On Clearly Articulating 

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articulate—express an idea or feeling fluently or coherently
(from Latin articulare ‘divide into joints’)

Well-articulated music has amazing communicative power, and when I listen to other musicians play the first thing I notice is how it articulates (or not). For drummers and percussionists, it’s impossible to hide behind sloppy articulation because the sounds we make are for the most part sounds of quick attack and decay. This exposes us—revealing in an instant our time sense, our sound, and our phrasing. Sometimes you’ll hear a musician substituting volume for articulation and this is not a pleasant sound. A loud sound can be beautiful too, but only if it’s thoughtfully articulated and controlled. I once watched a percussionist lose his articulation because, it seemed to me, he was so enjoying cramming in an excess of (improvised) notes. I was enjoying watching him cram in those notes, but cringing at the sound. The musician’s quality of sound—his articulation—fell by the wayside as he chased after ever more filigreed patterns. As I listened I wished I could turn him down and hit a magic button to fix his articulation. 

I think about articulation often when I’m working on electronic music because I could be doing more to stay conscious of it and to refine it in my work. I frequently notice a re-occurring sloppy articulation situation: I’ve added supporting parts to a main one and these parts add a pleasing sound wash, but none of them are articulated enough. In other words, I can’t really tell what each one is doing from moment to moment. This isn’t a problem of timbral articulation (though I can certainly address that by adjusting say, EQ), but a problem of musical articulation. Instead of several articulated lines (melodies or chords), the parts make a single blob of sound. It sounds fine, but it could be better if each part were more coherent.

One way I do this is by breaking up the monotony of having every part always playing. A part can be muted here and there without necessarily interrupting the coherence of its line. Music perception is interesting that way: our ears compensate in subtle ways for what’s missing in the music, a fact which makes the music even more interesting. Along with muting, a part’s volume can be temporarily lowered or raised to background or foreground it. While adjusting volume like this is a bit laborious, the effect is powerful because it creates the sensation that the parts are listening to one another. It’s like if you and I were playing a duet and you step up to take a bit of a solo. If I were listening well, I’d immediately lower my dynamic so your soloing would shine even more. When you finished, we’d both meet in the dynamic middle somewhere and continue on.

When a part is muted or has its volume altered momentarily, this sets up conditions for creating a call and response between it and other elements in the music. I’ve written about call and response elsewhere, but what is most powerful about this ancient musical structure is how it creates articulation between multiple parts. As I said in another blog post, call and response gets “the music listening to itself at the various layers of its rhythmic action.”

Zooming out to a more global-structural view of a piece of music, one can think about articulation in terms of how well all of its parts combine to coherently express a feeling. No matter how the parts are arranged and edited, the goal is to sustain some kind of attention in the listener. One of the delights of electronic music production is that I’m constantly finding interesting things to listen to that I never anticipated encountering. For example, after I edited a part by bringing down its volume, all of a sudden a new composite sound in the music reveals itself. Here I was making one part more articulated and in that process something else in the music emerged. As my attention bounces all over the music’s surface, I wonder: How would another listener hear it? Maybe the most useful kind of articulation expresses a feeling without boxing it in, suggests a mood without defining it, and offers a mix of sensations without resolution?   

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