Notes On James Blake At Radio City Music Hall



About three-quarters of the way through his set at Radio City Music Hall the English singer, keyboardist, and producer James spoke to the crowd about what an honor it was to be playing at the famous venue and that it had taken many years for his trio (with Benjamin Assiter on drums and Rob McAndrews on guitar and sampler) to reach this level of performing electronic music live. Explaining the challenge he and his bandmates face when they perform, Blake said “we’ve chosen the path of most resistance: everything is live–no laptops, no Ableton.” (Ableton Live is a popular music software used for performing electronic music.) The audience cheered–Blake doesn’t talk a lot at his shows and it was nice to hear his voice–but they probably had little idea how this band performs. The division of musical labor seems to be that Blake sings and plays keyboards, dividing his time between piano and synthetic synthesizer chord washes; Assiter plays a mostly electronic drum set, triggering pummeling sine tone kick drum sounds and Roland TR-808-type hand claps instead of acoustic percussion; and McAndrews plays electric guitar here and there, but is equally busy adding soundscapes to the mix and live sampling Blake’s voice to thicken it and add more layers of counterpoint.

When Blake explained that he and his band had chosen the path of most resistance, he was referring to their goal of evoking the sound and power of electronic (dance) music by old-fashioned means: playing instruments. Part of the thrill of watching them play is wondering how they’re making the sounds, a few of which stand out: the rib-cage rattling kick drum, the vocal samples I could see being drummed out on an electronic drum pad controller, the vocal doubling harmonies that appeared out of nowhere behind Blake’s singing, and finally, all that narly bass played by Blake’s left hand. It still astonishes me how much low-end frequencies modern sound systems deliver. Bass is one of the main signifiers of music now, having reached new depths of tactility and visceral affect. It can have a physical effect independent of what you may think of the music itself.

Musically, Blake’s band gave us the best of multiple stylistic worlds. They can create hard-hitting electronic textures that build and build. At one point the music soared into the only 4/4 techno beat on the night and suddenly the entire crowd was standing. But then a quiet piano piece came and we all sat down again. Blake also writes very harmonically compelling songs, so if nothing else you can be carried away by his chords that toe the line between evoking soulful-gospel-church music and ECM/Keith Jarrett quietudes. In many ways Blake’s is a minimal kind of music too, where a typical song is a skeletal snare backbeat, a keyboard wash, voice, and a faint soundscape. What he excels at is giving you endless reasons to listen closely, and his concert was full of moments when the audience’s hush registered the music’s patience and depth. Partly that’s due to his beautiful and falsetto-heavy singing, and partly due to the tight song arrangements that keep you guessing what will happen next. On our way out my wife asked me how I would categorize the music and I said I had no idea. Blake is a composer positioned at the intersection of ambient, gospel, and soul as well as various UK underground dance and bass music styles, but he always doing his own, very distinctive thing.

Art About Music: Edward Hopper’s “Room in New York” (1932)


(In an interview Hopper said: “The idea for Room in New York had been in my mind a long time before I painted it. It was suggested by glimpses of lighted interiors seen as I walked along the city streets at night, probably near the district where I live (Washington Square), although it’s no particular street or house, but it is rather a synthesis of many impressions” [].)

Art About Music: Piero di Cosimo’s “Portraits of Giuliano and Francesco Giamberti da Sangallo” (1482-1485)

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(This diptych depicts a father and son. On the left is Giuliano, the son who was an architect. On the right is his father, Francesco, who was an architect and musician. Notice Francesco’s left ear which looks bent outwards, as if he’s listening intently. In front of them are their tools (pen and compass, sheet music) which represent their disciplines. According to the Rijksmuseum website, both architecture and music “are based on notions of harmony and proportion” [].)







Curating The Week: Film Music, Musical Universals, The Power Of Spotify Playlists


An article and series of videos about the influence of temp music on film music soundtracks.

An article about musical universals.

“Over the last two decades, I have found myself gradually forced to abandon the incommensurability doctrine and accept—at first begrudgingly, but over time with a growing confidence and certainty—the existence of a whole host of musical universals, ones that are typically ignored or downplayed in world music studies.”

An article about the promotional power of Spotify playlists.

“Overnight I was lifted out of the musty basement section where men with National Health spectacles hang out, and up on to the shiny new rack next to the checkout counter. All because I composed a solo piano piece that Spotify in deemed fit to feature on one of its more popular playlists. “Peaceful piano” with 1.9m subscribers put me in the company of Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm and Max Richter and gifted me on average 25,000 plays a day.”

Notes On Daniel Lanois’s “Heavy Sun”

I kinda froze when I heard the two and a half-minute track “Heavy Sun” from Canadian producer and ambient instrumentalist Daniel Lanois’s latest recording (with Rocco Deluca), “Goodbye To Language.” I had been scrolling through the new releases on Spotify for the week when I found the Lanois piece and I froze because I found the music immediately appealing not only in terms of its sounds but also in terms of its design. Unlike a lot of music I encounter I had no idea how this gem was assembled or performed, or even what instruments or other equipment might have been used. The music had a drone quality, but the drone subtly pulsed. The sounds seemed to be electronic, but also effortlessly natural in an acoustic kind of way, as if the performers had deep confidence with getting their gear to do exactly what they want. Over the drone I heard wisps of chords and melodic motifs, but those wisps and motifs had a floating rather than a directional, I need to get somewhere feel. The music took its time conjuring its unusual, old-timey, and alien soundscape. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I remembered that Lanois plays pedal steel guitar and that this subtle recording was made using this subtle instrument. Suddenly it all started making sense, but not so much sense that it explained itself away.

Here is a video of Lanois performing another track, “Satie”, with Deluca: