On The Inner Life Of Sampling

I’m at the computer, headphones on, Ableton Live software open, listening closely to audio sample loops that I’ve made of Wonders, a CD of marimba and vibraphone music I recorded eleven short years ago.  (How time flies!)  Why am I spending my time like this, mouse-clicking around loops of my musical past?  What am I thinking about as I listen through these samples?  What are the looping sounds doing to me?  What are they triggering in me?

As I experiment with various delay settings that add rhythmic echoes to the loops, I think about sampling as a kind of deteriorated memory–not because our memories and digital sampling can’t be faithful to an original event, but because remembered things are always distorted and anyway, I just like the sound of the effects I’m applying so now I’m theorizing about them.  With software it’s easy to distort a sound by re-pitching it to a low warble, or adding delay to make it echo and fold back upon itself (swimming in its own memory), or laying on filter upon filter to mutate the sound into unrecognizability.

All this is enjoyable and interesting to experiment with, headphones on, in close listening mode.  (There are even moments of ecstatic discovery too.)  But as I experiment I find myself remembering the previous life of my sampled material–the life it lead as it was composed and then performed and recorded as live music.  Or put another way: the life this sound once led when it was alive.  All this experience–which goes back almost twenty years now–feels compressed before me in the short four and eight bar loops I’m listening to.  The scale of this archeological dig through my musical life seems a little off somehow: How could my little schizophonic loops ever do justice to the scope of their lived history from which they have been split?

In his recent book Retromania, Simon Reynolds speaks of sampling as a portal “to far flung times and places”, a kind of musical “ghost coordination and ghost arrangement” (313-314).  More ominously, Reynolds suggests that sampling “is enslavement: involuntary labor that’s been alienated from its original environment and put into service in a completely other context, creating profit and prestige for another” (314).  I will almost certainly never profit nor earn prestige from sampling myself, and now I also wonder: What could I possibly add to my already recorded artifact?  And besides, isn’t the practice of sampling short sections of music and looping them effectively reducing the music’s informational content, making it more redundant and more repetitious?

This view–however old-fashioned it is in equating musical change with density of information and “progress”–was my perspective on sampling until it occurred to me that sampling offers other gifts of musical perception and affect.  One thing that had long struck me about Wonders was how impatient with itself much of it sounded. The constant and repeated sixteenth-notes and regular chord changes every four bars or so gave the music a sense of never being settled, never content with just staying put, and like its composer, always on the go.  But sampling lets me take a musical moment and say to it, Hold on.  Relax.  Get comfortable with yourself.  Stay for a while.  Sampling lets me retroactively inject a dose of my current sensibility into my past self–or as Reynolds might put it, enslave the old me.

Sampling is also a convenient excuse to explore how a range of sound-morphing effects impact my sounds.  To start, one of the most dramatic effects I’ve discovered so far–maybe out of laziness because the slider is just there in front of me, begging to be tried out–is to re-pitch a sample into a higher or lower register.  It’s easy to forget how crucial pitch is to a sound’s affect.  If you don’t believe me, record your own voice sometime and re-pitch it lower or higher.  You’ll realize immediately how much your vocal identity depends on its pitch.  And repitching a sample by a few semitones affects the shade of its timbre or tone color too: suddenly a wooden marimba can sound like a low gong or a metallic xylophone.  Re-pitching allows me to hear new things in my looping samples such as hidden inner voices (notes of a simultaneous chord) or harmonies, or even more mysteriously: a (new) feeling I didn’t know was even present in the sample in the first place.  A second dramatic effect is EQ or equalization, which can be powerful in the way it allows me to foreground particular frequencies, drawing in articulations and contrasts, turning a mellow timbre into something more focused.  Next, delay effects also help me hear my samples anew.  Adding the right type and amount of delay can send a sample into orbit, breaking it into thousands of shards bouncing rhythmically around the stereo field.  And finally, just the pure repetition of looping is transforming–if you find the perfect loop point.  Done right, looping is pure groove, pure flow.

So, as I sit at the computer with my headphones on, in close listening mode, experimenting with effects on the looped samples, I find myself thinking about the history of this music’s original production and here’s what comes to mind:

I’m working out its chord progressions on the piano in my parent’s home in the evenings of the summer of 1994, then painstakingly notating and arranging the chords for marimbas; inputting the music into Finale, a computer notation program; rehearsing the music with five other musicians in a subterranean, neon-lit percussion studio and hearing the lumbering piece come alive for the first time and fill the room with a ringing hum; performing the piece live in a recital hall for a few hundred listeners who applaud the moment the musicians all finish together on an upbeat on the final F major chord; learning to play all the parts myself four years later and then multitracking them at a recording studio, the click of an electronic metronome fed through my headphones to keep my playing in sync; putting the piece, along with four other compositions I’ve recorded, onto a CD for independent “release” (if you’re wondering: no, it never did sell enough to cover the cost of making it); storing hundreds of copies of this mostly unsold musical artifact on a high shelf in my closet, the brightly colored jewel cases still shrink-wrapped and lined up in neat rows in what is now an old and discolored cardboard box; taking out one of the shiny CDs and feeding it to my computer, prompting the machine, having just eaten the disc in one swift gulp, to politely ask “Would you like to import the audio cd ‘Wonders’ now?”; dragging an icon of Track 1’s audio file into Ableton Live–all that lived experience squashed into sound waves!–reminding me of a postcard sent from a distant land and then found again after all these years, waiting to be recycled.

On Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life

“Listening is the gateway to liberation.” – On Blowing Zen

In his book Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life (HJ Kramer, 2000), Englishman Ray Brooks tells a story about discovering the shakuhachi flute while living abroad in Japan with his wife, finding a series of shakuhachi master teachers with whom to study, and finally, through dedicated practice and direction, becoming a master player himself.  Through a series of clearly written accounts of his music lessons, practicing, interactions with his teachers and performing, Brooks creates a neatly delineated world that allows the reader to map his progress from novice cultural outsider to learned practitioner of a sacred musical instrument with a centuries old association with Zen Buddhism as a tool for self-enlightenment.

The book quite deftly combines musical ethnography and memoir to have the reader see how musical experience can focus, give meaning to, and transform what was formerly an unexamined–and remarkably, given the difficulties of learning a musical instrument from outside one’s own cultural tradition–and unmusical life.  Despite some of my initial reservations about the New Agey, self-help premise of Blowing Zen (and the self-help ethos of its publisher), I found myself liking the book as well as appreciating the author’s frank self-assessments at every stage of his journey; indeed, Brook tells a good, true-life story while staying reflective and reflexive about his social encounters through music making. So, okay, I’ll say it: this is a book of self-help through music, gosh darn it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

One of the refreshing things about Blowing Zen is how Brooks is drawn into the shakuhachi world organically–driven, it seems, only by curiosity to learn more about the instrument.  (He is in Japan, after all, to teach English, not study music.)  He sees in the instrument a way to focus his attention and a reason for sustained work, but he has no goals save to deepen his understanding.  Very cool if you ask me.  “This was a chance” Brooks says, “to study the discipline of working at something everyday without expecting instant gratification” (32).  Once again, very cool.

Yamada-San, Brooks’ first shakuhachi teacher, supports his interest, observing that if the instrument is “played with passion and without motive, it can become much more than a musical instrument” (58).  For Yamada-San, the key is to just “practice for its own sake, and let progress take care if itself.  Don’t corrupt the beauty of learning by becoming attached to an end goal” (59).  How different this approach is from musicians’ typical goals of learning as many pieces as they can as if stockpiling their arsenal of musical artillery!  And yet, Brooks does learn (and memorize) numerous pieces in the course of his practice and lessons.  As he presents his progress, the right stuff just seems to happen at the right time.  As Brooks renders his learning journey, everything just flows like those long, breathy single tones blown on the shakuhachi.

Brooks provides a fairly detailed account of his music lessons with another shakuhachi teacher named Yokoyama-San (115-120), and explains the initial stress of those lessons where “I alone was the self-consumer of my own nervousness” (118).  He also learns about the aesthetic concept of “ma” or space, and, from yet another teacher, how to circular breathe (or make a continuous tone by inhaling through the nose while exhaling through the mouth) on the shakuhachi.  Eventually, the author quits his teaching job and begins earning good money busking in parks.  And, rather remarkably, he even takes up shugyo–a repeated process of spiritual training.  Brooks’ shugyo involves hiking up Mount Takeo, playing shakuhachi for six hours, then hiking back down for sixty consecutive days.  As a result of this self-imposed regimen of physical exertion, solitude and practice, Brooks grows stronger and develops immensely as a musician.

In fact, through his devoted work Brooks eventually becomes a recognized shakuhachi player and his story inspires the reader for its simplicity: do the work and good things will happen.  By the end of Blowing Zen, he’s still talking about discipline too–not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself:

“I was still learning about discipline that isn’t motivated by success or failure and where effort and hard work are their own reward and come naturally, without resistance” (231).

Sound Advice: Frank Gehry Speaks

“Your best work
is you’re expressing yourself.
you may not be
the best at it,
but when you do it
you’re the only expert in it.
When I teach
students in architecture
I try to get them
to understand
that they have a signature–
their body,
their hand-eye
their biological make-up.”

On Music and Discipline: Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons

Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir Piano Lessons (2010) is a coming of age story about a girl growing up and learning to play the piano in Australia.  From age nine to her late teens, Goldsworthy’s teacher was Russian émigré and master pianist Eleonora Sivan.  Over the years, Sivan guides her pupil through increasingly advanced piano technique and the great keyboard literature of Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Shostakovitch and others.  Along the way, the teacher imparts a sense of the dedication, care, attention to detail, and commitment required to become a professional concert pianist.

Much of Piano Lessons captures the spoken details of Sivan’s teaching in dozens of clearly remembered passages of music talk from Goldsworthy’s music lessons.  (The author was no doubt helped here by the fact that her father, the novelist and poet Peter Goldsworthy, attended many of her piano lessons and kept verbatim notes on Sivan’s teachings for eventual use in his 2004 book, Maestro.)  In one memorable passage, Sivan reminds Goldsworthy that “music is logically organized fantasy” and she must strive to develop her “emotional logic” (40) in order to project her “inner emotional story” (42) through her piano playing.  Goldsworthy does a fine job chronicling and rendering the ups and downs of her journey into classical piano playing and ends her book having succeeded in making her debut as a concert soloist performing with an Australian symphony orchestra.  As a narrative, Piano Lessons is an airtight story, unpacking for the reader how a musical life–a life devoted to music making–is built methodically, one piano composition at a time, one hour of practice after another, one music competition award begetting the next.  But the book also documents a musical life that seems uptight too, and in this regard is perhaps representative of a what it feels like to be professional concert musician–no matter what one’s instrument.

As I read Piano Lessons I found myself thinking about the relationship between musical discipline and mind-body well-being, health and even stress.  What is the (proper) role of discipline in a musical life?  Is it the only route to mastery and/or “success” or are there alternative routes?  And are the structures and performance conventions of western classical music–including the stress on being faithful to a score and playing its notes “perfectly”, and the whole notion of “virtuosity” that every musician in his or her own way strives towards–somehow detrimental to a musician’s health?  As I read Piano Lessons, I wondered: classical music can be great to listen to.  But is it good for you to play it?

My earliest musical experiences were outside of the classical music world and didn’t involve music teachers, but were rather long sessions of musical imitation in the oral tradition: air drumming along with rock music played on headphones.  With drum lessons through my teens, however, I was working on notated snare drum studies, trying to get every note right, striving for increasing my sense of control over my hands and sticks.  By college, I had adopted the music conservatory ethos of everyone around me: hole yourself up in a practice room and practice for hours on end, seven days a week.  I was under no illusions about ever becoming a virtuoso or a soloist; I just wanted to learn and memorize the material assigned for my lessons.  But all that practising did lead me to increased motor skills, muscle memory, and body control, as well as competence to make a “musical” sound.  I practised to lessen performance anxiety, I practiced to internalize the music and make it come “naturally”, and I practiced to push my body and mind to go beyond themselves and transcend the here and now, even without achieving what Goldsworthy describes as “the rapture of virtuosity, of physical mastery” (114).

And while all I did was practice for four years, I never gave it much thought as a kind of social-cultural practice.  Moreover, in my world music and ethnomusicology classes, it never occurred to me to think about practising, discipline and virtuosity in the context of other musical traditions, probably because the musicians from these distant lands just seemed–as if by magic–really, really good at what they do.  Since I’ve broached the topic: Does a master drummer in Ghana or a ney player in Turkey ever practice alone, drilling musical exercises away from their group music making milieus of rehearsing and performance?  Or is solitary practice a western musical preoccupation?

There are, however, some legendary stories about music practising in non-western musical contexts–especially in elite, classical music traditions. For example, the North Indian music tradition is full of stories of musicians practising alone hour upon hour each day.  In his book My Music, My Life, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar recounts practising for up to sixteen hours a day when he was a teenager, his long hair tied to the ceiling to jolt him awake lest he doze off from fatigue. And Indian tabla drummers have been known to repeat finger drumstrokes many thousands of times per day–even while watching television!–to gain complete fluidity with their instrument.   Doubtless there are many other examples like this too.

But the above examples notwithstanding, the reader of Piano Lessons might keep in mind that most of our world’s musicians don’t read a note of music, nor do they spend most of their time practicing alone, motivated by the goals of control, emotional expression, and virtuosity.  And this is precisely why Goldsworthy’s book is such a valuable case study on the inner life and consciousness of the monolithic force of European classical music.


On Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher

Last week I attended the New York City premiere of Sounds And Silence, a documentary about the work of ECM record label founder and producer Manfred Eicher.  ECM is known for its exquisitely recorded releases by modern composers, jazz improvisers, folk and world music artists.  There’s a lot of natural resonance and space on ECM releases, partly due to the musical designs and partly due to the spaces in which the musical performances are recorded.  How to sum up the ECM sound in three words?  Minimal, luminous melancholy.  In the hundreds of recordings he has produced since the 1970s, Eicher has found this sound aesthetic over and over again.

The film follows Eicher as he travels around the world to oversee recording sessions and concerts by artists recording for his label.  In these scenes we get to hear and see musicians making music in acoustically sublime surroundings.  For example, one recurring scene is Eicher standing next to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt as he listens, wide-eyed and child-like to a string orchestra and small choir bring his piece Da Pacem Domine to life. The immense space (and light) in Pärt’s music is a perfect example of the Eicher/ECM aesthetic in action, making use as it does of the elongated reverb tail and ambiance in the performance space–in this case, a beautiful old church in Talinn, Estonia. Eicher and Pärt (and Pärt’s wife) seem to listen so closely to run-throughs of the music that their quality of attention feels integral to the music’s affect.  Here’s the piece they were recording:

In other scenes, the documentary leaves Eicher and focuses in on the creative work of ECM artists such as Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem and the Argentinian bandoneon player and tango master Dino Saluzzi.  On their ECM releases, both of these musicians make what once upon a time would have been called “fusion” music.  In Brahem’s case, he plays his oud to the accompaniment of a piano and an accordion.  And Saluzzi’s bandoneon is joined by the German cellist Anja Lechner.  Eicher is excited by these kinds of musical juxtapositions, not because they’re exotic, but because the instrument timbres and sensibilities of the musicians mesh well together.  Here is the Anouar Brahem trio playing his piece “Sur le Fleuve”

and Saluzzi and Lechner playing music from their ECM recording Ojos Negros

Besides the first-rate music making, one of the more remarkable aspects of this film is the quality of social interaction between Eicher and the film’s other protagonists as well as the intense focus demonstrated by just everyone we see in ECM’s orbit; indeed, there’s an immense amount of collective care and fuss to get things sounding just right.  In one scene, a piano technician rapidly applies a fine sandpaper to shape the felt hammers of a piano and then gingerly applies a blowtorch (!) to straighten them while the jazz pianist Nik Bartsch hovers attentively over his shoulder.  In another scene, an oud maker visits Anouar Brahem at his house to present him with a half-finished instrument to assess.  Brahem holds the oud in silence, running his hands over its continuous curves, and then sings pitches into its resonating hole and listens, imagining the oud’s luminosity when it’s finally strung and ready for playing.  “I can’t wait to hear it” he says excitedly.  Watching scenes like this I was struck by the constant, concerned and nuanced talk going on around musical sound and musical instruments.  The people in this movie really care about and come together around music.

After the film, Eicher, who had been lurking in darkness by the door to the theater during the movie, came to the stage and took questions from the audience.  Asked what he listens for in new music, Eicher said: “I don’t know.  I try to be intuitive.  I try to be a good listener.  It’s a mystery sometimes how things develop.” Asked about what he listens for when assessing a new live recording space, Eicher said: “I listen for the light in the church.”  With the work of ECM, he observed, the key is to “have respect for interaction, respect for the score, the music, the musicians.”  As Eicher spoke, a word popped into my head as a variation on musician: mystician.  As Eicher the mystician answered questions, he talked about how you never know how things–musical or otherwise–will turn out. “Sometimes” he said, “a gesture, a little thing, changes the situation immensely.”

Here is a short trailer of the film:

Letting Randoms In: On The Music Of Burial

I don’t really go on the Internet, it’s like a Ouija board, it’s like letting someone into your head, behind your eyes.  It lets randoms in.” – Burial

Although I’m clearly a few years behind the curve with this particular bit of music news, I’ve been thinking about the music of acclaimed London-based producer Burial lately and what it is that makes it work so well for me.  Burial, whose real identity as William Bevan was unknown until quite recently, makes moody and evocative underground electronic music that blends dubstep, garage, and ambient influences into a signature sound.  Unlike a lot of electronic musicians, Burial doesn’t sequence his work as MIDI data, choosing instead to arrange audio samples using simple audio editing software.

For me, there are two striking aspects of Burial’s music.  The first is the music’s rhythms.  In contrast to a lot of electronic dance music that has sharp, squared-off and quantized edges to its beats, Burial’s rhythmic textures are a little more off-kilter and therefore interesting.  In interviews Burial has spoken about his intuitive beat-making process.  Working with the software program Sound Forge, he lines up his drum samples one at a time just by looking at the waveforms and without relying on quantization to snap everything to a grid.  He works, as the old saying goes, by feel.  This working method produces skittering, choppy rhythms that sometimes seem a fraction of a beat short of a 4/4 meter, making them sound as they are subtly hicupping their way forward in time.  You can hear this time sense on the piece “You Hurt Me”:

In 2007, Burial spoke with Mark Fisher in the Wire (December 2007) about the influence of early 1990s UK garage music on his approach to rhythm and drumming in his tracks:

“With garage the drums are taken back, they’re quite soft, it’s more about being slinky.  They’re like a fishbone, a spine, an exoskeleton that cradles the sounds.  It’s not about the deepest kick or biggest snare.  The drums are more about trying to thread sounds and vocals together, they flicker across the surface of the tune, it circles around you, it’s not just chopping you up, it’s not about the sounds being big.”

Another attractive aspect of Burial’s music (and a feature of garage music too) is its use of looped and re-pitched sampled voices veiled in delay and reverb.  These voices are always just beyond intelligibility–their edges blunted and blurred so that they almost seem to be saying something coherent but never do. In this way, the voices mix seamlessly with the other ambient textures in the music and help draw the listener inwards.  You can hear this sensibility on the pieces “Forgive” and “Broken Home”: