On A Note That Just Won’t Quit: A Great Big World’s “Say Something”

Every so often I peruse Spotify’s various listening lists to see what musics folks around the world are streaming onto their devices. This time around I clicked on Spotify’s “Global Hits.” Along with some usual suspects–Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (which will undoubtedly become as enduring as “Happy Birthday”), songs by Katy Perry, Coldplay and Shakira, and thumping EDM by DJ Avicii–I found a song called “Say Something” by the band A Great Big World. I had never heard of this band, but then rarely do I usually listen to this kind of music. Music with vocals, that is.

There was a quality of repetition in the song that got my attention. Specifically, a single repeated high D note on the piano that continues as the song cycles through its i-vi-iii-VII chord progression in b minor. No matter what the chord or the details of the arrangement at each moment, that high D note persists. Interesting.

Lyrically, “Say Something” is all about giving up on someone, calling it quits, throwing in the towel. But I wonder if that insistent D in the piano suggests something else? Maybe it’s a representation of the singer’s stubbornness–a hope that things may work out after all, or something like that. Wondering about the signification of such small details is one of the joys of music as its designs and sounds invite us to map meanings onto whatever it is that we happen to notice.

On The Nature Of Blogs V: Reflections On Stability And Instability

A friend recently pointed out the use of the word “destabilize” in one of my Ventrilo-Dialogues. Here’s the video:

He liked the idea of “destabilizing the notion of authorship” enough that he mentioned it to me several times. That got me thinking. And since it was me who wrote those words in the first place (that’s how Ventrilo-Dialogues work, after all), I considered again this idea of destabilization.

In our everyday experience we try to avoid destabilizing things and pursue instead some degree of constant stability. This extends to the people and things dear to us: whether we’re talking about our relationships or our machines, we want them to work consistently, we want them to be reliable, we want them to endure for a long, long time. But we also seek change and novelty, because too much stability can feel like stasis. In other words, sometimes instability is good. To make an analogy from sports training (with musical overtones): long and steady gets you in a groove, but great benefits can accrue from short bursts of more intense activity that intentionally destabilizes the system. 

When I mentioned in my Ventrilo-Dialogue their potential to destabilize the notion of authorship, I was referring to the idea of assigning voice to people, things, and even concepts without their permission in order to shake things up–to see where the ventriloquized ideas might take me. Thinking about it now, I wonder if an unstated goal of this blog has been to write about music, sound, and culture in pursuit of destabilizing ideas. I want to dismantle and unpack things as well as my own assumptions, habits, and even likes and dislikes. I want to shake things up. 

I’m not sure how far I’ve actually traveled down this destabilizing road though. For me, the ventrilo-dialogues, quirky as they are, maybe go some distance, at least as experiments, as do a few other posts (such as one that explores music listening habit loops vis-a-vis country music, one that explores composing Another Kind Of Wonder, one that interviews a friend about Jamaican Nyabinghi music, and maybe a few others). But ironically, one obstacle may be the fact that I tend to write about what I like or about what gets me thinking. This is good, but maybe not intrinsically destabilizing. Maybe I haven’t gone deep enough to find the destabilizing bits? Maybe I’m just not innately critical, not the critiquing type? Or is this questioning itself the beginning of future critical, destabilizing moves?

Anyway, as one of my teachers once said, this isn’t a criticism, just an observation. But still: Is blogging an art project or a critical writing project, or both? Or more precisely: is it an art project disguised as a writing project, or a writing project disguised as an art project?

Literary Distillation: Notes On Bruce Weber’s “Life Is A Wheel”



Among the many lessons offered in Bruce Weber’s Life Is A Wheel, a flowing and meditative memoir about bicycling across the United States, are two delightful insights about the nature of thinking and progress. Riding all those miles each day, Weber has lots of time and space to think his thoughts (and then write about them in the evenings afterwards). Yet his rides are filled with the minutiae of attending to his body, his bike, and the road:

“People often ask me what I think about on a long bike ride, as if all I have to do while tootling along is to meditate on grand themes, and as if part of the challenge is filling empty hours with fruitful cogitation. I tell them I think about the bike ride” (24).

And of course, with each revolution of the bike’s wheels, with each mile of the ride covered, Weber achieves real–tangible, measurable–progress. And herein lies a second lesson:

“When you move forward, even slowly, things change; when you stand still, they don’t” (109).

David Hockney On Perspective

I’ve been reading more Lawrence Weschler lately, this time his engaging study of the painter David Hockney, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney (University of California Press, 2009). I first encountered Hockney’s work in the mid-1990s at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit was a show of Hockney’s English countryside landscapes. They seemed simple on their surface, but there was something going on in them with regards to perspective: the works seemed to capture multiple viewpoints at once, drawing you in. To make a musical analogy, they were visually polyphonic. I bought a poster and had it framed.


Anyway, what makes Weschler’s book engaging is its story of Hockney’s seemingly boundless obsession with perspective in visual art. One fulcrum for this obsession is his interest in how and why European art underwent a profound shift in perspective, precision, and realism around the 1420s. Hockney thinks the reason is due to the use of optical projection devices. Hockney, who even wrote a book about his (controversial) theory, Secret Knowledge (2001), expresses his curiosity about the matter in the form of a question: “How come awkwardness seems to disappear completely from Western European art for three hundred years and then just as quickly reappear? It all just happens by itself? That would be the loopy theory” (133).

Weschler traces how Hockney arrived at his interest and along this journey are several series of works that I found interesting. One early series consisted of photo collages built out of dozens of Polaroids. Hockney took photos of his subject matter–his living room, a swimming pool, a California highway, the Grand Canyon–from a multitude of viewpoints. Then he organized the photos in a way that requires the viewer to slow down and move through the pictorial space, one segment after another–back and forth, up and down–always scanning over time. Here are two:



One interesting thing about these collages: each photo is a self-contained viewpoint. Another thing: the effect is at once unrealistic in that you notice the artifice of Hockney’s technique and also hyper realistic in that you find yourself noticing that this is actually how we see the world: in and as a series of glances, instants, and angles that enter our field of perception for a flash before we turn our attention elsewhere. The effect is pure art: simple, yet it gets you thinking.

As I read and looked at the pictures I thought about how all this might pertain to musical practice. (I also wrote about perspective in music here.). Music, of course, is different from visual art in that it requires time to unfold. You can’t listen to a symphony in a second–you have to wait it out and keep paying attention, moment by moment. But the fact that some musics–intensely polyrhythmic musics or polyphonic musics, for instance–make deep perceptual demands on us insofar as they pack a lot of information into each moment reminded me of how Hockney’s works seem to chase after ways to model themselves on how we apply our senses over time.

Incidentally, when Hockney spoke of the “awkwardness” in art reappearing after three hundred years, he was referring to Cubism. Picasso, Hockney told Weschler, wasn’t trying to “deconstruct” his subject matter. Rather, he was trying to faithfully convey a sense of how we behold the world around us. “The monocular claim to univalent objective reality is falling away once and for all,” he says, “and we are being thrust back on ourselves, forced to take responsibility for the way we make and shape our realities, with eye and hand and heart” (143).

Pantha Du Prince And The Bell Laboratory Play Terry Riley’s “In C”

American composer Terry Riley’s “In C” (1964) is widely considered one of the first and most important minimalist compositions. The piece, scored for an ensemble of unspecified instruments and size, consists of 53 short melodic phrases that musicians play and repeat as many times as they wish before moving onto the next. When all the musicians have moved through each of the 53 phrases, the piece is finished. One key aspect of the music is its sense of tonality and its steady pulse provided by a repeating high C note that anchors the music like a timeline bell pattern.

Riley’s “In C” is the focus of a series of recent promotional documentary videos for Ableton Live software about the electronic musician Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince) and his performance of the piece in collaboration with a percussion ensemble, The Bell Laboratory. (In a previous post, I wrote about an earlier recording by Weber and the Bell percussionists.)

In the first video, we learn about how Weber and the percussionists created their own version of “In C.” Some of the marimba and vibraphone sounds are still there just as they are in the piece’s original recording (percussive sounds with sharp attacks work well for this music), but there are new elements too. Weber’s electronic set up–contact microphones fed through a large mixer–allows him to sample bits and pieces of what the other musicians play, manipulate those sounds, and incorporate them back into his mix. Not surprisingly, Weber also adds a 4/4 techno beat. To my ear, the music has the sound of an electronic music arrangement with percussionists playing along –not a bad thing, but perhaps a reality of this kind of collaboration. In one interesting bit, Weber distinguishes what he does from composing or conducting, describing his role as a kind of interface between the musicians and his pre-assembled arrangement of Riley’s piece:

“I see my role as some kind of connection point. Not as someone who gives directions. It’s more like that I filter the information from each musician…I’m really trying to create this environment.”

The first video, though thoughtful and succinct, doesn’t really show the Ableton software up close. In a second, behind-the scenes video, we see a bit more of the software and how it integrates with Weber’s set up.

But still, we could see more. If the camera zoomed a close up on Ableton’s audio and MIDI clips, stacked vertically as little blocks of sound in the Session View page, we might notice their similarities to the short melodic sequences in Riley’s piece from fifty years ago. This may be the true musical prescience of those early minimalist works by Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass (not to mention, let’s not forget, their world music inspirations from Africa, Indonesia, India): that they foresaw a music based on short melodic cells that could be looped and repeated to make grand designs.


Terry Riley In C full score

On Creative Analogies: Lessons From Coi


“Perfect food is born of perfect order.” – Daniel Patterson, Coi

I have written previously on this blog (see culinary arts posts) about connections between cooking and music. To add to that mix, I recently read Daniel Patterson’s excellent Coi cookbook. The book is structured around a series of short narratives that provide context for his recipes. For me, the narratives steal the show insofar as they engage with the themes of perception, taste, memory, style, and creativity.

Patterson makes a distinction between being able to perceive and distinguish among different tastes, and having the know-how and experience to understand what these perceptions and distinctions mean. They key, he says, is having a well-honed sensory memory: “Sensory memory is the most important attribute of a cook. Without a database of experiences to contextualize flavor, a good palette means nothing” (142). Patterson’s dishes grow out of his experiences–many of them fleeting, by now only traces of a memory of an experience. One dish, “Summer, Frozen In Time” (plum, frozen meringues, yogurt), he describes in terms of references that seem more experiential than specifically food-related:

“This is a dish of memory triggered by form and smell, with points of reference that are so varied that they defy easy categorization. I created it thinking about the way time seems to move differently during the warm months–one minute lasting an eternity, the next passing in a rush” (146).



Drawing analogies with writing and music, Patterson also discusses style in cooking–that combination of elements that add up to a recognizable imprint: “In writing, it’s called voice. In music, it might be called sound, the combination of tone and rhythm that makes a performance unique” (180). In Patterson’s case, some of his style, his voice, is the result of removing the non-essential from his dishes, or distilling his ingredients down to their essence. In a passage on what makes minimalism (in cookery or the arts), the chef quotes the architect John Pawson: “The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction” (242).

Ultimately, what makes Coi so interesting is how poetically it describes the varied sources of Patterson’s creativity. Chefs are like composers and writers and artists in this regard–they receive inspiration and ideas from all over. The techniques of their craft are ways to reign in and organize this inspiration and these ideas, but the creative process remains fickle–always an open-ended, ever-shifting flood of sensations to pay attention to, distill, and make sense of. And the smallest details matter. Patterson: “sometimes the hardest part of the creative process is finding that one grace note, that little twist of technique, seasoning or texture, that lifts a dish, making it extraordinary” (198).

Near the end of his book, Patterson recalls San Francisco when he first arrived there from the East coast in the late 1980s. One evening, a cab driver tells him about a time in 1968 when he saw the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk standing alone by the roadside, looking up at the sky. Patterson, who plays piano, recalls listening to Monk when he was a kid:

“[Monk] was my hero, with his jerky syncopation, idiosyncratic voice, and harmonic dissonance that would resolve, when you couldn’t stand it anymore, into the sweetest melody you’d ever heard. His sense of balance was perfect: complexly wrought, deeply human” (282).

None of this seems to have anything to do with the book’s final recipe on the facing page. Or does it?