Critiquing creative work with a growth mindset

I’m in the process of doing some large-scale writing about the way I teach music technology. To that end, I thought I would talk some about how I evaluate students’ creative work, both for grading purposes and during in-class critiques.

Thumbs up

The main thing I have students do in music tech class is make original music and lots of it. So the question immediately becomes, how do I even begin to objectively assess that stuff?  Continue reading

The happiest chord progression ever

If you’re interested in learning more about chords and emotions, take my online course.

See also the saddest chord progression ever.

We think of descending melodies and chord progressions as being sad. But the happiest song of all time also has a descending progression: “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5.

This recording was made just after Michael’s eleventh birthday. I do not approve of child labor, and making a prepubescent boy sing all these songs about romantic love ended up having some grim long-term psychological consequences. But god, what a performance.

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Gender in science

Final paper in History of Science and Technology with Myles Jackson – see also the presentation version

When we ask what the field of gender studies has contributed to understanding the relationship between science and society, we must separate two classes of feminist critique: discussions of equity, and discussions of content. The equity critique is straightforward: women are underrepresented in the sciences, in terms of employment and academic admissions, public recognition, and prestige. The remedies are equally straightforward, at least in theory: enforce anti-discrimination rules, actively recruit female candidates, and work to create more equitable workplace and school environments. The execution of these remedies is challenging, but there is little controversy about whether or not we should pursue them.

How It Works

If we examine gender theorists’ critiques of the content of science, the issues become more complex and contentious. Such content critiques include: what if science is excluding not just women, but femininity? Beyond the harm to women who wish to be scientists, does this exclusion also harm science itself? Why should gender bear on the gathering of objective facts about nature? If we argue that science is socially constructed, do we then have to let go of the idea that there can be any truly objective facts? If there are objective facts independent of the observer’s social context, is there a value to a ”feminist science” that is distinct from just doing better science?  Continue reading

Duke Ellington, Percy Grainger, and the status of jazz in the academy

Final paper for The History of the African-American Freedom Struggle with Thomas Sugrue

On October 25, 1932, Percy Grainger invited Duke Ellington and his orchestra to perform “Creole Love Call” as part of a music lecture at New York University. It was the first time any university had invited a jazz musician to perform in an academic context. I will argue that the meeting of Grainger and Ellington is a prism refracting the broader story of the music academy’s slow and reluctant embrace of jazz. This story, in turn, is a cultural reflection of the broader African-American freedom struggle.

Percy Grainger and Duke Ellington, 1935

Ellington has come to embody the cultural prestige now enjoyed by jazz. He appears on Washington DC’s state quarter, and his statue overlooks a corner of Central Park in New York City. In 1932, however, Ellington was known to official music culture as the leader of a popular dance band and the writer of a few catchy tunes. While he was already a celebrity, few white people outside of jazz fandom considered him to be a serious artist. That year, Ellington received his first favorable review from a classical critic, followed by endorsements from Grainger and a few other figures from the music establishment. However, for the most part, authorities of the time held jazz in low regard, relegating it to much the same position occupied by hip-hop in the present: undeniably popular, vibrant perhaps, but deficient in musical quality, and even, according to some critics, a threat to the nation’s morals.

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In praise of the Reflex Re-Edit

The Reflex is a London-based French DJ and producer named Nicolas Laugier. He specializes in a particular kind of remix, the re-edit, in which you rework a song using only sounds found within the song itself, ideally using the multitrack stems. Some re-edits keep the original more or less intact, but with a punchier mix and a new breakdown section or whatever. Others (the ones I find more interesting) radically transform their source material by moving pieces around in unexpected ways. Read this Greg Wilson interview to learn more about Laugier’s process.

The Reflex

I really love Laugier’s tracks, on several levels. First, he has a fine ear for mixing, and his edits always have spectacular clarity and depth, often sounding better than the originals. There’s intellectual pleasure, too: it’s fun to hear a fresh take on these deeply familiar recordings, and the music educator in me adores the idea of using music itself as a medium for music criticism. Laugier implicitly critiques the music he edits, saying, “This song is cool, but wouldn’t it be cooler if the drums were more prominent, and we heard this keyboard part in isolation, and there was a longer groove in the intro?” I always prefer music analysis that I can dance to.  Continue reading

The fake and the real in Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got”

Every semester in Intro to Music Tech, we have Kanye West Day, when we listen analytically to some of Ye’s most sonically adventurous tracks (there are many to choose from.) The past few semesters, Kanye West Day has centered on “Ultralight Beam,” especially Chance The Rapper’s devastating verse. That has naturally led to a look at Chance’s “All We Got.”

All the themes of the class are here: the creative process in the studio, “fake” versus “real” sounds, structure versus improvisation, predictability versus surprise, and the way that soundscape and groove do much more expressive work than melody or harmony.

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Ngoma aesthetics after apartheid

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Louise Meintjes (2017) Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid. Durham: Duke University Press.

Brian Larkin (2008) Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dust of the Zulu

The image of Zulu men dancing, singing and drumming carries heavy symbolic weight. For black South Africans and white outsiders alike, this image represents “real” African culture, evoking a glorious warrior culture. Cultural brokers (entrepreneurs, musicians, and politicians) “wager on the warrior” (Meintjes 2017, 241) to evoke this romantic past. However, colonizers have appropriated this same image to justify the dehumanization and exploitation of African bodies for labor. Ngoma dancers themselves use the “long past” to relieve the painful burden of the immediate past, and to reach for an “undetermined future” (255), in the face of the risk of playing into colonizers’ fetishistic stereotypes. This risk is magnified when ngoma moves onto the world stage, losing its context.

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Four bars of Mozart explains everything humans like in music

I’m not arguing here that everyone loves Mozart, or that I’m about to explain what all humans enjoy all the time. But I can say with confidence that this little bit of Mozart goes a long way toward explaining what most humans enjoy most of the time. The four bars I’m talking about are these, from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”

What these four bars of music demonstrate is that humans like:

  1. Repetition
  2. Breaks in the repetition
  3. Repetition of the breaks in the repetition
  4. Breaks in the repetition of the breaks in the repetition
  5. Recursive layers of patterns of breaks and repetitions

In order to prove this to you, I’m going to talk you through these eighteen notes one at a time.

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Aurality

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier (2014) Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Aurality

The nineteenth-century Colombian writing discussed by Ochoa Gautier, like Western convention generally, opposes “art” and “folk” musics. “Art” music is comprised of works created by named authors, transmitted visually via scores, and speaking to transcendent experience beyond mundane reality. The work is an autonomous object that can be considered free of context. “Folk” music is a mass of common property, transmitted orally/aurally, and is of a part with daily life. Indeed, the folk object only makes sense in its social and cultural context. The folkloric voice is authorless, and therefore lacks authority. While the aesthesis of folklore may represent an ideal of “heightened sensorial perception and emotional expressivity” (172), its anonymity and adherence to tradition limits its potential for creativity.

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