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.
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.
I was looking at a collection of perfectly looped gifs on Buzzfeed and thinking about how they remind me of sample-based electronic music. In both cases, you’re taking a piece of a linear recording and making it cyclical. Do it wrong and it’s extremely irritating. Do it right and it’s mesmerizing. I’ve given a lot of thought to how looping a segment of audio changes its meaning, but am only just starting to think about the visual equivalent.
Brown, A. (2007). Software Development as Music Education Research. International Journal of Education & the Arts. Volume 8, Number 6.
My thesis is supposed to include a quantitative research component. This had been causing me some anxiety. It’s educational and creative software. What exactly could I measure? I had this vague notion of testing people’s rhythmic ability before and after using the app. But how do you quantify rhythmic ability? Even if I had a meaningful numerical representation, how could I possibly measure a big enough sample size over a long enough time to get a statistically significant result? The development of my app is going okay, but I was really stressing about the experimental component.
Then my advisor introduced me to Andrew Brown‘s notion of software development as research, or SoDaR. As Brown puts it, “SoDaR involves computers, but is about people.” Humans are complex, our interactions with computers are complex, the way we learn is complex. The only method of inquiry that can encompass all that complexity is qualitative, anthropological inquiry, involving a substantial amount of introspection on the part of the researcher.
There’s a great Tumblr called Hip-Hop Transcriptions. It consists solely meticulous transcriptions of classic beats and rhymes by Charlie Hely. The mere fact of these transcriptions is fairly wonderful, but even better is the way that Hely lays out his charts. He uses graph paper, with each box representing a sixteenth note. This makes the complex rhythms a lot more readable than they normally would be, essentially turning standard notation into a time-unit box system. Music should always be typeset that way. Below are my favorite transcriptions.
MC Shan in “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s diss track response in “South Bronx” by Boogie Down Productions.
Big question! First, a little philosophical throat-clearing: I don’t believe that modern/contemporary art is as radical a break with the past as it likes to think. I had an art professor in college argue that, really, all abstract art is representational, and all representational art is abstract. Any abstract art has to refer to particular sensory impressions that the artist has had, because there’s nothing else we have to draw on for material. No matter how crazy the art is, we can’t help but look for signs of the physical world in it. Meanwhile, even the most photorealist painting is still abstract. You’d never be fooled by a painting into thinking you were looking out a window. Ultimately, it’s just static blobs of color on a flat surface; you have to do quite a bit of interpretive work to be “convinced” by the illusion.
Draw a lot.
Don’t be precious about materials. Don’t use fancy art board or moleskines. Get a big newsprint pad or a stack of cheap legal pads from Staples. You want to draw as much and as quickly as possible, without being worried about wasting expensive paper.
Use a pen or Sharpie. No erasers, no correcting fluid. Fill the page completely as fast as you can. Use loose scribbles and gestures. Don’t sweat details. Use The Force — let go your feelings, young Skywalker. Get it right the first time or start over. Try to push each drawing to completion, but if you’re really not happy with where it’s going, toss it in the recycling and move on. Also try drawing without looking at the page. Get ready to be pleasantly surprised by the result.
The Quora question that prompted this post asks:
Why has music been historically the most abstract art form?
We can see highly developed musical forms in renaissance polyphony and baroque counterpoint. The secular forms of this music is often non-programmatic or “absolute music.” In contrast to this, the paintings and sculpture of those times are often representational. Did music start as representational but merely move to a more abstract art form than other types of arts sooner? Does it lend it self to this sort of abstraction more easily?
I had an art professor in college who argued that all “representational” art is abstract, and all “abstract” art is representational. Any art has to refer back to sensory impressions of the world, internal or external, because that’s the only raw material we have to work with. Meanwhile, you’re unlikely to ever mistake a work of representational art for the object it represents. You don’t mistake photographs (or photorealistic paintings) for their subjects, and even the most “realistic” special effects in movies require willing suspension of disbelief.
Long before I got interested in electronic music, I was a fine arts guy. It bothers me that unauthorized appropriation of a music recording will get you sued, but visual artists who appropriate pop cultural materials get into museums and art history textbooks.
In ancient times and more traditional societies, there was never much importance attached to the concept of sole authorship or ownership of creative works. Widespread belief in the lone Byronic genius didn’t take hold until the eighteenth century in Europe. Duchamp signaled the beginning of the end of the Byronic genius with his readymades, like the infamous urinal, or this bicycle wheel:
Update: check out my masters thesis, a radial drum machine. Specifically, see the section on visualizing rhythm. See also a more scholarly review of the literature on visualization and music education. And here’s a post on the value of video games in music education.
Computer-based music production and composition involves the eyes as much as the ears. The representations in audio editors like Pro Tools and Ableton Live are purely informational, waveforms and grids and linear graphs. Some visualization systems are purely decorative, like the psychedelic semi-random graphics produced by iTunes. Some systems lie in between. I see rich potential in these graphical systems for better understanding of how music works, and for new compositional methods. Here’s a sampling of the most interesting music visualization systems I’ve come across.
Western music notation is a venerable method of visualizing music. It’s a very neat and compact system, unambiguous and digital, and not too difficult to learn. Programs like Sibelius can effortlessly translate notation to and from MIDI data, too.
But western notation has some limitations, especially for contemporary music. It doesn’t handle microtones well. It has limited ability to convey performative nuance — after a hundred years of jazz, there’s no good way to notate swing other than to just write the word “swing” at the top of the score. The key signature system works fine for major keys, but is less helpful for minor keys and modal music and is pretty much worthless for the blues.
Here’s a suggestion for how notation could improve in the future. It’s a visualization by Jon Snydal of John Coltrane’s solo in Miles Davis’ “All Blues” (I edited it a little to be easier on the eyes.)
Snydal’s visualization is more analog than digital — it shows the exact nuances of Coltrane’s performance, with subtle shadings of pitch, timing and dynamics.