Hip-hop teaches confidence lessons

I’m working on a paper about music education and hip-hop, and I’m going to use this post to work out some thoughts.

My wife and I spent our rare date night going to see Black Panther at BAM. It was uplifting. Many (most?) black audience members came dressed in full Afrofuturistic splendor. A group of women in our section were especially decked out:

Black Panther audience members at BAM

I was admiring their outfits and talking about how I wasn’t expecting such an emotional response to the movie. One of the women said it was as big a deal for them as the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I know representation is important, but this seems like it’s more than just seeing black faces on the movie screen. Black Twitter is talking about how this movie is different because it isn’t about overcoming historical pain or present-day hardship; it’s about showing black people as powerful, rich, technologically advanced, and above all, serenely confident.

Black Panther is heavily overdetermined, like all superhero movies. But I’m especially interested in the way we could read it as a metaphor for music, with the Wakandans as representing African musical traditions and Eric Killmonger as representing the global rise of hip-hop. I see Killmonger this way not only because he’s American, but because so many of his qualities and mannerisms remind me of the role of hip-hop in the public imagination. He’s stylish, effortlessly charismatic, and seemingly indifferent to anyone else’s approval. He’s funny, too, not in the warm and good-natured way that Shuri is, but in a more aggressive and sarcastic way. He’s both arrogant and vulnerable, using implacable cool to conceal deep hurt. And he wants to remake the world by fomenting black revolution, by any means necessary. The Wakandans, meanwhile, are uncomplicatedly strong, self-possessed, and at ease with their own power. But they are also withdrawn from the world, fearing that getting involving in other people’s struggles will destroy what makes their culture so unique and beautiful.

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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

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

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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Ethnomusicology and the voice

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Kane (2014) critiques Schaeffer’s notion of “reduced listening,” which ignores a sound’s referential properties and considers it independently of its causes or its meaning. Bracketing the question of whether this is even possible, is it desirable to restrict musical discourse so much by neglecting sound’s signifying properties? Kane’s critique is especially apposite when we consider the voice.

Pink Trombone

Is it possible to hear a human voice (or an instrument that sounds like one) without imagining the body that produced it? Kate Heidemann argues that when we listen to singers, we imagine ourselves having the bodily experience of producing their voice. Thus the pleasure of Aretha Franklin is the opportunity she gives us to imagine being relaxed while still producing a loud and authoritative voice.

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Ethnomusicology and world music

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

People like me listen to world music to hope for and imagine a world without imperialism. I’ve sampled Central African pygmy music in my own work, and while I do a better job of attributing my sources than Deep Forest does, I’m motivated by the same impulse.

Timothy Brennan attributes the popularity of African diasporic music among white people to our unconscious desire to resist imperial capitalism. The same is true of world music.

More than just expanding tastes, world music characterizes a longing in metropolitan centers of Europe and North America for what is not Europe or North America… It represents a flight from the Euro-self at the very moment of that self’s suffocating hegemony, as though people were driven away by the image stalking them in the mirror (Brennan 2001, 46).

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The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as a way to make the robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

You may be surprised to learn that you use a vocoder every time you talk on your cell phone. Also, the vocoder gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

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My music technology syllabus

I use variations on this project list for all of my courses. In Advanced Digital Audio Production at Montclair State University, students do all of these assignments. Students in Music Technology 101 do all of them except the ones marked Advanced. My syllabus for the NYU Music Education Technology Practicum has an additional recording studio project in place of the final project. Here’s the project list in Google Spreadsheet format.

Music Ed Tech Practicum image

I talk very little about microphone technology or technique in my classes. This is because I find this information to only be useful in the context of actual recording studio work, and my classes do not have regular access to a studio. I do spend one class period on home recording with the SM58 and SM57, and talk a bit about mic technique for singers. I encourage students who want to go deeper into audio recording to take a class specifically on that subject, or to read something like the Moylan book.

My project-based approach is informed strongly by Matt Mclean and Alex Ruthmann. Read more about their methods here.

I do not require any text. However, for education majors, I strongly recommend Teaching Music Through Composition by Barbara Freedman and Music Technology and Education: Amplifying Musicality by Andrew Brown.

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