On The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.


There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:


In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

Still Centers: On Harold Budd’s Piano Music

“I realized I had minimalized myself out of a career. It had taken ten years to reduce my language to zero but I loved the process of seeing it occur and not knowing when the end would come. By then I had opted out of avant-garde music generally; it seemed self-congratulatory and risk-free and my solution as to what to do next was to do nothing, to stop completely.”- Harold Budd

Born in Los Angeles in 1936 and raised in the Mojave Desert where he found early musical inspiration in the humming tones caused by wind blowing through telephone wires, Harold Budd is a singular American ambient composer who makes spacious and meditative music. In the four and a half-minute piece “Haru Spring” from his recent recording In The Mist (Darla 2011) we hear Budd arpeggiate wide open five-note chords and let them ring very, very long. The space between chords ranges from five to over fifteen seconds and this isn’t really silence per se, but rather the sound of the piano slowly diminishing and fading to almost nothing. Listening to Budd you’re reminded of the famous Rorschach ink-blot test

where you stare at it and see what comes to your mind’s eye. With a piece like Budd’s “Haru Spring” something similar happens to your mind’s ear as you listen to one chord decay and wonder when the next one will appear and where it might go. In that space of wonder various non-musical thoughts and impressions come to the foreground and then recede like images triggered by an ink-blot.

The fact that Budd’s music can trigger this kind of perceptual experience is part of what makes it so good. It’s a kind of music that hides its musicality–making you forget it’s composed/improvised out of just a few tones. In doing this it reminds you that one of the very best things music can be is not a demonstration of a particular technique or theory but a realization of a special kind of affective space, a conjurer of mood.

On Sonic Persuasion: The Music Of Oneohtrix Point Never

Over the past few months I heard about Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin)’s electronic music in at least two disparate places–in Simon Reynolds’ fine book Retromania and in a recent article by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker–so I decided to buy his most recent recording Replica and check it out. Compelling music sometimes bubbles to the surface like this.

Oneohtrix’s music is indeed a rich soundworld, and while it drones and loops along, it’s never quite static. There’s a lot happening and changing moment to moment and this alone keeps your ear in the game.

Style-wise, the tracks on Replica don’t sound nostalgic, nor do they sound particularly 2011. Actually, it’s hard to date them. Maybe this is because Oneohtrix uses vintage synthesizers to generate arpeggios, improvises chords and melodies, and mixes these with audio samples culled from old infomercials found on YouTube. Everything is then blended together, re-sampled (sometimes many times) and assembled on the computer.  Here is Oneohtrix discussing his creative process:

“I jam combos of arpeggiators in latch or unlatched modes, sequencers, and free playing via loopers, and then bounce it to computer where I resample and layer the stuff there. I do this process over and over. It can get really time-consuming and insane.”

Most everything in this music is in full view, standing revealed: you can hear the seams between sections; you can hear the fragmented sampled source material; you can hear the repeated arpeggios; you can hear the sometimes cheesy sound patches (e.g. are those synthesized horn sounds?); and you can hear the layers of noise and hiss.

In other words, nothing is hidden in this music. It’s assembled from fragments, but without fetishizing their sources–without, that is, any knowing “winks” to indicate to us that some sound is referencing in an ironic way. What this leaves us with is a soundworld that is by turns mysterious, curious and anxious, and most importantly, quite emotionally moving.

Here is my favorite track, “Power Of Persuasion”:

Eno & Co. Improvising Electronic Music

Ambient music guru Brian Eno recently released a recording called Small Craft On a Milk Sea (2010 Opal Ltd.).  Perhaps as part of a promotional strategy for the new release (?), Eno is making a series of seven videos called “Seven Sessions On a Milk Sea” documenting improvised performances with two other musicians (Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams) in his home studio.  The first video can be viewed at the New York Times here.  The music in this video is largely a pulsating drone overlaid with arpeggios of shifting lengths.  Given all the gear involved–Eno’s keyboard and laptop, Hopkins’ keyboard, and Abrahams’ processed guitar–it’s hard to tell exactly who is doing what or where the individual sounds are coming from.  But it’s still nice to see musicians improvising electronic sound together in real-time, reminding us that the idiom is more than the solo DJ spinning MP3s or a lone laptop musician playing back sound files.  It’s people playing and listening together, making a collective din.

Making Musical Systems Public

Over the years, a lot of electronic musicians have shrouded their work in a veil of mystery: they tell us very little about how they make their music–the tools the use, their working methods, and so forth.  We are reminded of vinyl DJs back in the day who would cover up the labels on their records so no one could see the sources of their tracks.  Non-DJ electronic musicians have a lot of equipment potentially at their disposal and so invest time and energy devising their own musical systems through which they channel their ideas.  It’s always interesting to hear what they have to say on this front because they help answer our questions: What software and MIDI controllers do you use?  What is your set-up for rendering your material in live performance?  These are the kinds of things that electronic musicians have to think about because being a one person band is never a natural or a simple thing to pull off. In essence, you’re trying to approximate a larger sound, using technology to multiply your musical capabilities and extend your senses.  And one’s musical system is never written in stone either. For instance, it’s not uncommon for musicians to rebuild their systems from scratch from time to time, just to see what happens.

Occasionally, musicians cut to the chase and share with us information about their musical systems, and it’s a thrill when they do.  Case in point: San Francisco-based ambient musician Christopher Willits collaborated with electronic music magazine and website XLR8R to produce a series of videos on his performance set up and techniques.  I saw Willits play live a few months ago and was impressed by the fluidity of his music making.  Sitting cross-legged on stage, he used an electronic guitar as a controller, while a laptop computer running Ableton Live software handled the sound processing.

In a series of videos posted on YouTube, Willits walks the viewer through this musical set up and explains how he uses it.  The set up includes not just his guitar, but also software programmed with Max For Live (a version of Cycling ’74’s Max/MSP that is integrated into Ableton Live) and a MIDI controller called the Block.  Willits walks the viewer through his software and hardware set up, paying particular attention to how he uses his Max For Live step sequencer.

As the music gets cranking about 9 minutes into one of the videos, you can hear some similarities to American minimalist music, especially the music of Steve Reich.  Of course, minimalist music was once known as “process” music (and indeed Reich himself once characterized his interest in music that was, literally, a process, or an unfolding in front of your ears where nothing is hidden).  The process in Willits’ music is a gradually unfolding series of permutations: Willits plays guitar notes into the step sequencer that records them, chews them up, multiplies them, and sets up a looping and ever-shifting melo-harmonic-rhythmic texture.

You can watch the video here.