On Michael Jackson’s Vocal Artistry

A real audio gem recently appeared via a blog devoted to Michael Jackson. The gem I’m referring to is a clip of Jackson singing one of his biggest hits, “Beat It.” But it’s not the finished song we all know. It’s a demo of Jackson’s ideas for the yet-to-be song. It sounds like he’s in the studio, demonstrating the harmonies for the vocal parts. As the tumblr author reminds us, Jackson “would sing and beatbox out how he wanted his songs to sound by himself on tape, layering the vocals, harmonies and rhythm before having instrumentalists come in to complete the songs.”

What is wonderful, in my opinion, about the recording is how it shows us the roots of the song. Not surprisingly, it’s not very different from the finished version. Even as an a Cappella, everything here is intact–actually, more than intact. Jackson’s performance is crystalline: melodies perfectly in tune, the parts already set, the groove sitting just right.

You can listen to the demo here.


On Endless Vibrations: Locating Soca Music

Lots of people recently returned from Trinidad and Tobago Carnival thoroughly energized from the parties, dancing, and most of all, the powerfully loud and beat-driven soca music. If you’ve never hear this music up close, blasting from the slow-moving soundsystem trucks that crawl their way through the streets of Port Of Spain, it’s quite an overwhelmingly immersive experience. There’s nothing like it: the sound is so mightily, crushingly loud it not only goes through you–it compresses air itself, making you feel light. Talk about presence! Though it doesn’t capture the volume of the experience, here’s some footage that shows one of the trucks:


Developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, soca is a fusion of musical styles, initially building on its predecessor, calypso music. Calypso’s biggest star was Lord Kitchener (1922-2000). One of his early hits from the late 1960s was “Take You Meat Out Me Rice”:

Soca also incorporated elements and instruments from Indo-Caribbean chutney music. The singer Dropati is considered the founder of modern chutney. Her 1968 song “Gowri Puja” has an upbeat tempo and features the sound and rhythms of South Asian percussion instruments (e.g. dholak drum) that articulate an offbeat feel similar to the groove of modern soca:

Early 1970s soca classics include songs by Lord Shorty/Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman 1941-2000), such as “Endless Vibrations”

and “Sweet Music” (which has some nice bass synthesizer work on it too!)


In 2014, the sound of soca has some things in common with that panoply of styles that is referred to today as electronic dance music (EDM). First, its textures are almost entirely synthesized/electronic. (Even the singing voices are heavily processed.) Second, both soca and EDM have a driving, four-on-the-floor kick drum pulse that anchor the songs and direct the dancing listeners. Soca adds an offbeat snare drum syncopation pattern (on the fourth 16th note subdivision of beat one, and the third 16th of beat two) that gives the music its distinctive lilt and forward propulsion. Even though all soca beats are programmed, they can, of course, be played on real drums. This instructional video demonstrates how to do it:


In the songs played at Trinidad and Tobago Carnival 2014, we hear various blends of the soca and EDM soundworlds. A good place to begin is Farmer Nappy’s “Big People Party.” In the context of other recent songs, it’s somewhat old-fashioned sounding, complete with a horn section (song begins at 1:20):

Bunji Garlin’s “Carnival Tabanca” is a slightly downtempo tune that substitutes hand claps for the 4/4 kick drum. In this song, one kick pattern plays every second beat, while a second, deeper-pitched one plays every eighth beat, giving the song a multilayered, smooth feel:

Kerwin Du Bois’s “Too Real” features a keyboard playing the off-beat pattern usually played by soca snare drum:

And finally, there’s the ever-present singer-producer-songwriter Machel Montano, Trinidad’s most famous soca artist. Like Du Bois’s “Too Real,” “H.M.A. (Happiest Man Alive)” features a keyboard part that does heavy syncopation work:

The song “Sound Bang” is one of Montano’s many collaborations, this one a duet with Major Lazer, an electronic music project of American DJ Diplo. Meticulously constructed, “Sound Bang” features an infectious half-time ukulele-like refrain that bookends intense 4/4 kick sections. In this piece you can also hear dramatic DJ-esque filter sweeps and snare drum blurr-rolls that demarcate the different sections of the song. The tempo is fast, fast, fast, perhaps pointing towards soca’s ever-intensifying future trajectories:


On A Repeating Less Is More: Beck’s “Wave”

“He’s found the right sound for his disposition and he resonates like crazy with that sound.” – Ben Ratliff (The New York Times)

“In ‘Wave,’ the angst pours out like a mantra. – Jody Rosen (vulture.com)

“‘Wave,’ for instance, is a floating impressionistic orchestral dirge, Beck letting the strings surrounding his voice lift it up and toss it around, never letting drums or guitar pierce the reverie.” – Tom Breihan (stereogum.com)

“Wave consists of an awesome ebbing, flowing combination of authority-figure strings and saturated Beck vocals that could easily harsh the mellow of anyone in a fragile state.” – Kitty Empire (The Guardian)

Beck’s song “Wave” is a piece of music that creates reams of affect out of minimal materials: strings, voice, and reverb resonance. Playing long and slow notes, the strings outline an A minor melodic tonality, full of open 5ths, and keeps our ears oscillating in ambiguity as to whether or not e or b is the tonality’s tonic. Beck’s voice floats above in a halo of reverb, tracing drawn out, chant-like melodies.

The song’s lyrics can be read as being about the physical and social affect of music itself. Verse 1 describes something, a presence–the “I” of music?–that takes “the form of a disturbance” and engages us “like some tiny distortion.” Verse 2 describes the feeling of experiencing this presence’s effects. If only we “surrender” to these effects, we’ll get “carried away”–as if music, literally and metaphorically, is a wave. Then, for the one-off refrain that concludes the song, Beck repeats the word “wave” twice in falsetto (on ascending notes d and e) followed by the word “isolation” four times (on descending notes b, a, and g). But as he repeats the phrase he stretches out the first syllable “I” so that it separates from “isolation” and returns to the “I” that represents music in the lyrics. It’s as if the vocal sound has become a longing to express–as if the words are saying one thing but meaning another:


On Mouse On The Keys’ “Aom”


“The concept was: ‘Utilizing elements of modern French music represented by composers such as Debussy and Ravel, along with the hardcore music of the ’80s and ’90s (…) and mixing them in a style reminiscent of Detroit techno.” – Akira Kawasaki

I recently came across some music that reminds me of what it might sound like if pianists from Steve Reich’s ensemble had quit and formed an aggressive yet melodic band with just keys and drums. Mouse On The Keys, from Japan, is a trio of drummer/keyboardist Akira Kawasaki, keyboardist Daisuke Niitome, and keyboardist Atsushi Kiyota. On the tracks on their recording Machinic Phylum, they make a syncopated instrumental music that’s been described by one critic as a blend of “minimalist classical music with hard-hitting rock” (Hashim Bharoocha, redbullmusicacademy.com) and by one YouTube viewer as “an insane instrumental band.” The band’s sound has a vigorous, expansive quality to it, exploring unusual meters beyond 4/4 and jazz-inflected chord changes played with muscle.

The recording’s first track, “Aom,” is fiery, refusing to settle into a predictable groove–it keeps shifting as the two pianos and drums interlock and play in one another’s off-beats, maintaining a constant sense of tension. But the manic funk is just part of the group’s equation. From 1:53-2:45 the piece takes flight on a six beat feel, the piano chords modulating to ever further keys. When the piece returns to its opening section, the concept Kawasaki described–a style that would blend hardcore punk, French piano music, and Detroit techno–sounds about right.

You can read an interview with Kawasaki here.

Sound Artifacts Or Buried Treasure?

SingingBowlMusic cover

A few months ago Alain and I were talking about my bowl music project. Alain, a sound engineer with keen ears, was mastering the tracks, taking out some of the noise on my original recording (e.g. the sound of scraping a wooden dowel on bowl rim, room noise). He had noticed something.

“You know those little sparkly metallic sounds you thought were artifacts of my noise reduction?” he said to me. “They’re not artifacts. They’re built into the bowls themselves. They’re buried treasure.”

(Listen for sparkly metallic sounds at 2:20-2:30, among other places.)

On Editing Lessons: Pruning, Voice, And Style In Writing


As I was editing a piece of writing I discovered a number of words that kept popping up and watering down the work. So I took note of the words–words that had become habitual and distracting ticks, and unnecessary connective tissue–and pruned them out. Here’s some notes on what I found:

“just, but/yet, almost, so, most, really, pretty, quite, certainly, actually, of course, you/your/you’re (instead of I), in fact, since/because, using a dash (—), is becoming, stating things in the negative instead of the positive… ”

First prize goes to the word “just.”
Just sayin’.


I also noticed something else–something more subtle and knowable maybe only to me and so potentially more pernicious. Sometimes I used words or short phrases that I had read somewhere before (often quite some time ago) but weren’t appropriate to the new context in which I was using them. Reading them, the words or phrases didn’t ring true as something I would actually say here and now. Maybe the problem is that I simply haven’t used them enough yet or finally forgotten where I first encountered them. Whatever the case, they draw attention to themselves. My writing could proceed without this associative baggage only once I had found another way to say the same thing, this time in what felt more like my own voice.


Which brings me to voice and style in writing. Is our voice a sounding out using the language with which we feel most comfortable, the language that feels most authentically us? And can voice be altered? Refined? Can we convincingly bypass our voice and channel the voices of others? (A question I have explored through my Ventrilo-Dialogues.) Or is our voice preset, a way of sounding deeply ingrained in us, a physical thing? And from voice it’s but a short distance to style. As I pruned unnecessary words and flagged bits that didn’t sound like me, I thought: style must be what can’t be dodged, what remains when the work has been reduced down to its essentials.