Lessons From Italo Calvino’s “Reading A Wave”

If I were a fictionalist, I would write in the analytical-introspective manner of Italo Calvino (1923-1985). In Calvino’s novel Mr. Palomar, we follow one man’s attempts to increase his inner awareness by increasing his consciousness of his surroundings. Mr. Palomar is a practicing phenomenologist who tries to understand the world through all of its perceived details and in each brief, self-contained chapter we read Mr. Palomar’s meditations on various topics. My favorite part of the novel is “Reading A Wave” (a sub-section of the chapter “Mr. Palomar On the Beach”) in which Calvino unpacks Mr. Palomar’s experience trying to describe the difficult to describe experience of watching a single ocean wave.

Mr. Palomar could charitably be described as a nervous control freak, and one of his strategies for dealing with the noise of the world is to reduce it by framing it in particular ways. In Mr. Palomar’s “desire to avoid vague sensations, he establishes for his every action a limited and precise object”, hoping that “the key to mastering the world’s complexity [is] by reducing it to its simplest mechanism.” But framing a single ocean wave is a difficult perceptual task that involves “separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away.” A wave is never in isolation and you can’t look at one wave “without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself generates.” Even so, Mr. Palomar believes he can somehow focus on the essence of a single wave at one point in time—to “simply see a wave–that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components without overlooking any of them.”

Finding it difficult to isolate a single wave, Mr. Palomar “now tries to limit his field of observation” by imagining a larger, 10 by 10 meter square for analysis. Within this frame “he can carry out an inventory of all the wave movements that are repeated with varying frequency within a given time interval.” But this too is exhausting  work, because a lot happens within any arbitrarily chosen section of the ocean. By the end of the story Calvino reveals that the idealistic goal of Mr. Palomar’s observation exercise is to hack his own faculties of noticing: “Is this perhaps the real pursuit that Mr. Palomar is about to achieve? To make the waves run in the opposite direction, to overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits?”

As I read “Reading A Wave” it struck me as an excellent model for thinking through the difficulty of describing and writing about musical experience. The problem, simply put, is that music never stays still. It’s nothing but ceaseless movement. Even a “static” drone is continuous vibration over time. Like the breaking ocean waves, music ebbs and flows over durations. Another problem with music is that so much happens at once. It’s often composed of simultaneities. Even a simple song with voice and accompaniment contains several lines to pay attention to. And what about a fugue? Or polyrhythmic drumming? Maybe writing about music is like dancing about architecture!

What I take from “Mr. Palomar” is the intensity of his attempts to describe a single wave. Even if his enterprise is somewhat futile, I like that Palomar goes all in trying to pay attention to as many details as he can notice. I like too that he has established a “limited and precise object”—even if his choice of object is perhaps too fluid to submit to anything longer than a momentary descriptive capturing. Whatever the anxious origins of his motivations for perceptual precision, Mr. Palomar is doing the Difficult Critical Work of framing the world around him so to slow it down just long enough so he can take some of it in.

You can read “Mr. Palomar” here.

Owning The Phenomenal World: Jeong Kwan On Creativity



“Creativity and ego cannot go together.

If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind,

your creativity opens up endlessly.

Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment.

You must not be your own obstacle.

You must not be owned by the environment you are in.

You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you.

You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind.

This is being free.

There is no way you can’t open up your creativity.

There is no ego to speak of.”

(From Netflix’s Chef’s Table, season 3, episode 1)

On Resonant Thoughts: Sarah Bakewell’s “At The Existentialist Cafe”

At the Existentialist Cafe Sarah Bakewell 2016

“This experiential music is the one I can speak about with certainty.”
– Sarah Bakewell, At The Existentialist Cafe, p. 41.

“If I want to tell you about a heart-rending piece of music, phenomenology enables me to describe it as a moving piece of music, rather than as a set of string vibrations and mathematical note relationships on which I have pinned a personal emotion. Melancholy music is melancholy; a sweet air is a sweet air; these descriptions are fundamental to what music is. Indeed, we do talk about music phenomenologically all the time. Even if I describe a sequence of notes as going ‘up’ or ‘down’, this has less to do with what the sound waves are doing (which is becoming more or less frequent, and longer or shorter) than with how the music plays out in my mind. I hear the notes climbing up an invisible ladder. I almost physically rise in my chair as I listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’; my very soul takes flight. That’s not just me: it is what the music is” (42).

Merleau-Ponty On The Organist


In his treatise on phenomenology, Phenomenology of Perception, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes compellingly on the role of our bodies in our experience of the world. Merleau-Ponty touches on musical experience here and there, so of course I blazed through the book in search of those heres and theres to see what he had to say. One striking passage concerns the example of an organist who is faced with a new organ but little time to prepare for a performance on it. Merleau-Ponty brings us through what a musician might do in this situation.

First, he gets to know the new organ, “he sizes up the instrument with his body, he incorporates its directions and dimensions, and he settles into the organ as one settles into a house” (146). Next is the problem of what exactly is rehearsed on the unfamiliar instrument. The answer is a series of gestures or physical moves that serve as explorations. The organist’s “rehearsal gestures…put forth affective vectors, they discover emotional sources, and they create an expressive space” (147). The organist’s gestures in turn reveal his habits of performance which may or may not fit the new instrument. The problem, says Merleau-Ponty, “is to determine how the musical signification of the gesture can be condensed into a certain locality to the extent that…the organist reaches for precisely the stops and the pedals that will actualize it” (147). In other words, will this new instrument actualize what the musician hopes to achieve through his gestures? Finally, the musician’s goal is to gain a connection with the new instrument and start playing. But where does music reside in all of this? In several places at once—in the score, in the organ sound, and in the relationship or what Merleau-Ponty calls the “passage” between the organist and the organ: “Between the musical essence of the piece such as it is indicated in the score and the music that actually resonates around the organ, such a direct relationship is established that the body of the organist and the instrument are nothing other than the place of passage of this relation” (147).

Later in the book, Merleau-Ponty clarifies what it means to make and listen to a musical sound. He distinguishes between three modalities of sound listening which he calls objective sound, atmospheric sound, and an unnamed “last stage” sound. Considering that Merleau-Ponty was not a musician himself, it’s quite a feat of imagining the different ways in which musicians hear music from inside the musical experience. These three sound modalities move us from listening to sound emanating from the instrument, to listening to how the sound vibrates within us so that we feel as we have become the instrument, and finally, to listening in such a way that it feels as if our sound-making has altered our entire selves. Merleau-Ponty: “there is an objective sound that resonates outside of me in the musical instrument, an atmospheric sound that is between the object and my body, a sound that vibrates in me ‘as if I had become the flute or the clock,’ and finally a last stage where the sonorous element disappears and becomes a highly precise experience of a modification of my entire body” (236).

Here is a recording of Merleau-Ponty discussing our perception of “sensible objects.” Though he doesn’t discuss music here, he does touch on painting, and more intriguingly, honey. “The unity of a thing is not behind each of its qualities” he says, “it is reaffirmed by each of them, each of them is the whole thing.”

And finally, here is an outstanding piece of organ music by Olivier Messiaen:

On Peter Mendelsund’s “What We See When We Read”


Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read: A Phenomenology With Illustrations is a remarkable study of perception in the experience of reading. Just his book’s title suggests, Mendelsund explores what exactly it is that we “see” in our minds eye when we read. It’s an interesting question or set of questions really–What do we imagine when we read words on the page? Does each word trigger a micro-vision in out minds eye, or does the triggering happen in the spaces between words? “Is it that we imagine the most, or the most vividly, when an author is at his most elliptical or withholding? (In music, notes and chords define ideas, but so do rests)” (30). This book is full of probing insights and musings like these that stop you in your tracks and make you think.

Mendelsund makes a few references to music in his book, no surprise given that he’s a trained classical pianist. This background in music and his general analytical mind may explain how he views characters in novels “like a set of rules that determines a particular outcome” (34) and how “we hear more than we see while we are reading (39). Page by page, What We See When We Read methodically yet playfully investigates the reading experience through examples culled from the Greats–from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky to Virginia Woolf to Joyce and Kafka. And each of these examples is graphically illustrated in a way that demonstrates the very concepts they embody. What do those and other authors actually tell us through their writing–as opposed to what we read and imagine through it? This engaging phenomenology by one the publishing industry’s leading graphic designers sets out to engage this territory.

Being musically oriented, I was most taken by Mendelsund’s discussions that offer insight on the musical experience. For example, when he talks of reading bringing one into “a liminal space”–a “polydimensionality” of being in many places at once (61)–I immediately thought, but of course, this is what listening to music is like too. Words are also like musical notes in that they each have contexts. In music, add a second note to a single tone and you generate the context of a chord by which to understand the two sounds together. And the element of time is key to both reading and music listening. Our perception in both depends on being able to time travel back and forward to help us make sense of the passing literary or sonic moment. “In order to make sense of a book’s words and phrases we must think ahead when we read–we must anticipate” (94)…At once, we read a sentence, read a few sentences ahead, keep track of what we’ve already read, and imagine events yet to come” (104). For Medelsund, reading “is not a sequence of experienced ‘now’s” (107)–it feels more flowing than that. And of course, that’s one of music’s supreme charms too: to make sequences of notes conjure a seamless and emotionally powerful virtual environment that makes ideal use of the passing of time.

So what do authors bring to our table? They orchestrate the experience and guide our imaginations: “The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much” (125). When the textual experience is calibrated just right, it feels so real because it’s as if all the details could be no other way. Or as Medelsund puts it, “My delight is my tribute to the author’s having paid close attention to the world” (136). But the reader is the other crucial part of how writing generates its meaning. In an illustration that depicts a conductor through whose transparent body we can see a concert audience, Mendelsund draws on the metaphor of performance to illustrate: “We perform a book–we perform a reading of a book. We perform a book, and we attend the performance….(As readers, we are both the conductor and the orchestra, as well as the audience)” (160). In other words, reading is an active process of meaning-making, obviously, but also an act of trust and of faith even: “When we read, it is important that we believe we are seeing everything” (162). There’s a lot at stake in the act of reading insofar as no matter what the subject, we get to inhabit the consciousness of another. “Books allow us certain freedoms–we are free to be mentally active when we read; we are full participants in the making (the imagining) of a narrative” (192).


By a certain point in Medelsund’s book, it becomes clear that he’s a believer in a view that novels aren’t really representational at all. In a passage that reminded me of the music of J.S. Bach, the author frames it thusly: “The relational, nonrepresentational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found. Not in mental pictures of things, but in the play of elements” (245). In other words, when we read or listen to music, “we don’t see meaning” (265); rather, meaning is something created out of the work’s component parts. Here, Mendelsund gets increasingly abstract, wondering whether we can “picture the medium or dimension in which things reside? (281), and muses about the role of memory in our imagining: “Memory is made of the imaginary; the imaginary made of memory” (299). He also returns to musical examples, drawing on American composer Aaron Copland’s three levels of listening–the sensuous, the expressive, and the semantic/musical (310)–to think through how we read through what is essentially a “nebula of illusory material” (342).

In the end, we read and listen and manage to make sense out of the words or sounds before us through an act of synthesis. “It is the synthesis that we know. (It is all we know.)” Writers and composers and readers and listeners are all synthesizers. “Authors are curators of experience. They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can–out of disorder they create narrative” (402). Similarly, readers take what they can from the words, conjuring something the way eyesight merges two separate images into the illusion of one. “Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read” (415). In music too, something is said and that something is heard and interpreted by a listener. Hopefully–remarkably–meaning arises from this exchange. Mendelsund ends his delightful book with the same literary example he began with, pointing out that, as is so often the case, what is there–on the page, in the music–and what we perceive to be there are not the same thing. We think we see or hear something clearly, but it was always blurred.

On Presence And Perception


“When I look at the world now, my posture is not one of focus but rather of attention.”
– Robert Irwin

At the heart of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name Of the Thing One Sees (1982/2009), Lawrence Weschler’s biography of the artist Robert Irwin, are two intertwined and reoccurring ideas: presence and perception. Irwin (1928-), an American conceptual/installation artist, began his art career in the 1950s with paintings of lines and dots, then, in the 1960s, moved to painting round aluminum discs. By the 1970s he had gone beyond what he felt were the arbitrary edges of canvas and art object to take on the museum spaces themselves as the subject matter of his installation art. Since the 1980s, Irwin has worked on permanent outdoor installations intended to enhance their environments. In the process, his work has become ever less material, and increasingly concerned with getting us to experience a perceptual state in which we notice ourselves noticing.

As Weschler meticulously documents his subject’s evolution through copious interviews, what happened was that Irwin, a self-taught artist, came to realize that art is not about the art thing as much as the experience such things (or spaces) can engender. “It’s about presence, phenomenological presence” (61) he says. Irwin came by his realization organically, early in his career. While working on paintings, he became frustrated by the tendency of his images to signify and the impossibility of a “neutral gesture” (60). Was there a way to escape this? A way to “maximize the energy or the physicality of the situation and minimize the identity or idea or imagery of the situation”? (90) What Irwin wanted was presence without representation, “a reduction of imagery to get at physicality, a reduction of metaphor to get at presence” (200). Presence as affect, as materiality, as spirit, as feeling, as structure.

Remarkably, Irwin came to his insight about the importance of presence by spending massive amounts of time just staring at his works in progress. In looking for extended periods he began noticing differently: “paying attention to my own sensibility and taking stock of it and deciding that too many things in there simply didn’t make sense” (67). Tweaking his work, removing material instead of adding it, Irwin developed a stance in relation to his work that could enlist boredom as “a very good tool” (73). In paying attention, he “just attended to the circumstances, and after weeks and weeks of observation, of hairline readjustments, the right situation would presently announce itself” (74).

Eventually, the right situation would entail jettisoning the conventional equipment of art making and taking on, literally, less material projects. Irwin tells Weschler that some of the inspiration for this shift towards installation art came from drives he took into the California desert. Here and there, Irwin would sense (“intuition is about sensing facts before they materialize” [143]) something powerful and stop the car to go investigate on foot. He realized that it would be pointless to artistically “mark” such spaces with his own designs, yet was nevertheless inspired by how a naturally occurring space could have such powerful affect. Ultimately, for Irwin presence and perception are a set of relations that constitute the real subject matter of art. “We’re not really aware of what takes place otherwise, the so-called incidentals, the information that takes place between things,” he says, “the kind of things that happen around, the multiple interactive relations” (148).


Reading as I often do with musical things in mind, I found Seeing Is Forgetting one of the more energizing books I’ve come across in a while. To start, it got me thinking about the idea that music is not in the musical object (e.g. score, performance, sounds) but in our perception of it. (True, musics have social lives too, but that’s another matter.) In other words, we pursue music in pursuit of various kinds of presences that give rise to various perceptual shifts. Second, the book also got me thinking through a sonic analog of its title, which might read: Hearing Is Forgetting The Name Of What One Hears. In other words, Irwin reminds us to focus on the what rather than the what does it mean aspect of creating. Lastly, Irwin’s work–not to mention Weschler’s elucidation of it–is a reminder of the vitality of the arts as a kind of intuitive, presence- and perception-oriented inquiry that is open-ended and without goals. As Irwin tantalizingly sums up the equation that implicates us all: “we are the question, and what we are is what we have to contribute” (120).

Notes On Another Kind of Wonder: A Phenomenology Of Remixing

wonders photo

“I confronted the tradition directly as a sound form and kinesthetic activity, and made it my own in an act of appropriation that transformed me, my self, into something I hadn’t been before, a person capable of playing in this tradition with at least minimal competence.” – Timothy Rice, “Toward a Mediation of Field Methods and Field Experience in Ethnomusicology” (G.F. Barz and T.J. Cooley, eds., Shadows in The Field, 2008, p. 110)

Introduction: An Invitation To Remix
One summer evening in 2003 while I was doing research on an experimental electronic music scene in New York City, I get talking with a musician at a bar on the Lower East Side. Around us, electronic music enthusiasts hunch over the glow of their laptops—playing sound files, making beats, trying out software, and talking to one another about their work. As I tell my acquaintance about my background as a percussionist and my CD of percussion music I had recorded a few years earlier he offers a bit of advice: “You know, you should just cut up your tracks into samples and dump them into Ableton Live!” Live is a software music sequencer that at the time of my research was fast becoming a ubiquitous tool for making electronic music. My acquaintance tells me that the best way to further my understanding of electronic music is to remix some of my own stuff—play with it, find its potential, and use the software to recycle the music into a new form. He’s trying to tell me something: my CD is not merely a document of composed pieces; it can also be the source of some new music. Ten years later I take the advice and begin remixing my material. This (long) post examines that remix process.

Sound Artifact: Wonders

wonders cd

Figure 1. Wonders CD

In 1998 I recorded Wonders, a CD of five works for keyboard percussion. Scored for multiple marimbas and vibraphones, the pieces are rhythmically and texturally dense: the music features three to six percussionists playing steady sixteenth-note patterns using two and four mallets in each hand, and the harmonies change slowly, lending the music a pulsating, minimalist sound. In some of the larger pieces, such as the first track, Splash (scored for four marimbas and two vibraphones), the multiple mallet parts create a thick sound—a humming halo of fundamentals and overtones.

Listening For Loops
Thirteen years after recording Wonders, I sit in front of my laptop with headphones on, looking at the screen. I load Splash into Live, my software sequencer, and see the 15-minute track’s waveform laid out before me. How to begin?

waveform of splash complete

Figure 2. Waveform for “Splash”

Remembering the advice of my acquaintance from the lower East Side all those years ago, I’m listening for audio samples that I can turn into loops. With a few movements of the cursor over Splash’s waveform, I zoom in and focus my attention on one small section at a time. I activate the loop brace function of the software and move the brace around the waveform, selecting small sections of the piece and listen to them loop. I listen in search of a sound that is interesting and mysterious when repeated: I notice the loop’s timbral profile, assess how well it grooves, and get a sense of the feelingful space it inhabits and creates—its musical life force. As I move the loop brace around, tentatively at first, each section I listen to has a distinct affecting presence as a “perpetual and perpetuating action, complete within itself” (Robert Plant Armstrong, The Affecting Presence, 1971, p. 24). This presence strikes me immediately as a visceral response: either the loop sounds appealing and makes sense, or it is unremarkable and lacks some essential logic. I listen to each loop candidate for just a few moments, moving the loop brace along in search of something else, something more compelling.

Moving the loop brace, I notice small qualities within the audio samples that emerge through repetition. Repetition is a revealing, helping me notice magical moments; it draws me inwards towards the loop, focusing my attention on its presence through its characteristic contours and textures. The musician Lee Patterson describes sampling as “an exploration of specific material properties of things… It’s kind of an alchemical process, because not only does the [sampled] object become transformed, but your understanding of the world and these objects becomes transformed as well” (Lee Patterson, “Plink, plink, fizz”, Wire 303, 2009, p. 18.). Moreover, what was once audio background becomes audio foreground—a symmetry is revealed, a fleeting mood made tactile. In his evocative article on the aesthetics of laptop music making, Glenn Bach captures the perceptual pleasure of working with digital audio:

“What happens is a re-examination of the sacrosanct figure–ground relationship of western art and music. By focusing on the ground, by mining the substrate, the laptop alchemist discovers new figures hidden there and brings them to the fore, only to discover altogether new grounds upon which these new figures appear. These new grounds are isolated and the ritual repeats itself” (Glenn Bach, “The Extra-Digital Axis Mundi: Myth, Magic and Metaphor in Laptop Music”, Contemporary Music Review, 22/4, 2003, p. 7).

Listening to the brief sections of Splash under the loop brace renders the original percussion music strangely unfamiliar, the repetition revealing micro- and macro-patterns that would be otherwise hidden within the sample. The sound of some loops reminds of me of the repetition and figure-ground relationships in other percussion musics I have heard such as Ugandan akadinda xylophone music and mbira music from Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik described what he called “inherent rhythms” as perceptual gestalt by-products of the akadinda’s fast-paced, repeating patterns (Gerhard Kubik, “The Phenomenon of Inherent Rhythms In East And Central African Instrumental Music”, African Music 3/1, 1962, pp. 33); inherent rhythms can also be heard in the hypnotic and polyrhythmic sounds of mbira music (Paul F. Berliner, The Soul Of Mbira, 1978, p. 90). In a fashion similar to akadinda and mbira patterns, the looped sections of Splash have inherent rhythms of their own, the samples circling around and around to create a melo-harmonic-rhythmic drone. I’m grooving on them. And then I find my first loop:

first splash loop

Figure 3. First loop from Splash

The Persistence Of Music-Triggered Memories
Much as I wish I could explore the audio of Splash as if I have never heard the piece before, as I move the loop brace around my memory of the original composition guides my listening. One section prompts memories of details of the composing process twenty years ago in which I worked out a chord progression and a sticking pattern that made bodily sense on the marimba. The memories then scattershot themselves: from listening to the sample to ever more amorphous associations, in a feedback loop—composing the piece, notating it, rehearsing it with other musicians, performing it at concerts, and recording it in a studio. As John Berger notes, memory “works radially…with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event” (John Berger, About Looking, 1980, p. 64). Listening to a single sound sample under the loop brace triggers and re-triggers memories of the original percussion music, and my recollection of its history keeps reasserting itself, over and over again. I try circumventing this sound-memory feedback loop by positioning the loop brace into unusual rhythmic positions such as off beats instead of downbeats. This catches the sampled sound mid-phrase and re-frames my listening; I want to be surprised by what I hear, not reminded of the original piece.

Being Systematic
I listen to one-, two-, and four-measure sections of Splash to hear how they loop. At first, I am systematic about how I locate each loop candidate, nudging the loop brace further along the audio waveform a few beats at a time, trying off beats as well as downbeats. But out of curiosity I skip around too, moving the brace now forward, now backward again by arbitrary amounts—nudging it a half beat, or leaping ahead by seven. Not knowing exactly what to listen for beyond a sound that is interesting and mysterious creates a tension that resists my desire to search for loops in a systematic way. I want to listen to every sample-able moment in Splash—leave no moment of audio un-listened to!—but realize that will not happen. Surely I have already missed many good loops?

splash edit window

Figure 4. Splash sample edit window. The transpose knob on left is set at -14 semitones

My systematic searching is further disrupted by the editing possibilities in my software’s sample edit window. On a whim to explore what might happen to the sound, I turn a knob that controls the pitch of the sample and shift it downwards by one, two, four, seven, and twenty-four semitones, and then back up again to the sample’s original pitch level. As the loop’s pitch is lowered its affect changes dramatically: the sound becomes more wooden and resonates in a hollow, ghostlier way. The lowered pitch also brings out hidden inner voices and harmonies not perceptible at the original pitch level. Then I pitch the loop upward, moving one semitone at a time until it has been transposed by one octave: in this register, the intensity of the loop grows with each upward step and begins to sound like frantic, squelching metallic bells. I like the loop detuned by fourteen semitones the best and save it (Figure 4). But this control over re-pitching loops raises a question that reframes my listening: Should I listen through all of the Splash loop candidates at various different pitch levels? The sonic possibilities raised by this thought are so vast—leave no audio sample un-detuned!—that I instead return to the task of moving around the loop brace. Here and there I will experiment with detuning a loop by fourteen semitones because this remixing move, while discovered on a whim, is now part of my remixing toolkit.

A Delay Effect, Extending The Moment
While searching for loops I experiment with adding effects processing to the marimba samples I have already found and saved. I try EQ’ing them, boosting some of the high frequencies to add articulation and cutting low frequencies to reduce the murky hum of the multiple marimbas; I add compression to make them louder and more focused; and I add delays and reverbs to add a new murky hum I cut out with the EQ’ing. I scroll through the delay effect presets in my software and try out a few, noting that one of the presets turns my marimba loops into rhythmically cascading, waterfall-like streams of sound. The effected loop catches my attention and I listen to it for a while. The delay preset transforms the marimbas by multiplying them and providing further rhythmic motion by adding little melo-harmonic artifacts that ricochet around the stereo field in a way that is polyrhythmic and textured. The sound is unexpected and now I wonder: Could I use this effected loop as a pulsating chordal drone? And how might I build on this pulsating drone?

I spend days, weeks, and then months moving the loop brace around the waveform of Splash, making loops as my thoughts oscillate between past and present, extending radially out towards other experiments by other musicians whose music I have listened to. I think about the 12th-century composer Pérotin who used Church hymn melodies as stretched out and slow-moving basslines for his polyphonic compositions; the musique concrète tape experiments of Pierre Schaeffer, the sound engineer at Radio France in the 1940s who stitched together different train sound samples in his “Étude aux chemins de fer”; the 1960s tape experiments of Steve Reich who played two field recordings of spoken voice samples out of sync with one another to make a phasing, polyrhythmic sound; and of course, the DJ practices of Jamaican dub, disco, and electronic dance musicians over the past forty years who isolate, foreground, and extend the rhythmic break sections of songs to make new groove music. In other words, the only new thing about this is my source of samples. But back to the present: by the time I have cut and saved dozens of marimba loops for Splash, I turn my attention to building on these sounds. If I don’t move on, I could spend forever on this.

Adding Other Sounds: Improvising On A Rhodes
With the marimba loops put into a sequence that makes harmonic sense, I begin adding other sounds. The possibilities offered by my software are bewilderingly large and each sound is stimulating in some way, suggesting a feeling and a musical direction, and I spend hours wandering through soundbanks, playing a single note and just listening to its timbre. The sound possibilities are exponentially increased as I consider how each sound can be altered: I can begin with any sound—a kick drum, a sine wave, a gong, or a marimba sample—and shape it into something different. The sounds in my laptop are endlessly elastic and fungible, but most of these sounds do not fit with my marimba samples so I begin with a sound I already know: a Rhodes electric piano. I let the marimba loops play as a melo-harmonic rhythmic drone and begin playing along with them on the Rhodes, picking out notes and chords, improvising.

Improvising with the Rhodes sound, my goal is to impose some kind of structure onto the marimba loop, but first I need to examine it for clues as to what that structure might be. Fumbling around the keyboard I locate the loop’s main pitch. Depending on the loop, this pitch may or may not be immediately clear. In some cases, it oscillates between two pitches a semitone apart—a sonic ambivalence I enjoy hearing (and one of the reasons I saved the loop in the first place); in other cases, the loop’s pitch level falls between the cracks of the tempered tuning of my MIDI sounds and I need to finesse the loop up or down until is sounds right. With the loop playing, I experiment with intervals and chords: triads, fourths and fifths, and octaves. I keep the intervals open, using them as a way to foreground the consonance of the loop. The sound of the pulsating marimbas creates the sensation that they carry my Rhodes chords high through the air as I arrive at a chord progression that complements the loop: a sequence of triads, or a bass line that slowly moves stepwise up and down. Playing the progression over and over, I refine it, hit record and improvise around it.

Playing long slow tones over the loop, I notice how the affect of the marimbas changes as I shift one note at a time. My perception of the time is shifting: the piece is starting to move at a slower rate, with 60-bar chord progressions on the Rhodes that don’t hem the piece in, but rather open it up. The notes and chords on the Rhodes ring out and decay slowly, suggesting space and a feeling that the time of the music is stretching out. In his meditation on the connections between seeing, feeling, and drawing, John Berger observes “I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world. I do have all the time in the world” (John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011, p. 8). Berger’s observation could describe the sensation of listening to the marimba loops and the slow-moving chord progressions.

The improvisations are equally guided by practical goals: to move from the upper range of the keyboard to the lower, to move from consonance to dissonance, to expand or contract the pacing of the chord sequence. Theoretically I can always edit, cut, and paste my improvisations later on in the process, and the software offers to take over my musical labor: Why play something over and over when you can just loop it (the way you looped the marimba samples)? The software offers help, yet I resist: I want to play all of the parts in the remixes, improvising and capturing a performance. Even parts that repeat a single note I will play through from beginning to end; the parts may sound looped, but they feel different when performed. The Rhodes chord progression holds my attention by changing my perception of the marimba loop. I save it, moving on to play along with another loop and begin the process again. I spend days, weeks, and then months playing along to the loops.

Filling In Other Sounds, Soundsets
With a Rhodes part for each looping marimba section of the remix, I have something to build on and respond to. Just as the marimba loops suggested a direction for the Rhodes improvisations, now the Rhodes parts suggest a direction for other sounds. Listening to the chords and marimba loops, I load a glockenspiel, celeste, sine tone sub bass, a steel pan-like sound I made called Lead, a sawtooth wave sound I made called Treble, and a lush, echoing-dubby synth sound. Some of these sounds are preset sounds that I have found through chance, trial and error, while others have their own stories of discovery. For example, Treble is the default sound in one of my software synthesizers. I take this plain and unadorned sawtooth wave and EQ its frequency profile, removing bass frequencies to make it brittle, lowering mid frequencies make it flatter, and boosting its high frequencies to make it crisp—like a potato chip. Other sounds, like the sine tone sub bass preset, I simply like for their purity. After searching through the hundreds of drum sounds in my software, I choose an old-fashioned percussion soundset: kick drum, hi hat, ride cymbals, tom toms, and a clave-like sound I call Pulse. In all, I decide on a soundset of thirteen different melodic and percussive sounds for the remix. The choice of soundsets is a self-imposed constraint, “encapsulating a defined space for potential expression” (Thor Magnusson, “Designing Constraints: Composing and Performing with Digital Musical Systems”, Computer Music Journal 34, 2010, p. 62). While many other sounds could have worked with my marimba loops, these particular sounds do work and should provide me with plenty of musical options.

Listening to the Rhodes improvisations over the marimba loop, I select one of my other melodic or percussion sounds, and begin improvising with it on the keyboard. I play along to both the Rhodes and the loop, responding to this two-part texture. Sometimes the parts I record take the form of counter melodies; other times they are much simpler, such as a single note or two that repeats—a bell tone or a drum hit, filling in the spaces.

Into New Orbits
My soundset leads me to think about alternate musical roles for each sound and I experiment with bringing the melodic parts into orbits they do not usually inhabit. For example, many sections are harmonically anchored by chord progressions on the Rhodes that range from eight to eighty measures, while the glockenspiel, celeste, lead, treble, and echoing-dubby parts typically “decorate” these progressions with shorter patterns of their own. But mixing up the musical roles of each sound opens up the texture of the remix. Thus, in some sections the Rhodes part sounds long ringing tones in a high register usually occupied by the glockenspiel or celeste. This leaves space in the middle register of the music to be filled in a number of ways: it can be left empty to become a space in which the other melodic sounds are foregrounded; or a chord sequence normally played on the Rhodes can be sounded instead on the bubbly steel-pan like Lead, or the brittle sawtooth Treble sound. Alternately, if the Rhodes moves into a very low register, momentarily functioning like the sub bass, the bass is free to move to a higher one. As I try out numerous combinations, swapping parts and pushing each sound into new orbits and roles, the remix process reveals itself as a kind of puzzle: How many ways can these materials be combined? Whatever I choose to do, changing the role of one sound simultaneously opens up spaces for the other sounds to do something different too. In representing my remix as horizontal strips stacked upon one another like an arrangement of Lego blocks, my music software encourages me to think in such modular terms. As Roger Linn notes, “People don’t play traditional instruments so much anymore, but rather, they play computers […] manipulating objects that they found the same way they do in the art world. I like to call it OOC—object-oriented composition—where the art is in your combination of objects’ (Roger Linn, “Mr. MPC: Roger Linn”, Remix 9/1, 2007, p.51).

Finger Drumming
I play all of the percussion sounds by finger drumming on the keyboard.

drumming on keyboard

Figure 5. Finger drumming on a MIDI keyboard controller

The photo in Figure 5 is of me finger drumming while experimenting with different tom-tom patterns for one section of Splash. As a percussionist, I hear music through the skill set and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike, and when I listen to percussion parts I imagine the physical moves required to play the rhythms on an instrument such as a drum set or hand drum. I hear rhythms as physical possibilities, resonating in sympathy with them, trying to feel their patterns as I might play them myself, and I rely on my embodied memory of how acoustic instruments channel and resist my actions. The notion of musical resistance is discussed by the percussionist Fred Hinger in his book Technique for the Virtuoso Timpanist. Hinger observes that every musician must overcome the resistance of his or her instrument in order to get it vibrating, but percussionists face a uniquely difficult situation in that their instruments “are the only ones not in contact with the player before the instruments are vibrated” (Fred D. Hinger, Technique for the Virtuoso Timpanist, 1975, p. 2). Hinger’s observation about the challenges faced by percussionists also pertains to the electronic musician who works with software. Like the percussionist, the electronic musician is necessarily at a distance from the physical life of sound. Despite this limitation, stimulating discoveries that may arise out of points of contact between the musician and his/her software and MIDI controller need not depend on previous experience with acoustic instruments. As Tara Rodgers observes, “digital music tools have their own accompanying sets of gestures and skills that musicians are continually exploring to maximize sonic creativity and efficiency in performance” (Tara Rodgers, “On the process and aesthetics of sampling in electronic music production”, Organised Sound 8/3, 2003, p. 315).

Indeed, finger drumming on a keyboard reframes my existing skill set and drumming sensibility, allowing me to access ways of putting together rhythms that have little to do with the physical experience of conventional drumming. With drum sounds mapped out along the twelve semitones of the keyboard, my fingers find patterns and sound juxtapositions that would not occur to me on a drum set. Listening back to some of the patterns I have recorded, I realize that I am unable to air drum to them since there is too much happening simultaneously; to play all the parts together would require additional limbs. Finger drumming opens up an approach to conceptualizing rhythm independent of particular assemblages of acoustic percussion instruments (such as the drum set) that is similar to programming drum machine parts. As Andrew Goodwin observes, the drum pattern programmer (or finger drummer) may “avoid the tried and tested conventions that the body unthinkingly repeats” (Andrew Goodwin, “Drumming and Memory: scholarship, technology and music-making.” In Mapping The Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, A. Herman, J.M. Sloop, and T. Swiss, eds., 1998, p. 125).

Editing I: Tuning For Euphony
Having played melodic and percussion parts for all sections of the remix, I convert the MIDI to audio files and begin editing. Returning to the sample edit window, I experiment with moving the pitch of the percussion parts up or down a few semitones. I notice how the hi hat sounds more defined when pitched up 13 semitones. This pitched-up sound surprises me and I make this editing change to all but a few of the hi hat parts. The new hi hat sound encourages me to re-pitch the cymbals, tom-toms, kick drum, and clave/Pulse parts so that they too work melodically with each section of the piece. This audio tweaking makes a substantial difference to how the remix sounds overall: now there is more euphony between the percussion and the keyboard parts. Each change of pitch up or down a few semitones also affords an opportunity to re-listen to each section from that re-tuned perspective.

Editing II: Finessing Transitions
While the sections of Splash are arranged in an order that makes harmonic sense, many of the transitions between them are abrupt because all fourteen parts change at the same instant, creating a sense of information overload. To smooth out the transitions, I mute parts here and there, staggering the entrances of each part (with the exception of the marimba loops which continue throughout as chordal drones). The more I mute parts the clearer the sections sound. Clicking on an audio sequence and dragging it to the right or left, I introduce the sounds gradually, one at a time—like voices entering a communal conversation. In this way, I use the music software to set up musical change through addition and subtraction.

splash muting parts 2

Figure 6. Adding and subtracting parts, one at a time

Adding or subtracting parts, one at a time, in dozens of different combinations, radically changes the texture and feel of each section of the remix. My heuristic for deciding which parts to add or subtract depends on which combination of sounds is most dramatic. The longer I wait to bring in a part, the more interesting the total sound; holding back a part creates a sense of anticipation that keeps the listening engaging—as if the music offers an answer to the question, What will happen next? Even though many of the parts repeat short patterns (especially the cymbals, hi hat, and tom-toms), the overall texture of the music is continuously changing in small ways. As I mute parts here and there I keep the marimba loops and a few other sounds from the previous section (often the hi hat) to maintain an element of continuity. At the end of sections, once the parts have entered, the addition process is reversed and they are gradually removed, one by one. This gradual building up and building back down structure provides momentum to the remix. As with tweaking the pitch of the percussion parts, listening to each section repeatedly to hear how parts enter the conversation affords an opportunity to assess the music from the perspective of the texture of the arrangement.

Editing III: Effects As Musical Change
My final editing step is to experiment with two delays and a reverb I have set up as effects busses. I listen through Splash for moments and parts that might benefit from the effects. For example, a reverb applied to the glockenspiel part makes its high-pitched notes shine and ring long over the other un-reverbed sounds in the mix. In one section I add a delay to the clave/Pulse part, automating the effect so that it gradually increases in volume over one minute. The effect makes the clave part increase in rhythmic complexity as echoes of itself grow in volume and bounce around the stereo field, polyrhythmicizing the notes into new forms. I draw in the automation effect and listen to the results:

effects automation2

Figure 7. Effects automation: adding delay to clave Pulse part

It would be easy to add these and many other effects everywhere in the remix, but I resist. If a part seems to need effects, I add it. Otherwise, the part is left as it is. In this way, the application of effects has its own set of constraints: less is more.

Conclusion: Adapting To The Space Of Making Electronic Music
With the marimba loops in place, improvised other parts filled in, transitions between sections smoothed out, and effects added here and there, the remix as a whole begins to speak and assert itself. Berger describes this experience of realizing that the object created has taken on an affective life of its own:

“At a certain moment…the accumulation becomes an image—that’s to say stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence…This is when your looking changes. You start questioning the presence as much as the model. You stare at the drawing…at what is radiating from [it], at [its] energy” (John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011, p. 8).

As with looking at art objects, so too with listening to sound objects. Listening to what for the moment is a finished remix, my attention is directed onto three layers. First, I hear rhythmic interaction between the parts. On this layer I notice the cycling marimba loops, the Rhodes, the call and response dialogue between the glockenspiel, celeste, Lead, Treble, the echoing-dubby sound, and the polyrhythms of the percussion parts. A second layer I hear is the timbral profile of the piece as a thick sound mass that spans the low tones of the sine tone sub bass and the kick drum up to the high-pitched and sparkling hi hats and cymbals. This sound mass is a kaleidoscope buzz of activity and shifting variation. Finally, I hear the remix as a musical clock slow-ticking through its twenty-nine minute duration: the length of the piece is integral to how it feels and how it opens up my perception. Indeed, it takes a while for textures in Splash to unfold: a chord or a single note by one of the melodic sounds is struck and rings for a long time, its sound slowly decaying and fading to nothing; parts entering gradually, one by one. These long sounds and their gradual addition and subtraction contrast with the fast, rhythmically swirling marimba loops. Seconds turn into minutes and the loops take on a different quality, sounding oceanic:

My acquaintance from ten years ago from the Lower East Side was right: remixing one’s own music is a dynamic way to understand the possibilities of electronic music and sound generally. But the experience of working with music software has its own tensions. On the one hand, I am intrigued by the sonic possibilities of looping audio, finding or creating sounds from scratch, and playing and arranging these sounds into sequences. The software allows me to be sound designer, composer, performer, and arranger for a virtual music ensemble of any kind I can imagine. It feels like a route towards a kind of supercharged musicianship, whereby, as Virgil Moorefield observes, “the producer is the artist is the composer is the producer”(Virgil Moorefield, The Producer As Composer, 2005, p. 111). On the other hand, I also notice a gap between my notion of making music by playing an instrument and the more passive experience of interacting with software by looking at a screen and touching virtual buttons, knobs, and faders. (There are, of course, many electronic music hardware controllers that make the experience of interacting with music software more physically engaging. Hardware such as Native Instruments’ Maschine, Ableton’s Push, Livid Instruments’ Ohm64 and Base, and Novation’s Launchpad function as MIDI and effects controllers, drum machines, sequencers, sample triggering and playback devices. Some electronic musicians have also used videogame controllers, smartphones, as well as other homemade devices as interfaces with which to interact with music software.)

And yet, despite these tensions, I have made discoveries through both approaches to making music. For instance, I improvised parts on my keyboard, trying to capture mistakes-and-all performances and make musical decisions in the passing moment. But in listening to and looking at my sounds and performances as objects in my software, I embraced additional techniques simply by experimenting ad hoc—turning knobs and faders to adjust sound parameters, soloing, muting, or dragging a part somewhere else, adding effects, re-pitching and editing, and listening to how this experimentation affects the sound. In some cases—as when I re-pitched some marimba loops downwards by fourteen semitones—this experimenting proved to be crucial to the overall sound of the music. Thus, the space between my improvising a part and my subsequent interaction with it after the fact demonstrates that the making of electronic music never ends with its composition or performance. One action is always a potential starting point for a next step.

In his phenomenology of the natural world, philosopher-ecologist David Abram notes that our bodies “subtly adapt themselves to every phenomena they experience” (David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, 2010, p. 251). In my experience as an amateur electronic musician, this phenomenological stance also speaks to the ecology of making music using software. Indeed, the most surprising aspect of my remixing project was realizing the extent to which I had begun to adapt to the experience of making music on a computer. By paying attention to the sounds and structures opened up by the software—by the marimba loops and other sounds, and by the effects and editing possibilities—I felt myself developing what Abram calls a “keener perception” of their “manifold depth and dimensionality” (ibid.: 217). Sitting in front of my laptop with headphones on, staring at the screen, I listen repeatedly to the remix as it develops, searching for the hidden worlds within the sounds and paying attention to the possibilities for them to always become something else, forever changing.

splash full arrangement

Figure 8. Full arrangement of Splash remix

Listen to Splash here: