Curating The Week: Harold Budd, Forest Bathing, Craig Taborn


A rare interview with Harold Budd, one of my favorite musicians.

“I had this job, a very nice appearance at Oxford University. Halfway through this performance – large audience, really nice lovely people, as English people are – I decided, ‘This is boring the shit out of me. I cannot stand this another second.’ Somehow I got through it without letting on that I hated being here, and I never did it again, that was the ending. It wasn’t enough. I was going onto something else. I didn’t know what it was, still don’t.”

An article on microdosing nature through “forest bathing” to reduce stress.

“In the woods, the sounds of our wandering were deafening. Each step we took brought an orchestra to life.”

An article on the pianist Craig Taborn.

“His final form of preparation was listening to his iPod in the rental car he drove to Cambridge. It contains about 45,000 tracks, and Taborn prefers to listen to it on shuffle. ‘Moving from Xenakis to some metal thing creates a space where you don’t know what you’re listening to anymore,’ he told me in his dressing room. ‘You’re making inferences and connections, and that’s really what composition is. So I don’t worry what I’m listening to. I just like the experience, the change in moods, the feeling of going from a 20-minute composed track to a 30-second blast of metal. Even the discontinuity creates its own logic.’”

Brett’s Sound Picks: Rachel Grimes’ “Book Of Leaves”

If, as the composer Steve Reich once said in the liner notes for his Desert Music, the evolution of tonality can be imagined as a raft bearing a flickering flame floating slowly downriver towards unknown waters, then the modern composer’s use of harmony is always worth thinking through. Pay attention to the colors and shades of light elicited in the tone combinations of say, Debussy, Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen, Toru Takemitsu, Reich, and Arvo Pärt  (to name just a few bright lights among my list of favorites) and it’s as if you’re hearing that floating raft of flickering tonality sailing out to uncharted waters, bobbing on the currents the those composing imaginations.

Rachel Grimes’ beautiful piano music strikes me as doing compelling harmonic things too, building itself up and down through simple chord cluster dissonances that shift and evolve and hold their tensions, one small interval at a time. I like all of the pieces on her recording Book Of Leaves, but here are two especially moving ones:

“Mossgrove” plays swiftly pulsating chords in a slow descent from high registers to low ones, texture thickening while fading in volume like dying light, just in time for a harmonic resolution that brings the music to a close. (The version below has strings added–not quite the same version I heard on Book Of Leaves.)

“Bed Of Moss” is a slow climb, playing quarter and half note arpeggiating chords, root bass in the left hand, colors in the falling right, both hands moving inwards until they meet and the middle and the music has spoken. (This video also introduced me to the stunning visuals of Kurtis Hough.)

On Music, Thinking, Dreaming, And Gender: Two Chords In A Lego Commercial

“Music’s ability to conceal its processes and to communicate nothing/everything ‘directly’ is largely responsible for its peculiar power and prestige in society.”
– Susan McClary and Robert Walser, “Start Making Sense!: Musicology Wrestles with Rock.”

Every once in a blue moon I watch a TV commercial that stops me, holds my attention, and generates the semblance of real feeling. For instance, I have written here before about ads by Apple and Rolex that pack a punch. Recently I enjoyed the minute-long “Inspire Imagination” commercial for Lego toys. (Ahh, Lego. I love Lego.) The ad depicts a young girl playing with Lego as she imagines various occupations and carries out various tasks–from being a doctor and flying a helicopter to guiding a hamster through a maze and putting on a shadow puppet show. The girl is alone in each scene, yet clearly engaged with her Lego-enabled activities. Near the end of the ad we hear her say, in a voice over, “You taught me how to think, and how to dream.” The girl is addressing her proud mom, yet she’s also referring to her Lego.

The Lego ad is popular, in part because it promotes creativity, and also gender equality by showing a girl with what has often been assumed to be a boy’s toy. (Lego was pioneering in this regard. Check out this “Dear Parents” manifesto they included with their toys in the early 1970s.) On Twitter and YouTube, viewers have praised the ad, calling it “empowering,” “inspirational,” and “melancholy.”

What held my attention while watching was the soundtrack. Created by an advertising agency called Cut & Run, the music is the main source of the ad’s affective power, and helps construct viewers’ sensation of empowerment, inspiration, and melancholy. Let’s take a listen:

The music is simple. Scored for a close-mic’d acoustic piano, with bits of acoustic guitar and long string tones in the background, it consists of arpeggios around two chords: an A-flat major triad with a 6th added, followed by a c-minor triad. If we consider the key to be A-flat major, what we hear is a I-iii chord progression, over and over again. On top of this, in a higher register, the right hand of the piano part plays a fleeting melody that emphasizes the fifth, fourth, and third notes of the A-flat scale. The overall sound is reminiscent of Erik Satie’s moody Gymnopedie pieces; it also evokes the romantic-minimalist sound of Michael Nyman, some Thomas Newman film scores, and the intimate electronica of Helios. (Who, curiously enough, created his own take on minimalist Philip Glass’s Truman Show film score for an Apple commercial.) In short, this piano music has a familiar ring to it, and hearing it we kind of know how to feel.

The music works on two main levels. First, there are those two chords. Every major scale has within it three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord. The Lego chord progression–moving from a chord built on the root or first note of the A-flat scale, to a chord built on the third note of the scale–is inherently happy-sad sounding, because it moves from a major chord to a minor one. So, in a sense this progression encapsulates the music’s sense of melancholy. The I and iii Lego chords also share two notes: C and E-flat. As they are arpeggiated in the ad, the C in particular keeps insistently popping out of the arpeggio, bobbing to the surface of the chords. The C seems energized, empowered and inspired to both keep the rhythm going and act as a glue between the happy and sad I and iii chords.

The music also conjures feeling through that piano sound. For a long time now, the piano has been the ultimate symbol of the middle-class home and of having the financial means, time, and space to take music lessons and practice. The instrument might also be coded as having a feminine sound. In the Lego ad, we never see the young girl playing piano, but we might imagine her being able to play something like this two-chord progression. Finally, the piano sound is an acoustic touchstone that we can relate to as the sound of an instrument that many of us learned to play–a little or a lot–when we were children. Its resonance and warmth suggests an interior world of thinking, imagination, and creativity.

Which brings us back to what makes this commercial empowering, inspirational, and melancholy. The music doesn’t signify these qualities, but it evokes them by gesturing in their general direction through its notes and its timbre to help us feel. As the saying goes, with music, it’s all about the vibe. There is nothing remarkable about a girl playing with Lego, and here the music simply reminds us of the fact that the toy can spark wonder in girls too.

On The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.


There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:


In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

On Grid Music Antidotes: Harold Budd’s “Quadari”


Like a lot of people, I listen to a lot of “grid” music. Grid music is any music with a clear, consistent, and steady meter. By this definition, most music is grid music. Electronic music–especially the kind with steady beats, which is sometimes referred to as electronic dance music–is uber grid music. All of its sounds are organized around (usually) a 4/4 metric grid, quantized to the grid, and flowing along the constraints of the grid. Even electronic musicians in whose work the rhythmic fabric is unusually loose and funky–like tracks by Flying Lotus, say–the music remains organized in relation to an implicit grid.

Harold Budd though, is off the grid–way off the grid. And this is what makes his music so refreshing. While I have written about Budd and his music before on this blog, I don’t know much about his musical philosophy (if in fact there is one). Wikipedia says that Budd creates his slow and sustained piano soundscapes using an approach he calls “soft pedal” but that doesn’t fully explain the sound. (The soft pedal is the leftmost of the three piano pedals. When depressed it softens the sound of the instrument.) Whatever Budd’s method, the result sounds free and spacious, soaring above the conventions of the nearest contemporary musical style landmarks such as ambient or new age or post-minimalist classical. And the music is off the grid not only rhythmically, but harmonically too. His chords–maybe they’re not quite chords, but rather the result of the sustain pedal blurring sequences of notes together?–don’t create a sense of goal-oriented motion. Instead, they just float and slowly hover like clouds. The music is vaguely episodic, as if composed of various snapshots of some kind of nature setting. However it might be described, Budd’s musical voice is a singular voice. It does its own thing, creating its own kind of space to inhabit, and this is good.

On Piano Lessons: Tricia Tunstall’s “Note By Note”

“An instrumentalist is an athlete.” –Tricia Tunstall

For many people, taking piano lessons is an initial gateway to learning to make and understand music for themselves. Knowing that 88-key terrain of black and white tones and semitones is a giant step towards understanding the pushes and pulls of tonal music, and piano playing makes mind and hands dexterous, connecting the physical with the emotional through sound. Last but not least, taking piano lessons–probably, it’s safe to say, more so than taking guitar or drum lessons–is a marker of social class and badge of having a well-rounded education. If you’ve learned and practiced your scales, played Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, some atmospheric Debussy maybe, or even mastered a clinical Bach invention or fugue, you’ve partaken in the canon of western classical music–that grand 1000 year-old behemoth that continues to inform and influence so much other music around the world even as it risks becoming a museum piece itself.

In her book Note By Note (2009), Tricia Tunstall explores the experience of teaching piano, that “weekly session alone together, physically proximate, concentrating on the transfer of a skill that is complicated and difficult” (3). Tunstall, a veteran teacher of children and teenagers of all ages and stages, conveys well the relationships among herself, her students, the piano, and the notes on the page in this fluid, insightful, and eminently readable memoir. Every student has different needs, interests, and abilities, yet each must learn how to really listen to sound and learn how “to rescue music from its ubiquity–to pull it from the background to the forefront, free it from its uses” (7). Piano lessons, Tunstall says, are about (re)situating music as an autonomous practice–to save it from being merely a thing downloaded and listened to as a soundtrack for something else. Note By Note captures the piano lesson itself as a kind of autonomous practice. It’s a space to learn about the development and limits of skill, concentration, and the musicking body.

Young children especially seem to intuitively understand music as an object of inherent pleasure, taking delight in finding the right keys and “enjoying pure sonority” (18). But as their piano lessons progress over time and make music increasingly a process of serious study, the lessons also discipline the students in ways that will curtail that intuitive enjoyment of pure sonority. As Tunstall notes, sometimes the acquisition of a musical skill comes at the expense of a musical impulse” (18). For example, for many piano students, learning to read notes on a page entails “the death of the improvisatory impulse” (21). Tunstall admits to being uneasy about this fact of western music enculturation: on the one hand, one needs to learn how to read in order to have access to all that great music; on the other hand, as our eyes become adept at interpreting notes on the page as “music” some of the subtle connections between the ear and the “improvisatory impulse” are muted. Tunstall addresses this fact by having all her students improvise at the end of their lessons. It’s not a perfect solution, but it reinforces the idea that music is a living activity and not just an acquired skill of note-decoding.

Not surprisingly, popular music is of great interest to many of Tunstall’s students, and some of the more interesting sections in Note By Note chronicle the author’s assessing the musical qualities of rock, jazz, pop, and especially hip hop musics as she helps students figure out how to play their favorite songs on the piano. Many sample-based hip hop songs are, of course, impossible to render (for how does one render spoken word and a rhythm track on a piano?) and it’s fascinating to learn how Tunstall negotiates the terrain of rhythm-based musics while her students look at her expectantly with a please help me figure out how to play my favorite song look.

But for all her attempts to engage with popular music, Tunstall’s allegiances are firmly in the classical world, which she considers “still the most eloquent and compelling manifestation of the musical language we all know” (85). (A minor quibble here: Who is this homogenous “we” Tunstall addresses? “We” don’t all know this musical language–many of us speak in alternate tongues…) And, remarkably, as her students “use their iPods to construct their own musical neighborhoods out of the vast territory of what’s available” (117), somehow classical music finds a way into their listening lives, over and over again. Tunstall marvels at this, but doesn’t take it for granted; she’s receptive to students wanting to learn music that they once heard somewhere and were hooked. For Tunstall, this is simply evidence that the canon of classical piano music has a power “to move those spirits that are open to being moved” (82).

Which brings us to Eddie, one of the dozen or so students whose progress Tunstall carefully maps over the course of her book. Eddie is smitten by Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor) and desperately wants to learn to play it. Tunstall worries that Eddie has neither “emotional experience nor aural image to guide him” (129), yet Eddie is undeterred, driven by a musically-triggered desire to make Beethoven’s music his own, to get it into his fingers and embody its notes. And so student and teacher embark on the slow process of learning the sonata together. Eddie eventually learns to play it, note by note, and play it well too. “Through playing” Tunstall observes proudly, “he was actually learning a new way to feel” (130).

Some Notes On The Usefulness Of Improvisation

The problem with improvisation is, of course, that everyone just slips into their comfort zone and does sort of the easy thing to do, the most obvious thing to do with your instrument.” — Brian Eno

My friend Lee is always asking me to write music for him to sing over–“we just need an A and a B section!” he likes to say in endless encouragement–but as much as I try I usually come up short.  A few nights ago I turned on the computer and loaded up an acoustic piano sound and tried (again) to do something for my friend.

But I really just wanted to improvise.  As a player of somewhat limited means, the kind of playing I’ve always gravitated to is modal–that is, music that stays in the same scale or group of notes for the duration of the improvisation.  I also tend towards keeping my hands moving–often in an interlocking fashion where the left hand crosses over the right–to make a continuous rhythm. Most of all, though, I like experimenting with different “shapes” of my hands over the keyboard to make chords or note combinations that sound (and look) new to me.  My hands keep trying new configurations in search of new sounds that make me feel anew.  It’s not as much a matter of expressing my feelings through the keyboard as much as unearthing a sensual “language” for expressiveness.  So, a chord doesn’t so much embody a feeling as much as seems to refract it through its juxtapositions of notes and intervals played with varying dynamics and rhythm.


As I play, I begin by trying out some kind of pop-sounding chord progression. But it sounds contrived; it’s too simple, too boring to my ear. And as much as I try, I can’t ever seem to get my chord progressions simple enough.  There’s always something a little off–like I’ve missed some fundamental concept of music theory. And besides, I’m feigning interest in a musical idiom in which I’m only a tourist (listening to songs while driving, for instance).

It’s at this point that I momentarily “give up.”  It’s a key moment because what I’m giving up is the pretense of actually trying to accomplish anything specific (like actually writing a song–ha!).  Also, I’m giving up a sense of being in control over the outcome of my improvisation–of knowing and directing where it will go and how it will go.  So “giving up” is a turning point where I lose all ambition (sorry Lee: there will be no “song” tonight) and just get into the experience the music is offering me.

I like the piano because it has such a large range of registers, a rounded tone, and a sustain pedal that allows me to st r  e   t    c     h my playing and let sounds ring.  And the amazing thing is that once I begin I forget that I’m using a little 61-key plastic midi controller hooked up to the computer via USB and triggering digital piano samples.  The sounds fool me enough that I can lose myself in them, my body tricked into thinking this is a real piano and interacting with it accordingly, pressing those plastic keys as if they’re ivory.

I try playing with an electronic metronome click track (in case later I might want to add other parts to the piano) but it feels constraining.  When I play the piano without other sounds, I want sp a  c    e  to play with dynamics and tempo, so I mute the click and just choose a fluctuating, personal tempo that feels appropriate for this late hour.  Ahh, much better.


After a false start, I hit record and improvise for five minutes.  Listening to it now, it seems to have captured something of the moment.  It captures less a feeling or a mood (though it does seem to have that) and more just musical thinking in motion.  I like improvising because it moves at the speed of my thought (and the mechanical limitations of my piano technique!)–no slower, and certainly no faster.  My improvisation (which hasn’t been edited in any way) has some space to it too, in the form of little pauses where I let notes ring out while I consider what just happened and where I might go next.

For me, improvising on the piano like this is a fun and useful exercise in listening and concentrating.