Notes On Daniel Lanois’s “Heavy Sun”

I kinda froze when I heard the two and a half-minute track “Heavy Sun” from Canadian producer and ambient instrumentalist Daniel Lanois’s latest recording (with Rocco Deluca), “Goodbye To Language.” I had been scrolling through the new releases on Spotify for the week when I found the Lanois piece and I froze because I found the music immediately appealing not only in terms of its sounds but also in terms of its design. Unlike a lot of music I encounter I had no idea how this gem was assembled or performed, or even what instruments or other equipment might have been used. The music had a drone quality, but the drone subtly pulsed. The sounds seemed to be electronic, but also effortlessly natural in an acoustic kind of way, as if the performers had deep confidence with getting their gear to do exactly what they want. Over the drone I heard wisps of chords and melodic motifs, but those wisps and motifs had a floating rather than a directional, I need to get somewhere feel. The music took its time conjuring its unusual, old-timey, and alien soundscape. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I remembered that Lanois plays pedal steel guitar and that this subtle recording was made using this subtle instrument. Suddenly it all started making sense, but not so much sense that it explained itself away.

Here is a video of Lanois performing another track, “Satie”, with Deluca:

On Listening Fast And Slow

In his book, Thinking Fast And Slow, the eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of thinking that steer our judgements and decision-making. The first type, System 1, is fast, intuitive, and emotional: the second, System 2, is slower, more considered, and logical. I have talked about Kahneman’s book on my blog, here.

Recently I remembered Kahneman’s work as I thought about how I listen to music. For me, listening is initially always a System 1 engagement. I make assessments about what I’m hearing fast–maybe too fast–as if answering a series of questions I didn’t know I had. Does this music speak to me? What is it trying to say? What of its materials holds my attention? Is it presenting something for me to grapple with and figure out? Does it manage to contain mysteries within its sounds that will keep me coming back for more? As you can imagine, not a lot of music passes this System 1 test. For worse or better, I often dismiss what I hear before giving it a chance to prove itself.

When I find something that sounds interesting my System 2 kicks in. Now I do two things. First, I listen to the music a lot, coming back to it over and over again, listening at different times a day in different places (to see how it travels), listening in a way that could be called well, obsessive. The second way I listen is I hone in on different points of intrigue in the music. The obsessive listening foregrounds things I never noticed during my first System 1 encounter with the work. Things like an unusual chord (“the bass note isn’t a stable root, it’s a dissonance!”), a rhythmic instability (“Why can’t I find beat one?”), or a timbre (“that organ in the high register is super transparent”). As I listen, I try to figure out how it is that what I like in the music works.


On How Composers Listen To Their Own Work


Having recently finished a project and waiting for it to be mastered, I found myself spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces. I did this listening while doing other things like making toast or tidying up the apartment, and more often than not I listened from another room, letting the sounds move down the hallway and bend around corners so I could take them in from a distance. Why was I listening and what was I trying to notice?

A first reason for listening was to get to know the music. The pieces had been done relatively quickly—quickly enough that prior to finishing the music I had never quite gotten to know it. Over the past few years, my composing has been partly based upon improvisation. (Isn’t all composing at some point improvisation?) This means that I end up reaching for things in one-time performances without fully knowing what it is that I’m reaching for. I just play—trying to make something that seems balanced and enchanting in the moment, or at least not immediately annoying. Later, when I’m editing, I’ll listen to the pieces repeatedly, but since I’ll be focused on the minutiae of fixing little annoying errors, I won’t hear how the pieces flow and won’t understand what it was that I had originally been reaching for. It’s only once the pieces are done (little errors now minimized) that I can begin listening while doing other things and get to know the music in a general way. Now I can hear the performance almost as an outsider would—as if observing it from a distance. This explains why I’ll listen from another room.

I was also listening for something more amorphous: how the music makes me feel, its overall mood, and how it sustains and paces my feeling for the duration of its sounding. Let me re-phrase that: music probably doesn’t make us feel anything—we arrive at feelings with the help of the music. Listening, in other words, is an encounter between the hearer and the sounding. Listening from another room while doing other things is an encounter that helps me gauge how the music inflects those other things I’m doing, as if the sounds are scents, or casting shadows. In a way, I was trying to assess if this music could be actually useful. For instance, could I, or someone else, make toast or fall asleep to this music? I’m happy to report that the answer to both these questions is yes!

A third thing I was listening for was durability: how do these pieces hold up over repeated listenings? How do they wear as I get to know them better? Do some pieces become more annoying, more cloying, the more I listen to them? Do some pieces get better or simply hold their value? Here’s an example: there was one piece in the series—originally the ninth piece, now the fifth—that had always struck me as slightly better than the others. Even though all the pieces were created the same way, each one based upon brief musical improvisations, this particular piece had a weight to it. If it wasn’t better, it at least sounded more assured, almost as if it were a model for the others to aspire to. Maybe I got lucky with it, or maybe, since it was originally the ninth piece in a series of twenty, I had begun to hit my stride with it? In any case, repeated listening did two things: it confirmed my initial positive impression of this model piece, and it confirmed the durability if not of the piece, then at least of that initial positive impression. This was an important realization insofar as there are times when a music seems to change over time simply because my tastes have changed. Funny how that works.

A final reason I was listening was to let go of the music. While I’m working on a project and listening to it over and over, its sounds loom large in my mind’s ear and I often hear bits of the pieces on repeat in my head when I’m least expecting it, as if I’ve created my own earworms. I began this project one year ago, then left it for a time, then came back to it. During that time, the pieces were in the foreground of my attention. But now I need to shift them to the background. I’m done with this music and the fundamental reason I’m spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces from another room while doing other things is to say goodbye to them.

On Leaving Space In Music


The other evening I felt like listening to some “zone out” music on my way home from work, so I put on Harold Budd’s Perhaps, a collection of piano music.

As I walked the last few blocks from the subway I took measure of the great space in Budd’s improvisations–in the spaces he leaves between his chord clusters and melodies that hang like tree branches. In addition to his attractive note choices, what stands out in Budd’s playing are those spaces just after the melo-harmonic resonances are fading away. Taking measure of these spaces in the music, I tried counting the number of steps I was taking between each chord and was surprised to find that the average was between eight and twelve steps. That’s a lot of space!

While I have enjoyed Budd’s music since I first encountered it a few years ago, I never realized that maybe part of how it works is through what could be called its generosity of space-providing. As you listen, the music offers you ample room to think about what you just heard, count your steps if you’re so inclined, or make other non-musical associations. Most music we listen to isn’t like this. Most music is about fullness and density–richly layered, textured, orchestrated, and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. But such music doesn’t invite us into the listening encounter the way Budd’s space-providing piano playing does.

You can read more about Budd here and here and here.

On Outsider Music I: Lubomyr Melnyk’s “Cloud Passade No. 3”


“The piano and its sound are as much a part of the music as the notes.” – Lubomyr Melnyk

I recently came across some piano music of Lubomyr Melnyk. He makes what he calls “continuous motion” music which involves playing rapid and continuous patterns up and down the keyboard for very long stretches while keeping the sustain pedal down. The effect is a hypnotic, waterfall-like sound wall. The music is very tonal and consonant harmonically, and has a steady, if somewhat frantic, 12-beat pulse. The continuity, consonance, and length of Melnyk’s pieces create a kind of heightened state. As you listen you hear little inherent patterns within the patterns as your ears latch onto different note combinations, and if you’re like me, feel non-musical things. (Isn’t that the point of music?)

Here is a three-minute excerpt taken from three-quarters of the way through a 17-minute performance of Melnyk’s “Cloud Passade No. 3:

A few observations about the music. First, despite its speed, Melnyk’s playing doesn’t feel physical or strenuous–it just feels flowing, which is itself a musical-technical accomplishment. Second, his chord choices are subtle and unusual–they don’t seem to follow the conventional logic that this style of music would suggest. Third, the music is reminiscent of some classic minimalist fare–leaning more towards Philip Glass’s romanticism than Steve Reich’s asceticism–yet Melnyk’s work has its own agenda too. Fourth, this piece raises the question of musical canons and repertoires, and insiders and outsiders vis-a-vis musical traditions–specifically about how it comes to be that some composers rather than others have their voices widely heard, and how it is that some musical gestures rather than others are spread far and wide and ultimately accepted. Finally, as I listened to this piece I found that I wasn’t thinking about music per se, just enjoying a waterfall sound wall. As the music constructed an array of emotions in me, I stopped thinking about its precedents or its stylistic brethren. That’s often a sign that a music is doing what every music aspires to do: create a space in which feeling and intellection can celebrate together over the sounds’ meaningful fire.

On Soloing A Part: Listening To Eddie Van Halen’s Electric Guitar

Thanks to a recent post by Open Culture, I recently listened to the electric guitar part to Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “Panama.” Just to be clear, it’s a recording not of the song with the full band of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Just Eddie Van Halen’s guitar in complete isolation, up close and personal.

It’s a virtuosic performance. The groove is relentless and forward-moving, the timbre is weighty with its wonderful distortion, there are nice bits of harmonic work, a brief solo (in this case, a solo within a solo), and a surprising amount of dynamic contrast. The other thing I noticed is how efficient “Panama” is as a pop-metal concoction. It says its thing, sets off some fireworks, and then it’s over.

When I was a kid I must have heard this song hundreds of times as ambient sound. Whether it was on the radio or on TV, this music, this celebration of bombast just seemed to be omnipresent for a time. I wasn’t even a fan of the band, but that didn’t stop the music from finding me. And so as I recently listened to this guitar-only version, I was surprised at how many little details–the quality of the distortion, those harmonics–I was already familiar with, as if they were traces that had been lodged deep in my memory of half-listening to the song all those years ago.

If you are interested in learning more about Van Halen’s cultural and historical moment, a super fine account is John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reaktion Books, 2012). A very fine cultural history of the electric guitar is Steve Waksman’s Instruments Of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard U. Press, 2001) And a probing discussion of the connection between the disorted, overdriven sound of heavy metal and the construction of power can be found in Robert Walser’s classic study, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness In Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan U. Press, 1993).