Teaching reflections

Here’s what happened in my life as an educator this past semester, and what I have planned for the coming semester.

Montclair State University Intro To Music Technology

I wonder how much longer “music technology” is going to exist as a subject. They don’t teach “piano technology” or “violin technology.” It makes sense to teach specific areas like audio recording or synthesis or signal theory as separate classes. But “music technology” is such a broad term as to be meaningless. The unspoken assumption is that we’re teaching “musical practices involving a computer,” but even that is both too big and too small to structure a one-semester class around. On the one hand, every kind of music involves computers now. On the other hand, to focus just on the computer part is like teaching a word processing class that’s somehow separate from learning how to write.

MSU Intro to Music Tech

The newness and vagueness of the field of study gives me and my fellow music tech educators wide latitude to define our subject matter. I see my job as providing an introduction to pop production and songwriting. The tools we use for the job at Montclair are mostly GarageBand and Logic, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the mechanics of the software itself. Instead, I teach music: How do you express yourself creatively using sample libraries, or MIDI, or field recordings, or pre-existing songs? What kinds of rhythms, harmonies, timbres and structures make sense aesthetically when you’re assembling these materials in the DAW? Where do you get ideas? How do you listen to recorded music analytically? Why does Thriller sound so much better than any other album recorded in the eighties? We cover technical concepts as they arise in the natural course of producing and listening. My hope is that they’ll be more relevant and memorable that way. Continue reading

We dream of Star Wars

Anna and I went on one of our vanishingly rare parent dates to go see The Force Awakens a few days ago. We had a great time. The movie is loaded with gratuitous fan service and doesn’t stand up to even casual scrutiny, but then, that was true of episodes IV and V too. Nothing that happens in the reality of Star Wars makes an ounce of sense. Why try to pick apart the logical inconsistencies in these movies? It’s like picking apart the logical inconsistencies of dreams.

All movies are a kind of waking dream. The good Star Wars movies (in my opinion, IV, V and VII) are as dreamlike as it’s possible for movies to get without becoming impenetrably avant-garde. There is no stranger or more dreamlike special effect than plain old human aging. Seeing the familiar actors playing the familiar characters, but thirty years older, is a kind of strangeness I have never experienced in the movies before.

The passage of time

Spoilers follow! Continue reading

Ethan’s Trax

Ethan’s Trax is an iTunes playlist I maintain that includes all of the music I’ve ever recorded. Well, more accurately, it’s all of the music that I care to be reminded of. I haven’t included every draft and dead end. But if a track has any artistic or sentimental value whatsoever to me, it’s in Ethan’s Trax.

Ethan's Trax

As of this writing, the playlist contains 477 “songs.” That’s a cumulative one day, thirteen hours, forty-seven minutes and fifty-three seconds worth of music. My self-described genres include: Blues, Classical (General), Electronic, Experimental, Folk, Funk, Hip-Hop, Jazz (Vocal), Mashup, Pop, R&B/Soul, Rock, Showtunes, and Soundtracks/Scores. The Electronic category is substantially bigger than all of the others combined. The recent high points are here:

The question is, how much of this music is actually “mine”?

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Victor Wooten teaches music teaching

Victor Wooten is an absurdly proficient bassist best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. There was a period in my life when the Flecktones’ music was my favorite thing in the world. That period is long behind me, but I have a lingering fondness for their amiably nerdy sound. Recently, I came across a TED talk that Vic gave, and it’s a good one.

Vic’s experience doesn’t necessarily generalize. Most of us aren’t born into families of professional musicians. Still, his central message applies: we do a much better job teaching language than teaching music, and we barely “teach” language at all. We learn to talk by being around other people while they talk, and by doing it badly a lot without anyone correcting us. Eventually, through real-life practice, we iron out the technical kinks, find our own voice, and in the process, barely even notice that we’re learning. What if we learned music this way? It would probably be more effective.

Vic’s wisdom about music education is undeniable. What about the wisdom contained in his actual music? On this, my feelings are mixed. If you aren’t familiar with Vic’s playing, here’s a representative sampling.

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Resisting imperialism through secular devotion

I have struggled for years to articulate why I like the music descending from Africa so much better than the music descending from Europe. I’m a typical American in this respect. Every genre that the mainstream enjoys takes its rhythms and loop structures from the African diaspora: rock, hip-hop, and EDM, of course, but country too, and pop, which blends together all of the above. The music academy remains firmly rooted in the Western European classical tradition, but even in Europe, popular music is dominated by loops of heavy percussion. Why?

Timothy Brennan gives a compelling answer in his book Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz. White dudes like me are attracted to the music of the African diaspora because it’s a way for us to unconsciously enact traditional African religious practices. And why would we want to do enact African religious practice? Because it helps us resist Judeo-Christian morality and industrial capitalism.

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Goodbye SoundCloud?

I love SoundCloud. I love it for being an exceptionally easy way to share my music with people all over the world. I love the community aspect, especially the Disquiet Junto. I have all of my students host their portfolios there. But like a lot of the electronic musicians who form the heart of the SoundCloud userbase, I’m running into some problems with copyright.

Recently, I needed to unwind from a stressful morning, so I fired up Ableton, put in some Super Mario Bros mp3s and James Brown breaks, and went to town. I uploaded the results to my SoundCloud page, as usual, but got one of their increasingly frequent copyright notices.

SoundCloud copyright notice

I’ve uploaded a lot of material to SoundCloud that violates copyright law in various ways, and for the most part, no one has made any objection. I’ve occasionally used some long intact samples that triggered takedown notices, but my remixes and mashups are usually transformative enough to slip through the filter. Lately, however, I’m finding that SoundCloud has dramatically stepped up its copyright enforcement. A few months ago, I could have posted my Super Mario Bros/James Brown mashup without any trouble. Not any more.

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Prototyping Play With Your Music: Theory

I’m part of a research group at NYU called the Music Experience Design Lab. One of our projects is called Play With Your Music, a series of online interactive music courses. We’re currently developing the latest iteration, called Play With Your Music: Theory. Each module presents a “musical simple,” a short and memorable loop of melody or rhythm. Each simple is a window into one or more music theory concepts. Users can learn and play with the simples using a new interface called the aQWERTYon, which maps scales and chords to the regular computer keyboard.

aqw screengrab

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Pedagogical remixing with Splice

My newest music student is a gentleman named Rob Precht. As is increasingly the case with people I teach privately, Rob lives many time zones away, and he and I have never met face to face. Instead, we’ve been conducting lessons via a combination of Skype and Splice. It’s the first really practical remote music teaching method I’ve used, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rob came to me via this very blog. He’s a semi-retired lawyer who took some piano lessons as a kid but doesn’t have much other music training or experience. He approached me because he wanted to compose original music, and he thought (correctly) that computer-based production would be the best way to go about it. He had made a few tracks with GarageBand, but quickly switched over to Ableton Live after hearing me rave about it. We decided that the best approach would be to have him just continue to stumble through making original tracks, and I would help him refine and develop them.

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