Timing Techniques: Listening Over People, Rhythmically Resisting, And Super Rhythm

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There’s a spot in the show where I have a solo—a moment to set the time for everyone else. The conductor thinks he’s in charge, but no, he’s actually following me in my moment of laying it down, which is simultaneously my moment to test a hypotheses. The hypothesis is this: at some point in the next three minutes, the musicians around me will sway and drift timing-wise. My timing will move around too, but not as much. It used to move around quite a bit, but not anymore.

In the context of the my solo in the show, there are two tricks to keeping a steady timing. The first is listening over people. I’ll ignore an off-time sound in my foreground and move my attention to the background where there’s another musician more on-time (or with my time). I first wrote about this technique in my blog post Listening Over And From Afar, but it’s become even more vivid since then. Now I visualize my listening—like an easily thrown baseball arcing towards second base, or a sweetly struck seven iron cruising high before dropping softly on the green. When I listen over someone I listen to something else in the music to keep myself locked in. It’s the listening equivalent of throwing one’s ear from here to there, in a great trajectory. You could call it ventrilo-listening.

The second trick to keeping a steady timing is keying into the tempo of my hands so that I not only hear their time but acutely feel it. I suppose all drummers do that: drumming is a cadence, a rhythm of regularity, a study in steadiness. Ever watch the walk of a disturbed person as they move down the street? Their movement has no smoothness to it—it’s jerky, or oddly lurching, unstable and unmeasured. Their tempo is off. When my hands get into a flow they become like well-adjusted antennae, alert to any disturbances in the groove system. And as I said, at some point in the three minutes there will be a disturbance. 

Depending on the musicians playing on a particular night, the rhythmic disturbance may or may not be contagious. In my experience, novice musicians are more prone to being swayed, and when this happens the musical texture can quickly become unstable—a little like a disturbed person lurching down the street. I look forward to noticing the onset of this moment of instability, trying to track its dynamics while at the same time holding down my part. It reminds me of an exquisite line in Russell Hartenberger’s book about performing the music of Steve Reich. Hartenberger describes the feeling of being in the middle of a long rhythmic phasing section in which two drummed rhythms gradually go out of sync and create musical tension: “I sometimes stay in an irrational relationship for a while if I feel comfortable there” (97). At the show, the most common way a moment of instability plays out is that someone begins dragging the time and this causes other musicians to do the same. Maybe this happens because it’s natural for us to try to stay in sync with one another, as if to demonstrate our sense of empathy. My impulse is to immediately adjust myself to what I hear around me, but my experience with this repeating situation has changed me. Now I resist, sometimes quite forcibly. Like, I’m so over this.

It took me years to learn how to rhythmically resist and to know what this feels like. It can be hard going, because when you don’t go with someone else’s dragging time there’s an audible moment of rupture, where it becomes apparent that something is amiss. Through their playing, each musician is asking the same question and answering it: Whose time is the right time? Well, I think mine is! What is hard is maintaining one’s flow past the moment of rupture to the point that the other musician(s) wake up a bit to what is transpiring. Musical time is a constant negotiation that way, with each musician giving and taking, over and over again. Once you pass the moment of rupture—where two time senses are phasing by one another in the night—clarity follows: this is where the time is. It’s not perfect time, though. As I play, I listen to other musicians move in and out of my time, some of them more fluidly than others, and every movement around me affects my timing in small ways. Yet I keep insisting on my time, and by doing so give the other musicians something to push off of. Or maybe they’re not really listening. In any case, it works.

In contrast to rhythmically resisting and moments of rupture, there are, thankfully, occasional moments of super rhythm. Super rhythm happens when a musician is keyed into my time and all of a sudden our combined rhythm feels much more than the sum of our parts. There’s a genuine meta-groove interlock between us—our notes respond to one another and the time pushes and surges, almost rushing and always energized. Usually I start smiling when this happens, because it feels so easy to play under these conditions. I wish it happened more often.

Breakbeat Thinking

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Back in the early 80s
the turntablists found the breakdowns
the funky bits where the band stops
and the rhythms keep running

soon the samplers were grabbing
hook-textures from old records
reinflating the past to pop it in the present

it was about finding the rhythm in things
the grooves of juxtaposition
a well-timed turnaround
an accidental counterpoint

now that computers are artists
samplers of culture
flotsam memes and GIFs
forwarded funny impermanent stuff

we find breakbeat thinking
still listening for the cycles of things
in wherever you aim it.

Resonant Thoughts: Kodwo Eshun On Listening

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“Sometimes listening to music is more about listening to your own ways of listening, hearing your own ways of hearing. Wondering what you’re hearing. And sometimes you need time to do it, and that’s when the anxiety sets in. Everyone around you says that listening is time-wasting, but you have to remind yourself that listening is an active form of creating.”
Kodwo Eshun

 

 

On Jon Hopkins At Brooklyn Steel

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I recently went to hear Jon Hopkins perform at Brooklyn Steel, a shoebox-shaped warehouse located on the lonely north edge of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I only caught the end of the performance, but what I saw was stellar. Hopkins played music from his latest release, Singularity, an album which aims to recreate, in a sort of self-reflexive way, the transcendent flow of experiencing a perfectly configured and calibrated EDM set. There was lighting design and visuals on a large screen behind the stage and most notably, the music was pummellingly loud. (Everyone around me was wearing earplugs, as was Hopkins, who kept adjusting them, I noticed. Is it fair to acknowledge that sound system/DJ culture has weaponized the sound of live music?) Hopkins is a significant figure in electronic music because of how he combines a composer’s sense of craftsmanship, a pop producer’s melodic and harmonic knack, and a DJ’s technical and tactile understanding of how to achieve visceral excitement. Watching him perform, you have the impression of a composer who has crashed the gates of the EDM party, figured out its sonic codes, and then re-written some of its vocabulary to suit his own ends, all the while staying true to the four-on-the-floor techno style guide. An aesthetically lean and flexible musician, Hopkins wouldn’t surprise us if someday he took a left turn into say, harp music.

Hopkins performs with two laptops running Ableton Live, several Korg Kaoss touch pad controllers, and a mixing board or two. (He might use more equipment such as CD turntables, but I couldn’t see. There are articles elsewhere online that detail this.) The most noticeable aspect of his performing is that he actually plays those Kaoss pads as effects instruments by tapping and swiping their screens to modulate various parameters of the music. Even from a hundred feet away, the audience can see the connection between Hopkins’ gestures and the resulting changes in the music, which is not something you can say about a lot of electronic musicians. Hopkins is particularly adept at transitions between sections of pieces and different songs, so that one sound is continually morphing into/onto another, or a single common tone is both the end of one part and the beginning of the next. Hopkins has stated in interviews that he loves music that is continuously changing, always on the move. In a way, his entire set is one grand morph.

The most attractive aspect of Hopkins’ music is the intricacy of its construction. Singularity is a marvel of a thousand details weighed and measured, intuited and sharpened into a jewel of repeating surprises. In this sonic world, nothing is ever as simple as it feels. The four-on-the-floor beat is skewered in myriad ways, with the timing of the hits displaced and bent so that the beat sucks and heaves the musical time instead of merely marking it. Hi hat-type parts skitter around the stereo soundscape, as if breathing. Harmonic textures and ambiances floating above the beats are glued with echo and reverb effects such that they seem to have no end—their swirling progressions can seem like M.C. Escher staircases that forever go higher and higher and lower and lower while somehow staying in the same place. And melodies are crafted out of little more than a few round tones that playfully bounce and multiply on top of the textures and ambiences before they vanish or become something else. Trying to track all of this musical action creates the sensation that the music has an epic quality—as if it’s urgently trying to lead you somewhere, or guide you on a calibrated journey. There were moments during the show where Hopkins played with extended build-ups as preludes to the inevitable (and cliched) EDM bass drop. But the build ups went to extremes—far beyond a measurable 4 or 16 or 32 beats. Some of the build ups seemed to create their own forevers and built to almost unbearable pressure levels—at one point I had the sense the music was rendering what it might feel like if Brooklyn Steel itself imploded. The rotary knob Hopkins was turning clearly had no end. It was intense.

As I watched and felt the bass tones vibrating my rib cage, I thought about what I have always considered to be the limitations of today’s DJ-oriented music. Typically, DJs play the music of others, and their creative contribution is to draw on their knowledge of recorded music to mix and match pieces that create impactful juxtapositions and guide the crowd through a groove experience. But listening to Hopkins’ set reminded me of the value of the composer’s craft. Hopkins was playing all of his own music, which he recorded himself using the same technologies he was performing it with. Rather than simply mixing together a series of tempo-synced beats from the tracks of others, he had conceived and constructed a unique world of rhythms, ambiances, and effects processes. This is what I mean when I said he’s like a composer who has crashed the EDM party gates. But I figuratively dance around an important point. Despite their contributions to the past fifty years of popular music history, most DJs aren’t composers in the sense that most of them work with previously recorded music they didn’t write themselves. Mixing and remixing isn’t quite composing–although it can be deeply creative–and relying on beats can, to my ear, come at the expense of other musical elements. All this to say that sometimes I miss the composer. Hearing Hopkins improvise his own music reassures me that there are ways to bring the rigors of composition into the fluidities of electronic music production.