On Composing At 40,000 Feet: Afrojack And The Soaring Economics Of EDM

387895_359420714074731_162475433769261_1719524_626853750_n-655x435

In a recent New Yorker article, Josh Eells describes the economics of the electronic dance music (EDM) scene in Las Vegas. Here, working at gambling resort clubs, marquee-name DJs (Armin van Buuren, Tiesto, David Guetta, Diplo, Deadmau5, Afrojack, and others) are paid mind-boggling sums to perform their sets for big spending and very drunk audiences. Increasingly, it’s this electronic music and not gambling that draws people to Vegas.

Profiling a Dutch DJ-producer named Afrojack (Nick van de Wall), Eells observes him composing on his laptop while in a hotel room and then on a flight from New York to Vegas. Afrojack uses FL Studio software stocked with “two hundred thousand samples, from synthesizer whooshes to snare hits.” Several passage in Eells’ article are striking in how they capture Afrojack’s working process:

“On his screen, the song…appeared as a series of red and green horizontal bars. Zooming in on a segment representing six seconds of bass, he equalized and compressed the sound to get the timbre he wanted…Nearly an hour later, after replaying the six-second chunk hundreds of times, he took off his headphones. ‘Got it,’ he said.”

And later, on the flight to Vegas:

“The plane was forty thousand feet over western Indiana when he decided he wanted to make a new track. He began with a brisk four-four beat and a repeating phrase that sounded like a theme from a video game. He added string flourishes, whistle sounds, and a shrill, buzzy tone that recalled a fax machine. By the time the plane had entered Nebraska airspace, the song was more or less finished.”

A few interesting things about these passages. First, Afrojack, like many EDM musicians, treats composing as a kind of combinatorial game, choosing from among thousands of sound samples and loops to generate new material. His musical labor lies primarily in listening for striking juxtapositions of already performed and recorded sound bits. Second, he uses his software not only as a vast sound archive from which to draw but also as a mixing board that allows him to shape sound just so. In other words, the software enables him to be an engineer and producer as well as composer. Or more to the point: engineering/producing/sound design becomes part and parcel of the composition process.

Afrojack’s composing at 40,000 feet may also be an apt metaphor for the high-flying, soaring quality of the EDM scene in Vegas. Indeed, Eells’ article concludes with Vegas concert promoters and DJs alike wondering if and when the superstar DJ phenomenon may cool off or vanish altogether. Is this oversized, visceral music–a music intended to move its audiences to momentary excess–sustainable? Or do some bright things eventually fade to a lesser glow?

You can read a critique of Eells’ article at Gawker.

Here is Afrojack’s well-known track, “Take Over Control” (ft. Eva Simons). At 1:24-1:38 (among other places), you can hear his trademark “bleepy” sound:

Finally, here is a Dutch documentary about Afrojack. At 8:38-8:55, the DJ demonstrates his “bleepy” sound. “It’s very weird”, he says about the sound, “and that characterizes my style.”

Notes On “Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes For A Fugue”

“A composition comes as a single gesture which is already, in essence, music. (…) The compositional task is to find the appropriate system for the gesture.” – Arvo Pärt in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford U. Press,1997), p.201

In the documentary “Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes For A Fugue” there’s a remarkable seven minute scene (10:30-17:02) in which we see the composer explain his thinking about melody and his perception of musical affect. In the scene, Pärt is giving an informal masterclass for young musicians. He’s seated at a digital piano, his giant hands spread over the keyboard. “I’ll show you the beginning” he says, leaning over the keyboard to find the right preset sound. Then he begins to play “Für Alina” (1976), a brief piano solo considered to be Pärt’s first work in what he calls his minimalist “tintinnabuli” style.

“Listen to this voice” Part says as he very slowly and deliberately plays the right hand part. “Quite neutral.” Then Pärt plays the second, lower part with this left hand. “Also neutral” he says, describing its affect as a single melodic line. “Both together” he continues, combining the two hands. The sound is “a bit more serious or complicated. Like two people whose paths seem to cross, and then they don’t.” Part plays the two parts, listening to their blend. “There is some neutrality here.”

***

What is Pärt referring to when he speaks of “neutrality”? I don’t know. Then the composer changes course. He’s trying to explain to himself and for the students watching him at the keyboard what this piece of music–indeed, what the act of composing music–is fundamentally about. “I’d say that I had a need to…I wouldn’t call it neutrality.” Pärt describes the perceptual focus he’s trying to achieve through his music. As he describes this focus he shifts from one sensory modality to another–from heard sound to seen nature to the perception of time itself:

“A need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.”

“This is actually…It could be like a break on the radio. Such signals sometimes sound as if they lasted an entire life. Or future, or past, outside time. Like I said, a blade of grass has the status of a flower. To see in this tiny phrase, something more than just the black and white key. And further…Hold that note…It’s not the tune that matters so much here. It’s the combination with this triad. It makes such a heart-rending union. The soul yearns to sing it endlessly. Listen…”

To explain how “Für Alina” is more than a matter of its tune, Pärt then compares the design of a composition to the gestures of a conductor which seem to contain the work’s dynamics:

“I imagine the conductor having an upbeat when the whole thing starts. We can’t hear anything yet. And the people in the concert hall don’t know what’s coming. Then the conductor makes the upbeat. The upbeat, the moment when he raises his hand actually contains the formula of the entire work. Its character, dynamics, and plenty of other things.”

For Pärt, the composer is like the conductor in having “knowledge or a perception of what’s coming when the hand goes down.”

He concludes by asking the students where exactly a piece of music begins. Is it the first moment of a sound, or does it start on the upbeat of the conductor’s silent gesture? “What is the first note? And what’s the second one? The first step is everything, decisive. This is a complicated story.”

The students smile.

“I don’t quite understand myself. But I have an idea of what I want to say. I’m always looking for it. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Every time I feel I have to start from scratch.”

To watch the scene, scroll to 10:30 in this video:

From The Archives: Bill Bruford’s “Bruford And The Beat”

“Sometimes faults can be turned to good advantage. A musician is the total not only of his good things but his faults too. And when you can understand your faults and live with them and turn them to creative use, that can be of interest.” – Bill Bruford

The two things that made the drummer Bill Bruford, now retired, so steadily compelling were his touch and his time. Bruford’s playing had a snappy and limber meticulousness about it–his hands in motion looked like praying mantis limbs. And his musical choices always seemed considered, in the moment–as if you could hear him thinking, always thinking about how to best design the passing musical Now. Bruford devised new approaches to drumming conventions: his drumsets were arranged as unique constellations of acoustic (and at times, electronic) percussion instruments, their angles and one-off sounds (a snare, a Roto tom, an Octoban, a slit drum) offering invitations to drum outside the conventional boxes of popular music timekeeping. In interviews, Bruford said that he “imported” his musical roots via a stack of Blue Note jazz records. This may be so, but in his numerous musical collaborations he also consistently went his own third way, finding a space between the swing of jazz and the thump of rock where he could explore pulse.

In the documentary video Bruford and the Beat, we see and hear this thoughtful drummer solo and talk about his musical métier circa 1982. The video opens with Bruford soloing (0:00-1:56). The first thing we notice is that his collection of instruments isn’t homogenous: in addition to a snare and bass drums (one acoustic, one electronic) and no hi-hat cymbals in sight, Bruford has a few electronic drum pads tuned to specific pitches, as well as Octoban tube drums, a Roto tom, and a single-headed gong drum. The second thing we notice is that the solo has a four note melo-rhythmic theme on the electronic drum pads that opens and closes the improvisation. The theme is stated, repeated, and then becomes the basis for flights off onto the other drums. The theme fragments and shape shifts, only to reappear again some time later. The solo, in other words, is a little journey.

Bruford then explains (6:44-8:58) three different approaches to soloing on drums/percussion. The first approach is to solo over a steady pulse. Here, the hands can explore complex and lengthy phrases that “embroider” over a “dance pulse” provided by the foot playing a bass drum. A second approach to soloing is to go free form. Here, the drummer strings together phrases with “no steady metrical pulse.” In other words, there is no rhythmic anchor for this type of playing, just movement among the drum set’s various percussion instruments. A third approach to soloing is to create call and response between the different instruments of the drum set. Bruford likens this “more textural” strategy to setting up “master drummer figures” such as those played by the lead drum in a West African drum ensemble. These figures are “calls” to which the rest of the ensemble drums reply with their “response” patterns. All three of these approaches to soloing–patterns over a steady pulse, free form without steady metrical pulse, and call and response–inform Bruford’s playing in his brief opening performance.

A little later in the video (15:45-18:53), Bruford demonstrates how combining a complex hand pattern on the snare drum with a steady bass drum pulse achieves the best of both rhythmic worlds. He shows how a 17-beat pattern (played with a mallet on the snare drum with snares off) over a steady 4/4 pulse is both interesting and groovy. But it gets better. Bruford next plays the same pattern on a pitched wooden slit drum, and finally, moves his hands between the slit drum and the Roto tom, distributing the 17-beat pattern between two different sound sources. With just a few considered moves of the hands, Bruford has added new dimensions to an already interesting pattern. “It’s liquid” he says, “and yet the accents are sufficiently complex not to feel a sense of repetition.”

In sum, Bruford and The Beat drums home an enduring musical message: approach. An instrument approached in a novel way–touch-wise and time-wise–can yield all manner of compelling sounds, patterns, and urgencies. Think about your approach anew and you may find surprising strategies for making music.

On The Music In Apple’s FaceTime Commercial

“Seeing music as a model could seem cold or trivializing. But the urgencies and the passions of living are among the things that music models: music doesn’t belong to the detached world of mathematical modeling. And there is nothing trivial about the musical enterprise: it is far removed from toy model airplanes or fashion models on runways. Certainly we are not consciously engaged in modeling when involved with music. Nobody turns on the stereo, kicks back and says, ‘Now for a little temporal modeling.’ If music is modeling at all, it is preconscious, participative, processual modeling: not the sort of model you stand back from and consider as you might a model to scale of the Colosseum in Rome. You live it.”
-David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body: A Musical Perspective on the Construction of Time, p.69.

***

A while ago I noticed a particularly affecting commercial for Apple’s iPhone FaceTime, a technology Apple describes as allowing us to “be in two places at once.” What struck me, besides the length of the ad (one-minute ads feel astonishingly long), was its music. After a few listens, it becomes clear that Apple continues to use sound in their branding work in a distinctly Apple way–specifically to convey a sense of wonder and enchantment that their mobile technology makes possible. I have written previously about the musical construction of wonder in Apple Siri commercials, and the sounds in this FaceTime ad are not so different style-wise. This time around, the music is the instrumental piece “Green” composed by Rob Simonsen. Simonsen has written music for other Apple iPhone 5 commercials, and co-wrote the score for the film 500 Days Of Summer with Mychael Danna. (A film filled with many of its own moments of musical wonder. It’s worth a listen.)

What can we say about Simonsen’s music? It’s scored for the familiar sound of the piano–not a grand piano sound, but more like a homey, old upright piano. The music is tonal and consonant, for the most part moving between E and A major triads. There’s some pedal and reverb to add ambiance and sparkle. It has a fast tempo, it’s repetitive with a steady-pulsed anchor pitch, and is fairly simple in its designs; it almost sounds improvised. It’s mostly in the mid and upper range of the piano. Finally, the rhythm has some groove about it: a slight swing lilt, and from the opening measure accentuation on the off-beats. All these qualities work to convey a sense of homespun wonder, clarity, and simplicity that Apple may want us to associate with its technological products. As one YouTube commenter and fan of the music astutely observes, the ad “makes you feel wistful and like you share in the human experience if you have an iPhone.”

There’s also a deeper subtext to this ad: connection. As the music flows along, the ad shows individuals fluidly connecting with one another–reaching out through the techno-mediation of their devices to capture and share a moment through video and audio. Just because we’re separated from one another in time and space doesn’t mean we can’t share a virtual experience of coming together. And what better way to model the feeling and affect of this experience of being “in two places at once”–an actual here and a virtual there–than to use music?