Personifying Musical Action

A melody does things in a look at me kind of way. It walks, it skips, it pirouettes like a sprightly dancer; it leaps from one pitch to another like a long-limbed ballerina. Melodies love attention and they have a diva quality, as if believing that their personal and exteriorized dramas are of intrinsic interest and that we’ll follow the trajectory of their moves simply because they’re moving. They herald, weep, exult, or rage, all the while keeping one eye on us to see if we’re buying their performance. Conjuring like a magic wand, melodies are a vertical theater of pure spectacle.

Harmonies support melody’s prancing around by rolling out a plush carpet. Harmonies are careful onlookers, almost like bodyguards, assessing the dimensions of the space melody might need. They’re measured personalities, plotting a horizontal terrain upon which melody will dance. Harmonies aren’t naturally flashy like melody, yet believe that their own coiled tensions are essential musical constructions. Unlike melody, harmonies are plural beings—they contain multitudes in two, three, four or more notes per moment—and they know they can pack a punch in their supporting role. While melody dances and showboats for the crowd, harmonies let their multitudes work by setting the scene. Conjuring like a scent or subtle lighting, harmonies animate music on the level of the subliminal.

Rhythm is a choreographer and referee holding a stopwatch. He watches melody dance over harmony’s measured space, looks at his stopwatch, and rolls his eyes. That could be tighter he says. A taskmaster, rhythm makes suggestions about proportion, duration, and syncopation, explaining to melody that juxtapositions of short and long could vary melodies’ affective dramas. Then he turns to the harmonies. Don’t just stand there in the back he suggests. You too have a story to tell. Rhythm inspires his colleagues, animating them, giving them a literal charge. Powering like electricity, rhythm drives music on the visceral level of current. When melody and harmony apply rhythm’s lessons, everyone is happy.

Timbre is a fashion expert, dressing melody and harmony in various clothing drawn from her vast trunk of materials. Timbre is acutely aware of how music is judged by its exteriors—how different sounds synesthetically signify different textures and colors—and so imagines different ways to outfit a tune. In a free moment, timbre shows melody some new threads. You could go from this sound to this one, she says, while keeping your pitches intact. Melody smiles—let’s do it! Harmony, though measured and reserved, overhears the conversation and wants to know more, wondering if timbre can make his chordal multitudes conjure differently. Pick an affect you want, timbre says with glee, and we’ll have you try it on. Harmony beams as he slips on a new coat.

Form is a sharp-eared musical marketer and promoter who owns the building where this music rehearsal is happening. He’s sitting behind a one-way mirror, looking down at his notes. Form needs to figure out a way to sell this whole thing—how to bring it to the right context so it reaches the right ears. He lets the four figures in front of him work out the music among themselves, though it’s clear that he will have the final say on the sequence of events. As he watches the rehearsal he writes notes: Maybe the beginning section should return at the end? Is there enough repetition? Is this for contemplation or dance? Is it ABA or ABCBA? Are Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm on the same page? And why does timbre keep interrupting everyone? One thing Form knows for sure is that in music, order is everything.

Curating The Week: The Politics Of Listening, Fake Musical Personas, Twitter

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• An article about the effect of one’s political orientation on one’s music preferences.

“Where conservatives prize ‘security and conformity,’ liberals value ‘self-expression and stimulation.’ With regard to artistic tastes conservatives generally favor familiar works, predictability, and ‘simplicity and realism,’ liberals, in contrast, prefer novelty, and ‘complexity and abstractions.’ Of the two groups, conservatives ‘have stronger implicit attachments to tradition, stability, long-held values, conformity, and order.'”

• An article about a session musician posing as an untutored blues player.

“It was clear in interviews that Steve understood why people liked his gutbucket, ultra lo-fi music: ‘People are tired of everything being so fancy. There’s always been fancy music around and complicated shit’ he sniffed in an uncomplicated way, and talked of how he dreamed about getting sponsorship from John Deere, or a whisky manufacturer.”

• An article about the wonders of Twitter.

“It’s like having every sort of expert imaginable on speed dial: investigative reporters, policy wonks, renowned scholars, scientists, musicians, artists, historians, you name it—and being able to tap into their thinking and inside sources.”

On Passing Micro-Moments In Music

 

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Sometimes in music there are brief moments that truly click, magnify your attention, and send you into a state of excitement. These moments can be anything—a chord progression, a melodic turn or leap, a sung phrase, a rhythm clash or synchrony, a combination of instruments, or even a single timbre. What makes them micro is that they come and go in a flash.

If you rewind and replay these moments—on a recording or in your mind’s ear—you learn how music’s power is a function of exquisitely placed sound events that stand out and make themselves felt in you.

So, I’m always on the lookout for passing micro-moments and locating them has become a listening litmus test to answer an insistent question:

Can this music offer me an epiphany?

Notes On James Blake At Radio City Music Hall

 

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About three-quarters of the way through his set at Radio City Music Hall the English singer, keyboardist, and producer James spoke to the crowd about what an honor it was to be playing at the famous venue and that it had taken many years for his trio (with Benjamin Assiter on drums and Rob McAndrews on guitar and sampler) to reach this level of performing electronic music live. Explaining the challenge he and his bandmates face when they perform, Blake said “we’ve chosen the path of most resistance: everything is live–no laptops, no Ableton.” (Ableton Live is a popular music software used for performing electronic music.) The audience cheered–Blake doesn’t talk a lot at his shows and it was nice to hear his voice–but they probably had little idea how this band performs. The division of musical labor seems to be that Blake sings and plays keyboards, dividing his time between piano and synthetic synthesizer chord washes; Assiter plays a mostly electronic drum set, triggering pummeling sine tone kick drum sounds and Roland TR-808-type hand claps instead of acoustic percussion; and McAndrews plays electric guitar here and there, but is equally busy adding soundscapes to the mix and live sampling Blake’s voice to thicken it and add more layers of counterpoint.

When Blake explained that he and his band had chosen the path of most resistance, he was referring to their goal of evoking the sound and power of electronic (dance) music by old-fashioned means: playing instruments. Part of the thrill of watching them play is wondering how they’re making the sounds, a few of which stand out: the rib-cage rattling kick drum, the vocal samples I could see being drummed out on an electronic drum pad controller, the vocal doubling harmonies that appeared out of nowhere behind Blake’s singing, and finally, all that narly bass played by Blake’s left hand. It still astonishes me how much low-end frequencies modern sound systems deliver. Bass is one of the main signifiers of music now, having reached new depths of tactility and visceral affect. It can have a physical effect independent of what you may think of the music itself.

Musically, Blake’s band gave us the best of multiple stylistic worlds. They can create hard-hitting electronic textures that build and build. At one point the music soared into the only 4/4 techno beat on the night and suddenly the entire crowd was standing. But then a quiet piano piece came and we all sat down again. Blake also writes very harmonically compelling songs, so if nothing else you can be carried away by his chords that toe the line between evoking soulful-gospel-church music and ECM/Keith Jarrett quietudes. In many ways Blake’s is a minimal kind of music too, where a typical song is a skeletal snare backbeat, a keyboard wash, voice, and a faint soundscape. What he excels at is giving you endless reasons to listen closely, and his concert was full of moments when the audience’s hush registered the music’s patience and depth. Partly that’s due to his beautiful and falsetto-heavy singing, and partly due to the tight song arrangements that keep you guessing what will happen next. On our way out my wife asked me how I would categorize the music and I said I had no idea. Blake is a composer positioned at the intersection of ambient, gospel, and soul as well as various UK underground dance and bass music styles, but he always doing his own, very distinctive thing.