Notes On Oval’s Voa

One of the most interesting aspects of Oval’s recent recording, Voa (2013), a collaboration between German electronic musician Markus Popp and a series of singers from South America, is that its instrumental parts don’t necessarily do the things you might expect them to do. In a recent interview Popp explains his interest in acoustic instruments: “I like acoustic instruments, I like this kind of micro dynamics, I like the nuance and details…” On Voa, all of the tracks feature what sounds like sampled electric jazz guitar playing, as well as bits of drumset and bass. But the parts and bits move in unexpectedly delightful ways. Popp says that his musical goal is to “come up with a new style that is kind of reminiscent of something…I wanted to do something else, more like songs. It’s just that these songs were composed from very unlikely parts, the building blocks I was using for this music were very irregular.” It’s the unlikely-ness and irregularity of Popp’s materials and their arrangements that makes the music what it is.

Here is Popp’s piece “Emocor”:

A probing interview with the musician can be found here.

On Endless Beginnings


Some twenty years ago the professor for my Psych 101 class once said “Never be afraid to be a beginner. Because you’re going to be a beginner over and over, all your life.” It was good advice, and it came to mind recently as I was browsing through old music files on my computer. In a series of vaguely titled folders (“chords and beats”, “ambient” etc.) I found a series of what one might call endless beginnings–ideas for pieces of music that someday might become something or (probably, most likely) not. “Ideas” might be giving too much credit. Some of the pieces are just a series of rhythms, a few chords, or an interesting sound. All of the files sit quietly, with their workaday titles (day, month, and year), waiting for my further direction and refinement. The music varies in quality, yet all the files share a sense of being unafraid of, well, being beginners. Sitting on the computer hard drive, they wait for someone–me–to revisit them and re-listen to hear if they might have anything worth saying. I keep putting off this re-listening, but here’s one that caught my attention enough to write this post:

For more on beginnings, go here.

Krista Tippett On Listening


Listening to a podcast, my ears perked up when I heard the day’s guest, Krista Tippett, talk about what it means to listen. Tippett wasn’t referring to music listening per se, yet her words had me thinking anew about what listening in a musical context might entail. Here are some quotes, along with elaborations on them:

Listening is a spiritual technology.
We don’t often hear those two words together. Yet listening is a way to tap into what many people believe music indexes: some parallel affective realm in which patterns of sound give rise to patterns of feeling. Combined together, sound and feeling can feel pretty deep.

Listening is an ordinary, everyday virtue.
We hear and make sense of things all time–ambient noise, conversations–and so each of us has a finely tuned apparatus ready to take on music. It’s a virtue to be able to listen because listening has built-in moral component: at minimum, by listening we engage with others.

Listening is an essential way that we can reach across the mystery of the Other.
This is a fundamental principle of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology: that informed and open listening is a way to understand the cultural value of all the world’s musics–no matter how different they may seem from what is familiar and local to us. Listening literally connects us to other ways of hearing and making sound.

There aren’t many things that we do in our lives that are more important than listening.
Making music with others can’t exist without close listening. In fact, effective/affective music is defined by how closely its makers interact with, and respond to, one another. It’s the interaction among musicians and their sounds that makes the music compelling. In this, listening is the most important thing.

Listening is an essential tool that we need to cultivate in a noisy, busy world.
Listening, inside or outside of musical practice, is a way to focus and block out distractions.

Listening is about presence.
When we listen we accrue a special kind of presence as listeners. Our best selves rise up as our senses hone in on the importance of sound.

Listening is about being open to being surprised and amazed. Listening is about being vulnerable.
Brought about by listening, our best selves are open to the world, ready to be guided into unfamiliar territory. There is risk involved because we’re not entirely sure where we’re going. But we listen anyway, wondering what will come next.

Notes On Fredrik Sjoberg’s “The Fly Trap”


“Know that then everything flies, absolutely everything. A thousand commentaries. An entire apparatus of footnotes.”
– Fredrik Sjoberg

Fredrik Sjoberg’s delightful The Fly Trap is two books in one: a story of the author’s experiences catching flies–specifically, hoverflies–on a remote island in Sweden, and a life history of the expeditions and writings of entomologist, naturalist, explorer, and art collector Rene Malaise, inventor of the fly-catching “Malaise” net. Deftly moving back and forth between the two narrative threads so that they hum as one, Sjoberg’s writing is plain and personal, clear and direct, without need of references to the scholarly literature of entomology. Sjoberg has caught so many interesting ideas in his net that our reading pleasure is just accompanying him on the many tales, memories, and experiences he recounts in the book’s eighteen brief chapters.

For Sjoberg, hunting for flies has poetic dimensions, including “anticipation, repose and slowness” (31), and the activity also satisfies the author’s need for seizing a terrain of specialization. “Everything fell into place with the flies” he says. “In exercising control over something, however insignificant and apparently meaningless, there is a peaceful euphoria” (49). Sjoberg is an expert, and we learn that over the years he’s discovered numerous hoverfly species on the island. He wears his expertise lightly though: “You never know in advance what knowledge may be good for, however useless it may seem” (65).


The most interesting aspect of The Fly Trap is Sjoberg’s claim that the book’s deeper theme concerns a single idea: limitation. “The hoverflies are only props” he says. “Here and there, my story is about something else…Some days I tell myself that my mission is to say something about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation” (12). Indeed, Sjoberg is somewhat obsessed with limitation, finding in it the reason why he doesn’t care much for travel and chooses instead to do all of his research on a tiny land mass he calls home. Limitation focuses his energies: “Nothing promotes concentration like a known limitation of time, sometimes of space as well. If you don’t know where the limit lies, then it’s chatter as usual” (111). Ironically, as he teaches us about Malaise’s far-flung travels and exceptional adventures, Sjoberg simultaneously keeps returning to his own little patch of terra firma where he does his work. The contrast is intentional and makes for good reading. Maybe the point here is that there are many ways to be worldly.

Asked by summer visitors to the island why he collects flies, Sjoberg tells them that “my fly collecting was a method of exercising slowness” (188). It sounds fitting, and Sjoberg explains how over time he began elaborating upon his slowness theme for the benefit of his island’s seasonal guests. Yet a few pages later Sjoberg concedes that he doesn’t entirely buy his own grand theory of why he does what he does. In fact, just to be contrary, he makes a case for speed: “If you think the torrent–of pictures, messages, people, whatever–goes too fast, then in nine cases out of ten you can turn it off or just close your eyes and breathe your own air for a while” (190).

The point is that Sjoberg is open to complexity. On the next page he keeps theorizing but now we’re not sure what to believe. “Next summer I think I will say that my fly collecting is a way of exercising concentration. A focus so intense that I forget myself” (191). Even after some eighty pages after we first heard about Sjoberg’s interest in limitation, we’re still not sure where lies the core of his concern. Part of the issue here is Sjoberg’s patience with following the trail of his (and Malaise’s) thoughts–writing like he has all the time in the world. Maybe the idea of limitation just informs his book in a general kind of way? Only on the last page of the chapter does Sjoberg admit the deeper truth about his interest in limitation: that maybe he does what he does because of “a genetic inability to deal with choice.” In the end, fly collecting is not about concentration or slowness–even though each these on their own do give the collector peace of mind. No, fly collecting embodies the art and experience of limitation:

“All that’s required is the courage to see your own mastery in actual life size. Some people see only flies, or certain flies, in a certain place, for a certain time. It’s only a starting point, or a fixed point, but it is a point. That’s all it is” (198).

It’s as if Sjoberg is saying that fly-catching keeps him grounded. And that’s in fact what he loves about it. Collecting flies is a way get to know nature: “I go collecting with my net in the here and now and read my landscape in the present tense” (218). In other words, by chasing flies Sjoberg seeks a nature literacy: “let us consider the ability to read the landscape as if it were a language, to understand nature almost as if were literature, experience it the same way that we experience art or music” (219).

There is a lot to learn from The Fly Trap. It has a singular voice, humor, it weaves together two sets of stories from There/Then to the Here/Now, and it engages in Big Ideas like the idea of limitation. Most interestingly, the book isn’t a definitive statement on the state of fly-catching, but does say everything about the nuanced experiences of one fly catcher on a small island in Sweden. In the end, The Fly Trap soars probingly and patiently through its own incompleteness.

On Twitter And Thinking


You may well know this already, but I’ll say it anyway: Whether you broadcast or receive, Twitter can be a compelling tool for thinking. Reflecting on its virtues, a few points come to mind:

Twitter is brief.
One hundred and forty characters is just enough of a text allotment to say one thing and then be done with it.

Twitter is open-ended.
Depending on how you’ve set up your feed–do you follow one person or a thousand?–Twitter can grow along with you, as if mirroring the connections you make in your mind with ones in your feed.

Twitter invites you into the brains of others.
You follow a friend, but who is he or she (or it) following? You scan their list of who they’re following, and wonder why. If one or more seems interesting enough, you follow them too, tagging along down a new stream of information.

Twitter invites you to garden and curate.
As you follow one friend or a thousand disparate sources, you notice how often those tweets are appearing. Some pop up too often, like weeds. Others blossom once in a while, like flowers. You might choose to unfollow someone here and there, because they’re not adding much to your garden. And depending on who you follow, the cumulative weight of your feed can be striking–like the works of different artists hanging side by side in the same gallery.

Twitter invites surprise and serendipity.
Depending on who you follow, neat things pop up and here and there–a recommended article, an interview, a new blog post, a photo, a video link. These neat things popping up increase in impact as they’re read side by side other, unrelated tweets. This nudges you to reconcile your own diverse interests within some kind of broader thematic frame. In this way, Twitter can illuminate a kind of cognitive diversity.

Twitter promotes a bee hive mentality.
This isn’t a bad thing. Attending to your own little garden and curating your own part of the gallery, you become part of a larger, non-stop information-sifting and sharing organism. Buzz Buzz!

Twitter promotes thinking about pacing.
Sure, Tweets are brief, but how often do we need to be broadcasting? As you notice the rate at which others are tweeting, it prompts you to think about how often we need to be saying whatever it is we’re thinking. In this way, Twitter foregrounds the distinction between signal and noise: sometimes “talk is cheap” for a reason.

On Hiromi’s The Trio Project


This past Sunday I went to see the jazz pianist Hiromi and her Trio Project play at the Blue Note Jazz Club. The pianist’s bandmates were Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on electric bass. The musicians’ playing was virtuosic and as an ensemble they were super tight–almost telepathically so.

I sat behind Hiromi and couldn’t see her two bandmates–until I realized that if I looked towards the mirrored far wall across the room I could see the head of Jackson and Phillips’ hands–but nothing else, obscured as the drummer was by his giant cymbals. Not bad, but who knew that seeing makes listening to live music that much better? I wanted to see what the musicians were thinking with their faces. So it goes sometimes.

Given my interests, I was particularly moved by Phillips’ drumming. Playing matched grip, his sound was at once booming and crisply articulated, moving easily and instantly from rock time feels to double time swing. His cymbal work was a highlight here. From jazz time on the rides to the symphonic crashes, the cymbals sounded pristine every time he struck them–like important events marked with panache. It was hard to imagine this trio’s music functioning at all without Phillips’ rhythmic verve and presence. It’s in this regard that good drummers are so much more than steady “timekeepers.” The good ones can slice and dice time to the point that the drumming becomes the time.

Unfamiliar with Hiromi’s music, I wondered while listening to the trio perform their airtight set just how much–if any–of their music making was improvised. It sounded composed. Most of the pieces had numerous clearly demarcated sections that dictated exactly how long anyone’s solo might last, ever-shifting odd meters marked by repeating piano riffs, as well as three-way unison flourishes, stops and starts. The grooves were without seams, and downbeat accents were never missed. Indeed, the set seemed a performance of pieces pre-worked out in their details, giving the trio a commanding ability to bring the audience on a calibrated musical trip.

A day after the show I listened the group’s recent recording, Alive, and realized that the music was exactly the set I had heard at the Blue Note. One of the standout tunes is the angular and odd-metered “Dreamer”, which begins and ends with a moody four-chord piano sequence, accompanied by a delicately brilliant drum pattern that evokes Steve Gadd’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” rudimental gear shifting. Like Hiromi’s Trio Project show at the Blue Note, “Dreamer” and many of the other pieces on their recording is an organized, fully thought through adventure that keeps changing and packs a wallop. In jazz does it even matter anymore if the music is composed or improvised?

Here is the trio performing another powerful piece, “Alive”, in the studio: