Listening Is Misunderstanding


When we listen to music
we hear what’s happening in the sounds—
the tempo, the beat,
the timbres, the chord sequence,
the singing, the words sung.

But we also hear what we want to hear:
how the music relates
to musics we’ve already heard,
and to the gaps in our attention—
meaning that there are qualities in the music we don’t hear
because we aren’t attuned to them.

In this way, listening to music
reveals our pre- and mis-conceptions.

You can’t fully trust yourself as a listener
because your listening is always so partial,
so stacked against you,
so imbalanced.

You could be a more ideal listener
by being better informed about musical things
but that’s a destination never quite reached.

If you were an ideal listener
you wouldn’t need music in the first place.

Curating The Week: Twin Peaks Music, Midori Takada, Virtual Singers


An article about Angelo Badalamenti’s music for Twin Peaks.

“There’s almost nothing going on but you’re taken to this fantastical, emotional, dramatic place. It’s like a Rothko painting: three colors arranged in the perfect way.”

An article on Japanese composer and percussionist Midori Takada.

“Midori Takada, a composer and percussionist in Japan who released a string of mindblowing records beginning in the 1980s, challenges that order. Many call her work minimalism; her interlocking patterns bring to mind Steve Reich, in particular. Her layers of rich textures and atmospheres are sometimes reminiscent of Brian Eno’s classic ambient work. Through it all, she created a sound that is uniquely her own.”

(Note: Nice marimba work from 12:10-20:10.)

• An article on virtual singers.

“Imagine not having to go through the hassle of booking human singers at the cost of $75 to $250 per song and getting release signatures.”

On Key Moments In Composing


Each time you sit down at the computer and the keyboard to compose it feels as if you have no prior experience to draw on. Even though all your conscious knowing tells you that this can’t be the case, you’re beginning as if from scratch, facing the empty screen without being able recall the hundreds of tracks you’ve already recorded and meticulously edited down to their nano structures. Sigh.

What’s going on here? Is this simply a default way of thinking, or is it a self-imposed constraint to focus yourself on the present? Either way, because you can’t recall what you’ve already done you hunker down with the unlikely prospect of doing something significant today. Your quiet desperation is registered as you pull in your chair a bit, wipe off some dust from the keyboard, stretch the hands. Sigh. But this is a key moment in the process because in momentarily forgetting your creative past and at a loss for what to do right now you’ve adapted a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset, resigned to the reality that you’re not much improved since the last time you sat down to face down musical uncertainty. It’s a key moment because you’ve almost—but not quite—given up before you’ve begun. Usually we construe this kind of mindset as a species of negative thinking, but negative thinking in doses is not necessarily bad. In this case, your almost—but not quite—giving up frees yourself from self-imposed and unnecessary expectations derived from your past outcomes or imagined futures. A whatever happens happens mindset as you sit in front of your computer and keyboard is a perfectly imperfect state in which to dwell for a while. You’ve tapped into something priceless: attention unmodulated by assumptions.

It took a few minutes, but it’s only now, with your attention unmodulated, that you bring your hands to the keyboard. Evidently your hands didn’t fully absorb the lessons of your whatever happens happens mindset and they immediately move along their old pathways, finding friendly routes through g and d-minor maybe, or staying safe within F major. But your hands are just scared and need a little push. You ask them why they so often ignore D-flat and F-sharp or any of those terrains over the black, mountainous accidentals. This is not to say that you’re conscious of keys and scales all the time. You’re just trying to point out to your hands that, from where you sit, the terrain is wide open. Go explore a bit! This frees up the hands and now they roam. This is a second key moment because your hands have almost—but not quite—given up trying to make any definitive musical statements. They have permission to stay local or travel far, but either way it’s just messing around. It doesn’t count. No one cares what happens. It’s just music. Just do whatever seems interesting. And so it goes for a while, as your hands bounce around and you follow them. In your state of pure attention, no one—not you, not your hands, not your computer or your keyboard—really cares about what is happening.

Which brings us to a third key moment where not really caring transforms itself instantaneously into…caring deeply. Boom! Something happened—the hands fell into something and now you’re woke. It could be a dissonance, or a rhythm, or a symmetry. Playtime’s over, folks. Forget what you did yesterday or what you might do tomorrow—this thing here, right here, is something special, no? Your quiet desperation is now sure-footedness. Boom! Now you have goal and a purpose which is to flesh out the possibilities of this something the hands fell into—mobilize its potentials as quickly as possible before the magic dissipates. You’re like the mother whose child is trapped underneath the car who summons a bolt of energy to do some heavy lifting. What you thought was a quiet resignation, a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset was not a lack of confidence or some calculated Zen move. No, you were saving your quality energy for this pivotal moment where you can rescue what may be a good idea from being crushed under the world’s indifference.

Arrows Of Attention II: 100 Not-But Conceptual Pairings


1. Not virtuosity, but attention.

2. Not new ideas, but remixing old ones.

3. Not novelty, but classic form.

4. Not a large gesture, but a small one that sits comfortably under the hands.

5. Not saying too much, but saying little.

6. Not adding, but subtracting.

7. Not free form, but logical.

8. Not contrived, but discovered.

9. Not clean and crisp, but weathered, Wabi-sabi.

10. Not willy-nilly, but thoughtful.

11. Not ambitious, but serious.

12. Not random, but sequential.

13. Not straight-lined, but fractal.

14. Not groovy, but flowing.

15. Not expressive, but poetic.

16. Not quantized, but measured.

17. Not influenced, but sociable.

18. Not a one-off, but part of a series.

19. Not argument, but a form of inquiry.

20. Not explicit, but manifest.

21. Not unison, but counterpoint.

22. Not copycat, but original.

23. Not historically obsessed, but in the present.

24. Not blocking out, but aware.

25. Not me-centered, but personal.

26. Not frantic, but long ball.

27. Not warmed up, but at 100 percent.

28. Not ignorant, but naive.

29. Not theory-laden, but experience-driven.

30. Not ideas, but patterns.

31. Not idiom-centric, but universal.

32. Not married to the sound, but accepting it.

33. Not today, but maybe next month.

34. Not later, but how about right now?

35. Not stylish, but genuine, earnest.

36. Not repeatable, but re-listenable.

37. Not imagining, but trying it out.

38. Not a sequence, but a route.

39. Not themes, but recurring shapes.

40. Not melodies, but harmonic traces.

41. Not chords, but timbre washes.

42. Not beats, but composite rhythms.

43. Not a lucky idea, but a I-was-just-right-here-and-noticed-it discovery.

44. Not luck, but forged opportunity.

45. Not a problem, but a set of conditions.

46. Not any sound at all, but exactly this sound.

47. Not exactly, but roughly in the ballpark.

48. Not the first take, but the second or third (once you’ve calmed down).

49. Not for any particular reason, but still goal-oriented.

50. Not in the details, but in the general concept.

51. Not in the forcefulness of the gesture, but in its accuracy.

52. Not in your assessment of the music, but in others’ use of it.

53. Not all at once, but one sound after another.

54. Not out of private need, but for public circulation.

55. Not because it’s cool, but because its indifferent to coolness.

56. Not because you can dance to it, but because it moves its own way.

57. Not for worship, but reverential.

58. Not for contemplation, but nudges you in that direction.

59. Not goal-oriented, but stretching one scale, one key.

60. Not complicated, but sophisticated.

61. Not exhaustive, but renewable.

62. Not happy or sad, but steadily expressive.

63. Not angered, but restorative.

64. Not self-conscious, but at ease.

65. Not static, but changing every micro-moment.

66. Not awkward, but flowing.

67. Not self-referencing, but outward-looking.

68. Not status-seeking, but freewheeling.

69. Not changing tempo, but steady state.

70. Not four-on-the-floor, but hypnotic.

71. Not cinematic/background/ambient, but the focal point.

72. Not soloing, but accompanying.

73. Not foreground and background, but interwoven texture.

74. Not surface texture, but structural form.

75. Not stimulation, but fascination.

76. Not notes on a page, but sounds over the speakers.

77. Not on a grid, but suggesting a pulse.

78. Not your best stuff, but it doesn’t really matter.

79. Not made of material, but having physical effects.

80. Not causing tension, but having a sense of urgency.

81. Not modeled on a real instrument, but inspired by it.

82. Not better than your last creation, just different.

83. Not reducible to words, but eluding description.

84. Not for everyone, but for some.

85. Not overly serious, but engaged.

86. Not structurally perfect, but enchanted.

87. Not the most beautiful, but naturally so.

88. Not synthetic, but from your own life.

89. Not doggedly persistent, just persistent.

90. Not unlike the others, but with unusual spins.

91. Not strictly repeating, but circling around and around.

92. Not distracting, but minding its own business.

93. Not naturally occurring, but sounding natural.

94. Not with all its part aligned, but finely calibrated.

95. Not putting on a show, but exploring connections.

96. Not ruling out novel sounds, but weary of them.

97. Not unlike what the theorist does, but in practice.

98. Not seeking a million ears, but one good listener.

99. Not great, but touching.

100. Not for me, but for you.

Curating The Week: Emmanuel Carrère, Yuval Noah Harari, And The Ed Sheeran-TLC Similarity


An article on Emmanuel Carrère.

“Carrère has managed to renovate the idea of what nonfiction writing can be. Profoundly intimate, historically and philosophically serious but able to cast compulsive narrative spells, Carrère’s books are hybrids, marrying deep reporting to scholarly explorations of theology, philosophy, psychology, personal history and historiography.”

An interview with Yuval Noah Harari.

“I follow the question instead of trying to follow my own answer, even if it means I can’t formulate any clear theory.”

An article on the similarities between Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and TLC’s “No Scrubs” and how TLC’s songwriters now share songwriting credit on Sheeran’s song.

“What’s notable here is that regular people first noticed the melodic similarity and if not for the internet, it may well have gone uncredited or unnoticed.”

Here is one of those regular people, a musician singing the two songs over the same chords:

As you listen notice that the similarity is rhythmic as well as melodic: specifically, how the vocal phrases in both songs stretch over the barline and end beat one of the next.

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.