(Listening on headphones recommended.)
Last week I found myself thinking about the effects of listening to music while exercising. I run a lot but have never listened to music while doing so. The reason I guess is that I want to listen to the cadence of my feet and hear ambient sounds around me for safety reasons. My attention is diffuse enough as it is–I don’t need more distraction!
Anyway, I was wondering specifically about syncing one’s athletic movements to the tempo of music. (I wrote about music and entrainment a while back here.) What would be my ideal running music? I thought about how I take between 180 and 190 steps per minute, my feet functioning like a steady metronome click. But 180 beats per minute (bpm) is a super fast musical tempo. Here’s a classic drum ‘n’ bass track by A Guy Called Gerald called “Fever” that clocks in at a mere 162 bpm. It’s really fast:
Maybe music with a half-time, 90-95 bpm tempo would be my ideal running soundtrack? (BTW: You can hear a half-time, 81 bpm feel in the Guy Called Gerald Track too: drum ‘n’ bass always had those two layers of musical time going on.) The music would have a lot of delay effects thrown in too to up the dub quotient. By the way, my walking pace is just slightly faster than this half-time pace, falling in the 105-108 bpm range.
A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses research on the optimal tempo for workout music as being between 125 and 140 bpm “when people aren’t trying to time their movements to the music.” Music with this tempo–such as a lot of contemporary pop–has been found to reduce one’s sense of fatigue as well as boost motivation. And when we do synchronize our movements with the tempo of the music (whether fast or slow), the sounds can increase endurance–our wherewithal to keep going– by altering our emotions and attitude just like any stimulant. The findings of this research, says David-Lee Priest of the University of East Anglia in England, is that music is well-designed to divert our attention away from whatever “unpleasant feedback” exercise presents us with by way of a neurological mechanism. Music interferes with transmission of unpleasant sensations from exercising, such as having difficulty breathing, sweating or stiff and tired muscles.
The full article is here.
“The technology’s so on point now: we can sample almost anything now.”
– DJ Spinn
One of the talked about music releases of 2012 is DJ Rashad’s Teklife Vol.1: Welcome to the Chi. Rashad is a Chicago musician who makes music to accompany a dance style known as footwork. Footwork is characterized by its hyper fast foot movements, and footwork dancers often compete against one another in dance battles where they spin gliding moves that resemble tap and hip hop dancing sped way, way up. Footwork music is a sample-based idiom that supports this dancing through its fast and frenetic rhythms.
The first track on Rashad’s Teklife Vol. 1, “Feelin'”, is a case study in how to maintain musical interest through constant rhythmic intensity and instability. The track features crisp and TR-808 drum machine-ish snare, cross stick, and crash cymbal. Along with this percussion is a constantly snaking and wobbling sub bass line/detuned kick drum, a few Rhodes keyboard and wah-wah guitar samples, some horn lines, and snippets of a woman’s voice singing just two lines: “I just had a brand new feeling, yeah/until you came up on me in the night…” Tonally, “Feelin'” oscillates around a single pitch and feels like a pulsing and hyper drone.
Like a lot of footwork tracks, the tempo is fast–160 beats per minute fast. This lets us listeners (and those footwork dancers) feel the music as simultaneously fast and slow. The overriding rhythm of the piece reminds me a lot of a mechanical version of a popular West African bell pattern or timeline that goes like this (bell hits are on the bolded counts):
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2, etc.
But this rhythm is constantly undercut by Rashad’s varying all of the instrumental parts. There is one particularly striking passage from 1:48-2:24 in which the cross stick plays the most cutting of cross-rhythms against the fast 4/4 feel: it sounds like a kind of displaced six-against-four rhythm (six equally spaced cross stick hits in the time of four beats). I love this kind of instability because it keeps my ears engaged. You can still feel the 4/4 grid, but it’s pushed to the background. The vocal samples are also cut up, pitch-shifted, and displaced all over the place–individual words and phrases repeated to make melo-rhythmic lines that dovetail with the music.
As I listened and re-listened to “Feelin'” a number of times, I thought about how different musics invite different kinds of responses from us. For instance, you can’t really daydream to this track–it’s just too intense for that. But you can let yourself enjoy all the syncopations of its angular rhythmic flow. It’s an interesting track to listen first thing in the morning or late at night, if only just to jolt you awake. Actually, I’m doing that right now!
And speaking of jolting ourselves awake, it might be fun to transcribe and learn the changing rhythms for a piece of music like this. In their stuttering and shape-shifting instabilities, machine-made rhythms can sometimes teach us new ways to approach musical time. And this reminds me–jolted awake as I am–of Kodwo Eshun’s description of rhythm itself “as a kind of an abstract machine.”
Here, then, is “Feelin'”:
And here is a short documentary video about the footwork dance and music scene that features some other footwork DJs, including DJ Spinn and Traxman. There’s an interesting bit from 2:45 to 3:26 where Traxman describes his interest in the robotic aspect of German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.
There’s a funny and almost disturbing video on YouTube that shows a couple apparently dancing to the angular beats of Autechre. The video is funny and strangely compelling because of its unlikely pairing. On the one hand, the video looks to be from the 1970s or 80s–some kind of European (Greek?) television program featuring a couple demonstrating basic “disco” dance moves. The couple glide in easy unison around the stage, even going into slow-motion at times (1:02), and are eventually joined by a bunch of other dancers near the end of the three-minute clip. The music, on the other hand, is of more recent vintage: specifically, it’s the track “Cfern” from Autechre’s album Confield (2001). So of course, the couple never actually heard Autechre and certainly weren’t dancing to it. Yet somehow the dancing and the music work well together. Who ever thought about assembling such a video? (Oh the weird intelligences YouTube catches in its net . . .)
The YouTube viewer comments include this one: “movements are perfectly congruent to the music, AE themselves couldn’t dance better to their own stuff. Just psychedelic trance disco.”
What we’re laughing at, I think, is the same thing as what keeps us watching. First, there’s the odd contrast between the dated video and the cold, digital sounds. Notice too the moving gaze of the camera (focusing on the woman’s face at 2:45 and the man’s feet at 2:56) that makes us feel like voyeurs, the close-ups and the music working to reveal what feels like the inner lives of the dancers. Next, there’s all those smooth synchronies where footwork glides perfectly into marked beats: it looks like so much fun! Finally, but equally important, are the strange ruptures between the dance moves and the music. The ruptures are those spaces where body and sound don’t quite match up–those points where you wonder “How did they come up with that move to this sound?” And this is precisely what gets you thinking about how strangely dance and music mutually reinforce one another: one a visible trajectory in space that requires a soundtrack to add emotion to its narrative, the other a presence heard but always in need of bodily representation.
Sometimes audio-video remixes allow us to glimpse juxtapositions that we wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to experience. And if we let them, pastiche videos like this one spur us to imagine alternative–and yet unrealized–worlds where the collision of music and body sensibilities make for new ways of dancing free and strange.
Last weekend I was in Montreal for the IASPM Canada (International Association For The Study Of Popular Music, Canada) meeting at McGill University where I gave a paper on an iPhone soundscape app called Ambiance. My research explores how Ambiance users listen to ambient nature sounds for therapeutic purposes–to relax, to relieve stress, to sleep, etc. Over forty years after R. Murray Schafer began mapping and recording urban and rural soundscapes through his World Soundscape Project, soundscape listening today is not just a niche market: anyone with a smartphone can enhance their sonic environment with the touch of a button. My paper also considered the meanings of ambient listening: Is it a kind of blissful tuning out or a mindful tuning in? And finally, how does technological nature (to borrow a phrase from Peter H. Kahn)–the mediated experience of listening to ocean waves on headphones, for instance–differ from experiencing the real thing?
On my panel were two other presenters who both shared interesting work in progress. Raphael Nowak explored the different ways iPod users exert agency in their use if the mobile technology. And Samuel Thulin shared a sound art research project he designed which takes the ambient sounds of a particular place (e.g. a Montreal bus ride on a particular route) and builds a musical work out of the soundscape. But here’s the catch: the resulting musical work is to be listened to on headphones while the listener is in the very space from which the recorded sounds were derived (in this case, the same bus). Pretty fascinating conceptually speaking, and just as important, Thulin’s compositions
were beautiful in their hazy, wabi-sabi quality.
A memorable paper at the conference was Christopher Driver’s presentation on the aesthetics of moshing at hardcore music shows in Australia. (Moshing, in case you don’t know, is a kind of violent body movement/dance where participants slam into one another.) Christopher played a YouTube clip of a band called Confession performing live, and the clip was striking for the sheer aggressiveness of the music: its frenetic pace, its (one would imagine) immensely loud volume, and the singer’s truly disturbing vocal growl that sounds, well, just really disturbed. (What kind of vocal processing do they use to get this sound? A kind of auto-tune tuned to a very low register? Or is his voice actually like this?) There aren’t that many shots of the crowd moshing until the end of the clip (if you can make it that far), but you nevertheless get a visceral sense of the tight unity between band and fans engendered by this music. Anyone doubting the power of musical sound to create a coherent scene need look and listen no further than this video. If you’re interested, the song here, “She’s Not What She Seems” is actually a kind of breakup song (I looked up the lyrics!):
I spoke with Christopher after my panel and asked him about the connection between moshing and hardcore music. Many musics have within them aural cues that help dancers orient themselves–downbeats and upbeats, four beat meters, and so on. But the music of a band like Confession is different in that it pushes the limits of our ability to engage to the point that perhaps flinging ourselves around in a mosh pit is the only reasonable response. An analysis of the relationship between musical structure and moshing moves would be quite interesting, though probably not easy to pull off. And finally, hearing the thoughts of those moshers might help us understand how this music has affective power for its listeners.