Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With brettworks


Thomas: I get to interview you—finally! Why didn’t we think of this sooner?

brettworks: I don’t know, but I was right here the whole time!

Thomas: So let’s dive in. Readers are curious:
What’s the point of your blog and what, if any, are your plans are for it?

brettworks: The point of the blog is to write, to have a reason to focus and generate ideas, and to have a platform for sharing music-related material. It started as a once in a while thing, then became a two to three times a week thing, and lately it’s been a Monday to Friday thing. It may return to a once in a while thing though. As for my plans for the blog, I don’t think very far ahead—even though I write the posts a month in advance. The main thing is to channel the excitement I feel when I encounter something interesting.

Thomas: How often do you check your blog stats?

brettworks: Several times a day. Yes, I’m one of those people.

Thomas: Why?

brettworks: Because the WordPress app on my phone let’s me do that.

Thomas: What have you learned from your stats?

brettworks: Much of my traffic is random—people stumbling upon the blog because they were Googling say, “michael mcdonald” or “bollywood time signatures” or “rolex commercial” or “why does my voice sound weird.”
This is the reason why I publish “Searches That Brought You Here” posts:
I want to close the feedback loop between your searches and my findings.

Thomas: Interesting. What else have you learned?

brettworks: That there is a sub-section of readers that appreciate ideas in poetry form. In fact, poems are often “liked” while longer prose posts almost never. This makes me wonder whether I should be writing about music exclusively in poetry form. After all, poetry is like music in that it focuses on the nexus of sound and oblique meaning. I’ve started to write more impressionistically about music too, in my parenthetical descriptions for the “Brett’s Sound Picks” posts.
This is one way to stay out of the music’s way.

Thomas: How do you come up with ideas for blog posts?

brettworks: It depends. The last few months I’ve been writing about single words—like “Better” or “Attune” or “Flip.” Sometimes I respond to music that I like. My aim is to share what I admire, but there’s also a selfish motivation, which is to create reasons to seek out good stuff. Sometimes I write about my experiences making music. Sometimes I respond to a book. Sometimes I write about music’s use as a tool that guides our feelings (as is the case with TV ads). And sometimes I write because music as an expressive form seems inadequate to the task of articulate expression.

Thomas: Can you expand on that?

brettworks: Music often seems trapped in its own cliches of expression—minor and major, rousing or scary or cool, quirky pizzicato strings that accompany the people bumbling around on a cooking show, popular or classical.
Sometimes it’s as if music teases us to stay clear-headed in its presence.

Thomas: Interesting. But back to something you just said—about music being trapped in its own cliches of expression.

brettworks: Right.

Thomas: From that perspective, what are you most interested in listening to these days?

brettworks: I guess any music that pushes against those cliches and offers an alternative that compels through other means. Before I go further though, I’ll say that this cliches of expression idea is from the writer Geoff Dyer.

Thomas: What’s the quote?

brettworks: In addition to cliches of expression, Dyer speaks of “cliches of observation and of thought—even of conception.” And although he’s talking about novels, his idea that any work can be “cliches of form which conform to cliches of expectation” equally applies to music I think. Thanks to Dyer’s idea, when I listen to music now I sometimes think about cliches.
What was your question again?

Thomas: What are you listening to these days?

brettworks: Right. Usually I listen to instrumental music.

Thomas: Can you give an example?

brettworks: Some of the music in my “Brett’s Sound Picks” I like a lot. (I have begun curating a Spotify playlist for 2018 that I’ll be adding to. Feel free to follow it or just listen to it.) I recently heard a piece by the English jazz trio GoGo Penguin that’s remarkable—it sounds like an approximation of electronic music. You’d never mistake this for classic jazz or conventional electronic music—instead it sounds like an emerging musical category, like acoustic techno-mimetic music or something.

Thomas: Is that a commonly used phrase? Acoustic techno-mimetic music?

brettworks: No. But I think it describes what music like this seems to be aspiring to. The music of Dawn of Midi could also be described like this. So, I like music that chases after new aesthetics, that tries out different ways of being. “Mainstream” pop has a lot of interesting production work happening inside it too. You hear it in the music’s details—in a meticulously shaped hip hop drum sound or pad timbre, for instance. I often love those details more than the songs themselves.
It’s like the songs are vehicles for the sounds and not the other way around.

Thomas: Interesting. Where do you discover new music?

brettworks: I often read about new releases on Sometimes I hear about things on Twitter, and sometimes Spotify’s algorithmically-derived “Discover” recommendations lead me to something.

Thomas: When you encounter a new music, how do you listen to it?

brettworks: At first super fast—I’ll scan a whole album then quickly return to a single track and listen to it obsessively until the sources of its power begin to make sense. It’s not the most sympathetic way to listen, but for me it works to bypass too much conscious thinking about whether or not the music is “good” or whether or not I “like” it.

Thomas: Air quotes!

brettworks: Yes! I put those words in quotes because I think we don’t like a music because it’s good, we like it because we’re sympathetic to the way in which it’s going about doing the work of defining itself.
Somehow we resonate along with how the music is doing its thing.

Thomas: Okay. Switching to another topic: Why do you think your ventrilo-dialogue with Rihanna is so popular? It took a few years, but it’s catching on!

brettworks: I don’t know why that is and it’s a little worrisome! I think the popularity of the post has to do with people wanting to hear a singer talk about her voice, or peel back a celebrity persona to move from being an object of attention to being a vehicle for other ideas we can focus on if we move past the spectacle of it all.
Anyways, let me remind readers that Ventrilo-Dialogues are speculative fiction.

Thomas: What is your favorite brettworks post?

brettworks: My favorite post is one of my first ones on the appendix in C. Wright Mills’ 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. The appendix is called “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” and in it Mills lays out principles by which the blog tries to live. Mills says you need to pay attention to the subtle sources of your ideas and then meticulously cultivate and document those sources as a kind of ongoing craft. (For some reason I always picture Mills at a drafting table, putting his ideas into diagram form.) I wish someone had shown me this book when I was in high school—I came across it by accident in graduate school while exploring the library stacks. Mills’ appendix is inspiring because it explains how to combine far-out, almost trippy idea generation with empirically-grounded thinking. You can read the post here.

Thomas: Thanks for taking the time, brettworks.

brettworks: You’re welcome. Next time I’ll interview you!


Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Poet Meets A Composer


Poet: I take an idea and unravel it
into its component parts
so that they lie in front of me—
a set of word tools
used to both assemble
and constitute a prose structure
based upon the potentials inherent in the idea
but in an abstracted musical form.

Composer: I take an idea and develop it
using its component parts
so that stretch out ahead of (and behind) me—
a set of sound tools
used to both assemble
and constitute a sound structure
based upon the potentials inherent in the idea
but in an abstracted “narrative” form.

Poet: So that’s our hello?

Composer: I guess.

Poet: Where does feeling reside for you?

Composer: In the number and quality of potentials I can extract from an idea.
Where do your ideas come from?

Poet: From my feeling that an idea is worth pursuing.
Why do you work with sound?

Composer: Because the sense of words is too specific.
Why do you work with words?

Poet: Because the sense of sounds is too vague.
What is your instrument?

Composer: Close listening and receptiveness to accidental congruities.
What is yours?

Poet: Imagining relationships and creating tensegrity through deliberate design.
What problem are you trying to solve?

Composer: Scattered attention and vague thinking. You?

Poet: I want to re-enchant language.

Composer: Focus and enchantment are our shared interests, then.

Poet: Yes, and the pleasure that lies somewhere in between.

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation Between Beats And Musical Time


B: MT, hello!

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

B: I’m tired.

MT: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MT: Go ahead, say it.

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

MT: You just did.

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

MT: Did you just speak in italics?

B: Yep.

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

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

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

B: The way disco did, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B: That must be nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B: Such as?

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

B: Stop!

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

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

MT: Is this polarization a problem?

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

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

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

MT: Yes, indeed.


A Conversation Among Composers

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Johann Bach:

I think that the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God 
and the refreshment of the soul.

John Cage:

I think that music is everywhere.

Arvo Pärt:

I have a need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.

Steve Reich:

I’m interested in a compositional process and a sounding music that are one in the same thing.


I don’t think of a sound in my head and try and find it on the keyboard.
I just find the sound on the keyboard.

(Head nodding, awkward silence, stirring of drinks.)

Ventrilo-Dialogue: Theorist Versus Pragmatist


Theorist: To compose music is to engage philosophically with music. Music is always about other things–about a bigger picture.

Pragmatist: Not at all–to compose music is to engage tactilely with putting sounds together.
Music is always about just music.

T: But surely you want to know to what end you’re doing the organizing?

P: I know my ends–I’m composing according to the sounds I have and the demands of the gig, the style, the context.
What other ends are there?

T: Well, one end is the bigger picture.

P: That’s vague. Isn’t music’s sound the picture–the picture that your ear takes in?

T: Yes but there’s more. I have the sense that anyone working in music–be they composer or performer or even listener–are in fact trying to do something else or be somewhere else. The picture is elsewhere as it were.

P: I don’t understand. You mean a string quartet playing together or a listener lost in headphone reverie are trying to achieve something outside of music?

T: Exactly! I think we use music as escape, as a way of imagining other states and ways of being, even as a way of experiencing virtual transgression.

P: Hmm. That last bit sounds somewhat radical. It brings to mind Jacques Attali who in his book Noise (1985) said that music is “forecast” and “prophecy” (21)–that music is like a crystal ball of sorts, anticipating future social change.

T: I like that formulation. But I’m convinced that the change music heralds or helps bring about is mostly internal.
What I’m saying is that music is a way to be virtually in several places at once.
In this way it teaches us about ourselves, about how we think and feel.

P: So this is what you mean when you say that music has a bigger picture and that music is always about other things?

T: Yes.

P: Interesting. Okay, now this reminds me of a passage in Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever (2016).
Ratliff wonders whether music may be “actually necessary to consciousness.”
He asks: “What if music teaches you qualities of motion, ethics, ambition, in the most basic sense?” (88)

T: I could get behind that formulation.

P: So tell me, Theorist, what is it that you’re trying to do in your work?

T: I’m trying to connect music outwards to so many other realms of experience to show music’s bigger picture.
And what about you, Pragmatist?

P: I simply love making music–the smaller picture, if you will.
As an end to itself, there’s nothing else like it.

T: Now that, my friend, is most resoundingly true!

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation Between Expression And Experiment

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Expression: I make music to express my feelings, my emotions.

Experiment: I make music to create feelings and emotions.

Expression: I feel a connection between the sounds and how I feel inside.

Experiment: I notice a connection between my process and the sounds.

Expression: There’s a story to my music.

Experiment: Story is something we overlay onto the music. Music isn’t about anything.

Expression: The rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and timbres are like characters.
They do things and they go places.

Experiment: They do things and go places, I agree. But they are variable parameters and values, not characters.

Expression: You make music sound soulless, like scientific research.

Experiment: Well, you make it sound like an ego trip.

Expression: I lose myself in my music all the time, so I doubt that my ego is involved.

Experiment: But you refer to the music as yours. That assumes a lot–like an owning ego.

Expression: You don’t feel you own the music you make?

Experiment: No. I get excited by it sometimes, but can’t take much credit for its making.

Expression: So who or what takes credit for making the music?

Experiment: The process does.

Expression: Which is what exactly?

Experiment: Sometimes the process is my improvisations at an instrument.
Other times it’s the ways I manipulate and edit the sound.

Expression: How can you not take credit for improvising, manipulation, and editing?
Surely those are all processes that require musical skill or a sense of what is musical?

Experiment: I don’t take credit for them because I’m not trying to express anything. I’m just tinkering around, trying things out. It’s simple stuff. Anyone could do it. My contribution is paying attention.

Expression: You make it sound like play, or an experiment.

Experiment: Yes! Music is a playful experiment in paying attention. I like that formulation. What is it for you?

Expression: For me music is a way of coping with my life, a way of saying things I couldn’t say otherwise.
Music is an encounter with mystery that articulates in a thousand shades of subtlety.

Experiment: I agree with that last bit. So what kinds of music do you like?

Expression: I like all kinds of stuff–anything that connects with a lot of people–like rock and pop, and also Romantic classical music. Anything that has soul and give me goosebumps. You?

Experiment: I’m not sure what you mean by soul…But I like instrumental music–nothing with voices at all, though I make an exception for Arvo Part. J.S. Bach’s keyboard stuff is great. Some Indian instrumental music. I like random wind chimes blowing in the wind. I also listen to electronic music. Autechre are good.

Expression: It sounds like you don’t really like that much music or like music that much?

Experiment: Probably you’re right. There’s too much noise and spectacle in how music goes about its business. Silence is often more interesting for me because…it allows me space to think. Music co-opts my thinking, leaving so little room for anything else and that annoys me. Anyway, how much favorite music does one need?

Expression: The more the better! I think you’re missing out on the kaleidoscope of human expression through sound–the chaos, the buzz, the grit, the highs and lows.

Experiment: The less the better! I think you’re missing out on the clarity of simplicity.

Expression: Perhaps. At least we agree that music is always worthy of our attention, right?

Experiment: Absolutely.

Expression: Music is pure expression, giving wings to the mind and flight to the imagination. (Plato)

Experiment: Music is pure experiment, a hypothesis that works for a while. (Burrows)

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With A Popular Singer


T: Rihanna, thank you for talking with me today.

R: My pleasure, Tom. It’s nice to have this conversational break.

T: I agree. So, lets begin with the obvious. You’re omnipresent in the pop culturescape: it seems that every few weeks one hears your voice on a new song, and your image is everywhere—on TV, in the pages of magazines, on billboards, and so on. One has to ask: Is there a real you behind all the mediated reproductions of you?

R: Well Tom, when I started out in music as a teenager in the Barbados, I wanted to be discovered and “make it” like any other aspiring pop star. Back then, there was a real me. But that soon changed. Once I was discovered, the music industry transformed me into a desire-machine, a voice for hire to sell music and market products to you, the listener.

T: Interesting. I have written before on desiring machines.

R: To answer your question about whether or not there’s a real me: my sense of self these days has been subsumed into the desiring-machine that is the popular music industry.

T: I appreciate your candidness—few performers would reveal so much about the mechanics of the business in which they work. Now, if you don’t mind, I would love to turn now to your voice, since it’s your voice that we hear everywhere.

R: Sure.

T: To start, your voice is odd. I say that because while there’s something appealing about it, it also has a kind of emptiness. In fact, one critic described it as having a “dead-eyed quality.” Your voice doesn’t seem to signify anything or anyone; it doesn’t even seem attached to anything or anyone. It’s almost as if it doesn’t even belong to you. Do you know what I mean?

R: Sure. But remember, people seem to be able to find emotion in my voice even though, as you say, sometimes it seems as if there’s no there there. Sure, my voice could be said to have an empty quality. I’ve thought about this, and started reading up on what various writers have said about voice in general.

T: That sounds fascinating! What did you learn about voice?

R: Well, it turns out that there’s an extensive literature on the topic. For example, the French critic Roland Barthes has a piece, written in the nineteen seventies, called “The Grain Of The Voice” in which he explores the voice’s timbral aspect. Barthes says “the grain is the body in the voice as it sings.” I found this a beautiful formulation and I like idea that our voices encapsulate the rest of our bodies.

T: Yes me too.

R: Barthes also says that the voice is not personal or original, though at the same time it’s always individual.

T: A lot to think through in his work, for sure.

R: Yeah. Other critics have written about the role of the singing voice in operatic contexts and how it constructs desire.

T: That’s interesting, though opera isn’t your scene.

R: Well, no it isn’t. But I do think there are continuities between opera and pop.

T: Such as?

R: Well, one continuity is the notion of being a diva. The more I think about my career the more I understand myself as a kind of diva, and that my voice might somehow sonically construct this sense of diva-ness.

T: The diva as desiring machine! Fascinating!

R: It is! The take away from this is that now I have renewed appreciation for myself as a performer who constructs desire and voices sentiments for consumption on a massive scale.

T: In that sense, maybe the empty quality of your voice has a point, then?

R: Right. And besides, if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else’s voice, right? Plus, it’s fun. Pop music is fun—an experience of pleasure that sounds the ever-expiring moment.

T: Well put. And the money…?

R: …It’s good. Remember, for a few years there, back when people were downloading music rather than streaming it? I had, literally, millions of downloads!

T: True. But tell me, Rihanna, when people criticize your voice, or your perceived lack of stage presence, how do you respond?

R: I don’t worry about it because I know that on a basic level, the sheer presence of my voice on all those songs circulating around is presence enough. In a way, I inhabit anyone who cares enough to listen and remember one of my songs. You may find my voice lacking in affect, but it still affects you as you listen and project your own narratives onto its sound. And so in this way I think my voice works on a quite subliminal level.

T: Popular music is fascinating that way, isn’t it?

R: Yes, Tom, yes it is. We pop singer-divas may come and go, but our knowledge is real: we understand how to voice the musical moment, how to connect listeners to their own experiences through shared song.

T: Well said. Thanks again for taking the time, Rihanna.

R: Anytime.