On Pantha Du Prince And Bell Laboratory’s Elements Of Light

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I think techno music at the moment is just an infrastructure. Basically, it’s not a musical term anymore. It used to be more like straight, technical funk. Nowadays, it is more of an infrastructure where you have certain beat patterns that you can call techno music. But in the end, it’s a social and economic infrastructure. The name ‘techno’ does not have anything to do with content anymore. It can be anything, from soul jazz to new music, to electro-acoustic music. It’s not the description for a musical genre anymore. It’s the description of a structure within which you move around. And it’s dance music.” – Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince)

The German techno DJ and Producer Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince) is quite into the sound of bells. On his 2010 recording Black Noise you can hear bell sounds on the tracks “Welt Am Draht”

and  “Bohemian Forest.”


Since then, Weber has kicked his interest in bells up a few significant notches. On his recent recording Elements Of Light, he collaborates with The Bell Laboratory, a collective of musicians who play a range of tuned percussion instruments including a huge 50-bell carillon. The 17-minute track “Spectral Split” showcases the electronic music meets ancient bells and percussion collaboration. Once the piece gets going you can hear the full mix: the lumbering carillon bells, marimba patterns deeply indebted to Steve Reich (the composer may demand royalties here), steel pan, tubular bells, crotales, a 4/4 techno pulse, and a slow-moving synth bassline. Harmonically speaking, “Spectral Split” doesn’t travel far, instead building musical interest through repetition, addition and subtraction of its parts.

What I find interesting about this music is its attempt to engage in a dialog with the languages of classical minimalism and contemporary electronic dance music of the minimal techno variety. In this respect, “Spectral Split” is a unique beast–the musical result of instruments and sounds wandering out of their usual stylistic frames. Does it work? Yes, it does work in its own way. And while the music is perhaps limited either by the carillon themselves (their tuning, and by how fast they can be played) or by Weber’s musical setting of them (I keep waiting for a dramatic harmonic shift that never arrives), the composer and his collaborators deserve credit for making everything groove and hum.

Here is the lusciously filmed official promotional video for Elements Of Light and the track “Spectral Split”:

Microthought: On Musical Process

Music.

Music finds a way around us.

Music, that subliminal force, finds a way around us, through our ears, into our hearts.

Your Music might not be my Music, that subliminal force that finds a way around us, through our ears, into our hearts.

If we traded musics, you and I, do we trade minds as well?

My Music may not be your Music, that subliminal force, that sings a way through us, around our hearts, into our ears.

Music, that way around our hearts, through our ears, finds a subliminal force.

Music, around us, finds a way.

Music.

Zadie Smith On Joni Mitchell’s Blue

In her recent essay in the New Yorker, novelist Zadie Smith recounts her listening history with the music of Joni Mitchell–specifically, Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue. Here is the title song from the record:

Smith describes encountering Mitchell’s idiosyncratic and alternate tuning jazzy-folk music for the first time while in college and hating it. But years later she hears the same music on the radio while taking a road trip with her husband. This time, surprisingly, she loves Mitchell’s album and it makes complete sense to her. Smith wonders about this shift in her listening history: “How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur? (…) It’s not even the content of the music that interests me here. It’s the transformation of the listening.”

Smith doesn’t have a clear answer to the questions of how and why her listening changed over time and “the inconsistency of identity, of personality.” But the shift in her musical taste inspires her to muse on how she might have become a different person had she listened to and been a fan of certain records and musics when she was younger: “What kind of person would I be if I knew this album at all…?” And she articulates what makes it difficult for us, as we get older, to get into musics  that are new to us and differ substantially from the sounds with which we grew up: “Shaped by the songs of my childhood, I find it hard to accept the musical ‘new’, or even the ‘new-to-me.'” Then Smith points out a contradiction many of us may share and which may help explain why new music can be hard to metabolize: “For though we recognize discontinuity in our own lives, when it comes to art we are deeply committed to the idea of continuity.”

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I have written on this blog previously about some of my listening experiments. Reading Smith, it strikes me that we might learn the most about our musical tastes by deliberately listening to music we don’t like or don’t think we like and making note of that experience. I have been trying this lately as a way of mapping my tastes and to some extent I’ve learned some things. (“This is way too aggressive for me.” Or: “The rhythm isn’t interesting.”) But the listening experimentation can go further than simply making us aware of the songs that shaped our childhood (when we musically came of age) or figuring out what we do and don’t like. My experience so far has me wondering whether or not our tastes are fungible to the point that they can actually be reset. If there were a “super” listener that’s exactly what he or she would be able to do: appreciate everything anew with each listen, finding deep meaning in every idiom, unconstrained by personal listening history. The super listener would hear with ears and sensibilities truly wide open.

On Sounding A Bigger Energy: Mumford And Sons

When I first saw Mumford and Sons on Saturday Night Live recently I wasn’t sure what to make of them–which is my fault not theirs. They seem like a throwback to an acoustic bluegrass-folk-rock sound. No synthesizers, sequencers or drum machines, just acoustic guitar and bass, piano/organ, banjo and dobro, a horn section, sing-song group vocals, and a lead singer/guitarist, Marcus Mumford who doubles as a drummer by playing a steady kick drum while standing up and fronting the band. The music is raucous and raw, harmonious and celebratory, but I wasn’t listening too closely–in part because I was staring at the TV wondering if Mumford’s shin muscles might be getting sore from playing that kick drum!

Mumford and Sons originated in the West London folk scene around 2007. Their recent album, Babel, was the fastest-selling album of the year here in the United States and in the UK. A few weeks ago, songs from Babel occupied four of the top ten most streamed songs on the music service Spotify. The music–which critics have called “pop songs couched in the language of the rustic troubadour” and “blockbuster bluegrass”–has clearly struck a chord with a lot of listeners. I spent a few days trying to overdose on Mumford and Sons in a listening experiment much like the one I carried out with country music here. The point of the experiment was just to figure out how everything works and to hear what kind of effect the music has on me.*

One of the band’s most streamed songs is “I Will Wait”, track three on Babel. The song is uptempo with a 4/4 thumping groove and tightly structured as a series of verses as choruses. The verse is a I-IV-V progression over 8 measures. Nothing special here, music-wise, but it sets the song’s reassuring tone. The music soon opens up with the pre-chorus section, which is a vi-v(6)-I-IV-iii-V progression repeated twice. There are twice as many chords in this section as there are in the verse and chorus in about the same number of measures. The phrase “And I’ll kneel down” gets the first three chords as support, lending the section a sense of motion–maybe a musical representation of literally kneeling down?–and a movement towards that last V chord which will lead dramatically back to the I chord that begins the chorus. The chorus is a I-iii-V progression. That second chord is minor and adds a little melancholy to the chorus’s otherwise boisterous feel. The iii chord hits just as Mumford sings “you” at the end of the line “I will wait for you.” Simple but poignant, and the words gain power as they’re repeated.

Much of Mumford and Sons’ music alternates between whisper intimate verses and rousing, bellowing-in-a-pub choruses. “I Will Wait” makes good use of these shifting dynamics to build and release tension. There’s an urgency and intense emotionality to the song which is transmitted through the steady streams of 16-note guitar/banjo strumming and plucking that supports Mumford’s gruff singing. The music sounds old-fashioned–built as it mostly is out of this strumming, plucking, and the rousing vocal harmonies. Rhythm parts don’t come from drumming as much as from the group’s collective thrum. Mumford make use of careful arrangements too. Sometimes the instruments drop out, strumming limited to the downbeat so the vocals can shine a capella-style. The music sounds live–as if we’re all down at the pub singing and sharing our stories with one another, pouring our hearts out over beers.

There are even tiny tempo variations that reinforce Mumford’s authentically live sound. If you have Babel, listen very closely from 2:06 to 2:15. At the end of the second repetition of the chorus–right around 2:11-2:13–the tempo drags ever so slightly for a brief moment. I first noticed this a few weeks ago and couldn’t put my finger on the problem. It’s so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, but if you tap your foot along from the first time around the chorus you might catch it. You can’t quantize this kind of thing because the whole band is playing together. And maybe it’s not something you’d want to “fix” anyway. After all, it’s little quirks like this (what the ethnomusicologist Charles Keil once called “participatory discrepancies”) that let us know that the music was recorded live. I listened to the song again as I was editing this blog post and snapped to attention at 2:13 while not aware that I was even paying attention to the time.

***

So why is Mumford so popular now?

Maybe they’re popular because their live-sounding recordings set them apart from so much contemporary electronic pop. Ok, so I’m comparing apples and oranges here. But to continue the food metaphor: one of the most delicious things about this music is how different it is from most technologically-thick pop. Mumford feels live and sounds acoustic. This is a big deal in the context of the pop charts but not to Mumford’s members. Bassist Ted Dwayne is even an acoustic music purist:

“Electronic music or a DJ playing CDs doesn’t excite me. Acoustic instruments are really raw and have a much bigger energy. That is something I can understand.”

Some critics say that the authenticity of Mumford’s live and acoustic folk sound is simply context-related–that it sounds the way it does in part because so much other popular music feels synthetic rather than acoustic, groovy but not folky. As critic David Smyth observes, the band’s music “certainly feels authentic within the context of the charts, which are full of auto-tuned vocals and super-produced R&B songs.”

Finally, listening to Mumford has me thinking about musical style and how style usually changes quite gradually. It’s for this reason that the sound of the pop charts is quite homogenous–different songs by different artists (is “artist” even the appropriate word in this era of think-tank songwriting?) each having a similar feel and texture. Because of this, the sound of contemporary pop will seem like a static thing for a long while. As if in a game of Copy Or Perish, everyone uses similar sounds, similar beats, similar lyrical gestures to keep up with one another until…Someone comes along and does things differently. Maybe Mumford’s success will prompt a stylistic tipping point, or maybe not. Maybe they’re just a one-off–too much “rustic troubadour” to copy. Besides, one thing to remember about musical style is that homogeneity often coexists with fractionalization: there is a niche for every style that can make a case for itself. And in this regard at least, Mumford and Sons succeeds.

***

* Also: listening experiments help me address musical information overload. From my perspective, we have three choices:

1. Listen to a bit of everything. I do this all the time. It’s exciting but glosses over the details.

2. Listen to nothing. If nothing else, this is a good way to cleanse the ear palette.

3. Listen to one thing over and over for a while. This allows me to notice and obsess over details and also hear the music as a model of a social world. Listening to a music over and over helps me hear the world through the feeling of this one style, this one group, this one song.

On Voice, Authenticity, And Not Being Fake

In a recent online interview excerpted in The Guardian, musician and Portishead member Geoff Barrow discusses the idea of singing with a “fake” voice. Leading the pack in Barrow’s view is the late Amy Winehouse, a white singer who sang, some people say disparagingly, like a black jazz or soul singer from an earlier era–or like someone doing an imitation of such a singer. (There is an excellent article on this topic by Daphne Brooks in The Nation.) Barrow just doesn’t buy Winehouse’s voice, saying that “her actual voice was fake. She had a real life with a fake voice”–a singer who “had become just a comic character of herself and how she sang.”

You can decide for yourself. Here is Winehouse singing her song “You Know I’m No Good”:

Out of curiosity, I read up on Winehouse on Wikipedia. I found a quote from the jazz singer Tony Bennett, who maintained that Winehouse’s voice was the real deal–not fake at all, but steeped in the jazz tradition: “she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer. . . She was really a great jazz singer. A true jazz singer.”

In contrast to Winehouse, Barrow mentions a few other female singers—including PJ Harvey, Barrow’s Portishead bandmate Beth Gibbons, and Bjork–who “change their voices while remaining themselves.” Presumably what Barrow means by this is that each of these singers assume a singing voice which, while not their speaking voice per se (after all, whose singing voice is?) is nevertheless somehow true to who they are. But how can a listener make this determination?

I have always liked Bjork’s voice, mainly because it’s so unique–a flexible tool that can sing those unusual Bjorkian melodies. And come to think of it, Bjork’s singing voice is just like her speaking voice but louder and more melodic, arising organically out of the same Icelandic source. Bjork sings in a way that sounds like a heightened spoken voice–as if she’s singing-explaining some very cool things to curious elementary school kids and getting carried away. Her voice seems to be true to who she is.

Here is Bjork singing her song “Moon” (which, by the way, features some devastatingly good overdubbed background vocals):

As for that best-selling singer of recent years, the Englishwoman Adele, Barrow adds: “Strangely enough I think Adele sings in her own voice, I think it’s her trying to be a big voice and that’s her.” But again, how does Barrow come by his insight? How can a listener know Adele is “trying” to be a big voice? Maybe she just has a powerful, big voice.

Here is Adele singing her huge hit “Someone Like You.” One thing I noticed about it compared to the Bjork and Winehouse songs is how massive Adele’s recorded vocal sound is. This is due to her big voice but also to a pristine recording that really booms:

***

These are all interesting notions: What does Barrow mean by singing with a “fake voice”? How do we know when a singer’s or instrumentalist’s artistry is fake or authentically the real McCoy? And what does it mean to change one’s singing voice while remaining oneself?

First, being “fake” in musical terms usually means making use of a style or idiom or timbre that isn’t “natural” to you, isn’t authentically yours. In the case of Winehouse, her detractors feel that she wholesale appropriated her vocal sound rather than…Rather than what? Developed it in isolation, free of stylistic influence? You can see the can of worms this opens up: How do we hear the difference between someone authentically inhabiting a sound as opposed to just fakingly co-opting it in a tourist-y kind of way? Maybe with singers, their voices either ring true or not, although a lot of singing–from pop to opera–sounds affected anyway. With instrumentalists, judging authenticity is even more problematic because instrumentalists can to some degree hide behind their instrument’s sound. All this to say that it’s hard to ever really know how genuinely artists lay claim to a sound and come by their knowledge of its stylistic conventions.

Second, whether we’re talking about singers or instrumentalists, we judge fakeness or authenticity by listening and trusting our guts, and I suppose, our eyes: Does this sound make sense coming from this person? By this measure, Winehouse’s slurred slinkiness, Bjork’s wandering wide-eyed rapture, and Adele’s bellowing all ring true. Each singer inhabits her own kind of authenticity.

Finally, as for changing one’s singing voice while remaining oneself, I’m not sure I understand what this means. Why does it matter whether or not one remains oneself as one sings or plays an instrument? Hasn’t making music always been a kind of theater anyway, a way for performers to try on different hats?

On Small Things And Big Pleasures: David Guetta’s “Titanium”


I get excited by small things. The other day I bought a mechanical pencil to highlight books with as I read. While holding the pencil that evening and underlining, I was struck by the pleasure this $2.19 purchase had brought. It’s precise, light, and helps do a job, with the added grace of having an eraser on the end should I want to backtrack. Other little things that pack big pleasures come to mind:

The texture of a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg whose yoke is in that liminal state between overcooked and runny–just right.

Or the feel of new soft socks that are cushiony marvels of cotton and other materials (Lycra?) that magically mould to the foot. Ahh.

None of these things cost much, but they deliver a whole lot of good.

***

One of music’s delights is how it creates a space for lots of small things to happen and be heard at the same time. Almost not matter what music you listen to, there’s a lot of this simultaneous micro activity happening. Sometimes this activity isn’t heard as much as felt, but either way it forms the tangible part of music’s texture and deeply shapes how it impacts us. Take David Guetta’s recent-ish dance pop smash (104 million views on YouTube) “Titanium”, which was written by the smooth Australian singer Sia who also sings on the track. On the face of it, this is an oversized anthem of a song–all big featured and perhaps not so subtle. But for me, the elements that makes it work and have the impact it does are Guetta’s little production effects and arrangement decisions that keep the music compelling and moving along.

Structurally, “Titanium” is a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus-chorus affair. The piece begins with a muffled electric guitar plucking away a four-bar chord progression in e-flat major: E-flat (I), g-minor (iii), and c-minor (vi). The first time I heard it I thought of the Police’s ballad “Every Breathe You Take”–same muffled and arpeggiated guitar (only the guitar on the Police song opens with an eight bar, four-chord progression). Soon a kick drum and a bassline enter the mix for the second half of the verse. When the chorus arrives, the chord progression changes to A-flat major (iv), B-flat major (V), g-minor (iii), and c-minor (vi). The chorus also momentarily sets Sia’s voice free of the drums and bass which abruptly cut out–a classic DJ compositional move–only to return a few bars later. After the chorus, the song continues to the next verse, but this time around the rhythm section joins in sooner. Then back to the chorus, a bridge (well, a quasi-bridge, since it’s sung over the same chorus chords), and a few more choruses to the end. At a tempo of around 126 BPM, “Titanium” clocks in at 3:50–the ideal pop song length.

Now for those little things in Guetta and Sia’s song that deliver a whole lot of musical good:

First, if you listen to the four-bar guitar part on the verse, you’ll notice some small amounts of a reverb tail added in specific spots. You can hear it on beat four of bars one and two, as well as on all four beats of bar four. The reverb makes it sound like the guitar has been placed in an echoey stairwell for just a moment, making those muffled staccato notes momentarily become un-detached and blur together in a mass of sound that grows in intensity. The addition of the reverb lends the guitar part a subtle kind of accentuation which might be represented as: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. This reverb-accent creates a forward momentum that makes the downbeats of bars one, two, and three seem all that more exciting.

Second, Sia’s vocals undergo a shift as the song moves from the verses to the choruses. Listen closely and you hear her overdubbed voice double tracked on the chorus–super high notes mostly on the right, and lower harmony on the left singing “you shoot me down, but I won’t fall …”–leaving the space in the middle of the stereo mix curiously devoid of her lead vocal. That lead vocal from the verse that should be in the middle of the stereo mix just disappears for a few seconds. Interesting.

Third, the percussion on this song is fairly sparse. On the verses, it’s mostly the 4/4 kick drum. Eight bars in, just when you think a snare drum will join the mix on beats two and four, it doesn’t. Instead it’s replaced by a light and fluttering electronic brush sound playing an off-beat pattern. When the chorus arrives, all of the percussion cuts out entirely for the first eight bars. Then a snare drum enters, playing on beats 1,2,3 and 4 of the second four bars. On the final eight bars the snare cuts out the kick drum returns. In terms of what a real drummer might do, this is one awkward and disembodied drum part. But it’s a programmed part, and virtual musicianship has more leeway than would be accorded to a real musician. Guetta’s percussion–the kick, the fluttering electronic brush, the snare–holds together more because it’s quantized than because it sounds like a real drummer.

Which brings us to a fourth little thing that holds “Titanium” together: the fact that the whole mix sounds like it’s pulsating along the 8th-note groove set up at the outset by the arpeggiating guitar. This can be heard in a big way on the choruses when the kick drum returns and along with it a pulsating set of chords and a throbbing baseline. Production-wise, it’s quite simple to make a pulsating or throbbing sound by putting a compressor effect on say, a bass or keyboard part, and chaining this compressor to the song’s 4/4 kick drum. Each time the kick drum hits, the compressor on the bass or keyboard part will, well, kick in and “duck” the sound out of the way or momentarily lower its volume. It’s this ducking out of the way that gives a lot of electronic dance music its signature pumping sound. Not only that, but while the technique was originally used to make mixes “tighter” and more energized, it can be used to an extreme too. Listen again to the chorus of “Titanium” when the kick re-enters. To my ear it sounds like compression overkill that makes for a squashed and flattened mix. But maybe this is what works well in huge performance venues?

This sense of pulsation can be heard in more discreet ways too. For instance, I notice it on the little delays added to Sia’s vocals that become more intense as the song unfolds. The delays are synced to the song’s tempo and you can hear them bouncing off into the soundstage horizon long after Sia finishes singing her brief lines, helping build the momentum and make the music feel inevitable.

In sum, “Titanium” uses a number of small production techniques to make itself hum and thrum. If I may offer a scenario not as a criticism but more as a thought experiment: if you were to render this song on an acoustic guitar with a single voice overtop it might not be as much to listen to, and may not even convincingly hold together…Well, okay, scratch that idea, because it turns out that there are acoustic covers of the song that do hold together, such as this one. Nevertheless, Guetta’s digital incarnation of “Titanium” coheres with the help of computer stitching on the disembodied drum kit, the reverb and compression effects, and the little slights of ear like Sia’s overdubbed voices.

It turns out that this song offers a number of musical subtleties. And as with the pleasures of a mechanical pencil, a soft-boiled egg, or soft socks, “Titanium” doesn’t cost much in terms of your attention, yet delivers a whole lot of good.

On Four Tet’s Good Taste

“It’s very rare for me to use instruments or synths or anything like that.” – Kieran Hebden

I have long felt that the electronic musician Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) has good taste. He makes what critics once labelled “folktronica” music, a term that probably came about in an effort to describe how Hebden deftly combines the best of the acoustic and electronic worlds. What gives him good taste though, is something more subtle. It’s his sounds, sure–nothing too exotic, and always invigorating. But also his arrangements that lean towards song forms, as well as the proportions within them–how, for instance, things repeat, but repeat just enough. Things don’t exactly loop Hebden’s world, but rather continue for a precise time. In a word, the music is considered.

For example, in “She Just Likes To Fight” from his 2010 recording There Is Love In You, we hear a 4/4 kick drum, some cymbals, languid electronic guitars (that sound like a gentle take on Malian popular music), a little analog synth and faux strings/pad sounds, an African gankogui iron bell playing in 12-beat meter and a few stick drum samples (maybe a Ghanian kidi drum sample?). There’s at least seven sounds in the texture, yet everything stays unified, understated and calm like a happy sports team on their way to a big game, their positive tension building. You hardly notice that the African 12/8 bell pattern doesn’t line up with the 4/4 kick until after the kick has played twelve hits.

“Circling” is another satisfying Hebden track. It too has a 4/4 kick, but this time with harp, more electric guitar (loops played backwards and forwards from the sounds of it) arpeggiating away, plus a few more abstract pulsating synth sounds. Hebden does little things to make the track hum and stay interesting. For example, the guitar loop is six bars long (instead of the expected eight)–long enough to be compelling, but slightly truncated to keep you on your toes. And once that six bar loop has been in motion for a while, Hebden further plays with its length by repeating just sections of it. As you listen you sense a logic of considered musical decision-making in play, making it feel that nothing is ever plain old repetition. Maybe the key here is that Hebden plays with his materials meaningfully, not relying on technology to make things easy but rather to make possible interesting shifts of texture and proportion.

The other unusual thing about “Circling” is its meter: the piece has a 12/8 meter feel (like the African bell in “She Just Likes To Fight”), each main beat divided into three instead of four pulses as would be the case in electronic dance music’s more conventional 4/4 meter. So even though there’s that steady 4/4 kick thumping away, it’s the three-ness of all the other sounds that gives this aptly titled track its circular vibe.

In this YouTube clip, someone has assembled some old footage that makes for a nice visual counterpoint to Hebden’s piece:

If you are intrigued by Hebden’s music, check out this video from Future Music magazine where he describes his use of the Yamaha Tenori-On, a portable sequencer: