Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. A video by Steven Feld of Nii Otoo Annan in Ghana playing bell patterns while listening to the late night rhythms of common toads.

“Using the toad rhythms as a stimulus and calculator, he enumerates dozens of time patterns on the bells while creating an exciting array of sound colors.”

2. A video about an orchestra of robots that can read human hand motions.

“In the hands of musicians—electronic or otherwise—perhaps this could yield more symphonic sounds down the road.”

3. An article about how listening to music can boost high-intensity workouts.

“What is interesting is that their power output had been substantially greater when they were listening to music. They were pedaling much more ferociously than without music. But they did not find that effort to be more unpleasant.”


Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An interview with poetry critic Henlen Vendler.

“I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem. You stand behind the words and speak them as your own—so that it is a very different form of reading from what you might do in a novel where a character is telling the story, where the speaking voice is usurped by a fictional person to whom you listen as the novel unfolds.”

“I write to explain things to myself.”

2. An article by Leon Wieseltier about the place of the humanities and the unquantified self in a technology-saturated world.

“The machines may be more neutral about their uses than the propagandists and the advertisers want us to believe. We can leave aside the ideology of digitality and its aggressions, and regard the devices as simply new means for old ends. Tradition ‘travels’ in many ways. It has already flourished in many technologies — but only when its flourishing has been the objective.”

3. A short documentary about the DJ-producer Harry Rodrigues (he of “Harlem Shake” fame) as a field recordist traveling in search of sounds to sample and remix.

“I just knew that I wanted to do a project where I could go record sounds myself and try capture the rarest, craziest sounds and build the ultimate sample pack. That’s how the idea started.”

“I’ve been using those sounds and totally transforming them, transposing them. Taking one thing and making it totally different. It’s just cool to be able to use these new sounds and transform one thing into another.”


On Music, Thinking, Dreaming, And Gender: Two Chords In A Lego Commercial

“Music’s ability to conceal its processes and to communicate nothing/everything ‘directly’ is largely responsible for its peculiar power and prestige in society.”
– Susan McClary and Robert Walser, “Start Making Sense!: Musicology Wrestles with Rock.”

Every once in a blue moon I watch a TV commercial that stops me, holds my attention, and generates the semblance of real feeling. For instance, I have written here before about ads by Apple and Rolex that pack a punch. Recently I enjoyed the minute-long “Inspire Imagination” commercial for Lego toys. (Ahh, Lego. I love Lego.) The ad depicts a young girl playing with Lego as she imagines various occupations and carries out various tasks–from being a doctor and flying a helicopter to guiding a hamster through a maze and putting on a shadow puppet show. The girl is alone in each scene, yet clearly engaged with her Lego-enabled activities. Near the end of the ad we hear her say, in a voice over, “You taught me how to think, and how to dream.” The girl is addressing her proud mom, yet she’s also referring to her Lego.

The Lego ad is popular, in part because it promotes creativity, and also gender equality by showing a girl with what has often been assumed to be a boy’s toy. (Lego was pioneering in this regard. Check out this “Dear Parents” manifesto they included with their toys in the early 1970s.) On Twitter and YouTube, viewers have praised the ad, calling it “empowering,” “inspirational,” and “melancholy.”

What held my attention while watching was the soundtrack. Created by an advertising agency called Cut & Run, the music is the main source of the ad’s affective power, and helps construct viewers’ sensation of empowerment, inspiration, and melancholy. Let’s take a listen:

The music is simple. Scored for a close-mic’d acoustic piano, with bits of acoustic guitar and long string tones in the background, it consists of arpeggios around two chords: an A-flat major triad with a 6th added, followed by a c-minor triad. If we consider the key to be A-flat major, what we hear is a I-iii chord progression, over and over again. On top of this, in a higher register, the right hand of the piano part plays a fleeting melody that emphasizes the fifth, fourth, and third notes of the A-flat scale. The overall sound is reminiscent of Erik Satie’s moody Gymnopedie pieces; it also evokes the romantic-minimalist sound of Michael Nyman, some Thomas Newman film scores, and the intimate electronica of Helios. (Who, curiously enough, created his own take on minimalist Philip Glass’s Truman Show film score for an Apple commercial.) In short, this piano music has a familiar ring to it, and hearing it we kind of know how to feel.

The music works on two main levels. First, there are those two chords. Every major scale has within it three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord. The Lego chord progression–moving from a chord built on the root or first note of the A-flat scale, to a chord built on the third note of the scale–is inherently happy-sad sounding, because it moves from a major chord to a minor one. So, in a sense this progression encapsulates the music’s sense of melancholy. The I and iii Lego chords also share two notes: C and E-flat. As they are arpeggiated in the ad, the C in particular keeps insistently popping out of the arpeggio, bobbing to the surface of the chords. The C seems energized, empowered and inspired to both keep the rhythm going and act as a glue between the happy and sad I and iii chords.

The music also conjures feeling through that piano sound. For a long time now, the piano has been the ultimate symbol of the middle-class home and of having the financial means, time, and space to take music lessons and practice. The instrument might also be coded as having a feminine sound. In the Lego ad, we never see the young girl playing piano, but we might imagine her being able to play something like this two-chord progression. Finally, the piano sound is an acoustic touchstone that we can relate to as the sound of an instrument that many of us learned to play–a little or a lot–when we were children. Its resonance and warmth suggests an interior world of thinking, imagination, and creativity.

Which brings us back to what makes this commercial empowering, inspirational, and melancholy. The music doesn’t signify these qualities, but it evokes them by gesturing in their general direction through its notes and its timbre to help us feel. As the saying goes, with music, it’s all about the vibe. There is nothing remarkable about a girl playing with Lego, and here the music simply reminds us of the fact that the toy can spark wonder in girls too.

On (Mis)Trusting Music: A Subtext To This Blog


I don’t trust music.

Music shapes and directs my perception too much–telling me when and how to feel. How can it do that? Not just, what gives it the right to do that, but practically speaking, how does it pull off this trick?

I can’t see or touch music, or ever seem to get to the bottom of how it works. It’s a unmaterial thing–like a breeze or a shadow, or like phantom gears for an unseen machine.

Or music is a liquid, always escaping its containers (stylistic, historical, social) and getting away before I can interrogate it.

Powerful, invisible, flexible and fluid, music is some kind of loner.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article about the shortcomings of academic writing.

“Most academic writing, in contrast, is a blend of two styles. The first is practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy a reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five-paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which “the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.”

In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.”

2. An article about the origins of polyphonic music (which may be earlier than had been believed).

“What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected. Typically, polyphonic music is seen as having developed from a set of fixed rules and almost mechanical practice. This changes how we understand that development precisely because whoever wrote it was breaking those rules. It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development. The conventions were less rules to be followed than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths.”

3. An article on gong-making in Thailand.

“Gongs are everyday alarm clocks for the monks.”