On Pop Music Production Geneologies: Ester Dean’s Compositional Process

In his recent New Yorker article “The Song Machine”, John Seabrook explores the songwriting process behind contemporary pop music. Today’s Top Forty hit, says Seabrook, “is almost always machine made: lush sonic landscapes of beats, loops, and synths in which all the sounds have square edges and shiny surfaces, the voices are Auto-tuned for pitch, and there are no mistakes” (50). Much of this electronic pop is sung by woman such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna. And it sells a ton too. Rihanna, for instance, has sold upwards of 120 million digital singles.

But what makes pop–even electronic, Auto-Tuned pop–pop are its catchy hooks. Enter Ester Dean, a singer-songwriter with a deep talent for writing snap-crackle melodies. Dean collaborates with producers (such as the Norwegian duo known as Stargate) who write instrumental tracks for her to sing over. The collaborations have led to numerous hit songs made famous by others including Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” (which I have written about here) and “Rude Boy”, and Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” (which I have written about here).

Dean’s compositional process is to intuitively groove with the song, initially singing nonsense vocables–which may well explain the hook in Rihanna’s “What’s My Name”: “Oh, na-na, what’s my name?“–that mesh well with the rhythm of the track. From there, she fleshes out words that make lyrical sense. What’s interesting about Dean’s process is that it effectively captures her initial viscerally rhythmic response to a track and then systematically builds upon this energy. As Seabrook describes Dean’s particular (and lucrative) skill:

“Somehow she is able to absorb the beat and the sound of the track, and to come out with its melodic essence. The words are more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they don’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude…”(49).

Below are clips of both Dean and Rihanna singing Dean’s song “What’s My Name”:

You can read Seabrook’s article here.

On (Making) Recordings Versus (Living) Live Music

“Record stores”, a friend of mine once memorably observed as we drove past one, “are where music goes to die.” And with the demise of record stores, music recordings–and by recordings I mean CDs–have had a tough time surviving since MP3 downloading became the primary way most people get their music. For musicians, it used to be a big deal to make your own recording. Once upon a time you needed money to go into a studio and record, and you needed more resources to have your music mastered, packaged and promoted. If you had distribution, your recording might even find its way into a bin at Tower Records, where it would sit and be mostly ignored. But these days any musician with a computer and an Internet connection can make a recording and distribute it around the world to anyone who may want to listen (and getting people to listen is harder than it may seem). So our recordings don’t go to die in record stores anymore; they just languish in relative obscurity among the billions of other bytes of sound swirling out there in cyberspace.


In his recent New Yorker article “Flight Of The Concord”, classical pianist Jeremy Denk artfully describes the process of recording and editing a piece of solo piano music. The music is Charles Ives’ “Piano Sonata No.2” (1920), also known as the Concord Sonata, an eclectic piece in whose transcendentalism-inspired polytonal and polyrhythmic juxtaposition of musical styles–from marching band music to quotations from Beethoven all mashed up together–one hears a musical postmodernism well before its time.

In explaining the process of recording Ives’s difficult music, Denk conveys the challenges raised in a typical studio session–from the way microphone placement affects (and often misrepresents) an instrument’s sound, to matters of musical interpretation and fidelity to the piece’s printed score. There are so many moving parts to capturing a live performance that it’s a minor miracle that any studio session ever goes right, especially considering what Denk calls the “tragedy” of recording itself. As busy as the musician (and the sound engineer, the producer) is “engaged in a task of reproduction, you keep coming up against the irreproducible.” In other words, what makes music music is very hard to capture and reproduce on a recording.

In pointing towards this ineffable quality of music as the source of its mystery, Denk gets to the core of the dilemma of recordings for performing musicians. Recordings are not the real thing, they’re simulacra, “manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away.” And I imagine lots of musicians reading Denk’s article will have a good idea of the considerable physical and mental effort involved in learning a piece to the point that the music is internalized and can be performed (for those listening microphones) convincingly. Recordings may capture performances, to a degree, but they’re also entirely different beasts. They circulate one’s music, sure, but what is circulating is not the sonic-social transaction of the performer and his/her audience but rather an edited snapshot of a pseudo event that is the recording session.

It’s no wonder, then, that Denk concludes his finely tuned article–with his finished CD in hand, by the way–anticipating his next live performance of Ives’ Concord. Next time, he assures us, it will be totally different…

You can read Denk’s writing here.

On Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet

When you go up to the second floor of MoMA PS 1 in Long Island City, Queens and walk down the hallway you can already hear the ethereal floating voices of Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s sound art exhibit coming from a large room around the corner, beckoning you to take a closer listen.  Walking into the room you see eight groups of five loudspeakers, stand-mounted at ear height and facing inwards, tracing a perimeter around an invisible oval.  Keep walking into the middle of this speaker array and you find yourself buoyed by the glorious surround sound of forty recorded singers.  The music stops you in your tracks and makes you think and feel anew, prompting a reflective state of mind.  Listening while looking out the gallery’s windows where I could see in the distance traffic crawling silently on the Long Island Expressway against a bright blue sky beyond, time seems to come to a standstill.  This music sounds like maybe it’s been playing continuously for hundreds of years–we just haven’t been paying attention.  What is this?

Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet (2001) is a looped recording of English composer Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium (“Hope in any other”), a sacred motet composed around 1570 and scored for eight choirs of five voices each.  Cardiff made a multitrack recording of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing this powerful piece of Renaissance vocal polyphony, with each singer on his or her own audio track.  On playback, each singing voice is assigned to a single speaker, creating not 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound but a forty channel stereophonic experience that has tremendous, almost hyper-real sonic clarity.

Forty-Part Motet gets the relationship between form and content just right.  The music of Tallis is an ever-shifting dense sound mass that draws you into its unresolved tensions and reminds you of just how powerful tonal harmony can be. Using techniques such as imitation and call and response between each five-voice choir that throw the sound around the gallery space, as well as moments of simultaneous intricate individual part singing, Spem in alium easily holds your attention for its eleven minute duration.  At MoMA, I watched how the music had other gallery visitors riveted too.  There were eleven of us in the room, some sitting on the benches in the middle, some walking around the perimeter traced by the speakers, some standing frozen, facing one side or another, as if at attention. One woman gestured to her companion to look at her arm moments after they entered the space: she already has goosebumps!  And I spoke with a security guard who spends the day standing in a corner of the room, listening.  He told me that “When I first started working here, I noticed people would come in and start crying.  At first I didn’t know why, but then as I listened to it I started to understand.”

Cardiff presents Tallis’s musical content in the perfect vessel too.  With each voice assigned to a speaker, the exhibit is a super choir with unmatched musical clarity.  To my ear, the volume of each speaker is also a tad higher than a real singer would be, heightening the voices’ articulation even more. And just as important, Cardiff’s speaker arrangement invites the listener to take part in actively shaping his or her listening experience.  For example, stand in the middle of the speakers and you’re in the middle of the choir, the disembodied voices coming at you from all directions like focused rays of light emanating from discrete points around the room.  But start walking around and the sound mix changes accordingly. If you move in close to a speaker, it sounds like you’re turning up that channel of the choir “mix” and suddenly that speaker’s voice is highlighted and right in your face.  And because it’s a speaker, the sound momentarily obliterates the other voices in the choir. It feels intimate–like looking out through a one-way mirror at a singer who can’t see us standing so close and listening.  If you keep moving steadily from speaker to speaker, the scene plays itself out over and over, one voice highlighted for a moment, only to vanish again back into Tallis’s sound mass.  I even spent some time behind one of the speakers and was struck by how much it felt like I was standing behind a real person singing, his voice muffled because the speaker’s front (mouth) was facing away from me. (Admittedly, the other reason I was also hanging out behind the speaker was to consider whether or not I could get away with breaking museum rules and take a clandestine photo.  Couldn’t bring myself to do it though . . .)

Here is Cardiff discussing the work:

“While listening to a concert you are normally seated in front of the choir, in traditional audience position.  With this piece I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers. Every performer hears a unique mix of the piece of music.  Enabling the audience to move throughout the space allows them to be intimately connected with the voices.  It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct.  As well I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.

I placed the speakers around the room in an oval so that the listener would be able to really feel the sculptural construction of the piece by Tallis.  You can hear the sound move from one choir to another, jumping back and forth, echoing each other and then experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you when all of the singers are singing.”

And discussing the power of sound in general:

“One thing that interests me is the intimacy of sound.  We have much more filtration when we look.  We turn off.  Sound comes immediately and it’s hard to stop it.  It enters your consciousness much more easily than the visual.”

Cardiff’s piece then, invites ambient surround listening, close focused listening and mobile wandering listening.  The only disconcerting aspect of the work is that the voices were recorded close-mic’d and thus dry and without reverb, giving them a clinical, disembodied sound.  Whatever resonance they have comes from the natural reverberation of the gallery space, which helps bring them to life.  But whenever one of the five voice choirs falls silent en masse, it sounds like their respective channels are momentarily muted (perhaps to preserve sonic clarity in the mix?) and their corresponding speakers just go dead, as if the power went off. Amazingly, one’s ear notices this subtle shift from virtual “liveness” to virtual “deadness” and it’s unnerving. Maybe the reason is that it’s a moment of rupture that breaks the spell of Cardiff’s work and reminds the listener that the power of sound reproduction technology to resurrect four hundred year old music is not without its limitations.

But Cardiff plays with sonic rupture too by foregrounding the technology in a playful way.  At the end of the performance loop of Spem in alium, there’s a three-minute pause of non-music before the loop begins anew. But this pause is in fact the three minutes preceding the choir singing–that is, it’s those moments when the singers are standing around and waiting to actually the piece.  And if you happen to be in the gallery space before the music has started up again and put your ear up to one of the speakers, you can just about make out bits of conversation: a young boy talking to his friend about a cool new toy he just got, or an older man inquiring about the new job of his colleague (“…that’s a full-time job isn’t it?…”).  Within moments of figuring out what was going on, I pressed my ear up against several speakers, desperate to learn more about the real lives of these real singers trapped inside of these cold speakers.  I was struck by the playfulness of Cardiff choosing to include this casual pre-performance chat into the fabric of Forty-Part Motet.  In doing so she not only foregrounds the technology that allows her piece to come to life, but also reveals its powers to turn us listeners into eavesdroppers.

Below is a YouTube clip of the piece.  The spatiality of its sound is quite good if you listen on headphones.

On The Allure Of The Worn

If you’re a smartphone user, you may have noticed the plethora of apps for your phone that allow you to process the photos you take on it.  Among the most popular apps are FX PhotoStudio and Hipstamatic.  For the average user (that would be most of us), the appeal of these apps is their ability to transform regular, run of the mill digital pics into weathered and vintage-looking ones.  You know the aesthetic: photos in sepia tones, photos that are slightly faded or distressed or washed out or weathered, photos that look like Polaroids from the 1970s or even like hand-drawn charcoal renderings.  Here is the look I am talking about:

In his book Wabi-Sabi (1994/2008), Leonard Koren outlines the aesthetics of the imperfect, the impermanent, and the incomplete via the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi.  Koren describes wabi-sabi as a “fragile aesthetic ideology” and “nature-based aesthetic paradigm” for creating “beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts” (9).  The first recorded instance of the wabi-sabi aesthetic is found in the Japanese tea ceremony circa the fifteenth century.  It was at this time that a Zen monk named Murata Shuko (1423-1502) used locally made and humble utensils in his ceremony, eschewing the “perfect” aesthetic “associated with ownership of elegant foreign-made tea-related objects” (32) that was fashionable at the time.  So, things wabi-sabi, notes Koren, take their cue from nature, foregrounding “raw texture and rough tactile sensation” (68) and often have “a vague, blurry or attenuated quality” (71).  Wabi-sabi would seem the exact opposite of mid- to late-20th century Modernism too.  For Koren, things wabi-sabi reflect a harmonious—if not always ‘pretty’ as conventionally understood—relationship with the rhythms and processes of the natural world and everyday human use:

“Things wabi-sabi are expressions of time frozen.  They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment.  They record the sun, wind, rain, heat, and cold in a language of discoloration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shriveling, and cracking.  Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeing, and other forms of attrition are a testament to histories of use and misuse.  Though things wabi-sabi may be on the point of dematerialization (or materialization)—extremely faint, fragile, or desiccated—they still possess an undiminished poise and strength of character” (62).

I think Koren’s work helps explain the allure of making digital photos look old and beaten up.  It’s as if we know what we’re missing with the digital, and apps like PhotoStudio and Hipstamatic are opportunities to make things look and feel more natural, more wabi-sabi.

And this aesthetic doesn’t just apply in digital photography.  In 21st-century sound recording practice, musicians go to great lengths to make their music sound old, seeking out vintage microphones and analog processing gear to help them on their quest to “warm up” the digital.  There are also software programs such as iZotope’s Trash that allow you to add sonic “dirt” or static to your sound.  It all adds up to a virtual distressing—making the sounds sound a little more like they’ve been lying around for a while, a little more wabi-sabi.

Which gets me wondering about why we fetishize “old”-sounding sound.  Is it because it’s somehow a talisman of realness, of authentic experience?  Take that record static sound, for example.  Static indexes the noise of old records, perhaps culled from an old collection that is itself important in some way to the listener because it represents the past.  And try this thought experiment: recall some very old jazz in your mind’s ear and see if you don’t hear along with the tunes some record static too.

On Making Music Tangible

“How physical is music?” asks Clive Bell at the outset of a recent article in Wire magazine on the English musician Richard Skelton.  Part of what makes Skelton unique is his approach to trying to make music making a more physical thing than its evanescent sounds might suggest.  Thus, the composer-musician embraces a unique recording process: he brings his instruments (violin, guitar, mandolin) out to the remote countryside of Northern England and records instrumental sounds in situ, capturing both instrumental sonics as well the grain of the natural environment (wind, water, goats, etc.).  On the production end, Skelton self-publishes his music on the Sustain-Release label in the form of one-of-a- kind artifacts–CDs housed in hand-wrapped slip covers, or polished wood boxes with 100-page booklets (personalized with the purchaser’s name on them), sometimes even including a twig or vial of water from the landscape in which the music was recorded.

Sounds quirky and over the top you say?  Perhaps.  But Skelton is looking for a high level of integration between music and our physical lives.  Here he is on his rationale for recording outside in the field:

“I’d take my instruments answer myself up there.  I’d make a recording in one of the [bridge] arches and then play it back in the other one.  Record it, so you get the reverberation.  But the important thing for me was coming and playing here, and the recordings themselves weren’t the objective.  It was a document.  I was trying to get the idea of the music becoming part of the landscape” (Wire, April 2011, p.46).

Skelton also weighs in on the importance of music as a recorded object (CD, LP, tape):

“There will be a whole generation of people who consume music as a series of noughts and ones.  But for me, part of the process of consuming music was about the physical object” (48).

So, back to Clive Bell’s question about the physicality of music. Yes, music is a most immaterial thing–in both live performance and recorded playback.  But many of us listeners like stuff we can put our hands on and touch, and so we can understand where Skelton is coming from.

On Daniel Lanois’ Soul Mining

“Letting something you don’t understand come to fruition is an intelligence in itself.”

It’s not that often that a renowned record producer/engineer/musician/composer shares his thoughts on the creative process–from the nuts and bolts of technical things all the way out the mystical side of how to carefully, mindfully mine one’s life and create meaning in addition to hit records. In his book Soul Mining (2010), Canadian producer Daniel Lanois lets us in his musical life and we learn many fascinating things. Lanois has worked with some of the biggest names in popular music, from U2 and Peter Gabriel to the Neville Brothers, Brian Eno, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.   Many of these artists found Lanois either through his sound or through his recognized ability to connect with artists in the recording studio.  Having a distinctive recorded sound is no small feat, especially considering there are virtually limitless ways to get a sound by using recording equipment such as microphones and mixers in particular ways.   It is equally difficult to extract incredible performances from the musicians you are recording by capturing those precious moments “flying by, those molecular pieces looking for congregation.”  It’s about having a Voice and Connecting–not just wires, but people to one another, and to a time and a place.

Some of Lanois’ techniques are low-tech.  For instance, he explains the value of One-Point Source recording, where several sounds are recorded by a single microphone. This technique, by the way, was used to make the earliest records, where instrumentalists would position themselves in the studio, gathered around a single recording horn, according to which instruments would be foreground and which ones background
(vocalist up front, etc.).  One-Point Source recording may seem antiquated today, when every sound usually gets its own track in the digital domain, but it does have a particular kind of blended, unified sound.   As Lanois observes: “Get your source right, and your end will be right.”  For Lanois, “record makers are illusionists” in the sense that recordings are artificial things that must conjure through strong performances, a clean recording, and artful use of sound processing.

One of the most valuable insights Lanois offers concerns the philosophy behind some of his working methods.   One high-tech technique concerns how to build what Lanois calls a “fifth dimension” to the recorded sound by using sampling machines (tape machines back in the day, digital recording devices today) to record bits of the songs and then amplify them somehow.  Imagine taking a photo of a Persian rug, zooming in on a section, then repeating the motif by cutting and pasting it.  While the new creation might look unrecognizable, it will have a DNA connection to the original rug.  Lanois describes his process:

“I use sampling machines to catch fragments with the view of spinning them back into the song with a new texture.   This technique allows me to build an orchestra of sounds that relate to the song because they come from it (…) I’ve spent hours sampling, enhancing, and spinning these kinds of samples back into songs so that artists can have a beautiful custom sonic orchestra at their disposal.   It has taken me twenty years to master this technique.  The Zen of it appeals to me.  The results are unique and original.”

If you’re curious about how this technique can sound, take a listen to a recent Lanois-produced recording by Neil Young called Le Noise (2010). If you listen closely, you can hear guitar parts doubled octaves below to make a booming bassline, Young’s voice doubled and echoed, among other sound that contribute to the overall feel of the recording:

In the video below, Lanois describes how he recorded Young and processed his sound using a technique he calls “black dubs” (a reference to Jamaican dub mixing?) to produce ever-changing, fifth-dimension
textures.  Says Lanois (4:19): “I’m trying to find ways to enter the future with sonics…I want to build new sounds for the future…”:

On Audio Cassette Technology

Today I went to a local dollar store to buy a plastic storage bin and while at the checkout counter I noticed they were selling Maxell blank chrome cassette tapes.  I did a double take–it was a little like seeing an old friend for the first time in years–and almost tripped over myself while waiting for my change.  My trusty analog friend is still alive and kicking!

From sixth grade through the end of high school, my musical life revolved around cassette tapes.  I bought music on cassette, I recorded sound off the radio onto cassette (hours of jazz drum solos, classical, fusion, and even instrumental New Age), I made mixes onto cassette, and I recorded and overdubbed my own music onto cassette.  Somewhere I even have a cassette recording of my prepubescent high-pitched voice talking on the phone–a secret recording of one side of a phone conversation.  I had one of the first Sony Walkman portable cassette players too (and many subsequent incarnations of it).  Post-records and pre-CDs, cassettes were my go-to, vitally useful technology.

One thing I remember about cassettes is how finicky they were–how sensitive to environmental conditions, perhaps even to the sounds that I recorded onto them.  In the 1980s, I spent hundreds of hours methodically hand winding my tapes and cleaning the tape heads and capstans of my boomboxes and Walkmans in an ongoing effort to prevent the dreaded “wobble” sound: your cassette plays back unevenly, usually at a slower speed.  Tape wobble, for me, was the ultimate example of technology not functioning transparently, and it was a major drag (though in retrospect, perhaps wobble was a kind of liminal moment that I couldn’t yet recognize?).  That being said, its spectre inspired my almost superstitious flights of preventative care–note to self: keep tapes tightly wound and of sunlight–in the hopes of keeping my audio technology running smoothly.

I became a bit of an amateur expert on cassette tapes, scrutinizing the sound quality differences between normal UR (type 1), XLIIS (CrO2) or chrome, and–the gold standard– MX (pure metal particles) or metal tapes.  I usually chose chrome, but had a few metal tapes for special projects.  I also marvelled at those strange long distance beasts one could only find at Radio Shack: the 180 minute tape!  But use such things at your own risk.  Once I made the mistake of recording three hours of late night jazz radio onto a single tape.  Bad idea.  Suddenly, the tape gets jammed mid-recording, and yards of that wafer thin 180-minute spaghetti tape is oozing out of my boom box.  Experiences like these remind tech-heads how resolutely physical and fragile analog technologies can be.

A reliable tape I used often was that exact Maxell chrome tape I saw at the dollar store today.  In 1979, Hitachi Maxell, a Japanese company famous for its blank cassettes, ran a TV commercial and print ad that became an iconic representation of the cassette’s sound quality.  The so-called “Blown Away Guy” commercial features a man sitting low in a chair, getting blasted with some seriously loud recorded audio (actually, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”) that is, presumably, recorded onto a Maxell cassette.  As Wikipedia weighs in, this image in this ad “became the de facto standard of those who believed their stereo equipment had sufficient power or accuracy to move the mind and the soul.”

Here is the TV commercial:

During college I moved my music consumption to CDs, and then, like millions of listeners, my music went virtual onto MP3s and wave files. Today, of course, “record stores” are practically obsolete in North America, and cassette tapes are just one more fetishized object (like the LP in certain circles).  There are odes to cassette culture out there, though, including novels that revolve around the “mixtape” or homemade music compilations recorded onto cassette (see Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Rob Sheffield’s Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time), books on the aesthetics of mixtapes themselves (see Thurston Moore’s Mixtape: The Art Of Cassette Culture), even a fine ethnomusicological study of cassette culture (see Peter Manuel’s Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology In North India).

I guess objects, though, always have the ability to conjure and cast spells–or at least inspire flights of remembering– partly through their very objectness (or what art anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong might call their “affecting presence”).  Will downloaded MP3s ever engender this kind of magic?  Or is the remix culture/fungible audio paradigm of today without any substantial vapor trails of its own?