On Negative Achievement: The XX Perform In New York


“The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement.”
– Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose

If you are a fan of musical minimalisms, atmospheric indie rock, and electronic beats, there was a lot to like about the xx’s poised and elegantly understated performance at Hammerstein Ballroom last week. The young Mercury Prize-winning trio from the UK is Romy Madley Croft on electric guitar and vocals, Oliver Sim on bass and vocals, and Jamie Smith on electronic percussion and keyboards. Theirs is a stripped-down, austere and moody sound that relies on just a few echo-y guitar chord progressions, a handful of sliding bass notes and spartan beats to conjure deep feeling. Against this musical backdrop is Croft’s and Sim’s deeply affecting singing–a singing that is only possible with close mic’ing and serious amplification. Many xx songs feature Croft and Sim taking turns singing the lines of the songs which has the effect of making the song sound like voicing shared secret stories between them that we are listening in on. In concert, the quiet singing sounds powerful and intimate and the minimalist musical textures richly transparent.

While Croft and Sim sing and play at the front of the stage, it is percussionist/programmer Smith standing behind them who is most interesting to watch. (I plead guilty here to a percussion bias.) Smith had an array of electronic drum pads and sample/sequencer machines set up at three different stations across the stage. On most songs you could see him doing something I have only recently thought about as a bona fide kind of musical activity: electronic finger drumming. Standing in front of a hardware controller, Smith used his index fingers to slam out sampled kicks, snare drums, hi hats, hand claps, and other percussive shards in real time. On one song he even played steel pan–though I couldn’t see an actual pan. (And does this matter if Smith used real pan mallets and the sound was real enough?) The pleasure of watching Smith was that you could see him truly controlling the percussion parts–playing little fills, leaving silent spaces at the end of phrases, and, most importantly, keeping his own perceptibly imperfect time that didn’t ever sound quantized (save for a few pre-sequenced patterns he would trigger here and there while busy with something else). Thus, even in those moments where a song had a four-on-the-floor kick drum part you could hear Smith’s small imperfections. Smith also had a single crash cymbal set up at one station center stage. On one song, the percussionist’s right hand held a stick to play a ride pattern on the cymbal while his left hand index finger drummed away kick and snare patterns on tiny rubber pads. What a striking contrast between the acoustic and the electronic! But thanks to Hammerstein Ballroom’s powerful amplification, it all gelled together. If Smith’s finger drumming skills weren’t enough, he also played  keyboards here and there. Hats off to his heavy musical lifting.

With the xx, less really is more. The band can extract drama and maintain musical interest from the most seemingly threadbare of materials, and their songs rarely follow popular music’s verse-chorus-bridge conventions. The xx will repeat parts and stay in a place for a while, letting intensity build by other means. It turns out that those threadbare materials–cycling around the notes of a minor triad, say–are anything but. And while I sometimes found myself wanting a little more –a few more strange chords, or maybe some denser rhythmic stuff–the xx make music their way, and theirs is as much about all the things they choose not to do.


“Angels”, the opening song on the xx’s recent album Coexist, is effective for reasons both musical and sonic. Musically, there are just four sound sources: Croft’s voice, electric guitar, electric bass, and drum programming. By the standards of multi-layered contemporary pop, it’s a simple instrumentation, but the music fits together in a powerful way. Each part itself is simple too: the guitar plays a 2-note riff that moves around, plus a few chords; the bass slides over a few notes, first in the upper range, then in the lower; the drum programming eschews pretending to be a conventional kit and alternates between sparse scattershot snare drum rolls and concert bass drum hits; and Croft’s voice rarely gets beyond whispering a melody within the tight confines of the first five notes of a minor scale.

“Angels” is also sonically striking. Each instrument inhabits a distinct space in the mix. The guitar is deeply reverbed to sound distant–distant as if off in a far corner of a cathedral; the bass is in a drier and closer proximity to sound like its amplifier is but a few feet from the mic; the drum programming is surreal: the concert bass drum so huge that it momentarily obliterates the other instruments each time it’s sounded, while the snare drum swims in a long tail reverb yet still sounds closer to us than the guitar; finally, the Croft’s voice has a super close-up and dry sound, as if Croft is whisper-singing with a hoodie on and her mouth an inch from the mic. On the one hand, “Angels” sounds like a realistic recording: like four musicians located at varying locations around a single microphone. On the other hand, the song also presents an impossible listening perspective that places the listener at the center of each sound. “Angels” is a simple song, but its arrangement and its recording give it reams of deep resonance.

On The Rhythms Of Soccer And The Game Of Music

At home my wife and I watch a prodigious amount of English Premiere League soccer–that’s real football to the rest of the non-North American world. In earlier posts on this blog I have written about watching soccer and golf for their ambient sound potentials–the roar of the soccer fans, or the hushed-reverent tones of the golf commentators. But last week it occurred to me that what is truly interesting about soccer is its rhythm. I say this as a former avid player, a present avid viewer, and as an all around rhythm enthusiast.

Soccer creates rhythm in a number of ways. First, it’s a game of constant motion. Sure the ball may occasionally go out-of-bounds and someone will take a throw-in or a team will have a free kick, but for the most part the ball and the players keep moving for two 45-minute halves (which also means zero commercials). Contrast this with American football or baseball where the action happens in fits and starts. The constant motion of soccer–the motion of the rolling ball and the running players–creates a mostly seamless flowing rhythm.

Soccer is also a game of constant syncopation–that is to say, accentuation in unusual places. First, the ball’s motion is one of ever-changing velocities, tempos and angles–rolling on the ground, flying through the air, bouncing off players’ feet and bodies, spinning, and skidding. Not for an instant does the ball stay motionless and its trajectories are always shifting, always new. Similarly, the players keep moving into geometries that form, quickly vanish, and then re-form again, endlessly. At any given moment anywhere on the pitch you see players moving as if in different rhythmic meters, organizing themselves into a complex polyrhythmic dance around the moving ball, their body movements like accents within the collective rhythmic tapestry.

In addition to constant motion and syncopation, soccer offers space. Despite 22 players roaming the pitch, there’s always more empty green space than occupied space. This empty space is analogous to the space between notes in music: a static background against which we focus our attention on the moving players and the moving ball.


But to flip the script for a moment: if soccer has a rhythmic dimension, does music making have game-like attributes? Consider a group of improvising musicians. Their improv takes place within some kind of musical behavioral frame that determines what, stylistically speaking, is fair play and what doesn’t really work. The musical actions of the musicians are analogous to the movements of soccer players on the pitch–collaborating with one another in real-time to achieve a goal. The actions of the musicians are also deeply and singularly focused on making a collective sound. That sound is analogous to the ever-moving soccer ball that is chased around the pitch. Indeed, it’s as if in both improvisational music making and soccer playing it’s the music/ball that leads everyone on their shared adventure of concentration, action, and dynamic interplay. Yet this analogy is not perfect. The goal of soccer is competitive: to score goals! While in music making–which, by the way, can be super competitive as well–the most satisfying moments are often those that don’t need to go anywhere at all. There’s no one keeping score either–just an assemblage of good feeling.

Observations On A Musician Playing Guitar

A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.

 – Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”


1. She’s smiling, enjoying herself and making playing the guitar look easy.

2. She has an audience of one sitting next to her (plus all of us!) making her playing a performance.

3. The music is acoustic, takes place outside, and the instrument doesn’t require electricity.

4. The music has a steady strummed rhythm, a sequence of chords (I-IV-I-V), and a melody that repeats with variations.

5. Look at her left hand technique on the guitar fretboard: her hand moves through a series of gestural shapes that keep the music continually changing in small ways despite its steady strummed rhythm and repeating chord sequence. This makes the performance feel longer than its 2:47 length.

6. Almost as soon as it has begun, the music is finished.