Were the Beatles great musicians?

Most of us agree that the Beatles made great music. But “real” musicians like to argue that the Beatles were not necessarily themselves great. They certainly weren’t exceptionally great guitarists, or drummers, or keyboard players, or even singers. They were pretty good at those things, and had flashes of greatness, but you could walk into any music school and quickly find yourself dozens of more proficient instrumentalists. At this point, a Beatles fan might come back and say, well, the Beatles were great songwriters, which is different from being a great musician. The Beatles did indeed write brilliant songs (though they wrote their share of clunkers too.) Is musicianship coextensive with the ability to play or sing or write? I’m going to say that it isn’t.

We’re right to regard the Beatles as great, but not because of their performances, or even their songwriting. The Beatles are great because of their ability to create studio recordings. Their albums from Revolver onwards are hugely greater than the sum of the material, arrangements, and performances. Those late albums are masterpieces of recording, editing, mixing, and effects, of hyperrealist timbral and spatial manipulation, and of surrealist tape editing.

The Beatles produce some electronica

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Why is there so much Auto-Tune on everything?

When we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about two different things. There’s the intended use, which is to subtly correct pitch problems (and not just with vocalists; it’s extremely useful for horns and strings.) The ubiquity of pitch correction in the studio should be no great mystery; it’s a tremendous time-saver.

Auto-Tune

But usually when we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about the “Cher Effect,” the sound you get when you set the Retune Speed setting to zero. The Cher Effect is used so often in pop music because it’s richly expressive of our emotional experience of the world: technology-saturated, alienated, unreal. My experience with Auto-Tune as a musician has felt like stepping out the door of a spaceship to explore a whole new sonic planet. Auto-Tune turns the voice into a keyboard synth, and we are only just beginning to understand its creative possibilities. (Warning: explicit lyrics throughout.)

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Beethoven fan sputters with rage

In the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter is very upset about Kids Today.

For most young people, music is a minor consumable, like toothpaste.

Okay. That’s debatable, by which I mean wrong, but moving along.

Here’s where it gets real. Emphases in original:

Musicians and music majors aside, my students at Yale—and there are no smarter, more eager, more open students anywhere—just barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven. “He composed music”—that is the general consensus.

To know nothing about Beethoven? That is cultural bankruptcy. That is collapse. It goes far beyond incompetence, deep into betrayal and farce.

“Why should we know anything about Beethoven?” The question was asked in all seriousness by a sophomore just a few months ago. When I dredged up old, tired clichés, he listened carefully—and seemed convinced! What could be sadder? He was only waiting for the smallest bit of encouragement.

I told him (approximately), “You must know Beethoven’s music because no one has ever said anything deeper about what it means to be human, to look life and death in the eye, to know beauty at its purest and most intense—if you can take it. Because Beethoven asserts his own mere human self against the whole cosmos and makes it listen; he addresses God face-to-face, like Moses, whether God listens or not. And so people all over the world study and listen to and perform his music with reverence.” Clichés, but they were news to him.

No one has ever said anything deeper! NO ONE. Beethoven makes THE VERY COSMOS listen. He GETS UP IN GOD’S FACE. Can you take it? You can’t. You can’t even take it. This is you trying to take it:

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Björk live at Kings Theater

While my son’s birth has been the most joyous event of my life, he has put a serious damper on my and Anna’s concert-going. I tell my musician friends: I’ll happily come to your gig, as long as it’s on a Sunday afternoon with walking distance of my apartment. Well, today, Björk obliged us by doing exactly that.

Björk at Kings Theater

Anna and I have been to two of her shows previously, and both were delightful experiences, but they were also in support of her two weakest albums (Volta and Biophilia.) This time, however, Björk is touring with Vulnicura, a beautiful set of songs, her best work since Medúlla and a welcome return to the sonic palette of Homogenic. Here’s my favorite track:

Much as I love it, I thought it would be improved by adding samples of Marvin Gaye, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the bassist on Paul Simon’s Graceland.

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First day of music tech class

I recently began my second semester of teaching Music Technology 101 at Montclair State University. In a perfect world, I’d follow Mike Medvinsky’s lead and dive straight into creative music-making on day one. However, there are logistical reasons to save that for day two. Instead, I started the class with a listening party, a kind of electronic popular music tasting menu. I kicked things off with “Umbrella” by Rihanna.

I chose this song because of its main drum loop, which is a factory sound that comes with GarageBand called Vintage Funk Kit 03–slow it down to 90 bpm and you’ll hear it. The first several class projects use GarageBand, and I like the students to feel like they’re being empowered to create real music in the class, not just performing academic exercises.

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DJ Earworm on the art of the mashup

DJ Earworm is the foremost practitioner of the art of the mashup. I don’t think there’s a more interesting musician in the world right now. I was on public radio with him once! His main claim to fame is the United State of Pop series, where he combines the top 25 US pop songs of a given year into a single, seamlessly coherent track. I’ve scattered several of them throughout this post. He has started doing more seasonal mashups as well; here’s one from this past summer:

It’s rare that an artist talks you through their production process in depth, so I was delighted to discover that DJ Earworm wrote an entire book about mashup production. He wrote it in 2007 and focused it on Sony Acid, so from a technical standpoint, it might not be super useful to you. But as with the KLF’s pop songwriting tutorial, the creative method he espouses transcends technology and time period, and it would be of value to any musician. Some choice passages follow.

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Terry Riley and Taylor Swift

I don’t have much of a relationship to… what should we call it? Modern classical music? That’s the term commonly used by ignoramuses like me, but it’s a silly one, contradictory on its face. The practitioners themselves call it “new music,” which is even worse, since it implies that all that other music out there that’s new is not really music. Steve Reich has the best term: notated music. It’s accurate and non-judgmental, and it encompasses the vast range of styles currently being explored by composers. Anyway, I don’t have much of a relationship to notated music. Terry Riley is a name that people in my circle throw around, but I hadn’t listened closely to him until I read an amazing New Music Box post about him. More on that below.

Terry Riley’s most salient influence on my musical life comes from A Rainbow In Curved Air. Fans of The Who will immediately recognize it as the template for the intro to “Baba O’Riley.”

Riley’s pattern-sequenced organ also inspired a ton of prog rock and ambient electronica. However, this post is not about A Rainbow In Curved Air. It’s about the piece that cemented Riley’s place in the High Culture Canon: In C.

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Electronic music tasting menu

Right now I’m teaching music technology to a lot of classical musicians. I came up outside the classical pipeline, and am always surprised to be reminded how insulated these folks are from the rest of the culture. I was asked today for some electronic music recommendations by a guy who basically never listens to any of it, and I expect I’ll be asked that many more times in this job. So I put together this playlist. It’s not a complete, thorough, or representative sampling of anything; it mostly reflects my own tastes. In more or less chronological order:

Delia Derbyshire

This lady did cooler stuff with tape recorders than most of us are doing with computers. See her in action. Here’s a proto-techno beat she made in 1971.

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Sucker MCs

Sasha Frere-Jones was recently asked by The Guardian to make a list of perfect songs. I don’t agree with all of his choices — Taylor Swift? — but I can definitely get behind his nomination of “Sucker MCs” by Run-DMC.

This track was the B-side to Run-DMC’s first single in 1983, and was produced by Larry Smith of and Davy DMX of Orange Krush (thus the subtitle “Krush Groove 1.”) It’s beautiful in its simplicity: two guys rapping, an Oberheim DMX drum machine, some turntable scratching, and nothing else. It’s the most minimalist hip-hop song I know of, other than “Top Billin’” by Audio Two.

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