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:

One Way To Listen To Music: Notes On Mark Fell’s “Multistability 6-B”

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One way to listen to music–and by to I mean up and over and through and around music–is to imagine it as proposing a set of ideas for our consideration. From this perspective we can think about any music as sonically embodying, modeling, and organizing itself through these ideas. As we listen the ideas become present through the evanescent flow of the music as its sounds resonate and evaporate over time.

Mark Fell’s “Multistability 6-B” (henceforth M6B) is composed of just a few synthetic sounds: warbling synth, traces of a bell-like aura, hand claps, a pitched hi hat sped up into white noise, and a stuttering kick drum that effectively doubles as a gritty bass. As I listened to the track and wondered about the sources of its enchantment I took to trying to focus on the ideas the music’s flow seemed to embody. Could I enumerate them? I can try. First, and most noticeably, M6B incorporates displacement–parts that you expect to be in one place seemingly are and aren’t at the same time. Sometimes this appears to be a function of the placement of individual sounds, other times a matter of the piece’s overall fluctuating tempo. I first noticed this with the piece’s hand claps: they seem to be squarely on 2 and 4 but then keep sliding over ever so slightly in one direction or another, a detail I confirmed only when trying to snap along with my fingers. Second, M6B uses repetition and stasis: the same parts–displaced or not through placement or tempo–keep going and going which creates a pleasing sense of stability. Except sometimes this going and going is subtly more than that, which brings us to a third idea, contraction and elongation, which I noticed somewhere around 1:42, where that stuttering kick drum first begins changing the length of its phrase, as if opening and closing. Though these contracting and elongating fluctuations are continuous in the music I noticed some major ones beginning around 5:00 until the end of the seven minute piece. It’s one of the oldest musical devices: play a phrase, then make it progressively shorter or longer. There’s a mathematical logic to this kind of transformation that is always pleasing to behold, no? This brings us to a fourth idea, density: those stuttering kick drum fills and hi hat speeding into a hi hat blur fill a lot of the music’s space; the keyboard and hand clap parts are merely tracing broad outlines on top. A fifth idea is what we might call spatiality or the stereo sense produced by the warbling synth and the bell-like aura: we hear those parts subtly bouncing from one ear to another which lends the piece space (perhaps a respite from the kick drum and hi hat density) through another kind of motion. All this leads to a final idea suggested by the music: utility. This may be the most important question to ask of any music we encounter. With regards to Mark Fell’s M6B: What is this music for? You can’t dance to it. It isn’t ideal for selling cars. It’s not a love song. Yet it is tonal, consonant, kinetic and organized–the opposite of noise. I like this music because it perceptibly and beautifully grasps at things, moving this way and that, provoking us to think about the modes of thinking contained within itself.

On A Repeating Less Is More: Beck’s “Wave”

“He’s found the right sound for his disposition and he resonates like crazy with that sound.” – Ben Ratliff (The New York Times)

“In ‘Wave,’ the angst pours out like a mantra. – Jody Rosen (

“‘Wave,’ for instance, is a floating impressionistic orchestral dirge, Beck letting the strings surrounding his voice lift it up and toss it around, never letting drums or guitar pierce the reverie.” – Tom Breihan (

“Wave consists of an awesome ebbing, flowing combination of authority-figure strings and saturated Beck vocals that could easily harsh the mellow of anyone in a fragile state.” – Kitty Empire (The Guardian)

Beck’s song “Wave” is a piece of music that creates reams of affect out of minimal materials: strings, voice, and reverb resonance. Playing long and slow notes, the strings outline an A minor melodic tonality, full of open 5ths, and keeps our ears oscillating in ambiguity as to whether or not e or b is the tonality’s tonic. Beck’s voice floats above in a halo of reverb, tracing drawn out, chant-like melodies.

The song’s lyrics can be read as being about the physical and social affect of music itself. Verse 1 describes something, a presence–the “I” of music?–that takes “the form of a disturbance” and engages us “like some tiny distortion.” Verse 2 describes the feeling of experiencing this presence’s effects. If only we “surrender” to these effects, we’ll get “carried away”–as if music, literally and metaphorically, is a wave. Then, for the one-off refrain that concludes the song, Beck repeats the word “wave” twice in falsetto (on ascending notes d and e) followed by the word “isolation” four times (on descending notes b, a, and g). But as he repeats the phrase he stretches out the first syllable “I” so that it separates from “isolation” and returns to the “I” that represents music in the lyrics. It’s as if the vocal sound has become a longing to express–as if the words are saying one thing but meaning another:


On The Wisdom Of Online Listeners: Thinking Through A Performance Of Steve Reich’s “Music For Pieces Of Wood”


Sometimes a piece of music and an exceptional performance of it seem to telegraph to us some of the information we would need to know about what it is, how it works, and its presence in the world. Such may be the case with a rendition of Steve Reich’s “Music For Pieces Of Wood” by the esteemed percussion ensemble Nexus.

Composed in 1973, “Music For Pieces Of Wood” is scored for five sets of tuned claves. One percussionist plays a steady timeline to establish the tempo grid for the piece and keep the other musicians in sync. A second player adds a repeating 12-pulse pattern. The other three players then add to the texture by playing the same yet rhythmically displaced pattern as the second player, building their parts up one note at a time. As the piece unfolds through different variations on this idea, the effect is hypnotic–like a slowly unfolding musical puzzle.

The Nexus performance of “Pieces Of Wood” is from a 1984 concert in Japan and has been viewed on YouTube over 140,000 times. It’s a masterful performance that is seriously unified, controlled, and ritualistic. What I found equally interesting though, were all the viewer comments about the clip. By turns insightful, humorous, analytic, and impressionistic, the comments reflect something of music’s ability to create order, conjure feeling, and embody ideas. Sifting through them, harnessing the collective perception of online listener-viewers, we get a picture of Reich’s music and Nexus’s performance of it as they are responded to by their global audience. Take them or leave them, here are some of the comments:

“Being in the now.”

“This is what white guy rhythm looks and sounds like.”

“The gentleman in the middle is almost superhuman in holding the rhythm.”

“Concentration at the highest level.”

“It works!”

“Amazing rhythmic exercise.”

“Why wood anyone want to listen to this?”

“Wonderful and inspiring how such simple things can create such beauty.”

“There are layers being made gradually, creating a significant shape.”

“Static arrangement gets upside down with a single accent moved.”

“This music makes you wanna dance to it.”

“And finally techno was invented.”

“Sounds like African music.”

“This must take so much concentration.”

“This song is a bit repetitive and a little hypnotic.”

“The guy in the middle is a machine.”

“This is confusing to listen to, trying to keep track of all the rhythms and the different wood sounds.”

“God has truly given humans extraordinary abilities to create extraordinary works […] of direct expression of the vast capability of the human mind.”

“What happens if one of them has to sneeze?”

“I thought I was hearing delay in this…I had to open it in two windows.”

“The concentration required for Reich’s music is cray awesome.”

“The way each [musician] builds the rhythm gives so many interpretations.”

“It seems music but it’s meditation in disguise.”

On The Music Of Laraaji

I sometimes forget that much of my everyday music listening comes to me by way of established channels–whether these be record labels, music streaming recommendations, or tips from music reviews. So I’m surprised when one of those channels leads me to something off the well-trodden path of what is critically admired at the moment.

Last month as I flipped through Wire magazine, I read about a compilation of work by Laraaji (Edward Larry Gordon, b. 1943), an American electronic zither player and student of Eastern mysticism. Laraaji’s repetitive music is percussive and rhythmic, trance-like and drone-ish, exuberant and sparkling. Most interestingly, it’s unique–like a music culture of one that lies outside of the established and tacitly agreed upon conventions of idiom and style–“electronica”, “global”, “folk”, “noise” etc.–that even adventurous publications like Wire adhere to on some level.

My favorite piece is “I Am Sky.” Structurally, it’s built on a steady pulsation in a 4/4 feel, with a regular accentuation on beats two and its offbeat (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and). Harmonically, the piece calls to mind an Indonesian-sounding five-note scale (g-sharp, a, b, d-sharp, e). Using this limited palette of notes, the groove continues until 4:30, where Laraaji switches from using mallets to his bare hands, which make a thumpy flesh of the palms and fingers sound, and for the next minute the music switches to double time feel and becomes more syncopated. The concluding thirty seconds shift downwards by a tone (a surprising key change) and sound a free form cascade of falling notes.

But talking about musical structures sometimes only gets us so far. What strikes me most about “I Am Sky” is its ability to convey a sense that its sounds proceed by a logic different from one we can comfortably analyze. Even as I try to put my finger on it, the music has its own goals.

On Andreas Tilliander’s TM404 Project

“I would have a sequence running for two hours, seriously, and I was afraid to ruin it all by touching a single knob.” – Andreas Tilliander

One of the more compelling soundworlds I’ve been listening to recently is a project by Andreas Tilliander called TM404. The music is made entirely with old Roland drum machines and sequencers, specifically the TR-202 and 303 sequencers, and the TR-606, 707, and 808 drum machines. To my ear, what makes the music compelling is its constantly fluctuating rhythmic syncopation (accents on normally unstressed beats), its limited sound set of tuned percussion sounds (even the 303 basslines sound percussive) arranged into long sequences, and its harmonic stasis. The TM404 pieces don’t go anywhere, but rather cycle around and around in a way that maintains intrigue. They sound restrained–as if holding something back. What could be more engaging?

To read more about Tilliander/TM404, go here.

Notes On What Makes A Piece Of Music Work: Boards Of Canada’s “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

“So it was becoming clear to me that texture deserved as great a place as process in the theory of how music involves people and draws you into deep identification, total participation, past the logical contradictions of separation from the Other.” — Charles Keil, Music Grooves, p. 169


As I listened to Boards Of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp 2013), I thought about how music–any and all musics?–gives us clues to its interpretation in the process of its sounding. A performance of music is like a story with characters, plot, and setting. Some musics have just a single protagonist that undergoes a series of transformations, or maybe obsessively repeats a few actions over and over. Other musics have many, many moving parts co-existing in one chaotic mix. And some musics are like a magnifying glass, inviting your attention to focus on one detail or another. Whatever its particularities, music is an affective form that appears to answer the questions it poses over time.

Boards Of Canada, a Scottish electronic duo (no, they’re not Canadian), were part of a wave electronic dance music experimentalists that appeared in the 1990s making what some people called IDM or “intelligent dance music.” The label was unfortunate but the music could and can be interesting–blending compelling sounds and textures with less than obvious beat-making into a complex whole. BOC’s signature sound has a gauzy, hazy, and wobbly/out of tune quality which the duo links to their love of 1970s National Film Board of Canada documentary film soundtracks they watched and listened to as kids in Scotland. As if in homage to this influence, something in their music always sounds weathered and out of focus.

As I listen to track two, “Reach For The Dead” I reach for the particular qualities I would talk about if asked about how the piece works on me. I might talk about how it has four chords, each held for four beats, and that the chords unfold in a progression over 24 measures that repeats. I might talk about the half-time feel of the percussion: the kick drum on beats 1 and 3 and a half, and the snare drum backbeat on beats 3. I might talk about the gradual accretion of parts on the track: layer after layer added–from drone chords to percussion to arpeggiating keyboard to strings–to create an increasingly thick texture. I might talk about how many of these melodic sounds are continuous sounds: the bass and keyboard sounds have a sustain but seemingly no decay, making a kind of wall of sound. Or I might talk about the overall timbre or tone color of the music. BOC’s timbres are unabashedly electronic, yet far from cold. Timbre-wise, theirs like an Instagrammed sound.

Which of these musical qualities is most essential? None in isolation from the others. Together, they all contribute to the music’s emotional feel. And funny enough, it’s exactly this quality–the most important measure of a music’s power–that I’m at a loss to fully measure and describe.