On The Trickle-Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics V: Coldplay’s “A Sky Full Of Stars”

Though it has been fashionable to criticize the English band Coldplay for one reason or another–they’ve been too popular, their music is too sentimental, their singer Chris Martin overuses his falsetto voice–they do what they do well. Their music uses pop materials precisely, and for many listeners, Martin’s concise and catchy vocal melodies are worth the price of admission. As my wife pointed out the other night as we watched the band play two new songs on SNL, while publicly disliking Coldplay has become a kind of meme (see here and here), the band is tight. They do what they do well.

Like other guitar-bass-keyboard-drums bands, Coldplay is also not immune to the changing fashions of popular music. In fact, their recent single, “A Sky Full Of Stars” could be mistaken for a bona fide piece of electronic dance music. A few observations in this regard. First, the tempo of the song is a sprightly 122 bpm–just a few clicks below dance music’s optimal pace range. Second, the song’s harmonic glue is a syncopated, repeating keyboard ostinato that cycles through four chords, each for one measure. (In fact, the ostinato is identical to a well-known African bell timeline pattern: long-short-long-long-short.) Third, the keyboard part undergoes a series of filter sweeps that alter its timbre and adds a sense of tension and forward motion. Fourth, the drumset part is reduced down to a four-on-the-flour kick drum that seems designed for DJ sound systems. (Good luck finding tom-tom fills and cymbal crashes on this track.) Finally, the guitar and bass parts are relegated to secondary roles, effectively decorating that pulsating keyboard part and floating above the kick drum. And the vocals? They’re pared down too–emphasizing a few short, repeated phrases. All in all, there’s constant variation that makes the song build and build.

What I find interesting here is how rock band instrumentation is adapting to the different aesthetic needs of electronic dance music. Coldplay do their adapting well enough that one hardly notices it happening. Still though, there are concessions to the exigencies of pop songwriting. “A Sky Full Of Stars” ends with the band moving to four new chords, as if to provide a sense of song going finally somewhere, at least for its rousing conclusion–in effect saying, We’re not completely dance music yet!


On Endless Vibrations: Locating Soca Music

Lots of people recently returned from Trinidad and Tobago Carnival thoroughly energized from the parties, dancing, and most of all, the powerfully loud and beat-driven soca music. If you’ve never hear this music up close, blasting from the slow-moving soundsystem trucks that crawl their way through the streets of Port Of Spain, it’s quite an overwhelmingly immersive experience. There’s nothing like it: the sound is so mightily, crushingly loud it not only goes through you–it compresses air itself, making you feel light. Talk about presence! Though it doesn’t capture the volume of the experience, here’s some footage that shows one of the trucks:


Developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, soca is a fusion of musical styles, initially building on its predecessor, calypso music. Calypso’s biggest star was Lord Kitchener (1922-2000). One of his early hits from the late 1960s was “Take You Meat Out Me Rice”:

Soca also incorporated elements and instruments from Indo-Caribbean chutney music. The singer Dropati is considered the founder of modern chutney. Her 1968 song “Gowri Puja” has an upbeat tempo and features the sound and rhythms of South Asian percussion instruments (e.g. dholak drum) that articulate an offbeat feel similar to the groove of modern soca:

Early 1970s soca classics include songs by Lord Shorty/Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman 1941-2000), such as “Endless Vibrations”

and “Sweet Music” (which has some nice bass synthesizer work on it too!)


In 2014, the sound of soca has some things in common with that panoply of styles that is referred to today as electronic dance music (EDM). First, its textures are almost entirely synthesized/electronic. (Even the singing voices are heavily processed.) Second, both soca and EDM have a driving, four-on-the-floor kick drum pulse that anchor the songs and direct the dancing listeners. Soca adds an offbeat snare drum syncopation pattern (on the fourth 16th note subdivision of beat one, and the third 16th of beat two) that gives the music its distinctive lilt and forward propulsion. Even though all soca beats are programmed, they can, of course, be played on real drums. This instructional video demonstrates how to do it:


In the songs played at Trinidad and Tobago Carnival 2014, we hear various blends of the soca and EDM soundworlds. A good place to begin is Farmer Nappy’s “Big People Party.” In the context of other recent songs, it’s somewhat old-fashioned sounding, complete with a horn section (song begins at 1:20):

Bunji Garlin’s “Carnival Tabanca” is a slightly downtempo tune that substitutes hand claps for the 4/4 kick drum. In this song, one kick pattern plays every second beat, while a second, deeper-pitched one plays every eighth beat, giving the song a multilayered, smooth feel:

Kerwin Du Bois’s “Too Real” features a keyboard playing the off-beat pattern usually played by soca snare drum:

And finally, there’s the ever-present singer-producer-songwriter Machel Montano, Trinidad’s most famous soca artist. Like Du Bois’s “Too Real,” “H.M.A. (Happiest Man Alive)” features a keyboard part that does heavy syncopation work:

The song “Sound Bang” is one of Montano’s many collaborations, this one a duet with Major Lazer, an electronic music project of American DJ Diplo. Meticulously constructed, “Sound Bang” features an infectious half-time ukulele-like refrain that bookends intense 4/4 kick sections. In this piece you can also hear dramatic DJ-esque filter sweeps and snare drum blurr-rolls that demarcate the different sections of the song. The tempo is fast, fast, fast, perhaps pointing towards soca’s ever-intensifying future trajectories:


On Composing At 40,000 Feet: Afrojack And The Soaring Economics Of EDM


In a recent New Yorker article, Josh Eells describes the economics of the electronic dance music (EDM) scene in Las Vegas. Here, working at gambling resort clubs, marquee-name DJs (Armin van Buuren, Tiesto, David Guetta, Diplo, Deadmau5, Afrojack, and others) are paid mind-boggling sums to perform their sets for big spending and very drunk audiences. Increasingly, it’s this electronic music and not gambling that draws people to Vegas.

Profiling a Dutch DJ-producer named Afrojack (Nick van de Wall), Eells observes him composing on his laptop while in a hotel room and then on a flight from New York to Vegas. Afrojack uses FL Studio software stocked with “two hundred thousand samples, from synthesizer whooshes to snare hits.” Several passage in Eells’ article are striking in how they capture Afrojack’s working process:

“On his screen, the song…appeared as a series of red and green horizontal bars. Zooming in on a segment representing six seconds of bass, he equalized and compressed the sound to get the timbre he wanted…Nearly an hour later, after replaying the six-second chunk hundreds of times, he took off his headphones. ‘Got it,’ he said.”

And later, on the flight to Vegas:

“The plane was forty thousand feet over western Indiana when he decided he wanted to make a new track. He began with a brisk four-four beat and a repeating phrase that sounded like a theme from a video game. He added string flourishes, whistle sounds, and a shrill, buzzy tone that recalled a fax machine. By the time the plane had entered Nebraska airspace, the song was more or less finished.”

A few interesting things about these passages. First, Afrojack, like many EDM musicians, treats composing as a kind of combinatorial game, choosing from among thousands of sound samples and loops to generate new material. His musical labor lies primarily in listening for striking juxtapositions of already performed and recorded sound bits. Second, he uses his software not only as a vast sound archive from which to draw but also as a mixing board that allows him to shape sound just so. In other words, the software enables him to be an engineer and producer as well as composer. Or more to the point: engineering/producing/sound design becomes part and parcel of the composition process.

Afrojack’s composing at 40,000 feet may also be an apt metaphor for the high-flying, soaring quality of the EDM scene in Vegas. Indeed, Eells’ article concludes with Vegas concert promoters and DJs alike wondering if and when the superstar DJ phenomenon may cool off or vanish altogether. Is this oversized, visceral music–a music intended to move its audiences to momentary excess–sustainable? Or do some bright things eventually fade to a lesser glow?

You can read a critique of Eells’ article at Gawker.

Here is Afrojack’s well-known track, “Take Over Control” (ft. Eva Simons). At 1:24-1:38 (among other places), you can hear his trademark “bleepy” sound:

Finally, here is a Dutch documentary about Afrojack. At 8:38-8:55, the DJ demonstrates his “bleepy” sound. “It’s very weird”, he says about the sound, “and that characterizes my style.”

On Musical Invention, Sound And Process: “Bladelores” From Autechre’s Exai


No one is quite sure how the UK duo Autechre make their electronic music. Sure, they use software and computers, they program, they use hardware synths and drum machines and samplers, they improvise, they code, they make beats, they tweak, but we really don’t know how they work. Not only is the group’s musical sum is more than its technical parts–we don’t know what those parts are. The Autechre sound is difficult and opaque, yet also endlessly surprising and engaging and at times emotionally moving too. Critics have called the duo “top-notch sonic magpies and brilliant technicians” (Grayson Currin writing at pitchfork.com) whose music “always implied a kind of future music–as in, a sound that points to a possible futuristic norm” (Charlie Frame writing at thequietus.com). However you want to describe the group or their sound, Autechre have a clarity and concision about them.

For me, the most significant attributes of Autechre’s music are its rhythmic invention, its timbres, and its sense of process or change through time. The group’s best moments are those that are continually shape-shifting rhythmically or timbrally into ever new forms. This is what makes the music thoughtful, probing, and utterly unlike so much 4/4 thumping electronic dance music. Autechre may have grown up among the conventions and grooves of techno and hip hop, but they’ve long since left those stylistic orbits in the pursuit of more experimental designs that still manage to pulsate and groove in a physically alive kind of way.

The twelve-minute track “Bladelores” from Autechre’s recent recording Exai demonstrates a sense of musical process, and a bird’s-eye of the piece gives us a sense of its structure. On its surface, “Bladelores” is accessible because it begins has funky muted kick drum and a simple white noise backbeat on 2 and 4 that is drenched in reverb and joined by a repeating acidic bassline. It’s almost like a slow hip hop groove. At 1:00 a pulsating harmonic thing joins the mix, blending in with the long reverb tail triggered by the white noise backbeat. At 2:16 the pulsating thing becomes louder, accentuating the offbeats. The groove feels good. Meanwhile, what seemed to have been a reverb tail has morphed into a kind of chordal wash that is growing steadily. By about 3:15 you notice the chordal wash is in fact two chords that are alternating and repeating, and by 4:00 you notice the backbeat is fraying and coming apart a bit and the bassline becoming squelchy. Around 4:55 the chords and backbeat cut out, leaving just the brittle bassline. Soon though–from 5:11 to 5:37–the chords surge to the foreground again for a moment, even hitting a kind of resolution, only to be cut out at 5:38 where the backbeat, the reverb tail, and bassline return, reset and slightly altered. The chordal wash joins in again around 6:35 and for the next two and half minutes grows in intensity as the percussion and bassline keep fluttering about. The reverb from the outset of the track has been transferred to the chords, making their resonance grow to gargantuan proportions. At 9:00 the backbeat abruptly stops, leaving the bassline to slowly dissolve into the resonant chords that continue to thicken until they hit a resounding wall of harmonic sound at 11:00 and then gradually fade out for the end of the piece. As with a number of fine Autechre tracks, you didn’t expect this one to turn out like this. It just seemed to somehow evolve.

This is the rough structure of “Bladelores.” But I’ve left out the details, and these details manifest themselves as changes that happen to the music in a continuous flow. If you listen to any one-minute section of the track and focus on a single sound–the backbeat, the bassline, the chords–you can hear micro changes inflicting themselves continuously on each part, second by second. So that white noise back beat is almost never only a marking of beats 2 and 4, nor is that bassline merely marking a chord progression. Upon closer inspection, the parts keep changing rhythmically and/or timbrally and this change is the basis of the processual aspect of the music as a whole. This processual aspect of the music reminds me of what the musicologist David Burrows notes in his article “A Dynamical Systems Perspective on Music”: music creates for us “a now whose content changes ceaselessly” (The Journal of Musicology Vol. 15, No. 4: 1997:529). In sum, Autechre’s music doesn’t just move from one section to another–it doesn’t have seams like that. What it does do is shape-shift over time, and this makes for a challenging and enchanting listening experience.

Here is “Bladelores”:

You can read more about Autechre here and watch a Ventrilo-Dialogue with them here.

On Techlust II: Native Instruments’ Maschine In Colombia

Recently an email from Native Instruments (NI), a music technology company, appeared in my inbox. NI occasionally sends out ads for its products, limited time discount offers, software updates, and so on, and as a NI software owner I always happily read these emails and then ignore them–unless we’re talking about the software updates, in which case I go and follow the links. Such is the nature of electronic music technology: once you buy into a brand, you’re constantly “attended to” by the company and encouraged to buy and update more and more. In this way, the lines between consumption and production and advertising are not only blurry, but overlapping too.

But back to that recent NI email. It was a promotion for NI’s successful hardware/software rhythm instrument, Maschine. I wrote about first experiencing this technology “in the flesh” (“in the plastic”?) in a blog post here last year. In this Maschine email, NI included a video of a musician using the instrument to improvise a sample-based music. The musician is Mario Galeano who lives and works in Colombia and leads the group Frente Cumbiero. (I’ve just begun listening to them.)

The video is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, Galeano is a combination of record collector, DJ, composer, and musicologist-historian who uses his love of traditional cumbia music to inform his electronic music making. This leads to me to a second interesting thing, which is that Galeano’s music isn’t your run of the mill electronic dance music. Rather, it’s built on syncopated samples of acoustic instruments from old cumbia records. Galeano’s music sounds–to use a clichéd way of distinguishing a music–more organic than synthetic. And this, in turn, may also be a by-product of the third thing that makes this NI video interesting: Galeano’s improvising on Maschine’s squishy square buttons to perform his music. At 2:10 in the video, we seem him play around with audio samples from old records from the 1960s and 70s.

It’s for these reasons that this NI video is such an effective promotional tool. It’s about a seductive technology, sure, but this technology is socially situated in a real musician’s life and naturalized by being shown to be a practical help to his ways of working– helping him sample old records and then play back those samples in what Galeano describes as “a very tactile way.” The meta-message? If this piece of gear helps him do all that, imagine what it might help me do?

You can read more about Galeano and Frente Cumbiero here.

On The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics III: Acousmatic Sound And Authenticity At The 2012 Grammy Awards

“All cultural change is essentially technology-driven.” – William Gibson

This year’s Grammy Awards featured the first ever performances of live electronic dance music, showcasing the DJs David Guetta and deadmau5 with R&B singer Chris Brown, rapper Lil Wayne, and the rock band Foo Fighters in what the Los Angeles Times aptly called “a confused, if well-meaning, picture of dance music’s place and influence in current pop.”

There were two catches to the performances. The first is that they took place outside the Staples Center in a tent designed to resemble a 1990s rave–complete with lazers and audience members wielding glowsticks. Evidently, turning the main auditorium into a club space wasn’t going to happen; better to keep “serious” popular music safe (for the moment) from electronic enchroachment. The second catch to the performances is that both DJs–Guetta and deadmau5–were paired with other artists, telegraphing the message that manipulating digital turntables still does not quite constitute a “performance.” What are we supposed to look at? And where exactly is the demonstration of instrumental virtuosity? So as Guetta worked his turntables on his infectious song “I Can Only Imagine”, Chris Brown and Lil Wayne stalked the stage in Auto-Tuned perfection to reassure viewers that this was pretty much like a traditional show—except that Guetta’s DJ rig replaced the whole band. The TV cameras occasionally showed close-ups of Guetta’s hands moving fast over wheels, buttons, and sliders. But unlike a typical epic DJ set, the song lasted just 3 minutes.

Next up were the Canadian producer deadmau5 and the Foo Fighters. deadmau5 had remixed the Foos’ song “Rope” in 2011 and their collaboration at the Grammys was a demonstration of how remixing works. First, the Foos performed one-and-a-half minutes of “Rope” in the song’s original rock incarnation. As the song’s finishing chords rang out, deadmau5 entered with a quantized (and slightly slower-paced) four-on-the-floor stomp, and the Foos played along as if resigned to the metronomic pulse. This collaboration lasted all of 55 seconds (hey, it’s for TV after all) and seemed to drain the song of its original energy. Then deadmau5 played one minute of dubstep from his song “Raise Your Weapon.” It was probably the most musical moment of the whole 6-minute performance–just pure dubstep groove–though Deadmau5 is known more as a house music producer than as a bonafide dubstepper. And just as Guetta had Chris Brown and Lil Wayne on hand to provide visual spectacle, deadmau5 wore his tradmark giant LCD-lit headpiece to give us something to look at. Unlike the Foos’ hands which could be seen picking away on those electric guitars, deadmau5’s hands and his DJ rig were hidden from view.

And it’s precisely this that’s at stake when people talk about what makes rock/pop music authentic and electronic music lacking in authenticity: we can see rock/pop musicians generating sound, while the techniques of electronic musicians are either hidden (we can’t see what they’re doing to make sound) or diffuse in the sense that their music making was done over the days, weeks and months of a solitary and private production process that assembled a track bit by bit. So when it comes to time to “performing” an electronic music mix, it’s not always clear to the concert-viewer what the DJ/producer is doing besides playing back a track and tweaking a few elements here and there. (Was Guetta doing anything substantial to “I Can Only Imagine” or were his rapid hand movements just to convey a sense of musical busyness?) This is most of all a problem of what the French musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer in 1955 called acousmatic sound: sound one hears without seeing its source, sound emanating from a loudspeaker without a musician in view who is the unmistakable creator of that sound. Even today, this makes some people in the popular music establishment nervous, especially considering that electronic music seems to be eating rock and pop music wholesale, one song at a time.

The complete Grammy performance of all five artists is here: