On Minimalism and Aural Illusions

One of the enduring contributions of the so-called American “minimalist” composers–particularly Steve Reich and Philip Glass–to global music culture was to re-introduce shape-shifting, metamorphosing aural illusions to our listening experience through intense repetition, polyrhythm and additive rhythms. These rhythmic devices are not new in music–you can certainly hear them in some African and Indonesian musics–but they were newly foregrounded in the concert hall back in the 1960s and 70s when minimalism burst onto the scene.

“Foregrounding” is an apt term in that the use of these musical devices reminds us of those perceptual puzzles from Psychology 101–like the picture of the two faces/vase that foregrounds one or the other depending on your interpretive listening stance:

A good percentage of the bliss in a vintage Reich or Glass piece derives from how the music plays with our senses, inviting the transformation of our (mis)perception to become part and parcel of the music’s affect. Reich’s early piece Drumming (1971), for instance, features perceptual artifacts the composer calls “resultant patterns” that arise out of the music’s polyrhythmic web. Reich found inspiration for this concept from his study of West African drumming.  (A similar concept, “inherent patterns” was discussed by ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik in the early 1960s.) Musicians performing Reich’s music foreground these patterns by playing or singing them to help us along in our listening. Moreover, the careful design of the music supports our multiple and shifting interpretations: Drumming is in a 12/8 meter which can be rhythmically perceived in a variety of ways (3 groups of 4 beats, 4 groups of 3, 6 groups of 2, 2 groups of 6)–often simultaneously.

Here are excerpts from a recent performance of Drumming (and you can forward the clip to 2:00 to hear the singers’ “resultant patterns”):

Glass’s early piece Music In Twelve Parts (1971-1974) works its perceptual magic not through polyrhythms but through additive rhythms. The composer structures his piece around short rhythmic units that repeat at a steady tempo but also grow in length incrementally. Glass found inspiration for this technique from his study of Indian music with Ravi Shankar. After sufficient repetition, these repeating rhythmic blocks induce subtle perceptual shifts–playing especially with our sense of time. The music can make you feel like it’s foregrounding a slower time dimension behind its frantic surface.

Here is Music In Twelve Parts:

In both cases, the composers use minimal techniques to yield maximal perceptual results.

On Practicing Wonder: David Abram’s Becoming Animal

“This whole terrain is talking to our animal body; our actions are the steady reply.”
– David Abram

David Abram is a phenomenologist and ecologist who is interested in “the qualitative language of direct experience” (289).  And since his 1996 book The Spell Of The Sensuous, he’s been on a mission to get his readers to tune/re-tune their animal senses “to the sensible terrain” (3) of earth in order to become more deeply connected with its powers. This “sensible terrain” includes the “more-than-human community of beings that surrounds and sustains the human hub-bub” (9)–you know: insects, animals, trees, rocks, dirt, air, flowing water, mountains, sun, clouds, wind, rain, and snow. In other words, Abram is asking us to pay close attention to nature wherever we might encounter it, to attune ourselves to all its non-human inhabitants, their moods, their rhythms, and their affect–as if we’re being spoken to. And he wants us to not only listen with our whole beings but also listen to ourselves listening. It’s an approach Abram associates with many indigenous communities, for whom “everything is animate, everything moves” (269). This kind of body-listening–being aware of our “animistic inclinations…underneath all our literate logics” (276)–is a step towards valuing the earth’s fragile (and ever threatened) ecology as well as a way of releasing in ourselves powers we never knew we had.

Becoming Human: An Earthly Cosmology (2011) is a remarkable and passionate book whose power derives from how it “attends closely to the sensuous play of the world” (298). In fact, the book is largely about the experience of perception and its texture. Drawing inspiration from the phenomenological approaches of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), Abram grounds his writing in his ongoing, open-ended and always changing relationship with the world. As I suppose other writers do too, except that few of us take the time to capture our perceptions so vividly. The book is structured around a series of topics that Abram explores and unpacks, ranging widely from shadows and depth to the materiality of things, language, reciprocity, mood, mind, and magic. There’s so many engaging perceptions thrown at us in the course of these chapters that it’s difficult to know where to begin a summary. What follows, then, are some highlights.

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In his chapter “Wood and Stone”  Abram elaborates on the power of a large mountain to literally knock us off our feet, then later shifts gears to explain the power of Van Gogh’s painting to stir us. Two very different presences, to be sure, but they both “beckon to us from behind the cloud of words, speaking instead with gestures and subtle rhythms, calling out to our animal bodies, tempting out skin with their varied textures and coaxing our muscles with their grace, inviting out thoughts to remember and rejoin the wider community of intelligence” (40). In the chapter “Mind” Abram urges us to loosen our conception of mind in order to locate it out in the world rather than merely inside us. “Sentience” he says, “was never our private possession. We live immersed in intelligence, enveloped and informed by a creativity we cannot fathom” (129). Recounting his first extended stay camping alone in the woods as a college student many years ago, Abram describes the texture of partaking in a non-verbal, more-than-human creativity:

“I was thinking, yes, but in shifting shapes and rhythms and dimly colored vectors, thinking with my senses, feeling my way toward insights and understandings that had more the form of feelings blooming in my belly than of statements being spoken within my skull” (112).

In the chapter “Moods”, Abram wants us to realize how deeply our moods or feeling states are embodied and triggered by the weather, exploring torpor, lucidity, stillness, wind and rain. Our moods are not internal things, he says, but rather “passions granted to us by the capricious terrain” (50). Neuroscientists would no doubt have a field day with Abram, vehemently disagreeing with his locating of mind outside the human brain. But Abram speaks from deep experience of directing his attention “toward the odd otherness of things–holding our thoughts open to the unexpected and sometimes unnerving shock of the real” (153). This is hilariously illustrated in Abram’s account of how he once used fear-induced singing to stun a large group of seals into curious submission.

The most compelling part of Becoming Animal is the chapter “Sleight of Hand” where the author recounts his adventures studying with tribal magicians and medicine persons in southeast Asia. Abram, a sleight of hand artist himself while in college, travelled to Asia to study magic but ends up learning about perception–which begins as soon as he encounters powerful teachers for the first time and immediately feels physically ill–only to realize that “I was misinterpreting sensations that simply were very new to my organism” (207). Magic is all about perception, of course, and Abram notices that his teachers–mediators as they are between the human and non-human worlds–are diligent students of other creatures. Magicians and healers study other animals in order to more fully identify with them, bringing their honed powers of empathy to bear on their therapeutic work with other humans.  As Abram observes:

“The more studiously an apprentice magician watches the other creature from a stance of humility, learning to mimic its cries and to dance its various movements, the more thoroughly his nervous system is joined to another set of senses–thereby gaining a kind of stereoscopic access to the works, a keener perception of the biosphere’s manifold depth and dimensionally” (217).

One of Abram’s teachers in Nepal, a man named Sonam, asks him to spend time focusing his visual attention on a rock, as if trying to get inside the rock’s presence. Next, Sonam adds listening to the mix, asking his student “to gather both of my listening ears into that small point in the air where my eyes were focused. What?!? (…) Sonam was simply asking me to concentrate my listening upon the very location where my two eyes were already focused” (242-243). After working with rocks, Abram is asked to focus on a raven perched at a distance–to look right at the raven just below its eyes for an extended period. Then the ante is upped again as Abram is asked to bring his tactile sense to bear on his attention exercises with ravens. Can he try feeling with his body what the bird is feeling?

Where are these exercises going?  Sonam wants his student to grasp a kind of ESP-like interspecies deep kinesthetic empathy. Abram’s break-through happens one day when he watches a raven struggle to move a rock and then feels this straining inside his own body. Remarkable! It’s through these kinds of perceptual exercises with Sonam that Abram realizes “the astonishing malleability of my animal senses” (251). Moreover, each sense is informed by the others and “as we explore the terrain around us, our separate senses flow together in ever-shifting ways” (ibid.). This sets the stage for a frankly awesome descriptive investigation of shapeshifting in which Abram describes witnessing Sinam metamorphose into a raven and then back again into human form.

Abram eventually unpacks how this (probably) happened (237-241). Yet, even with this explanation, the links between the magician’s “kinetic invocations” (239) of the raven and their deep impact on Abram’s recalibrated senses are fascinating to ponder. And Abram, ever attuned to mysteries beyond his comprehension, leaves open the possibility that perhaps his teacher really did turn into a bird. The enduring truth about human perception, he says, “is that our bodies subtly bend themselves to every phenomena they experience (251). The question for all of us is: How far can we take our perceptual bending?

As a musician and someone interested in the phenomenology of making and listening to music, I found  much of interest in Becoming Animal. First, the book is a manual about human perception and how we experience the worlds we inhabit. Perception includes, of course, what we can touch, see, smell, and hear. Perception is “the sensory craft of listening” (289) with our bodies says Abram–listening to our environment closely, to one another, and to “the sonorous qualities of our voice and audible sound-spell of our speaking”(ibid.). As cliché as it may sound, Abram has helped me listen more closely–to the whooshing trees in my neighborhood and even the quiet hum of my computer’s hard drive. Once you read Abram a lot of things seem more alive.

Second, as a manual about perception Becoming Animal is also a treatise on attuned, phenomenological writing. Page after page Abram models a wizardly ability to conjure the life force and energy of whatever it is he’s describing–whether it be a rock, a bird, a person, a feeling, the voluminous depth of a shadow, the stars or sky. This is very fine descriptive writing that reveals and resonates far beyond its subject matter to bring the reader deep into the insides of things and experiences that we didn’t know had an inside. Required reading, I would say, for aspiring ethnographers.

Finally, Becoming Animal dares to cross all kinds of boundaries–including the human/animal, technology/nature, and sacred/secular binaries–in a search of a level of experience common to all animate beings. The implicit guiding question here is: What does it feel like to really be alive to the world in all its complexity? Abram’s writing explores this question by intimately chronicling his own life and bringing us along on an engaging and often trippy ride of discovery and transformation:

“Reality shapeshifts. Underneath our definitions, prior to all our ready explanations, the world disclosed by our bodily senses is a breathing cosmos–tranced, animate, and trickster-struck” (298).

On Matthew Herbert’s One Pig

Several years ago I read an interview with the English experimental electronic musician Matthew Herbert in Tape Op magazine and I remember him going on about the importance of his audio samples. Herbert didn’t want to use just any old sound sample. He wanted to use sounds that had some meaning for him–sounds that had some reason for being in the mix. Herbert then went on to talk about the creative possibilities of using a homemade sample of say, a cardboard cereal box in place of say, a conventional kick drum sound. Reading this I remember thinking: “Why does it matter so much where the sound comes from? Isn’t the main thing just what can be done to transform the sound?  Well yes and no.  For many electronic musicians, finding unique sound sources is an integral part of the compositional process. To make an analogy with cooking, this level of awareness of one’s musical “ingredients” brings to mind chefs who insist on sourcing local produce and livestock to make a tight “farm to table” feedback loop. The argument, whether in music or food, is that it’s good to know the source of what you’re listening to or eating. Right?

Like the great chefs with their carefully sourced ingredients, Herbert cares a lot about the provenance of his sounds. His latest musical project, One Pig, bridges the realms of food and sound by following the 25-month life of a pig on a farm. Herbert recorded sounds from the pig’s life at one- to two-week intervals–including sounds of the animal being butchered and finally, eaten. Then he made music out of the sound samples. This is by no means easy listening music though. Says Herbert: “My motivation was the acknowledge the realities of what it is to eat meat. It’s not about the music so much as it is about the story—the moral and emotional aspects of it as well.”

Here is a video about the making of One Pig:

(Im)Perfect Congruence: On Dancing To Music

There’s a funny and almost disturbing video on YouTube that shows a couple apparently dancing to the angular beats of Autechre. The video is funny and strangely compelling because of its unlikely pairing. On the one hand, the video looks to be from the 1970s or 80s–some kind of European (Greek?) television program featuring a couple demonstrating basic “disco” dance moves. The couple glide in easy unison around the stage, even going into slow-motion at times (1:02), and are eventually joined by a bunch of other dancers near the end of the three-minute clip. The music, on the other hand, is of more recent vintage: specifically, it’s the track “Cfern” from Autechre’s album Confield (2001). So of course, the couple never actually heard Autechre and certainly weren’t dancing to it. Yet somehow the dancing and the music work well together. Who ever thought about assembling such a video?  (Oh the weird intelligences YouTube catches in its net . . .)

The YouTube viewer comments include this one: “movements are perfectly congruent to the music, AE themselves couldn’t dance better to their own stuff. Just psychedelic trance disco.”

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What we’re laughing at, I think, is the same thing as what keeps us watching. First, there’s the odd contrast between the dated video and the cold, digital sounds. Notice too the moving gaze of the camera (focusing on the woman’s face at 2:45 and the man’s feet at 2:56) that makes us feel like voyeurs, the close-ups and the music working to reveal what feels like the inner lives of the dancers. Next, there’s all those smooth synchronies where footwork glides perfectly into marked beats: it looks like so much fun! Finally, but equally important, are the strange ruptures between the dance moves and the music. The ruptures are those spaces where body and sound don’t quite match up–those points where you wonder “How did they come up with that move to this sound?” And this is precisely what gets you thinking about how strangely dance and music mutually reinforce one another: one a visible trajectory in space that requires a soundtrack to add emotion to its narrative, the other a presence heard but always in need of bodily representation.

Sometimes audio-video remixes allow us to glimpse juxtapositions that we wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to experience. And if we let them, pastiche videos like this one spur us to imagine alternative–and yet unrealized–worlds where the collision of music and body sensibilities make for new ways of dancing free and strange.

On Wonderment And Scripts In Electronic Music Making

I always say to myself, what is the most important thing we can think about at this extraordinary moment?”—Buckminster Fuller

There’s a feeling I’m getting used to by now as I make electronic music: a sense of wonderment regarding all the sonic possibilities I’m not exploring at this very (extraordinary) moment. Once upon a time that sense of wonder would stymie me, freezing my progress in the humble here and now with thoughts shaped like question marks circling around the prospect of what could be.

It’s easy for an electronic musician to fall under the spell of what could be. One reason for this is that even the most humdrum of software tools offer a staggering number of  possibilities for shaping sound.  Where shall we go and how will we get there? You’re not limited by your musical-kinesthetic technique as much as your intuitive decision-making skills. In my case, vast worlds seem to open up with a cursory–and sometimes quite accidental–twist of a virtual knob or click on a virtual button. Oh, that sounds cool! (I think to myself) Searching for cool sonics, I spend a lot of time just listening and making little adjustments and gauging their effects. (I don’t remember ever doing enough of this when I was studying music at university–too focused I was on acquiring technique or perhaps learning some piece?) Here I’m reminded of that quote from the composer John Cage about how he never imagined anything before he experienced it.  This has been my experience as well.  As a phenomenologist sitting at the computer, I try this and that until the sensual rightness of something catches my ear and gives me a means by which to imagine.

Moreover, what is in the state of electronic music technology–computers, software, hardware–is constantly evolving, pushing musicians one way or another.  In her article “The De-Scription of Technical Objects”, Madeleine Akrich argues that technical objects have “scripts” or possible “scenarios” inscribed into them by their designers who “attempt to predetermine the settings that users are asked to imagine for a particular piece of technology…” At the same time though, users “may define quite different roles of their own” in their quest for finding new ways of working not intended by the technology’s designers (Shaping Technology/Building Society, MIT Press, 1992, p.208).

So it’s a negotiation between musician and technical object–the “script” of the encounter co-written as it were.

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But back to wonderment. Because the possibilities feel endless, we have to rein wonder in by deliberately limiting our scope, narrowing our focus, paring things down. One strategy that has served me well in my “current” project–begun in 2009!–is to decide on a set of sounds and stick with them and only them. For my project, these sounds include a few not so exotic staples (a sub bass, a bell, a harp, a pad, an organ) plus about six different drum machines (including replicas of Roland TR-808, 606, and CR-78 machines for you gear heads out there). Everything is set up and ready to go so I can work quickly and preserve a sense of play. Also–and this is important–if I can’t find an interesting sound from among these sources . . . then tough luck for me. But I also keep in mind that these sounds are also just a starting point. Indeed, they may well be morphed into new forms later on in the composition/production process.

A second strategy is to build symmetry and cohesiveness into the pieces by moving  parts around from one section to another. It’s a little like the concept of a “common tone” where a note from one chord continues into the following one, acting like a sonic glue. Similarly, a repeating hi hat pattern or a marimba drone can be moved around and used as connective tissue. Of course, the very design of my digital audio software program with its “clips” and “scenes” layout is an example of Akrich’s script that guides my way of working and thinking about musical parts as moveable common tones.

A final strategy I use involves building into each part a sense of directionality: moving from a pattern that is sparse (few notes per measure) to one that is more dense (more notes per measure). In this way, each part develops over the course of its duration (which can be anywhere from 4 to over 100 measures). When several parts of different lengths with different rates of moving from sparseness to density are running simultaneously, the overlapping directionalities can make for interesting listening.

These strategies have served me well.  And I’m always on the lookout for new ones that will focus my work by keeping wonderment about what I’m not doing in check for the moment.