On James Blake Live At The Bowery Ballroom

The most interesting part of James Blake’s live show at the Bowery Ballroom last night was his trio’s seamless use of technology to bring to the stage some of the electronic and otherworldly textures of Blake’s debut album, James Blake.  Blake was playing a Prophet synthesizer for his gritty analog keyboard textures along with a Nord stage piano for his acoustic piano sounds.  But Blake’s microphone (and his piano) was also feeding into a sampler operated by his guitarist, enabling Blake to be looped and overdubbed and harmonized with himself, building up cumulative textures.  The guitarist spent more than half his time “playing” this live sampled material by hitting small rubber pads on the sampler, sometimes playing deep dub basslines on it as well.  One wouldn’t think that watching a musician poking away at a little 10-inch plastic box could be much fun, but it really works because you get into the musician’s concentration* once you figure out which sounds in the band’s texture he’s producing.  Blake’s drummer used a hybrid electronic-acoustic set up: real hi-hat and cymbals, an electronic kick drum and a multi-pad percussion controller.  What this means, for those of you who don’t play such instruments, is that the drummer can trigger any sound he wants on his electronic pads. Thus, one moment he’s playing a crisp, sampled cross stick sound (so key to a lot of dubstep music), the next moment a deep gong sound, and then suddenly a bamboo xylophone-type sound.  What’s exciting about this is how the drummer becomes a sample-triggerer, commandeering any sound that has been set up beforehand, making it easy to duplicate the textures of electronic music in a live setting.  And of course, seeing all of these sounds played in real time by a stick-wielding musician, connects the listener to the conventions of traditional live music performance.  Oh, and before I forget: the band didn’t play to a click track and so the time was elastic and subtle and no one needed headphones.  Beautiful.  In the end, that’s what made this concert work so well: three musicians were able to produce a whole lot of sound in a truly live way–keeping it self-contained by sampling and triggering themselves, and leaving room for improvisation too.  It’s a testament not only to the skill of the musicians, but also to how far electronic music technology has come that performers can use its machinery in such transparent, creative and pleasurable ways.

* There’s a story that the composer John Cage tells of having attended a ballet performance with a friend.  The ballet dancer is holding still on stage, almost motionless and not appearing to be doing much, but is riveting nonetheless.  Cage’s friend turns to him and asks: “How does she do that?  How does she hold my attention?”  And Cage replies: “You’re held by her concentration.”

On Designing New Musical Controllers

A while back I wrote about MIDI hardware controllers which are used by musicians who want to control their computer software.  (You can read the post here.)  Why does one need a controller when performing music with say, a laptop?  For one thing, it gives you the sense of having physical, tactile control over your music.  Rather than using a mouse pad to point and click your way through musical actions, a hardware controller makes making electronic music feel a little more like playing a “real” musical instrument.  (Whether or not a laptop computer running software is in fact a musical instrument is another question altogether.)  Another thing controllers are good for is that they enable their users to do many things at once.  For instance, you can easily “map” several different parameters in your software to one knob, button, or fader on your controller, so with one turn, tap, or slide you could set into motion a whole bunch of musical transformations, making you feel, well, bionic.  To make an analogy with the symphony orchestra: the conductor can cue or “trigger” (in electronic music parlance) several instruments or sections at once with the wave of a hand. Now that is power.  Similarly, MIDI hardware controllers give the electronic musician that feeling of potential musical control.

As of 2011, you can find many kinds of musical controllers for sale at your local music store.  Most of these units are small plastic boxes with buttons, knobs, and faders, and are designed to work easily with popular software programs such as Ableton Live.  But adventurous musicians sometimes go above and beyond by designing their own MIDI controllers.  Nick Francis, the music director at KPLU-FM in Seattle, is one such musician.  In the video below, Francis describes how he set about building his own custom controller in order to perform live remixes of some of his favorite jazz recordings.  Francis then demonstrates his live remixing/mash-up of Fats Waller’s jazz classic “Honeysuckle Rose” (1928).

How did he go about doing it?  By taking audio samples from four different recordings of “Honeysuckle Rose” and importing them into Ableton Live software (which Francis accurately describes as a “spreadsheet” for sound).  These sound samples are then combined with other rhythmic loops.  If you watch the video closely, you can get a sense of how and when Francis is triggering the various “Honeysuckle Rose” samples, as well as sliding faders to switch from one sound to another (listen and watch for the back and forth between the piano and the bass).

This clip has already been viewed over 14,000 times on YouTube, and viewers are especially impressed by how “natural” the controller looks and by the fact that electronic music remixing is (or always was) open to all ages.

If you are now curious about Fats Waller’s original song, you might enjoy this clip of him performing:

Give The Drummer Some

In the histories of hip hop and electronic dance music, the creative uses of sampling are much discussed, especially musicians’ taking drum and percussion “breaks” from old R&B and soul records and using them as the basis of new tracks.  With samplers, MPC workstations, and computer software, musicians and DJs since the late 1980s have foraged far and wide through the dustbins of used record shops in search of the good instrumental bits to sample and loop.  (You can read a related post of mine on Secondhand Sureshots here.)  With the push of a button, the creative labor of acoustic musicians is captured as digital grist for the electronic music mill.

It is perhaps no surprise that amid the enthusiastic talk about sampling and sampers, scant attention has been paid to the artists whose work has been lifted.  For example, James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” is perhaps the most sampled piece of music (certainly in hip hop), thanks to drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s very groovy drum break.  Below is a YouTube clip of the original song.  If you are curious about the drum break, it starts at 5:16:

But while Brown eventually got paid by samplers of his songs, it turns out that drum breaks–unlike lyrics and melodies– aren’t protectable intellectual property.  This means that Mr. Stubblefield, now 67 years old, never made a cent off of the countless songs that have sampled his drum breaks.  Today, Mr. Stubblefield lives in Madison, Wisconsin, playing gigs with a local band.  Meanwhile, his grooves live on countless tracks.

You can read more about this story in the New York Times here.  Also, the debates over musical sampling as well Mr. Stubblefield’s work are the basis of a new documentary DVD, Copyright Criminals.

On Secondhand Sureshots

The idea behind the documentary DVD Secondhand Sureshots (Dublab Collective 2010) was to invite four DJ/Producers to each build a new track based solely on their vinyl finds in California thrift shops. (Out Of The Closet Thrift Stores for you collectors out there.)  The DJs Daedalus, Nobody, Ras G, and J. Rocc (see pic below) would each have five dollars to buy any five records they could find (and which could not be previewed at the store). The rules for assembling tracks were equally strict.  A track can only be built out of sounds sampled from the  found vinyl, and only cuts and effects (reverb, etc.) can be added to the track.  No drum machine beats, other instrumental sounds, or extra samples can be used in the compositional process.  The goal, as the opening credits frames the game, is for each musician “to make musical magic out of dusty thrift store records.”

And so the four DJs set about combing through the detritus of 20th century material culture, excavators of our sonic past.  As the camera pans over the thrift store aisles full of used odds and ends it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe for how much sheer stuff North Americans plow through each year, most of it eventually consigned to either the trash or stores like these.  But there is rebirth here too: the thrift store as a space where (durable) objects sit quietly waiting for the next phase of their lives.

The DJs rifle through stacks of LPs, beginning their search by assessing the coolness of the record covers.  They’re not necessarily looking for funky looking records, but rather anything that seems like it may have the potential to offer a few seconds of loopable bliss.  As J. Rocc notes, “it’s all about looking…you can see the audio.”  The DJs are feeling out whether they may be able to “discern a moment that stands free from the song”–intros, outros, a novel chord or sound combination that will suggest the makings of a future (funky) track.

How do they know when they’ve found something good?  Intuition, gut feeling, or they’re just plain taking a chance on a cool cover.  There are a few odd rules though: stay away from Concord Jazz and Barbra Streisand records, for instance. (their sounds are too recognizable?), and easy listening records usually have cool sample moments.  (Lesson: Very uncool music can eventually become cool again.)

Ras G refers to records as feminine presences, speaking of “taking her home.”  When asked how he cleans his records, Ras says that no, no, dust is good: the audible crackling it creates functions as “seasoning.”  Then he finds an LP of traditional Japanese koto music and says: “this guy is about to get molested…musically.”  Ras also has vision of blending it with a Deep Purple find so he’s justifiably stoked by the prospect of this sound combination (probably never before achieved given that Japanese koto and Deep Purple don’t generally travel in the same social circles).

With their five vinyl finds in hand, the DJs return to their home studios to start listening, chopping and sampling sounds.  Listening involves having the patience to scan through entire albums, waiting for anything interesting to jump out.  But interesting isn’t all in the sounds themselves.  The DJs also bring their experienced ears and sensibilities to bear on their records.  Says Ras:

“It’s all how you hear it…You want to hear it in the machine…It’s you breathing life into the machine.  I’ll throw it onto the machine, [but] there’s nothing in it.”

Chopping, as J. Rocc puts it, involves “editing the sample to the parts I would want to use.”  Rocc and Ras use an Akai MPC to do their sampling and chopping, Daedalus uses Pro Tools, and Nobody does his work on a keyboard.  But regardless of their working methods, each DJ aims to make something new and personal out of something old and discarded because it was thought to have lost its value.  As Daedalus notes: “The game isn’t to make it unrecognizable; the game is to make it your own.”

After the tracks are finished they’re mastered and pressed to vinyl and the DJs meet to listen to one another’s work and share their vinyl finds.  (J. Rocc eventually picked up an old Barbra Streisand LP after all.)  Meanwhile, a new piece of composite record cover art has been rendered from shards of the twenty LPs used to make the new tracks.  Assembled onto one disc in this new composite record sleeve, the work of the DJs now forms yet one more piece of vinyl destined for…you guessed it, the thrift shop.  And so, in the final scene of this efficient, under 45-minute movie, we watch Daedalus, Nobody, Ras G and  J. Rocc return to the thrift stores and secretly drop off copies of their new creations into the dusty bins.  (Some people call this practice “shopdropping.”)  “Remixed and recycled” roll the final credits, “the music lives on…Now, make some music of your own.”

Secondhand Sureshots makes a few things clear. First, without question there is enough recorded music in our world to form the basis for new tracks for many years to come!  Why throw out old music when it can form the DNA for new hybrid mutations such as koto-Deep Purple lifeforms? (Actually, why compose new music at all?)  Second, whatever your view of sampling–Is it theft or a creative practice of building new musical texts out of old ones?–it’s hard not to see the skilled musicians in this film as anything other than kinds of sonic anthropologists/archeologists doing work that reveals new meaning in discarded relics from another time.  Extending the legacy of hip hop sampling, not only does this crate digging and record collecting feel like important archival work, but it looks like endless fun too.

From The Archives: Answering Machine Music

About eight years ago, I composed three electronic music pieces, This Would Be The Time, Have You Any Thoughts?, and All About Affect. The pieces are built around the sampled sounds of voice recordings left on my answering machine. (Do you remember answering machines?)  There is nothing new in this: French radio engineer Pierre Schaeffer explored the idea of making music from recorded environmental sounds over sixty years ago with his musique concrète and musicians have been sampling the voice for decades.

This Would Be The Time. The first piece takes its title from words spoken in a message left by my friend Fred. Fred–who loves to talk (to people and answering machines)–left a message that sounded, to my ears, like an aphorism of ambiguous and circular meaning, thus carrying with it slightly eerie overtones. This is what he said:

“This would be the time, if there were a time, this would be that time.”

I found his delivery quite musical–full of dramatic pauses, emphasized words, and somehow imbued with a weighty sense of dread.

I built a mid-tempo funk groove around the sample. Okay, not funk exactly: more a cartoon imagining of Herbie Hancock playing jazz-funk on a Wurlitzer electric piano circa the 1973/Headhunters era. Besides the “funky” keyboards, there are drums, guitar, strings, some electronic blip sounds, and horns.  The sounds are all sampled presets and played by me on a keyboard. I arranged This Would Be Time by copying the vocal sample numerous times and placing it within the groove. Had I been more adventurous, knowing, and ambitious at the time, I might have transformed Fred’s voice by transposing it or severely processing it somehow. But my interest was elsewhere. All I did to the voice was add reverb.

It’s only at the very end of the piece that the full message Fred left on my answering machine reveals itself:

“This would be the time, if there were a time, this would be that time that we would speak, were you there, or calling in for your messages precisely now to call me, virtually at this moment.  Ah . . . that is, if all is right in the world, this would be the time.  So: to be continued.”

Have You Any Thoughts?  The title of this piece also comes from a message Fred left on my answering machine.  But this time, Fred’s voice is joined by the voices of three friends (Todd, Elias, and Njoroge) and mom. In all, there are five vocal samples in the piece. A bit of background: At the time that everyone left their messages, I had some ambient electronic music I had composed as the greeting on my answering machine. The music for Have You Any Thoughts is not this ambient music but rather a soundtrack to the various reactions it elicited among friends and family.

Have You Any Thoughts? is a humorous piece, in part because what the sampled voices are saying is so polarized. Here, mom waxes on and on about how she enjoyed listening to the music, while Njoroge is just irritated by the sound (“I hate your f***ing answering machine”), Todd is deeply amused, triggering his own fits of laughter (“I was going to say something about the elevator music, but then I realized that it might be one of your compositions”), Elias hears it as an encouraging sign (“I think it’s good that you have music on your answering machine.  It means you’re getting cocky”), while Fred wonders aloud into the aether (“Thoughts, Tom?  Thoughts?  Have you any thoughts?”) The piece pits the voices against one another, each making their case for the significance or annoyance of my answering machine music. Underneath these voices I scored another mid-tempo, faux funk piece.  The music sounds square and it creates the sense that this is the music the voices are responding to.

All About Affect.  This piece is built around another sample of Fred’s voice but is sparser in its orchestration. And unlike the other pieces, All About Affect uses the voice sample as the main melody, doubling it with a bass, and later, with horns. The instrumentation also includes a zither, percussion, and piano.  The piece has a lot of space in it, takes its time to develop, and then diminishes to a close.


These answering machine pieces are in some ways less about the music per se, and more about highlighting or framing what I think are three important ideas expressed in the track titles.  This Would Be The Time is about the fleetingness of time and how a small window of time can appear and then be gone. The voice on this piece represents a presence meeting an absence–a missed opportunity for conversation. Have You Any Thoughts? cuts to the chase and asks us if we have anything interesting, anything substantive, on our minds at this very moment.  Don’t mind the hype (“I’m just breathless . . .”) or the naysayers (“I was going to comment on the elevator music . . .”)–the real issues are: Can you concentrate?  Can you do it right now?  Have you any thoughts?  (Cue to R. Buckminster Fuller: “I always say to myself: What is the most important thing we can think about at this extraordinary moment?”) Finally, All About Affect is a reminder that, in music at least, the most important thing is whether or not a piece makes us feel something, whether or not it affects us in some way, whether or not it has affect. Moving outwards from music, other experiences–telling a story, making a joke, delivering a flavor–have a better chance of shaping us too if they can also make us feel something.  Affect is a vehicle for ideas and also a very real thing in itself.

Favela On Blast

The documentary movie Favela On Blast (produced by the American DJ Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo) explores the culture of electronic music making and dance parties situated in the favelas in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro.  The name of this energized and hard-hitting music is variously known as funk carioca, favela funk, and baile funk.  Musically, funk carioca is a particular rhythm that mixes American electronic funk (specificically, Miami bass) with the diverse influences of Brazilian music (such as xaxado, coco, baião, forró, and samba rhythms).  The music has its origins in the 1980s when records of Miami bass caught on in Rio via DJs who went to Miami to soak up and bring back the latest sounds.

Early funk carioca sampled these Miami bass rhythms.  If you want to hear a seminal track that influenced the course of funk carioca, listen to “8 Volt Mix” by DJ Battery Brain.  This track has the elements of what would become the funk carioca sound: the Roland TR-808 drum machine sounds, a syncopated rhythm (that can be traced back to electro music), and the horn stabs:

(If you want to dig further into where Battery Brain borrowed his material, check out this site, www.whosampled.com to listen to ten tracks that found their way into “8 Volt Mix.”)

Since the 1990s, these rhythms, along with short samples of horn section stabs for melodic interest (samples from the horns of James Brown and from the Rockie movie soundtrack are ever popular) have been the backdrop over which dozens of Rio MCs have sung and rapped on the topics of social and racial justice, poverty, violence, crime, and sex.

Favela On Blast has wonderful, “fly on the wall” footage that allows us to watch DJs putting together their funk carioca tracks in the most modest of home recording studios.  In one clip we see DJ Jorginho Matarazzo looping a percussion track, adding samples of horn stabs, and moving around audio clips of an MC he just recorded minutes earlier.  The software and computer are ancient, but that doesn’t stop Matarazzo from working effortlessly at breakneck speed to finish his track.  If nothing else, funk carioca is always, always relevant because it’s of the moment.

In another scene, DJ Sany Pitbull describes how the music has evolved since the 1990s, when DJs would just spin records of Miami bass, to today where DJs literally “drum” out patterns on their Akai samplers on the instrument’s little rubber pads:  “Before the DJ played [the turntable] like that…Today it’s like this drumming…”  We see that Pitbull is talking about in clips from funk parties where the DJs improvise the placement of their sampled horn stabs over the massive Miami bass-derived beats.  It’s really live, interactive music.

The massiveness of what funk carioca sounds and feels like live is a big part of its affect.  As DJ Carlos Machado notes: “Bass makes a mess of your consciousness.  It is a tribal song.  You to go to understand your ancestry.”  And the sheer exuberance and power of the music makes it something people can channel themselves into.  Thus, MC Catra describes the music as “a safety valve for crime and prostitution, a catalyst for faith, joy, sensuality, creativity, love and sex.  Funk is all this together.”

Overall, Favela On Blast offers ethnographically rich portraits of the funk carioca music culture.  The footage is lush, the DJs and MCs speak for themselves, in their locales, about their work and we read their words in translation; they make music and we watch them do it.

The Hang Drum: Real and Virtual

Do you like the sounds of steel pans and gamelans?  Then you might really be intrigued by the sound of the Hang, a percussion instrument created and hand-built by the Swiss company PANart (Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer) since 2000.  The Hang consists of two steel sheets welded together to make a convex shape, a little like a UFO.  The top sheet has a main pitch hammered into its middle, along with 7 additional pitches located as indentations around its perimeter. The instrument almost looks like the concave steel pan turned inside out.  To play the Hang you place it on your lap and tap it with your hands and fingers, which brings out the instrument’s many overtones.  Due to some YouTube videos that show the Hang in action, demand for the instrument has skyrocketed in recent years.  Yet there is very little information on how to obtain a Hang, besides buying a used on eBay for thousands of dollars. Moreover, PANart has no website with information on how obtain one.  I have a percussionist friend who has one or two, but I’m a little afraid to ask how he obtained them (!)  It’s all a little pleasantly mysterious in a time when just about everything is one click away on Amazon.com.

As with so many audio-video things, YouTube is a good place to check out the Hang in action.  Here’s a clip of the most-watched Hang video (over two million views so far): an original piece by the Austrian percussionist Manu Delago.  The piece is a moody and catchy one, showcasing the Hang’s tuning and dynamic range,  along with Delago’s groovy percussionist’s rhythmic flow.  You can watch his performance here.

If you want to get your hands on the Hang’s sound but like many of us have no access to obtaining the actual instrument itself, you might want to consider downloading a sampled version.  The company Soniccouture sells a virtual instrument called “Pan Drum” which is a meticulously sampled Hang drum that has earned rave reviews.


Soniccouture specializes in reproductions of instruments from around the world, including the Chinese gu-qin, the khim Thai dulcimer, the Balinese gamelan, and a version of the mbira from Zimbabwe.  For US $79.00 you can own Soniccouture’s Hang samples and play them from your MIDI keyboard, add effects, and mutate them to your liking. Soniccouture’s website describes its Hang software as “a unique and evocative instrument that will bring indefinable atmosphere to all kinds of musical production …”

Unique and evocative?  Indefinable atmosphere?  All of this talk about musical mood leads us back to timbre, or sound “quality” in music.  Timbre isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a whole lot of what makes one music sound different from another.  Think of the crunchy distorted electric guitar timbres in rock and metal musics, or the liquid metallic shimmer of steel bands, gamelans, and now, the Hang.  Timbre is a big part of why we are attracted to or repelled by a music.  Companies such as Soniccouture recognize our love of timbre and the simple fact that different timbres make us feel different things; they may even mean different things.  And so we continue searching for new sounds for making our music.