Whether you’re a performer or a listener, when you’re involved in music you’re flipping your attention all the time, orienting it from one place to another, focusing on something near or far, just past or maybe about to happen, from the sounds to your emotions and then back to the sounds, in a repeating feedback loop over time. That’s what involvement with music is: a flipping between the sounds and your engagement with them, over and over again. Even the most cursory self-reflection suggests that we never listen to music absent mindedly. (Even “chillout” music has a particular job to do that we track as we listen to make sure it’s doing it.) As we listen, we’re constantly comparing what we hear to what we already know, constantly registering degrees of development and stasis, and constantly evaluating the affective power of the music. Is this moving me? Is this interesting? What does this remind me of? How is this making me feel? All these questions simultaneously jostle with one another as we listen.

Recently I was watching a well-known rock band perform on Saturday Night Live. Rock isn’t my Thing, but I’m familiar with its instrumentation and its go-to musical gestures. As the band played I closed my eyes and tried to assess the performance not as celebrity spectacle—this was a well know band!—but as sound alone. The song seemed to be, at best, of average quality. Since my eyes were closed, I imagined walking past a small club on Avenue C in New York (back in the day—that area has long since gentrified) and hearing this band play through an open doorway. There might have been a few hardcore fans watching them, but the music wouldn’t have compelled me enough to stop. (In both my imaginary scenario and in real life there is always more just ok music than there is exceptional music.) The point of this story is that even though I’m not a rock fan, I listened to the group’s song while simultaneously bringing to mind every rock-ish music I had ever heard to try to make sense of what I was hearing. I flipped the band’s music around as they played it, trying to relate it to what I already knew. It had electric guitars, it had a drummer playing hard, and it had a singer sounding aggressive, but those facts on their own didn’t prove any musical worth. As I listened I tried to imagine why someone might like—or love—this sound.

Music offers many kinds of flipping opportunities. Musicians flip chords by inverting its notes to create new harmonies, and they flip musical style markers to play with musical genre conventions. Meanwhile music listeners flip between what they hear and what they’re thinking and feeling, always measuring the music against other metrics—including the musics they’ve already heard and who they feel themselves to be. I would say the band I saw on SNL was average, but maybe one day when I learn to flip my perception the right way they’ll be amazing.

Curating The Week: Music Improvisation Documentaries, Walking And Creativity, Universals In Music


On The Edge, an awesome four-part BBC series on improvisation written by Derek Bailey (1930-2005) that surveys a range of music making.

An article about waking and creativity.

“What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry.”

An article about searching for universals in music. (This article got ethnomusicologists talking.)

“The project’s first paper, published in journal Current Biology this week, is an attempt to see if lullabies, dance songs, healing and love songs contain features that make them recognizable to anyone.”

Letting Go


One of the most important questions any maker of things addresses in their work is How do I know then the work is done? I have worked on projects that were completed in a few minutes, as well as on projects that have stretched over years of on and off tinkering. But no matter how long it takes to shape something, there comes a time you need to or want to let it go.

Knowing exactly when the work is done paradoxically requires acknowledging that no work is ever quite done, only done sufficiently to meet your standard of doneness. There are, however, other routes to finishing and indications of doneness. Sometimes a work is done when it says pretty much what you intended it to say. I say pretty much because it’s often the case that you begin with one thing and finish with something different. If that something different still says pretty much what you had intended, you’ve done okay. How you know this to be the case is a matter of objective facts inherent in the work (is it well-built?) as well as your feelings about the effects of those facts.

Sometimes you declare a work is done because you just want to move on to something else. In plain terms, you’re getting tired of being with it. Other times you sense a threshold of diminishing returns approaching you on the horizon of your work, beyond which further labor will probably not yield substantially different results. You’ve already tinkered and now realize—or more accurately, you’ve decided—that you won’t be doing any more things to your work to improve or otherwise alter it. As the saying goes, it is what it is.

Letting Go is related to the concept of resetting, but is a little different. When we reset we pretend that this time is the first time to bracket off our actions from the noise around us so we can focus. Resetting is starting from scratch, over and over again. If you diagrammed it, it would be circular. Letting Go is a more left to right linear thought process, where we can clearly remember the first time and how it led us here to the 104th time of working on our project. Letting Go is a mindset that acknowledges that the elapsed time span of our project as we have lived with it, whereby it has had a beginning, a middle, and now, an end where we have loosened our grasp to let it fly on its own wings.

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With brettworks


Thomas: I get to interview you—finally! Why didn’t we think of this sooner?

brettworks: I don’t know, but I was right here the whole time!

Thomas: So let’s dive in. Readers are curious:
What’s the point of your blog and what, if any, are your plans are for it?

brettworks: The point of the blog is to write, to have a reason to focus and generate ideas, and to have a platform for sharing music-related material. It started as a once in a while thing, then became a two to three times a week thing, and lately it’s been a Monday to Friday thing. It may return to a once in a while thing though. As for my plans for the blog, I don’t think very far ahead—even though I write the posts a month in advance. The main thing is to channel the excitement I feel when I encounter something interesting.

Thomas: How often do you check your blog stats?

brettworks: Several times a day. Yes, I’m one of those people.

Thomas: Why?

brettworks: Because the WordPress app on my phone let’s me do that.

Thomas: What have you learned from your stats?

brettworks: Much of my traffic is random—people stumbling upon the blog because they were Googling say, “michael mcdonald” or “bollywood time signatures” or “rolex commercial” or “why does my voice sound weird.”
This is the reason why I publish “Searches That Brought You Here” posts:
I want to close the feedback loop between your searches and my findings.

Thomas: Interesting. What else have you learned?

brettworks: That there is a sub-section of readers that appreciate ideas in poetry form. In fact, poems are often “liked” while longer prose posts almost never. This makes me wonder whether I should be writing about music exclusively in poetry form. After all, poetry is like music in that it focuses on the nexus of sound and oblique meaning. I’ve started to write more impressionistically about music too, in my parenthetical descriptions for the “Brett’s Sound Picks” posts.
This is one way to stay out of the music’s way.

Thomas: How do you come up with ideas for blog posts?

brettworks: It depends. The last few months I’ve been writing about single words—like “Better” or “Attune” or “Flip.” Sometimes I respond to music that I like. My aim is to share what I admire, but there’s also a selfish motivation, which is to create reasons to seek out good stuff. Sometimes I write about my experiences making music. Sometimes I respond to a book. Sometimes I write about music’s use as a tool that guides our feelings (as is the case with TV ads). And sometimes I write because music as an expressive form seems inadequate to the task of articulate expression.

Thomas: Can you expand on that?

brettworks: Music often seems trapped in its own cliches of expression—minor and major, rousing or scary or cool, quirky pizzicato strings that accompany the people bumbling around on a cooking show, popular or classical.
Sometimes it’s as if music teases us to stay clear-headed in its presence.

Thomas: Interesting. But back to something you just said—about music being trapped in its own cliches of expression.

brettworks: Right.

Thomas: From that perspective, what are you most interested in listening to these days?

brettworks: I guess any music that pushes against those cliches and offers an alternative that compels through other means. Before I go further though, I’ll say that this cliches of expression idea is from the writer Geoff Dyer.

Thomas: What’s the quote?

brettworks: In addition to cliches of expression, Dyer speaks of “cliches of observation and of thought—even of conception.” And although he’s talking about novels, his idea that any work can be “cliches of form which conform to cliches of expectation” equally applies to music I think. Thanks to Dyer’s idea, when I listen to music now I sometimes think about cliches.
What was your question again?

Thomas: What are you listening to these days?

brettworks: Right. Usually I listen to instrumental music.

Thomas: Can you give an example?

brettworks: Some of the music in my “Brett’s Sound Picks” I like a lot. (I have begun curating a Spotify playlist for 2018 that I’ll be adding to. Feel free to follow it or just listen to it.) I recently heard a piece by the English jazz trio GoGo Penguin that’s remarkable—it sounds like an approximation of electronic music. You’d never mistake this for classic jazz or conventional electronic music—instead it sounds like an emerging musical category, like acoustic techno-mimetic music or something.

Thomas: Is that a commonly used phrase? Acoustic techno-mimetic music?

brettworks: No. But I think it describes what music like this seems to be aspiring to. The music of Dawn of Midi could also be described like this. So, I like music that chases after new aesthetics, that tries out different ways of being. “Mainstream” pop has a lot of interesting production work happening inside it too. You hear it in the music’s details—in a meticulously shaped hip hop drum sound or pad timbre, for instance. I often love those details more than the songs themselves.
It’s like the songs are vehicles for the sounds and not the other way around.

Thomas: Interesting. Where do you discover new music?

brettworks: I often read about new releases on boomkat.com. Sometimes I hear about things on Twitter, and sometimes Spotify’s algorithmically-derived “Discover” recommendations lead me to something.

Thomas: When you encounter a new music, how do you listen to it?

brettworks: At first super fast—I’ll scan a whole album then quickly return to a single track and listen to it obsessively until the sources of its power begin to make sense. It’s not the most sympathetic way to listen, but for me it works to bypass too much conscious thinking about whether or not the music is “good” or whether or not I “like” it.

Thomas: Air quotes!

brettworks: Yes! I put those words in quotes because I think we don’t like a music because it’s good, we like it because we’re sympathetic to the way in which it’s going about doing the work of defining itself.
Somehow we resonate along with how the music is doing its thing.

Thomas: Okay. Switching to another topic: Why do you think your ventrilo-dialogue with Rihanna is so popular? It took a few years, but it’s catching on!

brettworks: I don’t know why that is and it’s a little worrisome! I think the popularity of the post has to do with people wanting to hear a singer talk about her voice, or peel back a celebrity persona to move from being an object of attention to being a vehicle for other ideas we can focus on if we move past the spectacle of it all.
Anyways, let me remind readers that Ventrilo-Dialogues are speculative fiction.

Thomas: What is your favorite brettworks post?

brettworks: My favorite post is one of my first ones on the appendix in C. Wright Mills’ 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. The appendix is called “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” and in it Mills lays out principles by which the blog tries to live. Mills says you need to pay attention to the subtle sources of your ideas and then meticulously cultivate and document those sources as a kind of ongoing craft. (For some reason I always picture Mills at a drafting table, putting his ideas into diagram form.) I wish someone had shown me this book when I was in high school—I came across it by accident in graduate school while exploring the library stacks. Mills’ appendix is inspiring because it explains how to combine far-out, almost trippy idea generation with empirically-grounded thinking. You can read the post here.

Thomas: Thanks for taking the time, brettworks.

brettworks: You’re welcome. Next time I’ll interview you!