Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation Between Beats And Musical Time

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B: MT, hello!

MT: Hi there, Beats. What’s on your mind?

B: I’m tired.

MT: Why?

B: Because I feel like I’ve been overused in music. I’m like, everywhere these days.

MT: It’s kinda true. Certainly you’re in every pop song. And of course the EDM, boom-boom-boom-boom thing…Craziness.

B: Exactly! It’s just getting to be too much. I mean, I can only be in so many places at once.

MT: How you do think popular music got to this point? Shall we begin by blaming disco?

B: [laughs] No, it’s more complicated than that. You forget how rhizomatic music history is.

MT: Okay, so let me take a different route: Should we blame drummers and their drums?

B: No, because they have always been playing beats. I think the problem, MT, is machines.

MT: Like drum machines and digital drum software and such?

B: Exactly! Technology set beats free, but in a crazy way.

MT: Well said, but back up for a second. What don’t you like about electronic beats as opposed to human-acoustic ones?

B: Technology-made beats are too easy, too widely available, and too much of a shortcut for creating musical action.

MT: What’s wrong with all that? Sounds to me like making music more accessible.

B: A lot is wrong with it. First of all, anyone can make a beat now—anyone can drag and drop a loop and get a beat going. Also, the music that’s built upon this is just…

MT: Go ahead, say it.

B: . . . Banal. Can I say that?

MT: You just did.

B: Right. The music is banal because not a lot happens in it. It’s like, because everyone is a producer now, everyone thinks they’re a beat expert without knowing the limitations of the beat mindset.

MT: Did you just speak in italics?

B: Yep.

MT: So what do you mean, Beats, by the “beat mindset”?

B: The beat mindset is the erroneous belief that adding a beat will solve all of your musical problems. Not only will it not do that, but just by having this mindset you’ll also paint yourself into a musical corner, so to speak.

MT: The way disco did with its boom-boom-boom-boom?

B: The way disco did, exactly.

MT: But disco did solve a problem which was how to tightly synchronize a lot of people on a dance floor.

B: Sure, but listen to what it did to music and look what it spawned!

MT: Right, though some of what it spawned was and is very cool-sounding. But on the whole I agree with what you’re saying: disco did seem to regiment music in a spectacular fashion. Then again, the serialists and minimalists were guilty of that too in their own ways. And yes, we have seen a lot of trickle-down from disco. Are you saying though, that disco spawned the rise of the machines?

B: Well, it showed our capacity to be regimented by musical machines or a machine aesthetic.

MT: But come on, all those electronic dance music styles that exploded in the wake of disco’s boom boom boom boom are surely a good thing?

B: Umm. I can’t say. All I know is that technology set beats free and now we’re hearing the results of that and as I said, I’m tired. But enough about me. What’s new with you?

MT: Not much. In a way, I’ve been way under the radar because of all the attention you’ve been getting over the past few decades.

B: That must be nice.

MT: It is. I get to pick my musical projects and I can work myself into music in a much less boom boom boom boom way.

B: You don’t have to keep saying boom-boom-boom-boom. I know what you’re talking about.

MT: Sorry. Anyway, my point is that you feel my presence more than you hear me. I’ve actually been hanging out in ambient/contemporary classical music a lot lately. You know, the weird stuff that gets used in TV ads.

B: Sounds like a relaxing way to make a living.

MT: What’s cool about it is that musicians working in these styles aren’t really allowed to use beats! Imagine that!

B: They’re not allowed?! That sounds dull.

MT: It’s dull, but if they used beats it would ruin the contemplative and serious mood. So they’ve had to figure out other ways to make me come alive.

B: Such as?

MT: Such as slowly evolving sounds, counterpoint, or sometimes arhythmic stuff–which, if you ask me, should be banned. That kind of thing. For the most part it’s interesting because I get to affect listeners without hammering them over the head, as it were—you know, with the boom-boom

B: Stop!

MT: It’s just so fun though. So-much-fun.

B: But seriously, as you were talking it occurred to me how polarized music has become. On the one side we have me, Beats, being stretched over all these popular musics. And on the other wide we have you, Musical Time, working in all these subtle ways, mostly in non-popular styles.

MT: Is this polarization a problem?

B: I just don’t know why it has to be an either-or situation.

MT: Beats, you and I are just reflections of what listeners think they want. We can be as subtle or as obvious as they make us. We’re rhythmic marionettes, our strings pulled by our humans…

B: …or by our machines. What musical lives we have!

MT: Yes, indeed.

•º•º

On Tiny Increments and Necessary Imperfections: Dave Hickey on Musical Timing

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“And you can thank the wanking eighties, if you wish, and digital sequencers, too, for proving to everyone that technologically ‘perfect’ rock—like ‘free’ jazz—sucks rockets. Because order sucks. I mean, look at the Stones. Keith Richards is always on top of the beat, and Bill Wyman, until he quit, was always behind it, because Richards is leading the band and Charlie Watts is listening to him and Wyman is listening to Watts. So the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell, of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach. And the intonation is wavering, too, with the pulse in the finger on the amplified string. This is the delicacy of rock-and-roll, the body rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community. And it has its virtues, because jazz only works if we’re trying to be free and are, in fact, together. Rock-and-roll works because we’re all a bunch of flakes.”

-Dave Hickey, Air Guitar, Essays on Art & Democracy

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff Online

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1. An article about the inspiration for a Max for Live device (software for use within Ableton Live) that injects realistic timing into multiple computer generated parts.

“The timing of each individual note is dependent on every single note that both players had already played – a minor timing hiccup near the start of a piece will continue to affect every single note after it, up to the last notes. And when you play a duet every note your partner plays affects your playing, and every note you play affects your partner: a two directional information transfer is happening.”

The software is inspired in part by a study of the general properties of musical interaction and how musicians synchronize their rhythms.

“Some neuroscientists think that rhythm – not just in music but in movement and speech – is how we spot the ‘uncanny’, the unnatural, even how infants recognise other animals of the same species. In short, human timing is very important.”

2. An article about misophonia, a condition in which certain sounds can drive someone crazy.

“So, will misophonia exist decades from now? As knowledge of the brain improves, sensitivity to sounds may be included among other psychiatric or neurological conditions. But for now, the diagnosis remains a godsend to many.”

3. An article about drones in and outside  of music.

“A drone in music is a sustained note held for most or all of a piece. It’s an essential part of musical traditions around the world, from the continuous bleat of a bagpipe, to the om-like hum that gives Indian ragas their spacious feeling, to the cavernous burr of a didgeridoo. Classical composers have used it to evoke sounds of nature and a sense of something ancient, rustic or outside of time: Think of the gentle hum that opens Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the almost inaudible whine at the beginning of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 or the E flat at the bottom of the Prelude to Wagner’s “Rheingold,” which seeps into the listener’s consciousness like water.”

On Sinister And Dynamic Rhythmic Energy: Laurel Halo’s “Oneiroi”

“I guess I just wanted to record what I was doing live. Basically when I got into the studio to record those tracks I found myself playing around with the patterns more, playing around with the samples more, trying to find what was particularly gripping, or dynamic. I wanted the tracks to have this sinister empty energy; I wanted them to sound quite cold.” – Laurel Halo

Halo’s recent recording Chance of Rain (Hyperdub 2013) is a collection of propulsively rhythmic instrumental tracks. Track two, “Oneiroi”, is a particularly focused piece that packs a constantly shifting punch. The piece moves in 4/4 time at 130 beats per minute. There’s a boom-rumble sound on beat 1 of each bar, low-res 16th-note hi hats insistently ticking away, a syncopated cross stick sound, small shards of cymbals and voice samples on the off-beats, a single tom-tom, and noise ambiance. The 4/4 grid never relents, but the sounds and their patterns keep changing up. The cross stick begins by playing on every quarter note, but gradually melts into a new sound (is it the same one played backwards? pitch-shifted down?) and eventually reappears later on offbeats. The hi hat comes and goes, now open, now closed, the shards of cymbal and voice samples change position, the tom-tom pattern builds up into something that resembles a paradiddle, and the noise ambiance ebbs and flows. Every rhythmic part fits into the 4/4 grid and could function independently as a timeline or bell pattern on its own, and the parts never sit still so the grid sounds dynamic and alive. In sum, “Oneiroi” is a groove with enough continuous rhythmic change happening that its seven minutes fly by.

An interview with Halo about her working methods can be read here:

From The Archives: Bill Bruford’s “Bruford And The Beat”

“Sometimes faults can be turned to good advantage. A musician is the total not only of his good things but his faults too. And when you can understand your faults and live with them and turn them to creative use, that can be of interest.” – Bill Bruford

The two things that made the drummer Bill Bruford, now retired, so steadily compelling were his touch and his time. Bruford’s playing had a snappy and limber meticulousness about it–his hands in motion looked like praying mantis limbs. And his musical choices always seemed considered, in the moment–as if you could hear him thinking, always thinking about how to best design the passing musical Now. Bruford devised new approaches to drumming conventions: his drumsets were arranged as unique constellations of acoustic (and at times, electronic) percussion instruments, their angles and one-off sounds (a snare, a Roto tom, an Octoban, a slit drum) offering invitations to drum outside the conventional boxes of popular music timekeeping. In interviews, Bruford said that he “imported” his musical roots via a stack of Blue Note jazz records. This may be so, but in his numerous musical collaborations he also consistently went his own third way, finding a space between the swing of jazz and the thump of rock where he could explore pulse.

In the documentary video Bruford and the Beat, we see and hear this thoughtful drummer solo and talk about his musical métier circa 1982. The video opens with Bruford soloing (0:00-1:56). The first thing we notice is that his collection of instruments isn’t homogenous: in addition to a snare and bass drums (one acoustic, one electronic) and no hi-hat cymbals in sight, Bruford has a few electronic drum pads tuned to specific pitches, as well as Octoban tube drums, a Roto tom, and a single-headed gong drum. The second thing we notice is that the solo has a four note melo-rhythmic theme on the electronic drum pads that opens and closes the improvisation. The theme is stated, repeated, and then becomes the basis for flights off onto the other drums. The theme fragments and shape shifts, only to reappear again some time later. The solo, in other words, is a little journey.

Bruford then explains (6:44-8:58) three different approaches to soloing on drums/percussion. The first approach is to solo over a steady pulse. Here, the hands can explore complex and lengthy phrases that “embroider” over a “dance pulse” provided by the foot playing a bass drum. A second approach to soloing is to go free form. Here, the drummer strings together phrases with “no steady metrical pulse.” In other words, there is no rhythmic anchor for this type of playing, just movement among the drum set’s various percussion instruments. A third approach to soloing is to create call and response between the different instruments of the drum set. Bruford likens this “more textural” strategy to setting up “master drummer figures” such as those played by the lead drum in a West African drum ensemble. These figures are “calls” to which the rest of the ensemble drums reply with their “response” patterns. All three of these approaches to soloing–patterns over a steady pulse, free form without steady metrical pulse, and call and response–inform Bruford’s playing in his brief opening performance.

A little later in the video (15:45-18:53), Bruford demonstrates how combining a complex hand pattern on the snare drum with a steady bass drum pulse achieves the best of both rhythmic worlds. He shows how a 17-beat pattern (played with a mallet on the snare drum with snares off) over a steady 4/4 pulse is both interesting and groovy. But it gets better. Bruford next plays the same pattern on a pitched wooden slit drum, and finally, moves his hands between the slit drum and the Roto tom, distributing the 17-beat pattern between two different sound sources. With just a few considered moves of the hands, Bruford has added new dimensions to an already interesting pattern. “It’s liquid” he says, “and yet the accents are sufficiently complex not to feel a sense of repetition.”

In sum, Bruford and The Beat drums home an enduring musical message: approach. An instrument approached in a novel way–touch-wise and time-wise–can yield all manner of compelling sounds, patterns, and urgencies. Think about your approach anew and you may find surprising strategies for making music.

On Musical Time And Running Speed

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One night I was playing my part, listening to the part of another musician. All systems were running smoothly, and we were in sync. Then, suddenly, I had a sense that the other musician was pushing the time, just a hair.

My ears perk up: Oh, this is interesting.

I was sure of my sense that the problem was with him, not me. Why? Because I felt my sensation to be well, true. Then it occurred to me that maybe the problem is me. Why? Maybe my sensation could be misleading me.

So: Is he pushing the time or am I dragging it? The more I thought about this issue the more it became vexingly interesting.

It would be easy to tell you, with some confidence, that I can trust my sensations of musical time because I have experience playing this particular piece not a few, but thousands of times. I know how it’s “supposed” to feel and sound, and my perception of the piece’s tempo and flow is by now pretty acute. I could even back up my claim of knowing the time feel of the music with recourse to a sense of what my hands are doing on my instrument. “The feel in my hands doesn’t lie!” I might tell you. And there is something to that.

But all this just brings us deeper into the issue: How can we judge the musical time of others from the vantage point of our own imperfect sense of time? How can we have any objectivity at all–aren’t we essentially trapped within our own time perception? And how can we accurately make judgements about the time of others while all of us are inside the temporal flow of our making music together?

Having said this, it still feels like I was right–more on than off, not dragging but in the pocket. But who can know for sure?

***

I’ve had analogous experiences while running and wearing a GPS watch. I feel swift, yet the watch is telling me that I’m incrementally slowing down. I can’t perceive this slowing accurately because in my fatigued state my perception of pacing–the musical time that is one’s running tempo–has been altered. There are also days when I feel like I’m just hobbling along, yet my GPS–the runner’s metronome–tells me that I’m actually flying fast.

Whether playing music or running, in each case I mainly rely on my hands and my footwork to give me a sense of my time. But I also get feedback from that other musician whom I perceived to be dragging and the GPS watch that measures relentlessly (and tells me I’m dragging). This feedback comes up against my own sensibilities and awareness of what I’m doing as I’m doing it. In the end though, while musical time and running speed can certainly be measured, and while our own sense of our unfolding actions is certainly not perfect, sometimes we still just want to go by feel.