This post was originally written for the Play With Your Music blog.
Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual in its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. But now that the technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, most pop, dance and hip-hop music is produced using similar methods.
The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception, giving fascinating insight into the creative process along the way.
I don’t know whether you’ve been following the feud between Miley Cyrus and Sinéad O’Connor, and if you haven’t, congratulations on using your free time more constructively than I use mine. But so anyway, the most infamous pop star of the moment (Miley) publically cited a well-respected elder stateswoman (Sinéad) as an influence. In response, Sinéad wrote Miley an open letter about how she should stop letting her unscrupulous management treat her like a prostitute. Miley sassed back on Twitter, Sinéad wrote an angrier open letter in response, the whole internet got involved, and around and around the whole thing continues to go.
Then this wiseacre did a mashup of Miley’s current hit, “Wrecking Ball,” with Sinéad’s signature tune, a cover of “Nothing Compares 2U” by Prince.
The thing about this is that I know it was meant as a joke, but it works extremely well musically, almost better than either of the originals. Miley wasn’t kidding when she cited Sinéad as an influence. Their sexual politics may differ, but their singing styles are uncannily similar, right down to the vocal fry. Sometimes a good mashup illuminates more than all the prose ever will.
Paul McCartney joined John Lennon’s skiffle band in 1957, when they were fifteen and sixteen, respectively. George Harrison joined the following year, when he was fourteen. (Ringo didn’t join the band until 1962.) Who were your friends when you were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen? Imagine yourself intensely and inseparably joined with these same people professionally, socially and creatively, thirteen years later. When I was in my late twenties, I certainly wouldn’t wanted to have been trapped in a series of windowless rooms with my high school friends under enormous pressure to be brilliant. It would have been a miracle for the Beatles to keep a good working relationship any longer than they did under the best of circumstances. And the Beatles’ circumstances were not, emotionally speaking, ideal.
For Paul Geluso’s Advanced Audio Production midterm, we were assigned to choose two tracks from his recommended listening list, and compare and contrast them sonically. I chose “Regiment” by David Byrne and Brian Eno, and “Little Fluffy Clouds” by The Orb.
Recorded ten years apart using very different technology, both tracks nevertheless share a similar structure: dance grooves at medium-slow tempos centered around percussion and bass, overlaid with radically decontextualized vocal samples. Both are dense and abstract soundscapes with an otherworldly quality. However, the two tracks have some profound sonic differences as well. “Regiment” is played by human instrumentalists into analog gear, giving it a roiling organic murk. “Little Fluffy Clouds” is a pristine digital recording built entirely from DJ tools, quantized neatly and clinically precise.
A while ago I wrote a post explaining how jazz works. In response, someone asked me to name my favorite hundred jazz tracks. So here’s my list. It’s totally subjective and necessarily incomplete, but I can guarantee that any of these tunes will make your life better. Hear them on Spotify.
I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.
I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.
Update: one of the photos below currently appears on Mort’s Wikipedia page. Pretty cool.
The seminar I’ve been taking with Morton Subotnick is sadly drawing to a close. As part of the end of the semester, we were invited to Professor Subotnick’s home studio, a few blocks from NYU, to get a demonstration of the setup he uses in performances.
This post is longer and more formal than usual because it was my term paper for a class in the NYU Music Technology Program.
Questions of authorship, ownership and originality surround all forms of music (and, indeed, all creative undertakings.) Nowhere are these questions more acute or more challenging than in digital music, where it is effortless and commonplace to exactly reproduce sonic elements generated by others. Sometimes this copying is relatively uncontroversial, as when a producer uses royalty-free factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live. Sometimes the copying is legally permissible but artistically dubious, as when one downloads a public-domain Bach or Scott Joplin MIDI file and copies and pastes sections from them into a new composition. Sometimes one may have creative approval but no legal sanction; within the hip-hop community, creative repurposing of copyrighted commercial recordings is a cornerstone of the art form, and the best crate-diggers are revered figures.
Even in purely noncommercial settings untouched by copyright law, issues of authorship and originality continue to vex us. Some electronic musicians feel the need to generate all of their sounds from scratch, out of a sense that using samples is cheating or lazy. Others freely use samples, presets and factory sounds for reasons of expediency, but feel guilt and a weakened sense of authorship. Some electronic musicians view it as a necessity to create their tools from scratch, be they hardware or software. Others feel comfortable using off-the-shelf products but try to avoid common riffs, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions and timbres. Still others gleefully and willfully appropriate and put their “theft” of familiar recordings front and center.
Is a mashup of two pre-existing recordings original? Is a new song based on a sample of an old one original? What about a new song using factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live? Is a DJ set consisting entirely of other people’s recordings original? Can a bright-line standard for originality or authenticity even exist in the digital realm?
I intend to parse out our varied and conflicting notions of originality, ownership and authorship as they pertain to electronic music. I will examine perspectives from musicians and fans, jurists and journalists, copyright holders and copyright violators. In so doing, I will advance the thesis that complete originality is neither possible nor desirable, in digital music or elsewhere, and that the spread of digital copying and manipulation has done us a service by bringing the issue into stark relief.
Here’s an email conversation I’ve been having with my friend Greg Brown about Kanye West’s recent albums. Greg is a classical composer and performer with a much more avant-garde sensibility than mine. The exchange is lightly edited for clarity.
Greg: I’ve been listening to 808s and Heartbreak and Twisted Fantasy. I’m really enjoying them. Far more than I thought I would. I think Auto-tune here is somehow protective for Kanye when he is expressing emotion in a genre where that is not really smiled on. I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but I think the dehumanizing of the human voice is somehow a foil for the expression of inner turmoil. It’s haunting.
Ethan: Yes! Absolutely. The Auto-tune gives Ye a way to be the sensitive, vulnerable singer, as opposed to the swaggering rapper. And I like the similar sonic palettes between 808s and Fantasy, except 808s is sparse and Fantasy is full. And the thing of using tuned 808 kick drums to play the basslines is so hip.
Greg: The hard part for me to wrap my head around is the fact that Auto-tune is a filter, a dehumanizer, and it manages to make Kanye both closer and more human.
Ethan: I have a broader philosophical idea brewing about the concepts of “dehumanizing” and “posthuman” and how they’re really kind of meaningless, at least as applied to music. How can things that humans create be dehumanizing? Everyone involved in the production of Kanye’s albums is human. Auto-tune is a novel way of sounding human, but it’s still human, just like the sound of reverb or EQ or compression.
Greg: Yes — I have similar issues with natural vs. unnatural in general. Humans are natural, therefore everything we do is also natural.
Chapman, Dale. “That Ill, Tight Sound”: Telepresence and Biopolitics in Post-Timbaland Rap Production. Journal of the Society for American Music (2008) Volume 2, Number 2, pp. 155–175.
Chapman examines the impact that Timbaland has had on popular music production, and what his significance is to the broader culture. While Timbaland himself is no longer the tastemaker he was at his peak ten or fifteen years ago, his sonic palette has become commonplace throughout the global pop landscape.