietly with their beloved Apple machines, looking either bored or slightly on edge.  It feels like a hospital waiting room.  Geeky-cool technicians behind the desk ask serious questions in an upbeat tone: “So, did you get a file folder icon with a question mark?” she asks me brightly.  “Yeah I did” I reply gravely.  “Have you backed up your critical documents?” she asks.  Well, I’m thinking, all my documents are critical, but yes, I say calmly, “I think I backed them up, yeah.”

The technician run diagnostic tests and then there’s that inevitable moment of reckoning: she looks up and informs me that my computer’s drive is corrupt, broken, damaged, done, and in need of replacement.  “We’ll have to install a new one” she says.  I freeze for a moment.  Looking for a silver lining in this grim news, an opportunity for renewal, I inquire as to whether or not I can get an even bigger drive than last time.  (Bigger is always better, right?  A 750 Gigabyte drive perhaps?  Or 1 Terabyte?  I’m getting excited!)  But no, no.  The technician doesn’t recommend it: “the larger drives are unstable.” Okay, that’s fine.  Sigh.

So I settle for a new drive just like the last one installed a mere two years ago and start reflecting on the transient nature of my computer gear–gear that feels so critical to my day-to-day activities that I’m hamstrung when it falters.  I expect almost perfection from it: quicksilver reactions to my commands and seamless extension of my senses.  I read, write and compose on my computing machine, I gather and juxtapose huge swaths of information on it, and it shapes how I interact with the world.  My computer is a critical tool.  Or at least, that’s how I’ve come to view it.

With the death of a computer drive comes the disappearance of several music software applications, and thousands of sounds marking a territory I had barely begun to explore.  All gone.  The software can be reinstalled, of course, but lost are all those little custom presets (e.g. Brett Pad 1) and homemade sound banks assembled one sound at a time in the belief that I was creating a unique virtual workshop for sound.  All gone.  Oh well.

And this gets me thinking: Maybe it’s not good to get too attached to one’s gear.  Maybe the path of least loss in the event of a computer meltdown is to work with a bare bones, generic system that is easily replaceable.  Because like it or not, your digital tools are mortal and one day they will die, leaving your senses temporarily at a loss.

Acoustic instrumentalists know a lot about having a relationship with their tools. But even though they do become attached to their instruments–and who can blame them: a Stradivarius violin is, after all, one of a kind–their musicianship is also to a great degree independent of a particular instrument.  In the event of a breakdown, the musician can always go get another drumset or piano and be back in business in no time.

The electronic musician can learn a lesson from this independence.  Don’t fetishize the particular or the esoteric sounds, because if you do you run the risk of losing them.  Instead, work with a widely available tool and embrace its constraints as say, a pianist embraces any reasonably tuned and playable 88-note keyboard.  Not only will this serve you well in times of crisis, but the self-imposed limits might well focus your work too.

* Postscript: I am happy to report that my laptop had a new brain installed and is now a fitter, quicker and happier machine.  Thank you Tekserve.

On Music and Socialization

17 Views On Music

Music takes us unawares,
through a good beat,
a sneaky melody
or cloud of harmony-

working our circuits
of desire, to beckon
our bodies and respond
to love and its pleasures-

proposes a solution
to its own internal problem,
a sonic equation
of fugal symmetries and angles-

triggers the memory
tombs and resurrects
lost and forgotten
threads of lives led-

coats the passing
hours of waiting,
a Muzak for something
real or about to happen-

invites the receptive
into a secret society
of sorcerers speaking
in alternative tongues-

fizzes and transmits,
calories to burn,
in sync and onwards
to keep going
on the fitness machine-

pierces and tattoos
a badge of belonging
fusing identities
but only skin deep-

follows the Word,
but as second-best orator,
inarticulate and crude,
an accompanying child-

helps you believe
in sacraments and symbols
through pedal tone chords
and organ-rich clusters-

fits in your pocket,
a pod of I-ness,
a playlist of you
its songs as you like them-

makes (Jacques) Attali proud
prophesizing tomorrow
a horizon of Now
made present before arrival-

replicates fast,
a parasitical meme
in search of a listening
host to inhabit
for a time-

reflects what we want
to see of ourselves or the world,
a signifying practice,
a mirror in sound-

disciplines body-mind
skeleton, senses and skin
through practice of touch
and repetition of din-

brings us together
in sing-along joy,
a chorus of voices
in unison, as one-

cries of a past
when living was sung
and rhythms were spun
not atomized and broken
and our species
was young.

On Music and Advertising: Weezer’s Tour de France Izod Commercial

I can’t seem to get enough of the Tour de France.  A recent convert to the event, I sit transfixed in front of the screen, watching the peloton flow across the French countryside, up and down mountains, over winding roads and through picturesque towns, past lavender fields and 12th-century churches while the English ESPN commentating wizard Phil Leggett provides non-stop verbal accompaniment to surgically unpack the layers of psychological drama inherent in this grueling 2,200 mile journey of endurance.  Whatever may be going on inside their heads, outwardly the cyclists are a case study in the hypnotic flow of repetition, propelling themselves mile after mile at fast speeds in a unison rhythm, their environment just a blur of passing color as they power through it.  Leggett’s commentary makes you wonder: why do they do it?

And since I’m taping several hours of race coverage, I too power through the commercials at triple (>>>) fast forward speed to get back to those glorious aerial camera views of the French countryside and listen to Leggett’s insights.  But with my remote in hand, I notice a recurring commercial for the French clothing company Izod that features the indie rock band Weezer.  What is this? Well, it’s a song from 2010 called “Brave New World.”  I start to listen and then, despite myself, start liking this little 30-second explosion of music and commerce.  Here’s the ad:

Then I start Googling around, reading people saying things like –

“Is anyone else tired of this song?”

“The song is sooo bad” –

and so on.

So, clearly the song has had an impact.

Since apparently no one buys music recordings anymore, artists clamor to get their music into TV commercials as way of not only making money, but also of reaching a whole lot of people (like me) who otherwise wouldn’t even listen to their music.  But companies also clamor to use particular musics in their commercials.  Music, that mediating force that Georgina Born astutely calls an “assemblage” or “network of relations” between sounds, listeners, discourses and cosmologies (among other many other things), seems to have an almost infinite power to signify an almost infinite number of things because that’s just in its nature.  In fact, its contours, rhythms, melodies, harmonies and timbres compel us to respond in corresponding ways.  Around music, we’re a little like puppets tugged about on strings.  Add words to the equation and the possibilities for meanings just explode.  Suffice it to say that music’s signifying power coupled with our susceptibility to it are very useful things for companies trying to sell stuff.

So then, why this song?

My Googling leads me to the blog called tourdewhat, where the writer weighs in:

I don’t really care about Weezer being complete sell-outs.  In a time such as this [when people don’t buy music anymore], any band that can make money, more power to them.  However, what in the hell do Izod and Weezer have in common?  Absolutely nothing.  Izod is supposed to be upscale casual wear clothing company, and as you can see in the commercial, perhaps having a nautical influence.  Weezer is an alternative rock group in the shaggy hair/thick glasses ilk.  I’m guessing any of its members have never worn a piece of Izod clothing in their life.  The whole mash-up is confusing to the point of infuriation.  Do you think they got some bogus market research, or maybe some exec just really likes Weezer and this is a pet project?  Who knows?

What I know is that even though I’m lousy at paying attention to the words in songs (let alone remembering them), already the vocal melody from the Weezer song has become an earworm: “…This is the dawning of a brave new world.  No more hesitating, it’s too late to turn back now, yeah…”

And I think tourdewhat hits the aesthetic nail on the head when wondering about what Izod and Weezer have in common–why this particular “mash-up”?  For me, the power of the ad comes from the juxtaposition of this Weezer song with visuals of good-looking young folks outside swimming and sailing and dancing, getting tons of fresh air.  (Kind of like the tour riders in the peloton, only they’re not nearly so grim-faced.)  The music is hard-hitting and upbeat, moving through a mere three chords (E major to C major to A minor) and the lyrics vague enough for the overall message to be inspiring in the same way that the folks in this commercial seem happy, fit and inspired. Interesting too, that the most climactic moment in the 30-second clip is exactly 19 seconds in when the chord changes to C major with the singer hitting an F-sharp at the same time on the words “no more.”  The distance between these two notes–C and F-sharp–is six semitones and considered a very dissonant interval (called a tritone).  In that micro musical gesture and in the commercial as a whole, Weezer’s music packs a lot of affective punch on Izod’s behalf.

*Note: The picture in this post is taken from Sylvain Chomet’s film Triplets Of Belleville, which features of good deal of cycling.  In a curious case of life seeming to imitate art (and not the other way around as usually happens), now when I watch the real Tour de France I’m reminded of Chomet’s animated world.

On Expressivity In Musical Performance: The Korg Wavedrum

When we talk about “expressivity” in musical performance we’re usually referring to the degree to which a musician is able to coax emotion or affect out of his or her instrument and make it seem to “sing” (the human voice remains our gold standard of musicality).  We expect, as well, that there be some kind of obviously perceivable one-to-one, direct relationship between the musician’s actions and the resulting sound.  So, a gentle bow stroke on the violin should produce a corresponding gentle sound, or a vigorous roll on the timpani should make a booming one.  Part of what makes a great musician is his or her fluid command over that violin bow/violin or timpani mallet/timpani pairing to the point that you forget that there is in fact a lot of technology involved in what you might have thought was an apparently transparent connection between musicians and their gear.  Virtuosity makes you forget about the gear and takes you away to wonderment.

In the course of writing a short article on electronic percussion for the Grove Dictionary Of American Music, I hit upon an interesting instrument by Korg called the Wavedrum.  What’s interesting is that the Wavedrum combines digital sampling and synthesis with what looks like a very realistically sensitive and playable control surface.


The Wavedrum seems to play just about like a real drum: you can play it with sticks or mallets or your hands anywhere on its drumhead or along its rim and the sound shifts accordingly along a continuum so finely graded that it just might trick you into feeling, “hey, wait a second here, I can really express myself here.”


But the Wavedrum doesn’t have an acoustic bone in its electronic body.  What it has is clever coding and advanced triggering technology.

Just as devices like the Apple iPad–with its fluid touchscreen that responds to our fingers like it’s an extension of them–remind us that what we liked about reading the newspaper was really its responsiveness to our handling it, the Wavedrum reminds us that what we like about acoustic instruments is how they can’t really lie.  Like ventriloquists, we throw our voices and try to get the instruments to sing on our behalf, or else we end up looking and sounding like…dummies.

Here is a clip of a drummer demonstrating the Wavedrum at a music
trade show.  (Yes, the clip is sponsored by Korg, but I’m not endorsing it, just using it to make some observations.)

If you want more grist for this mill, watch this clip of drum machine pioneer Roger Linn demonstrating one of his experimental, not yet released musical instruments.  Again, the relationship between gesture and sound is fluid:

On The Sound Of Your Voice

Welcome to Times Square, Crossroads of the World. Have a great evening, and remember, whatever your final destination, happiness is the way.”
— voice of 7 Train operator, July 16, 2011

So it was the other day as I was getting off the 7 train at Times Square that I noticed the train conductor’s announcement going awry–but in a good way. He began by welcoming everyone to Times Square, then got philosophical (see the quote above) and presto! had everyone’s attention. How amazing, we thought to ourselves: a voice is actually talking to us, not just at us. This vignette would have been the end of this blog post, except that I had been thinking about voice for a few weeks, specifically the question of how our voices sound and reflect who we are.

Does anyone really like the sound of their own voice? Our voices seem so personal, so revealing because they’re intimately tied to our physiologies, that perhaps it’s hard to ever be totally at ease with them. And that old saying, he just likes the sound of his own voice, which we use to describe someone who is full of themselves–do they actually like the sound of their own voice? And if they do, is the saying right in implying that there’s someone wrong with such a person?

If our faces are, as Milan Kundera says, like our serial codes, then surely our voices must provide the appropriate–in fact, the only possible–musical accompaniment to this code? Do our voices always match our faces then? Can we deceive and be crooked with our voices while keeping a straight face? This year’s American Idol winner, seventeen year-old Scotty McCreery–he of the “surprisingly mature voice” as Entertainment Weekly noted–presents us with a young face out of which resonates a deep bass, older male country singer sound. Though he doesn’t mean to, Scotty deceives us a little because it feels like he’s channelling someone else: like a puppet for a vocal ventriloquist at work somewhere offstage. It’s a little creepy, actually.

Finally, does one’s writing voice reflect one’s speaking and singing voice? If yes, should it? Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece on his blog a few years ago about the importance of this very topic to him in terms of his writerly ethics. For Gladwell, good writing should sound like one’s speaking voice. If one’s writing voice is different from one’s speaking voice, from where then does it derive its tonality, its register and its cadence?

I leave you with a wonderful story recounted by the oral historian Studs Turkel. I think its wonderful for two reasons. The first being that the melody of Turkel’s voice itself has such clearly demarcated contours and an appealing graininess that even if you don’t speak English, you could probably well follow it. The other wonderful thing about the story is its simple narrative: a thinking person wondering aloud about the state of the human voice and meaningful communication in our contemporary world.

On The Affective Power Of Quiet

“Not muteness: absence of linguistic noise.”
— Alexandra Horowitz, Inside Of A Dog

We have a very, very quiet two-year old dog named Sadie.  Sadie hardly ever makes a sound, except when she sees a life-size furry animal on the TV, whereupon she lets out a combined growl-bark.  But otherwise, Sadie is a study in quietude.

I spend a fair amount of time with Sadie during the day, walking her outside in the neighborhood and hanging out with her inside the apartment.  And I talk to her a lot, which leads to a lot of awfully one-sided conversations:

Me: (with genuine excitement) “Wanna go for a walk?!”

Sadie: “…”


Me: (with growing enthusiasm) “Okay see you later Sadie-kins!  Bye! Bye!  BYE!!”

Sadie: “…”

Sadie is, of course, communicating with me all the time through her body language, especially her eyes which always look like they’re trying to deeply understand what makes me tick.  But lately her silence has been intriguing me more and more.

Quiet beings like Sadie have a way of making comparatively chatty beings like me think twice about their utterances.  When your voice is greeted with silence, you do a quick mental replay of what you just said or else repeat the utterance–as if repeating what you just said would actually make a difference and elicit something more than silence from your quiet friend.  But Sadie will absorb anything I say into her deep cloud of quiet, sometimes causing me to go quiet myself.  After all, as Alexandra Horowitz observes in her book Inside Of A Dog, “it is when language stops that we connect most fully” (119).  All of this to say that Sadie and I usually get into a quiet space together, and I find that her silence compels me to listen more closely to the ambient sounds around us.

Last year, my wife put together a Sadie video montage for which I provided some music.  The video projects a narrative onto Sadie’s silent cognitive world by way of a poem called “À une passante” (“To a Passerby”) by the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).  (The French voice is courtesy of an online text translator/reader.)

From Geoff Dyer’s Criticism To Keith Jarrett’s Pianism

In his recent collection of essays, Otherwise Known As The Human Condition, novelist and critic Geoff Dyer writes beautifully and incisively about photography in a way that I wish more writers would (or could) write about music.  Here is Dyer writing on Idris Khan’s work (pictured below) that digitally blends hundreds of photographs into a single composite image:

“Each art form has its own unique advantages and limitations.  Words and music unfold successively, through time.  Photography is about an instant.  By analogy it can ask the impossible: in this case, what if you could hear every note of Beethoven’s sonatas in an instant?  What would it look like?  And when we think of a piece of music that we know well, don’t we sometimes remember it not phrase by phrase, but in its amorphous entirety?

It is often said that photographers freeze time but Khan does the opposite.  This can be seem most clearly in his remixes of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of the 1880s […] Muybridge used fast shutter speeds to break action into moment-by-moment increments, rendering movement stationary.  Kahn takes these sequences of isolated moments and unfreezes time by combining them in a single image.  Muybridge’s strictly mechanical record of a man getting out of bed becomes a vision of the unconscious lifting clear of the body, a dream of waking…” (84).

Lucky for us, Dyer does briefly turn to music in a later section of the book, writing about artists as varied as John Coltrane (and his versions of “My Favorite Things”), Indian singer Ramamani, and 1980s rockers Def Leppard.  The most compelling essay here, however, is “Editions Of Contemporary Me”, Dyer’s personal account of encountering new music through the ECM record label.  (The essay’s title is a play on the record label’s name.)  ECM is the brainchild of Manfred Eicher, who started the label in Germany in 1969 as a vehicle for releasing new and interesting sounds that span and fall in between the stylistic boundary lines of jazz, classical, and world music.  Probably due to Eicher’s artistic vision and curatorial ear, there is a distinctive ECM aesthetic: think minimal designs, contemplative and vast open spaces, and sounds roaming free in reverberant halls.  Some have argued–somewhat disparagingly–that ECM was a pioneer of what has come to be called New Age music.

A longtime ECM artist is piano virtuoso Keith Jarrett, about whom Dyer cannot say enough good things.  As it happens, during the time I was reading Dyer on Jarrett I cleaned my closet and out came tumbling Jarrett’s Koln Concert CD, his 1975 recording of an improvised concert at the Cologne Opera House that is the best-selling piano record of all time.  The details surrounding the concert are well-known by now: a half-working piano delivered to the concert hall by mistake that sounded thin in the bass and upper registers, Jarrett’s fatigue and back pain (not to mention his irritation with the piano situation), and a late night, 11:30pm showtime.  Under these less than auspicious conditions, Jarrett pulled off a historic performance in front of 1700 entranced listeners, making do with he had, and more than that, structuring his performance around the limitations of his instrument.

Listening to Koln Concert two things stand out for me.  The first is how Jarrett can sustain the listener’s interest by creating long lyrical melodic lines that keep shifting–in their harmonies, their patterns of accentuation and dynamics, their register, and in their length.  These melodies are simple yet elastic and endlessly adaptable.  Listening to them you feel like you’re hearing a good story.  A second thing that stands out is Jarrett’s relentless and precise groove, especially that left hand of his that builds rhythmic ostinati on top of which he spins his right hand melodies.

But let me add one more thing.  The music gets even more interesting when both of these qualities–long melodies and relentless grooves–blur together to make a kind of melodic drumming on the keyboard.  In the YouTube clip below of Part II B, you can hear this especially beginning at the 6:45 mark through to the end of the clip.  Here, melodies and harmonies form a single and constantly morphing sound mass.  What’s neat about this is that you hear Jarrett seemingly moving through (or channelling?) all kinds of musical idioms–from early 20th century French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel to Middle Eastern modes to American minimalism and beyond–with just the shift of a semitone here and there.  Here is the clip:

Overall, Koln Concert is a good illustration of Dyer’s assertion that the most alive jazz has always been that which tries to escape the idiom’s well-worn stylistic paths in search of new territories to assimilate.  I don’t know if Jarrett was thinking about any of this during his Koln concert, but you can nevertheless hear something very modern here, as if Jarrett/jazz is trying to get outside of himself/itself.  Jazz is omnivorous, able to digest just about any other music and make it its own.

On Max Neuhaus: The Sound Installation In Times Square

If you walk over the metal grating smack in the middle of the pedestrian island between 45th and 46th street where Broadway and 7th Avenue meet, slow down a little and listen closely to the space beneath your feet: you’ll notice a subtle shift in the soundscape around you.  There is a mysterious low-pitched humming drone that sounds like it could be some kind of industrial engine or maybe the sound of a didgeridoo player helplessly trapped below, but it’s neither of these things.  (Though for years I assumed it was a didge player with incredible lung power!)  The drone is actually a subterranean continuous sound art installation designed by the artist Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) in 1977.

Growing up in suburbs of Westchester, NY, Neuhaus studied jazz drumming with the great Gene Krupa (the flamboyant drummer featured on Benny Goodman’s song, “Sing, sing, sing”) and then in the late 1950s went on to earn bachelors and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School Of Music.  It was here that Neuhaus first encountered the music of American experimental composers including John Cage, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Morton Feldman who were writing adventurous pieces for percussion ensemble.  In the early 1960s, Neuhaus, who was touring as a percussionist with Pierre Boulez’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, became one of the first classical musicians to experiment with live feedback techniques using microphones and speakers.  In his performances of Cage’s piece Fontana Mix, Neuhaus would place microphones on his percussion instruments in front of loudspeakers and allow the resulting feedbacking sound to resonate the instruments and create a great sonic din probably not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s squealing electric guitar soundscapes.  It was the excitement of this kind of experimentation that led Neuhaus further and further way from traditional percussion music and into left-field sound work.

Eventually, Neuhaus took to heart Cage’s adage that everything in our listening environment can be considered music and began creating anonymous public sound works he called “sound installations” in the United States and Europe.  Many of these works consist of continuous sounds placed in particular locations that have neither beginnings nor ends—they just go on and on whether you notice them or not.  Neuhaus’s work in Times Square is called, fittingly, Times Square, though there is no sign around to tell you that.  The installation’s sound is actually generated by a machine that amplifies and enhances the natural resonances already present below ground but otherwise inaudible from above.  You can’t see the machinery making the sound, but that’s just as well, since Neuhaus intended the visual component to be all those who walk over the metal grating of the pedestrian island, as well as Times Square’s always proliferating giant billboards, hotels, shops and restaurants.   Times Square initially ran continuously from 1977 until 1992.  In 2002, the piece was resurrected and since that time has run twenty-four hours a day, every day.

I make a point of walking directly over Neuhaus’s sound installation most evenings to experience a fleeting 5-second experience of its basso continuo ambient drone.  Neuhaus’s work is somewhat odd in that once you notice it, it gets you thinking for a moment, but about nothing in particular.  It’s just one more voice blending in among the thousands of other sounds sounding in Times Square.  You hear and notice the drone for a few seconds, then just move on.

You can listen to Times Square here: