“There are little details that make sometimes a huge difference…It’s not a question of technical things. That also is part of it, but it’s important for me as a producer how to talk to a musician while recording, what to articulate more or less in front of the microphones. I will be their first listener, and for me it’s important how someone is phrasing, how they are creating their sound, the colours, the suspension. You can guide the music to a certain degree, or you cannot guide it…but you have to pay close attention to the sound that comes out.”
Releasing five recordings between 1990 and 1998, A Tribe Called Quest pioneered new narratives for hip hop, eschewing the idiom’s traditional postures in favor of an “alternative” sound both musically and lyrically. In fact, upon its release, the group’s debut, Peoples’ Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990) confused critics: Rolling Stone famously said of it, “it’s impossible to imagine how people will put this music to use.” But many fans found Tribe’s music useful. Their sound had a jazz-inflected easy-funky-feel good groove and this sound coincided with the availability of sampling technology such as the E-mu Systems SP-12 and the Akai S-900, machines with which Tribe built beats and songs organically out of layered samples whose performative traces imparted a lot of flavor to the music. Listen, for example, to the sampled bass slide (taken from Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”) and the long reverb-tailed snare drum hits (taken from Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “Spinning Wheel”) on the group’s hit, “Can I Kick It?”:
Complementing the easy flow of their dope-slow beats and jazzy samples, Tribe’s lyrics were playful and inventive, humorous, and socially aware. Q-Tip and the late Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, who passed away this week, would trade verses, Q’s silky cool, smooth voice against Phife’s raspier sound. On “Kick It?” Phife raps lines (2:00-3:00) about using music and letting it use you:
“Follow us for the funky behavior
Make a note on the rhythm we gave ya (…)
I instruct you to be the obeyer
A rhythm recipe that you’ll savor
Doesn’t matter if you’re minor or major
Yes the tribe of the game, rhythm player
As you inhale like a breath of fresh air.”
“This gift that we are born with–to reach out and hear things hundreds of metres away, all these incredible sounds–is in danger of being lost through a generational amnesia. There is a real danger, both of loss of auditory acuity, where we are exposed to noise for so long that we stop listening, but also a loss of listening habits, where we lose the ability to engage with the environment the way we were built to.”
“Creative problem solving is widely agreed to center on inventing a new analogy–sometimes called ‘restructuring’ the problem. When you suddenly see a connection between two things you don’t ordinarily speak or think of together, you have the basis of a new analogy, or a creative thought…By comparing a puzzling something with a something else to which it’s never ordinarily compared, you tear an opening in the everyday fabric of mental life and peer through.”
– David Gelernter, TheTides Of Mind, p. 152
“It’s easy to make a dope beat, where the kick and snare are keeping the groove together. But Fight the Power doesn’t have that. You can’t tell what the kick and snare are doing. They’re creating a backdrop, but it’s not pronounced, it doesn’t swing. It’s more of a head-bob, reminiscent of a Black Panther rally, a put-your-fist-up kind of vibration. If a song has swing, if it makes you move from side to side, that’s a different emotion, all about celebrating something. That’s what set Fight the Power apart: it wasn’t trying to be groovy. The groove couldn’t be so hypnotic that you’d get lost in it, since then you’d lose what the song was about. It would be a good song, but not an anthem.”
“Major Lazer’s management team and Mr. Pisani worked to stir up interest with young people in Cuba by placing Major Lazer’s work on what is known as el paquete semanal, or the weekly package, a hand-to-hand digital distribution service that spreads bootlegs of songs, YouTube videos, news, movies and TV shows around the country via hard drives and USB devices. ‘I paid them to put the music there with a vision for creating an audience for this concert,’ Mr. Pisani said. (Diplo referred to the tactic as ‘inception.’)”
It’s a beautiful, maybe melancholy piece of music.
But where does it begin and end? It’s as if this music has been going for a long long time. It has an oceanic quality.
It’s all about repetition. The music is built from a tape loop of a piano phrase.
We hear a subtle melodic movement within the loop–twice around a high place, twice on a middle plateau, and then down to a lower register. The piano loop seems to breathe.
Even if you wanted to (I don’t)–how would you render this music in notation? Maybe it would be a four bar phrase in b-flat minor, with important melodic notes (a-flat, b-flat, c, d-flat, f) with giant note heads and less important background ones written tiny.
The music sounds minor key (b-flat minor). But the sixth degree of the scale is never used. Instead we hear a lot of the fifth degree (the note f) which, when combined with the b-flat, creates a kind of I-V drone as one might hear in the background of say, Indian music. Those two notes–b-flat and f–together create a sense of stasis, as if to say: This music isn’t going anywhere–are you ok with that?
Back to notation: notation would imply that the piece is four bars long. But it’s forty minutes long. Why are we harping on its constituent repeating units?
More notation issues: the echoing haze of delay and reverb are a part of the piece, but how would one render that that that that? And the timbre of the loop is as if aged or degraded. It has sonic patina. How to render this quality?
The piece is forty minutes long but is it changing over this time? Is there a process to it? Does it do something? If so, what does it do?
One of the striking impressions I get listening to “Cascade” is its disconnect from other musics I’m familiar with. It has more activity that a simple drone. It is kind of minimal, but doesn’t seem to have an overt processual agenda. It is ambient, but not benign like so much music in that style. It’s not recognizably the sound of a piano–it sounds more like a zither. It doesn’t include singing. It doesn’t have a beat–though it does have a pulse. It doesn’t have a verse-chorus structure. It doesn’t have a lead melody, harmonic progression, or a bassline. The music doesn’t overtly reference other musics let alone a single tradition that might inform it’s making.
But still, “Cascade” has something: it has its own, maybe melancholy beauty.
What is this beauty the product of? What comes to mind when I listen is a machine aesthetic. We know that it was made out of a tape loop. This explains the repetition and the degraded sound. (An old loop.) But there’s more to say about machines. Machines shape us–something happens when we interface with them. Just take a look around you at all the people glued to their smartphones. The small screen is now a thousand worlds that hold our attention in a thousand ways, and there’s a look we sometimes have when beholden to the screen–something between a smile and serene focus. For me, something about “Cascade” captures the sereneness of our focus on the smartphone’s small screen endlessness. In short, the music holds us suspended.
I wish I could stop there. But “Cascades” includes its own unexpectedness. Thirty-five minutes into the piece Basinski fades out the loop and makes an abrupt key change. One loop has become another and the final five minutes is this new sound that slowly rises, falls, and disappears. Is this a cadence? A coda? A perfect ending? The music doesn’t say.
The point is that music built from just a few notes of a degraded four-bar piano bar loop can mean whatever you want it to mean.
“The term is slightly misleading; Kygo does not always rely on the kick-drum pulse that defines house music, and for him ‘tropical’ refers more to a general mood—invariably described as ‘chill’—than to any specific musical tradition, of whatever latitude. But if electronic music seems to have a particularly confusing system of genres and sub-genres, that is because, in a world where singing and old-fashioned instruments are optional, even producers can have a hard time explaining exactly how one track differs from another.”
“In April, Spotify reported that users had created 2.8 million sleep-themed playlists on the service. As it turns out, most of those people aren’t looking for psychoacoustic soundtracks or Temiar dream songs; the most-streamed song on sleep-themed playlists was Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud.'”
• A video in which experimental laptop musician Holly Herndon discusses her musical process.
“I’m trying to question every aspect of [musical] practice…I’m trying to somehow make it my own and make it situated in the time and place that I’m in today.”
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