Zadie Smith On Joni Mitchell’s Blue

In her recent essay in the New Yorker, novelist Zadie Smith recounts her listening history with the music of Joni Mitchell–specifically, Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue. Here is the title song from the record:

Smith describes encountering Mitchell’s idiosyncratic and alternate tuning jazzy-folk music for the first time while in college and hating it. But years later she hears the same music on the radio while taking a road trip with her husband. This time, surprisingly, she loves Mitchell’s album and it makes complete sense to her. Smith wonders about this shift in her listening history: “How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur? (…) It’s not even the content of the music that interests me here. It’s the transformation of the listening.”

Smith doesn’t have a clear answer to the questions of how and why her listening changed over time and “the inconsistency of identity, of personality.” But the shift in her musical taste inspires her to muse on how she might have become a different person had she listened to and been a fan of certain records and musics when she was younger: “What kind of person would I be if I knew this album at all…?” And she articulates what makes it difficult for us, as we get older, to get into musics  that are new to us and differ substantially from the sounds with which we grew up: “Shaped by the songs of my childhood, I find it hard to accept the musical ‘new’, or even the ‘new-to-me.'” Then Smith points out a contradiction many of us may share and which may help explain why new music can be hard to metabolize: “For though we recognize discontinuity in our own lives, when it comes to art we are deeply committed to the idea of continuity.”


I have written on this blog previously about some of my listening experiments. Reading Smith, it strikes me that we might learn the most about our musical tastes by deliberately listening to music we don’t like or don’t think we like and making note of that experience. I have been trying this lately as a way of mapping my tastes and to some extent I’ve learned some things. (“This is way too aggressive for me.” Or: “The rhythm isn’t interesting.”) But the listening experimentation can go further than simply making us aware of the songs that shaped our childhood (when we musically came of age) or figuring out what we do and don’t like. My experience so far has me wondering whether or not our tastes are fungible to the point that they can actually be reset. If there were a “super” listener that’s exactly what he or she would be able to do: appreciate everything anew with each listen, finding deep meaning in every idiom, unconstrained by personal listening history. The super listener would hear with ears and sensibilities truly wide open.

On Rhythmic Instabilities And Brand New Feelings: DJ Rashad’s “Feelin””

“The technology’s so on point now: we can sample almost anything now.”
– DJ Spinn

One of the talked about music releases of 2012 is DJ Rashad’s Teklife Vol.1: Welcome to the Chi. Rashad is a Chicago musician who makes music to accompany a dance style known as footwork. Footwork is characterized by its hyper fast foot movements, and footwork dancers often compete against one another in dance battles where they spin gliding moves that resemble tap and hip hop dancing sped way, way up. Footwork music is a sample-based idiom that supports this dancing through its fast and frenetic rhythms.

The first track on Rashad’s Teklife Vol. 1, “Feelin'”, is a case study in how to maintain musical interest through constant rhythmic intensity and instability. The track features crisp and TR-808 drum machine-ish snare, cross stick, and crash cymbal. Along with this percussion is a constantly snaking and wobbling sub bass line/detuned kick drum, a few Rhodes keyboard and wah-wah guitar samples, some horn lines, and snippets of a woman’s voice singing just two lines: “I just had a brand new feeling, yeah/until you came up on me in the night…” Tonally, “Feelin'” oscillates around a single pitch and feels like a pulsing and hyper drone.

Like a lot of footwork tracks, the tempo is fast–160 beats per minute fast. This lets us listeners (and those footwork dancers) feel the music as simultaneously fast and slow. The overriding rhythm of the piece reminds me a lot of a mechanical version of a popular West African bell pattern or timeline that goes like this (bell hits are on the bolded counts):

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2, etc.

But this rhythm is constantly undercut by Rashad’s varying all of the instrumental parts. There is one particularly striking passage from 1:48-2:24 in which the cross stick plays the most cutting of cross-rhythms against the fast 4/4 feel: it sounds like a kind of displaced six-against-four rhythm (six equally spaced cross stick hits in the time of four beats). I love this kind of instability because it keeps my ears engaged. You can still feel the 4/4 grid, but it’s pushed to the background. The vocal samples are also cut up, pitch-shifted, and displaced all over the place–individual words and phrases repeated to make melo-rhythmic lines that dovetail with the music.

As I listened and re-listened to “Feelin'” a number of times, I thought about how different musics invite different kinds of responses from us. For instance, you can’t really daydream to this track–it’s just too intense for that. But you can let yourself enjoy all the syncopations of its angular rhythmic flow. It’s an interesting track to listen first thing in the morning or late at night, if only just to jolt you awake. Actually, I’m doing that right now!

And speaking of jolting ourselves awake, it might be fun to transcribe and learn the changing rhythms for a piece of music like this. In their stuttering and shape-shifting instabilities, machine-made rhythms can sometimes teach us new ways to approach musical time. And this reminds me–jolted awake as I am–of Kodwo Eshun’s description of rhythm itself “as a kind of an abstract machine.”

Here, then, is “Feelin'”:

And here is a short documentary video about the footwork dance and music scene that features some other footwork DJs, including DJ Spinn and Traxman. There’s an interesting bit from 2:45 to 3:26 where Traxman describes his interest in the robotic aspect of German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

On Advice To A Repetition Hater


“Practice, repetition, and repetition of the repeated with ever increasing intensity are its distinctive features for long stretches of the way.”
– Eugen Herrigal, Zen in the Art of Archery

Reduced to its essentials, drumming is fundamentally about repetition.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a drummer. You stand in front of a snare drum (snares off), sticks in hands, poised and ready to play. You raise your right stick about twelve inches above the drum and make a single downwards stroke: waack. Nice. It’s a full and resonant sound and you bask in it for the brief moment of its sharp attack and fast decay. But as a musical event, this single snare drum stroke is cruelly evanescent in that it has disappeared almost as soon as it has sounded. So what do you do?

You strike the drum again of course! But this time you follow your right hand stroke with a left hand one, its mirror image: waack, waack. Using your two hands you have cloned that initial drum stroke, turning one beat into two. Two beats convey more musical sense that does one in that the interval between your right-and left-hand waacks suggests some kind of timing or pulsation. But your left hand following your right was only a one-off occurrence. The whole waack-waack sequence of sound is still quite brief. You want to extend this moment somehow, if only because playing the drum and hearing it sounding is so enjoyable.

You begin striking the drum again and this time you keep your hands moving steady in a right hand-left hand alternation: waack, waack, waack, waack…over and over again. Now something is happening: the repeated waacks suggest a regular pulsation and tempo. They also create their own kind of flow. This feels good. You don’t want to stop playing, for why would you want to destroy your own flow and enjoyment of the drum sound?

So you keep repeating—keeping you hands moving at a steady tempo. As you repeat you notice things that weren’t apparent when you played just a single snare drum waack or two. First, you notice the shape of the sound you’re making. Repetition affords you the opportunity to aurally observe your sound in motion, each waack like a specimen offered for your inspection. Each waack sounds similar, but subtly different too. You notice that your right and left hands don’t make exactly the same sound, and that the waacks change depending on where your sticks land on the drumhead. It’s something to pay attention to simply because it has your attention. Second, as you listen to the drum strokes and the shapes of their resonance, you notice the spaces between the strokes as a kind of negative space created in the brief absence of sound. You never noticed these spaces before, probably because you thought more about the moment of striking the drum. Finally, you notice that the space between your strokes has some relationship to the movement of your hands and arms. Specifically, the spaces align themselves with the upward movement of your hands and arms as they ready the sticks for the next stroke. In a shift of perception, you realize that what you thought was a simple right hand-left hand waack, waack, waack, waack alternation actually has more depth to it and the hand and arm movements required of you to play repeating strokes contain within themselves a way of subdividing the pulsation of your playing. Paying attention to the spaces between the notes and the upward as well the downward movements of your hands you now hear something different: waack (and) waack (and) waack (and) waack (and) . . . Your waacks now feel like a kind of breathing. Through repetition, you are not simply striking the snare drum; you’re keeping time.

Thus, when I speak of drumming as being fundamentally about repetition I mean to say that it only begins to offer its perceptual lessons when we allow ourselves to make a percussive gesture and then repeat it. A single stroke on a snare drum is one thing (and in great hands can be an awesomely beautiful thing). But repeating it, and then repeating that repetition for long stretches allows for an interesting series of transformations in our attention to take place.

On Grateful Sound: Thinking Through “Dark Star”


I have a secret: over the past few weeks while riding the subway with headphones on I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead. And maybe not coincidentally, I haven’t shaved in about two weeks. So as I write this I’m wondering–Are these twin facts somehow related? Do they point to a strange metamorphosis taking place in me through an alchemy of music and listening?


Formed in 1965 in San Francisco, The Grateful Dead was a peculiar kind of rock band that blended blues, folk, psychedelic-rock, bluegrass, jazz, reggae, country, and free improvisation into a trippy whole that sometimes achieved very musical results. Though they sold some 30 million albums over their 30-year career, what they really liked to do was play live, and in that regard the band seemed to have singlehandedly initiated the “jam band” scene.

I was never a Grateful Dead fan and my lack of fandom, is, I guess, altogether unfair since I never even once listened to the group’s music while growing up. Maybe I was a dormant fan who just didn’t know it yet, but I had a sense that their social-sonic world was something you had to be a believer in to truly appreciate; the music didn’t enculturate you, you had to join its cause–such followers of the group are called Deadhead, by the way–almost with a pre-knowledge of what its makers and its scene were all about. Also, Deadheads seemed to hang with other Deadheads and I didn’t know any in the first place. All this to say that for one reason or another the Grateful Dead never entered my musical orbit.

I began thinking about and listening to the Dead recently after reading a very fine article about them by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker. Without being sentimental, the article traces and celebrates the author’s own fandom as he recalls his first experience seeing the Dead perform, describes trading and scrutinizing fan bootleg recordings (or audience tapes) with friends, and hangs out with an archivist who is in charge of the Dead’s vast recorded legacy. Along the way, Paumgarten unpacks the sound and structures of the Dead’s music and explains how, for its devoted fans at least, it has had such enduring appeal. The article raises a question: How does a music become resilient to time’s passing? In the case of the Grateful Dead, their music has lived on mainly through a vast number of live recordings.

Even though I didn’t listen to the Dead, I had long heard that their recordings really don’t do justice to the band anyway; their music was all about a magic conjured in performance. You just had to be there. The Dead had lots of songs to draw on, but what they were famous for was improvising new versions of their material at every concert. Ironically enough, as Paumgarten points out, this group that apparently could only be understood through its performances is best known today for its astonishingly large archive of recorded music which is stored in a climate controlled vault in California. Indeed, having played over 2,300 concerts between 1965 and 1995 “the Dead have more recorded music in circulation than any performing group in history” and there are more than 8,000 Dead recordings on alone. Many of these recordings are audience tapes–the work of fans who meticulously recorded Dead shows. (The Dead encouraged audience taping as a way to spread the good word.) This “immense body of work”, notes Paumgarten, “invites and sustains obsession, and its variability is in some respects the draw.” Obsessive listening invites new perspectives too. Reflecting on his getting to know the musical details of particular recordings of Dead concerts, Paumgarten says that “the music, on repetition, began to feel like something composed, rather than improvised. It took on a life of its own…”

Another irony of the Dead is that it played a “ragged, improvisational amalgam of old-timey American music” amplified through a most sophisticated sound system known as the Wall Of Sound: 600 speakers with an output of over 25,000 watts. Thus, between its thousands of recordings and its famed sound system, the Dead is as good a locus as any for thinking through the story of technology’s impact on our consumption of music over the last fifty years. Even though they looked like hippies, they were postmoderns who were all about the improvised remix–or what Kevin Kelly calls “recombinant” culture–years before this became a guiding idea of contemporary music.


One of the Grateful Dead’s most famous songs–or platform for acoustic recombinant remixing/improvisation–is “Darkstar.” Released in 1968, the song eventually became the Dead’s most anticipated and hallowed live numbers. There was an aura about this song that fans simply referred to as “It”–perhaps due to the fact that Dead stopped playing the piece for many years and then, in the late 1970s, suddenly resumed playing it again. Structurally, “Dark Star” is, as Paumgarten accurately dissects it, just “a modal vamp based on the A mixolydian scale, with two short verses and no bridge.” The original studio recording of the song clocks in under three minutes. But like the “head” of a jazz tune, the brief song is just a skeleton for the group’s variations. Thus, various live versions of “Dark Star” range anywhere from 11 to 48 minutes (!) If nothing else, “Dark Star” demonstrates a kind of musical minimalism–or a maximal use of minimal materials.

I’ve spent some time listening to two versions of “Dark Star” on Spotify and YouTube. On Spotify I found a 20-minute recording from the 1972 Bickershaw festival in the UK; and on YouTube I found a 10-minute video of a show in Oregon from that same year. On both versions you can hear endlessly melodic bass wandering and rhythm guitar comping, bits on twinkling piano, tumbling and syncopated drumming, and at times soaring lead guitar. Only on the Bickershaw version does the group’s lead singer and guitarist, Jerry Garcia, get around to actually singing those verses!

Listening to this piece and watching the video I find the music has an interesting sense of active stasis that appeals to me. This stasis is perhaps mostly a function of the guitars and bass staying in that A mixolydian mode. (Detractors might call this kind of thing modal “noodling.”) Also, the medium slow tempo (about 70 bpm) remains constant and its languid pace contributes to the feeling that no one–neither the band nor its thousands of fans swaying out in the Oregon fields beyond the stage–is in any big hurry to go anywhere soon. While a lot of popular music has a goal-oriented teleology–verses bring us inexorably towards the choruses, and so on–“Dark Star” is definitely a different, more patient animal. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s so famous?

To their credit, the musicians manage to keep things fairly (though not always) interesting by constantly varying their parts. Most obvious is Garcia’s endless lead guitar soloing. But listen also to the bass which often stays in an unusually high register, almost dovetailing with Garcia’s guitar. (This is contrary to the bass guitar’s customary role of playing mostly low-pitched notes and thus build a solid “foundation” for the song.) Similarly, the rhythm guitar keeps changing its jazz comping-like riffs, and the drummer Bill Kreutzmann never ever plays any kind of steady back beat on beats 2 and 4; instead, he plays a kind of swinging rhythm. In sum, this kind of group level improvisation is almost jazz-like: it has a constant pulse, it swings, and remains resolutely modal.

Listening to different performances of “Dark Star” I heard a number of beautiful if brief moments of group synchrony and groovy musical thinking. In the clip below, you can hear such a moment from 5:59-6:35. For a mere half-minute, a deep space opens up. Maybe that’s because the bass guitar finally stays still for a moment and lets some nice low A notes ring long. Or maybe the reason is something else altogether. Whatever it is, it’s worth listening to.

Bill Murray On (Groovy) Vibrations


In a recent New York Times interview, the actor Bill Murray discusses the importance of having a sense of spontaneity, improvisation, and connection with others. He observes that being playful not only puts both himself and others at ease–it also gets everyone into a deeper kind of sync:

“It pays off in your life when you’re in an elevator and people are uncomfortable. You can just say, ‘That’s a beautiful scarf.’ It’s just thinking about making someone else feel comfortable. You don’t worry about yourself, because we’re vibrating together. If I can make yours just a little bit groovier, it’ll affect me. It comes back, somehow.”

On Re-Composition: Max Richter Meets Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

The German-English composer Max Richter had a cool idea: re-write the score to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Not a remix exactly, but rather a getting inside the piece and messing around with its materials. Richter calls the process “re-composition” and his piece is called Recomposed.

The Italian composer, violinist, and priest Antonio Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons in 1723. The piece is a set of concertos for solo violin, string quartet, and basso continuo instrument. There are four movements in all and each is intended to reflect its respective namesake season (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter). With its sense of order, its emotionality, its often upbeat feel and urgent lean, The Four Seasons is possibly the best known and loved piece of Baroque music ever. Here is the piece, parts of which you have probably heard before, somewhere or other:

Richter chose Vivaldi’s warhorse as a starting point for Recomposed, which is essentially a new version of an old piece. Why The Four Seasons? For one thing, it’s a beloved work of music that even the most casual music listener knows–or doesn’t even realize she knows! For another thing, perhaps the music has something very modern about it in its ordered and repeating melodies and its insistent, chugging-along rhythms. This stylistic quality resonated with Richter’s post-minimalism sensibility. As he observes in a video about his re-composing Vivaldi’s work:

“The Vivaldi is a kind of pattern-based music. And it almost reminds me a little bit of systems music–kind of minimal music from the 60s and 70s. And that kind of locks into the kind of thing I do anyway (…) I’ve looked at [The Four Seasons] from my perspective–which is the perspective of someone who’s heard minimal music, electronics, who’s heard post-rock. So I brought me in 2012 to that piece.”

To re-write Vivaldi’s music, Richter describes his process as working “with the alchemy of the material itself.” Sitting down at the piano with the Seasons score, Richter went through it and chose his “favorite bits and kind of turning those up, and making new objects out of those.”

The result is a new renovated species of Seasons. Some sections sound a lot like Vivaldi’s, while others sound like they’ve been chopped up and put into a sampler, with little bits repeating more insistently as if someone put them on Loop Mode. Richter also adds new bass pedal tones which gives the music an almost pop music hue. As a YouTube commenter named sigoog notes, the re-composed Vivaldi has an emotional “cinematic sense.”

This gets at an interesting effect of Richter’s Recomposed: It’s like putting the sonic gestures and codes of classical music in a display case where we can study their effects from different angles. At root, Recomposed is a kind of dissection of a past musical style through the prism of the present.

Here are my two favorite sections, Spring 1 and Winter 3

And here is a video on the making of Recomposed: