Notes On A Talk By Robert Fripp

On a whim
I searched Spotify
for music by Robert Fripp
but found none.

there was a recording of him speaking to a crowd
about various musical things.

And it was good.

“Music never goes away” he said,
“It’s always available,
but we are not always
available to music.”

And when pushed
to say where music comes from,
to say something about its source,
he just said, resoundingly:

“Music comes from love.”

Some Observations On Atoms For Peace’s “Unless”


Thom Yorke’s musical project, Atoms For Peace, brought together a number of fine musicians to jam out and record rhythmically propulsive grooves which Yorke and the producer Nigel Godrich then edited together. The result, AMOK, is a lean, hybrid acoustic-electronic work that has been described in The Guardian as “surprisingly accessible for one so extensively jammed then spliced together by machines. The sound design is immaculate; the grooves palpable.” I have to agree with this assessment, and here are some further observations:

1. It uses just a few sounds: Yorke’s plaintive voice, an analog-sounding bassline and few keyboard chords harmonizing it (at the interval of a 10th), programmed kick drum, cross stick, and hi hat. Further along in the song we also hear an electric bass and guitar and a few additional electronic percussive sounds and effects here and there. All of the sounds–including Yorke’s voice–have a dry, reverb-free an up-close proximity to them.

2. The bassline and keyboard outline a six-measure progression in C minor that repeats. But because the progression begins on and keeps returning to G (the fifth degree of the scale), it has a perpetual sense of unresolvedness and thus musical tension. The harmonies from this cyclic progression remind me of the music of Arvo Part. Also, against the underlying 4/4 meter of the song, the progression’s six-measure length is pleasingly un-obvious; six-measure phrases are not the norm in popular music.

3. The tempo is a fast and energized 130BPM. The rhythmic feel is syncopated–the cross stick hits are always on the “and” of beats two and four. The feel of this beat reminds me of another track I recently wrote about: DJ Rashad’s “Feelin’, particularly the quickfire 123-123-12 kick drum pattern.

4. Yorke’s voice isn’t privileged in the mix; it’s about the same volume as the other sounds. This has the effect of making the words he sings just another part of the affective sense of the music.

5. The music doesn’t have a verse-chorus-bridge structure found in so much pop. There are no harmonic modulations, only subtle shifts. For instance, at 1:28 the keyboards become momentarily angular and syncopated, highlighting a three feel over the 4/4 meter; at 2:26 (on the album version, not on the YouTube clip below) the electric bass enters and Yorke’s vocals are multiplied as background parts are panned hard left and right. Subtle shifts like that.

6. The piece is concise, moving through its different moments swiftly and ending once it has made its musical point.

On Musical Invention, Sound And Process: “Bladelores” From Autechre’s Exai


No one is quite sure how the UK duo Autechre make their electronic music. Sure, they use software and computers, they program, they use hardware synths and drum machines and samplers, they improvise, they code, they make beats, they tweak, but we really don’t know how they work. Not only is the group’s musical sum is more than its technical parts–we don’t know what those parts are. The Autechre sound is difficult and opaque, yet also endlessly surprising and engaging and at times emotionally moving too. Critics have called the duo “top-notch sonic magpies and brilliant technicians” (Grayson Currin writing at whose music “always implied a kind of future music–as in, a sound that points to a possible futuristic norm” (Charlie Frame writing at However you want to describe the group or their sound, Autechre have a clarity and concision about them.

For me, the most significant attributes of Autechre’s music are its rhythmic invention, its timbres, and its sense of process or change through time. The group’s best moments are those that are continually shape-shifting rhythmically or timbrally into ever new forms. This is what makes the music thoughtful, probing, and utterly unlike so much 4/4 thumping electronic dance music. Autechre may have grown up among the conventions and grooves of techno and hip hop, but they’ve long since left those stylistic orbits in the pursuit of more experimental designs that still manage to pulsate and groove in a physically alive kind of way.

The twelve-minute track “Bladelores” from Autechre’s recent recording Exai demonstrates a sense of musical process, and a bird’s-eye of the piece gives us a sense of its structure. On its surface, “Bladelores” is accessible because it begins has funky muted kick drum and a simple white noise backbeat on 2 and 4 that is drenched in reverb and joined by a repeating acidic bassline. It’s almost like a slow hip hop groove. At 1:00 a pulsating harmonic thing joins the mix, blending in with the long reverb tail triggered by the white noise backbeat. At 2:16 the pulsating thing becomes louder, accentuating the offbeats. The groove feels good. Meanwhile, what seemed to have been a reverb tail has morphed into a kind of chordal wash that is growing steadily. By about 3:15 you notice the chordal wash is in fact two chords that are alternating and repeating, and by 4:00 you notice the backbeat is fraying and coming apart a bit and the bassline becoming squelchy. Around 4:55 the chords and backbeat cut out, leaving just the brittle bassline. Soon though–from 5:11 to 5:37–the chords surge to the foreground again for a moment, even hitting a kind of resolution, only to be cut out at 5:38 where the backbeat, the reverb tail, and bassline return, reset and slightly altered. The chordal wash joins in again around 6:35 and for the next two and half minutes grows in intensity as the percussion and bassline keep fluttering about. The reverb from the outset of the track has been transferred to the chords, making their resonance grow to gargantuan proportions. At 9:00 the backbeat abruptly stops, leaving the bassline to slowly dissolve into the resonant chords that continue to thicken until they hit a resounding wall of harmonic sound at 11:00 and then gradually fade out for the end of the piece. As with a number of fine Autechre tracks, you didn’t expect this one to turn out like this. It just seemed to somehow evolve.

This is the rough structure of “Bladelores.” But I’ve left out the details, and these details manifest themselves as changes that happen to the music in a continuous flow. If you listen to any one-minute section of the track and focus on a single sound–the backbeat, the bassline, the chords–you can hear micro changes inflicting themselves continuously on each part, second by second. So that white noise back beat is almost never only a marking of beats 2 and 4, nor is that bassline merely marking a chord progression. Upon closer inspection, the parts keep changing rhythmically and/or timbrally and this change is the basis of the processual aspect of the music as a whole. This processual aspect of the music reminds me of what the musicologist David Burrows notes in his article “A Dynamical Systems Perspective on Music”: music creates for us “a now whose content changes ceaselessly” (The Journal of Musicology Vol. 15, No. 4: 1997:529). In sum, Autechre’s music doesn’t just move from one section to another–it doesn’t have seams like that. What it does do is shape-shift over time, and this makes for a challenging and enchanting listening experience.

Here is “Bladelores”:

You can read more about Autechre here and watch a Ventrilo-Dialogue with them here.

On The Strange Poetics Of Spam


For some reason, lately my blog inbox has been inundated with spam. (I’ve written previously about spam here.) My irritation swiftly turned to anger at the sheer automated idiocy of it. Where is all this stuff, all this fake human fakery coming from? How is it generated and who is profiting from it? And I do mean inundated: the spam was arriving at a rate of about one piece every seven minutes.

Then, as I was deleting the spam (and changing the security settings on my blog), the strange poetry of it began to make me smile. Here is the latest bit, two separate pieces from the same annoying source whose sense is more apparent when arranged into stanzas. The first:

I have just been looking
for information
approximately on this topic
for a long time

Yours is the best
I have come upon
so far.

concerning the bottom line:
Are you positive
concerning the source?

(To answer: No, I’m never positive concerning the bottom line of my posts or their sources. But thanks for asking though!)

Here is the second bit of spam:

It is an appropriate time
to make a few plans
for the longer term
and it is time to be happy.

I’ve read this post
and if I may
just desire to suggest
you a few fascinating things
or advice.

Perhaps you can write
subsequent articles
referring to this.

I desire to read
more things,

On Portlandia’s Music-Cultural Critiques


The sketch comedy series Portlandia, starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and now in its third season, humorously riffs on social life in Portland, Oregon. The show skewers–or is it homage?–a range of Portlander-types, from self-employed creatives to self-absorbed nouveau yuppies to touchy-feely uber-alternative characters almost beyond precise description. Portlandia excels at noticing the many small details that help define a social scene–how people dress, how they talk and interact with one another, and what they value. Since both Armisen and Brownstein are musicians (Armison was a drummer before he became an actor and Brownstein was a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney before forming her current band, Wild Flag) it comes as so surprise that music is a frequent feature of the show. In its music-themed sketches, Portlandia illustrates just how powerful music is to our sense of self and community. Below are three examples.

In a sketch called “The Studio”, Fred plays an amateur home recording enthusiast and gearhead who invites his friend Lance over to his house to check out all of his specialized gear. Fred’s character is obsessed with vintage equipment, and shows Lance his keyboards, amps, microphones, and drum set. With a perpetually wide-eyed and spaced out look, he keeps referencing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as a kind of pinnacle example of studio-recorded music and hopes that one day someone will actually come visit his basement set-up to record.

In the “Wanna Come To My DJ Night?” sketch, Fred and Carrie realize, to their growing horror, that everyone around them has become a DJ. What is happening to the world?

In the “One Party At A Time” sketch, Fred and Carrie play unemployed millennials who attempt to make sense of their post-college lives and channel their vague political aspirations through meaningful music. “I feel like we need to mobilize. Like in the 60s there was Woodstock…people rallied around something. There was a protest song” says Carrie. A robot “Bot Dylan” suddenly appears to pitch a millennial protest song whose hook is “change the world one party at a time.” The song is catchy and its 4/4 electronic dance music thump transports Fred and Carrie’s characters and those around them to the club, brainwashing them into forgetting what they were protesting in the first place.

Even sketches that have nothing to do with music can have a musical quality. In the “Knot Store” sketch, the singular Jeff Goldblum plays an eccentric proprietor of a store that sells knots of string. The “music” in this sketch is 100 percent Goldblum’s voice itself. Listen to how he makes every utterance different in intonation and cadence, continuously changing up his delivery. Listen to his introduction (“My name is…Alan”) that slows, pauses, and dives to a low pitch on his name; listen to him answer Carrie’s questions about whether knots are a utilitarian or an aesthetic thing with parallel quick staccato replies (“nope…yep…”) followed by a deep and affirmative “yeah….” that swirls over several pitches; and listen to his sound effects too, as when he rolls his tongue at the end of a sentence that explains tangled iPod earbuds as a kind of sculpture (“An artist we work with makes these by jamming them into his pocket…rrrrr“). I’ve watched this sketch a dozen times. Oh so very musical!