Brett’s Best: 2017

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Favorite readings:

Jace Clayton. Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.

A well-traveled experimental dance music DJ’s perspective on the intersections of global music, technology, and creativity. Clayton has endless thoughtful perspectives on how today’s music is made and circulated and writes compellingly about what it all means. I may review this book when I come to terms with the fact that I highlighted most of every page.

John Corbett, Microgroove. 

Corbett is a perfect mix of critic-scholar, an advocate for experimental jazz and improvisation, and a huge record collector. Besides its great introduction (which I wrote about here), this book produces magnificence in “Experimental Oriental: New Music and Other Others”, an analytical essay on the history of “the use of non-Western elements in Western art music of recent vintage” (which should be on ethno/musicology reading lists). Also, I just liked the title of this book, so there’s that too.

Vybarr Cregan-Reid. Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human.

A book that explores the perceptual and psychogeographical aspects of running. This book will make you re-think the long-term value of hitting the gym versus just running around outside, preferably on grass and near trees (and maybe climbing them). I wrote about the book here. Speaking of athletic tangents, this reminds me that I’m looking forward to reading Alex Hutchinson’s Endure.

Simon Critchley. What We Think About When We Think About Soccer.

A delightful and succinct phenomenology of soccer, the sport that has become the ambient soundtrack of our home. It doesn’t matter who wins, what matters is the sound of the game!

Geoff Dyer. “My Obsession With the Necks.” 

Dyer can write about anything and show you its significance, but this piece illustrates how to critically tackle the complexities of a difficult (i.e. free improvised and “abstract”) music in a way that interweaves into the analysis the complexities of the music’s listeners. Just excellent, and it got me listening to the Necks too.

David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt. The Runaway Species.  

An accessible and engaging book by a neuroscientist and a composer about how creativity works. The authors had me at their discussion of why we change our hairstyles.

Russell Hartenberger. Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich. 

This is a masterful manual by a master percussionist about playing the music of a masterful composer. Based on his almost fifty-year association with Steve Reich, Hartenberger is singularly positioned to survey a range of topics pertaining to performing, listening to, and understanding Reich’s music early compositions. The book is a combination personal history, archival research project, and distillation of Hartenberger’s thinking on percussion performance and technique, non-western rhythmic theory, and much more. You can read my review of the book here. This is a must read for percussionists and composers and anyone interested in what thinking musicians actually do.

Damon Krukowski. The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World.

A musician (drummer) and writer assesses the enduring value of analog aesthetics in a digital world through sound case studies on headphones, voice, silence, loudness, and time manipulation. A superb book written in a way that it feels like Krukowski is sitting across from you, holding forth quietly as you gobble your croissant, listening. Krukowski has a six-part podcast that you might check out too.

Jaron Lanier. Dawn of the New Everything.

This is a combined memoir and re-telling of the story of virtual reality by one of its inventors. Lanier is a fascinating thinker who has led an almost fictionally interesting life: he isn’t afraid to amplify his quirks and pursue difficult questions, he’s a bona fide music-head, and above all, he’s a sage observer of what is (and isn’t) happening with technology. Incidentally, the footnotes in this book are almost better than the main text. Check out too some of Lanier’s talks on music on YouTube where he suggests that ancient non-western musical instruments are the first digital technologies.

Daniel Warner. Live Wires. 

A succinct and insightful history of electronic music, from Pierre Schaefer to Ableton Live, written by a musician (who is also a drummer—hmm, I’m noticing a trend here) and academic. Warner’s writing style represents a (welcome) turn in some academic quarters towards clear prose undecorated by speculative theorizing. The book is published by Reaktion Books, which has put out some razor-sharp books on music. (I reviewed Paul Sullivan’s Remixology here and I also enjoyed series editor John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’Roll).

Honorable Mentions:

Brian Blanchfield. Proxies: Essays Near Knowing.
Ray Dalio. Principles.
Michael Denning. Noise Uprising.
Franklin Foer. World without Mind.
Adam Greenfield. Radical Technologies.
John McPhee. Draft No. 4.

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Favorite Recordings:

Based on my Spotify playlists, I listened a lot to Olivier Alary’s Pieces for Sine Wave Oscillators. I didn’t know sine waves could sound so organic. Also, Alery’s chords do a lot with very little.

I enjoyed Leandro Fresco’s La Equidistancia and El Reino Invisible. His ambient music has beautifully layered textures. How does he make his sounds?

I also enjoyed “Rise” by The Necks.

Ben Lukas Boysen’s “Opening” is super nice.

 

I returned to Nils Frahm’s “Keep” quite a few times. The music seems to be in 12/8 and features some compelling marimba parts. Frahm’s sound production quality is top-notch too.

Also: ECM records is now on Spotify. So after binging on Keith Jarrett concerts for an evening (it was overwhelming!), I returned to an album I once had to check out of the library. (Remember libraries?) I couldn’t stop listening to “Reblazhenstva”, a track on ECM’s remix album by Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer called RE: ECM. “Reblazhenstva” uses samples from Arvo Part, which alone is enough to keep my interest, but equally stunning is how the musicians conjure beats that sound mysterious rather than synthetic. I wrote about this music a while back. Very highly recommended, this particular track.

I’m also enjoying Anouar Brahem’s Blue Maqams. Brahem is an oud player, but he always has my kind of piano playing in the mix too. Also, Jack DeJohnette’s ride cymbal here work is stellar. I could almost just listen to that on its own. Check out the track “La Nuit.”

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Favorite App:

Pocket. You can use this free app to save articles for offline reading. It has saved me from emailing myself so many articles (though I still do).

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On Web Searches That Brought You Here: A.R. Ammons, Rihanna, Quadraphonic Sound

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a poem is a walk summary. This search query found my post on A.R. Ammons’ magnificent essay on the phenomenology of poetry. Ammons’ observations on poetry apply equally to music: “What we want to see a poem do is to become itself, to reach as nearly perfect a state of self-direction and self-responsibility as can be believably represented. We want that for people too.” My post is here.

dialogue between me and singer in English. This search query is in reference to one of my most read blog posts—a Ventrilo-Dialogue with Rihanna. In this (fictional) conversation we discuss the voice and other things. My post is here.

what happened to quadraphonic. This search query found my post on quadraphonic sound. Why didn’t it last, you ask? “Was it just too expensive and cumbersome?  Was it because its various formats were incompatible with one another?  Or did folks somehow collectively decide that stereo was good enough?” My post is here.

Freestyle: On Sounding Real And Sounding Fake

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A keyboardist-composer friend at work, BJ, was talking to me about some sampled string libraries she had recently been auditioning. “They sound incredible” she said, in reference to Vienna Strings. “But the thing is, if you don’t understand the idiom of the instrument you’re writing for, it’s not going to be believable.” I nodded and told her about a South African musician I once encountered in a Brooklyn studio who built (in minutes) a lush zulu pop song arrangement using the most unremarkable MIDI sounds. “It’s almost as if your ear can be tricked when you hear something done well” I said to BJ. “That reminds me” she replied, “there’s this guy on YouTube who has a video showing how make your string arrangements sound super realistic.”

BJ’s comment about the distinction between musical technology and musical idiom got me thinking about my own work and about what gets my attention when I’m listening to music. I’ve spent a fair amount of time privately fretting over sounds—whether I’ve made them, sampled them, or found them as synthetic presets. For a while I was convinced that only real acoustic sounds were worthy of working with. I guess that reflects my training as a musician and its emphasis on sound Quality. But electronic music making complexified the situation. I’ve played and made electronic sounds that people think are acoustic, and I’ve encountered electronic sounds that are as enchanting as acoustic ones. The music software on my laptop has brought the Uncanny Valley concept front and center, and to some degree, leapt over it altogether. My encounters with electronic musical sound had me thinking about idiom too. If you pick up a music magazine or explore YouTube instructional videos, an ongoing theme is how make your electronic music more realistic—how to make it sound more like, well, acoustic music. You see it with how producers program drum tracks, or how they arrange a virtual string section. There is an art to this mimicking the acoustic. But the most compelling musics create their own idioms: idiomatic ways of playing it, listening to it, and understanding it. Who says acoustic real-time music has to remain the gold standard against which all others are compared? Some musics should be unrealistic, impossible constructions not possible by any other means.

Back to my conversation with BJ: sometimes your strings should sound real, but sometimes they should sound fake.

Better

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How to get better? is a question I think about when I’m playing music and something doesn’t go as I had planned or assumed it would. An errant note, a momentary lapse of concentration, a dropped stick, a shaker that goes flying out of my hand (yes, it happened once), noticing my timekeeping dragging, or the most fascinating—a perceptual thing where suddenly the beat isn’t where I assumed it was, where I hear the rhythm as if someone took away its downbeat and now I’m momentarily unable to get my timing bearings. In all these situations my first thought—after I’ve recovered and realized that no one else noticed anything—is how I can get better. Thinking about how to improve one’s performance is the first step to figuring out how to do it, and the key is to unpack the elements of whatever didn’t go as planned.

Here’s an example: it turns out that a half-hit marimba note (a G) is the far edge of a triad that happens in the middle of a passage of triads—C minor, A-flat major, G minor—that goes by in a blur. This blur has been carrying me on its own momentum as the music goes along, and my hands can easily play these triads in sequence. But my hands have been getting by not by thinking of the triads as chords per se, but as shapes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; when I’m playing a keyboard, it’s always shapes before chords for me. (This is probably because I first learned to play by ear.) Knowing the chords as shapes allows my hands to breeze through them at speed without my needing to think much about the passing moment. It just kind of happens, over and over again and almost always perfectly—except when something goes wrong, like half-hitting one note (that G). This happens occasionally because a micro-hesitation has inserted itself into what I thought was my hands’ seamless knowing. Knowing the chords as shapes serves me well 98 percent of the time, but this intuitive sensing isn’t infallible: two percent of the time my hands are confused. One night I look down at my hands traversing the chords and think: What is all this? Suddenly the chord shapes look truly odd. (How do musicians remember music at an instrument, and what is this remembering based upon?)

The next step to improvement is to slow down the passage and practice it so that its blur becomes a series of discreet frames—like an animated flip book, examined one page at a time. As I slowed down the passage I reminded myself that in addition to being shapes, triads are chords. It was an awkward moment because my hands care only about the flow-feel of the notes, and here I was trying to talk to them analytically. Just watch when you go from the C minor to the A-flat major because you’re moving the G up a semitone but keeping the C and E-flat…I practiced the passage slower and then slower still, while superimposing some conscious knowing onto my flow-happy, shape-focused hands—Heads up guys, that’s all I’m saying. At one point I practiced the passage so slow that it was no longer a passage, no longer a shape. Now my hands’ chatter was finally muted and the triads became like a notated musical example stretched out on a page before me, with the half-hit errant G note circled in red pen and an arrow pointing to its neighbors. The passage was never that difficult, but somewhere along the way of playing it over and over, I lost sight of what it is. Now when I arrive at the moment in performance, my hands get through it with a new, deliberate carefulness. It brings to mind driving on a straight road and realizing that as it curves up ahead you’ll feel a gentle centrifugal force on the car if you maintain your current speed. You know from experience that’s pointless drive fast and then have to break before the curve in the road, so you pace yourself and the drive is smoother.

I also think about how to get better when I’m recording my own music, which usually depends on improvising to get the ball rolling. Afterwards I make note of what is working and what isn’t, trying to remember very general principles that seem to be reliably producing results that I like. (If the results are good, reverse-engineer the processes that lead you to them.) Some examples of these principles:

Begin with a theme and return to it later, and again at the end. 

Start low, then move higher. 

Leave as much space as sound made. 

Focus on the resonant tail ends of the sounds (which keeps you thinking about leaving space). 

Do more free rhythm stuff. 

I don’t look at these principles, but instead try to remember and implement them at my next session. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do this unconsciously. In the meantime, I keep the learning feedback loop animated by continuously re-aiming my attention at techniques that are proving their power.

Nowhere in my notes though, do I mention expressivity as something I want to improve because it’s difficult to evaluate one’s own expressivity, let alone improve it. Expression seems dependent on other general performance principles firing on all cylinders. A principle like start low, then move higher is useful because it’s a constraint I can remember, implement, and push against to try to make something happen—to make something expressive. Like this blog post’s narrow theme, what’s worked best is devising conditions under which I try to make something happen, to make something a little better than it turned out the last time I tried.

Curating The Week: Free Jazz, Voice, Burial

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A short documentary about free jazz.

“Part of the creativity is in the listening.”

A brief article about how hearing the human voice is multisensory.

“We rely on a panoply of sensory experiences to navigate the medium of sound. The multisensory ensemble helps us to discuss a speaker’s emotions and feelings through the conveyance of voice, creating interior meaning through metaphor. Description of touch and other senses can illuminate voice’s deep meaning and its acoustic properties at once. Next time you hear a soft voice, reflect on the engaging feeling of softness that makes your experience so much more meaningful.”

•A video essay about the creative strategies Burial used to make his 2007 recording Untrue.

Resonant Thoughts: Jaron Lanier’s “Dawn of the New Everything” (2017)

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“When we think technology can surpass our bodies in a comprehensive way, we are forgetting what we know about our bodies and physical reality. The universe doesn’t have infinitely fine grains, and the body is already tuned in as finely as anything can ever be, when it needs to be” (49).

“The unceasing flow of tiny learning forces—pressed finger against pliant material, sensor cell in the skin exciting a neuron that signals the brain as the pressure reflects—this flow is the blood of perception” (50).

-Jaron Lanier,
Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (2017)

Resonant Thoughts: Arnold Berleant’s “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance” (1999)

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“The performer necessarily comes at the music from within…Most often the performance situation catapults a musician into a rare and unusual condition, one that reveals the basic features of experience with eloquent directness, free, at least to some extent, from the usual overlay of cultural and philosophical presuppositions that nearly always obstruct our awareness. What is this perceptual condition like?”

– Arnold Berleant, “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance”,
Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall, 1999), p. 75.

How Drummers And Percussionists Use Rhythm To Engage Time

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Drummers and percussionists use rhythm to engage musical time in a variety of ways.
Here are some of the techniques we use:

 Marking time through articulating meter.
(One-two-three-four-five-One-two-three-four-five…)

Dividing time through subdivision of the meter’s main beats.
(One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five-and…)

Decorating or accentuating time through accents and emphases.
(One-two-three, Two-Two-Three…).

Driving forward time (or somewhat worse: pushing).

Holding back time (or much worse: dragging).

Interrupting time through a drum fill.

Abstracting time by free playing around a general pulse.

Ghosting time through ghost notes that subdivide and suggest the main beats.

Suggesting alternative times (poly-time) and time depths through polyrhythms (e.g. 3 over 2), and inherent or emergent rhythms (where the heard composite is different from the sum of the played musical parts).

Playing with time by artfully swinging, grooving.

Regimenting time by playing like a (quantized) machine.

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On Editing Music For Articulation

Over the past month as I was editing some new music for a piano-like instrument it struck me that what I was trying to do is make the music “breathe” more. One component of musical breathing has to with how its sounds are articulated. As my laptop’s dictionary reminds me, in music “articulation” refers to clarity in the production of successive notes. I guess I knew that already, though I don’t think about the concept much unless I’m faced with its absence (un-articulated?). Now that I’m writing about it, I realize I constantly try to articulate clearly on whatever instrument I’m playing. (Writing, too, is all about plotting subtleties of articulation.) Articulation is a big deal—I would prefer to devote myself to making a single note really sing that being able to play a slew of them really fast because a single singing sound has a more magical aura than does a blur of articulations. Regardless of what kind of music you make, one could make the case that effectively affective music articulates itself in some kind of pleasing and natural way—it literally seems to respire, from one note and phrase and section to the next. Specifically, to talk of a musician’s articulation is to talk of their touch—how they shape a single tone in terms of dynamics and timbre, and how they connect those tones into longer phrases, usually by “following the line” of the music. (Read more about following music’s line here.)

Anyway, as I was editing my pieces I was in essence taking a microscope to my original performances and looking for moments where they could be improved. Why would I want to improve on a performance that has a decent overall shape and flow? There’s a few reasons. The first is that my performing ability has limitations that become ever more apparent upon repeated listenings. My execution is uneven, for instance, which I partly blame on my plastic 61-note MIDI keyboard and I partly blame on me just being me. But with MIDI data on the screen in front of me, I can see the shape of my performance and also the patterns of my limitations in the performance’s unfolding. A second reason to edit is to imbue my performance with more of the drama that it suggested but couldn’t fully articulate when I recorded it. (In my defense, I was preoccupied with just getting through the performance!) Going back after the fact and tweaking here and there is a way to add gravitas through newly foregrounded, only noticed-now little details. A third reason to edit is because—duh!—that’s what computers and DAW software are for—photoshopping sound! A final reason for editing is that it uses your head in a different way. It’s like a post-game analysis where you coolly assess what really happened, what did and didn’t work, and how your team gave up those goals.

I edited the music along three of its parameters: its timing, its spatial density, and its articulations. Editing music’s timing aspects involves nudging a note here and there to make it more or less in sync with other notes in the texture. One lesson I’ve learned here is that you never want perfect synchrony in the digital realm because when you have that you literally have notes cancelling themselves out and they sound doubly thin. Out-of-syncness (recalling Charles Keil’s “participatory discrepancies”) is wonderful and can make for a thick groove, but only to a point, beyond which the music sounds like it has lost its human hand. Editing music’s spacial density involves one powerful technique: deleting notes. I love deleting notes. When you delete a note every sound around it immediately shines in a new, and usually wonderful way. Is a texture too busy? Delete a note. Is a melody or harmony murky? Delete a note. (Someday I’ll try a musical project that begins with a lot of notes and then just delete almost all of them to see what’s left.) As with editing music’s space, editing music’s articulations also involves one technique: changing note velocities (volume). This isn’t a simple task, because each different velocity level (the volume of MIDI events ranges from 1 to 127) has a very different feel. Tiny volume changes have huge emotional effects: a soft velocity can feel “delicate” or “feather-like” while a louder velocity suddenly verges into “aggressive” or “obnoxious” territory. Additionally, velocity-sensitive sampled instruments, like the one I was working with for my project, trigger timbrally distinct samples depending on how hard you touch the key (or adjust its velocity after the fact). With these instruments, their sound-feel changes as their velocity does.

As the weeks ticked by and I kept returning to the music to edit—each time wishfully thinking I’m done editing and that there’s no way I’ll be able to improve on the sounds—I found myself spending about 80 percent of my time on articulations. It began innocently enough, a by-product of looking at the music’s MIDI notes as I listened for the nth time. Looking at the screen I would notice that one note out of a cluster of three had an unusually high velocity—say 96 compared to the 74 of the others. I would play the passage again and then notice that the sound of the 96 note was sticking way out, and that I hadn’t heard it sticking out until I saw its MIDI representation. At this point I’d close my eyes and listen again, just to confirm what my eyes had reminded my ears. Then I’d adjust the note to a lower dynamic and listen again. Ah, better. I did the same thing with overly soft notes too, bringing up their dynamics to more audible levels with more presence. Tweaking the music towards more musical articulation reminded me how lousy a listener I can be—thinking that I can effortlessly analytically hear my own music when I can’t. Looking at the MIDI notes helped me hear more clearly what was happening in the sounds.

After fixing a bunch of errant-velocities, loud and soft, I then noticed a pattern to my fixing: I was not only dialing back the volumes of loud notes and boosting the quiet ones; I was also shaping groups of notes so that each group was more like an audibly sensible phrase that goes somewhere. Now I was having fun too, because the more I listened while looking at the MIDI data the more I realized that almost everything was in need of shaping. (How good was my original performance after all?) To use a metaphor from the cosmetics world, I was contouring the music by shaping its articulations into more sensible shapes. My most used techniques were to make phrases either  increase in velocity from soft to loud, decrease in velocity from loud to soft, or dip down in a U-shaped dynamic curve. Another technique was to dynamically accentuate downbeats, while leaving the upbeats much quieter. Though sometimes I played with those conventions too, making upbeats and lead-in notes louder than the notes they were setting up. I’d do this when I noticed that the accented note had a pleasing ringing quality to it that hung over the subsequent notes, vaporous and floating, like a cloud. Some sounds you only realize you like and want when you encounter them.

To illustrate, below is a screenshot of my editing in Ableton Live. The MIDI notes placement and duration are represented as little square blocks, and their velocity levels are the thin vertical lines at the bottom of the screen. The black MIDI note on the left side of the screen is the one whose velocity I took way down to make it sound more like a passing note. Also notice that each of the three three-note MIDI phrases on the right side of the screen have varied velocities. Each shape is different and you can hear those differences in the music.

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After repeating this articulation editing process numerous times I got to know music I thought I already knew more deeply. When you hear the same section of a piece repeatedly you develop a feel for what its optimal sound could be: as you get to know its subtle twists and turns it’s as if you build up in your mind’s ear the optimal volume for each note. There are other lessons here too. First, don’t do too much—don’t destroy what you started with. You don’t want to fundamentally mess with the contour of your original performance—mistakes and all. To retain this shape you need to leave intact the dynamic and temporal relationships among the music’s parts, and sometimes this means you should to leave intact little, otherwise fixable, errors of timing, spatial density, and articulation. This is okay because you want to preserve the sense from the original performance that here is a record of someone who tried to get it right the first time, even though he didn’t quite. A second lesson from hearing the music repeatedly has to do with controlled exaggeration. When you make a change, the change needs to be clearly audible—I would argue even a tad exaggerated—so that it can be registered from a distance. (I sometimes listen from outside the room the music is playing in to hear if my changes are still audible.) It’s like the difference between someone who mumbles and someone who clearly articulates their words. To articulate is to heighten and accentuate to bring out the musical qualities of what is being said. Articulation, in and outside of music, is one’s sense of touch, articulated.