What we talk about when we talk about Kanye West

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.

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Tuning system geekery

If you’re a guitarist, you may have noticed that it’s hard to get your instrument perfectly in tune. This is not your imagination. If you tune each string perfectly to the one next to it, the low E string will end up out of tune with the high E string. If you use an electronic tuner to make sure the individual strings are tuned to the correct pitch, they won’t sound fully in tune with each other. It has nothing to do with the quality of your instrument or your skill at tuning: it’s a fundamental fact of western music theory. This post attempts to explain why. It’s very geeky stuff, but if you like math (and who doesn’t?) then read on.

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Lost In The World

This week I’ve been all about Kanye West’s “Lost In The World,” the most gripping track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye is one of the few commercial producers with a high enough profile to be able to license whatever samples he wants, so he carries the banner of memetastic collage-based music in the mainstream, and god bless him for it. Click through for the song on YouTube.

There’s nothing going on in contemporary music that interests me more than the vibe of this track. The blend of electronic and tribal drums and Auto-tuned singing draws on the same sonic palette as “Love Lockdown,” which continues to be my favorite song of the 21st century, but “Lost In The World” is much bigger and denser.

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The complicated case of Antoine Dodson

Meet the most fascinating and problematic pop star of the moment, Antoine Dodson.

If you’re a follower of internet memes, you know the story by now. If not: Antoine, his sister Kelly and her daughter were asleep in their apartment in the Lincoln Park housing project in Huntsville, Alabama. An intruder broke in and sexually assaulted Kelly before Antoine chased him off. The family complained to the housing project authorities, who were unmoved. So on July 28, 2010, the Dodsons took their story to the local news. Continue reading

Tommy The Cat

Tommy

Revival Revival vs Primus

mp3 download, ipod format download

Vocals by Barbara Singer. Samples and programming by me. The guitar licks were originally played by Alex Torovic but have been chopped up pretty dramatically. This is part of our ongoing strategy, learned from hip-hop, of taking a familiar chorus and coming up with new verses.

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Blue notes and other microtones

Blue notes are a big part of what makes the blues sound like the blues. Most other American vernacular music uses blue notes too: jazz, funk, rock, country, gospel, folk and so on. In the video below, John Lee Hooker hits a blue note in just about every single guitar phrase.

For such a foundational element of America’s music, there’s a surprising amount of confusion as to what a blue note is exactly. So allow me to clear it up: a blue note is a microtonal pitch in between a note from the blues scale and a neighboring note from the major scale.

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Scales and emotions

Following up and expanding on a post about learning music theory with Auto-tune. See also a post about the major scale modes and an intro to minor keys.

So maybe you want to write a song or an instrumental in a particular mood or style, and you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the scales. Here’s a handy guide to the commonly used scales in western pop, rock, jazz, blues and so on. They’re shown in the way you’d program them into Auto-tune. Click each image to go to that scale’s Wikipedia page, where you can hear it, see it in traditional notation and pick up fun historical facts.

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Inside the recording process

The vast majority of music that I hear is recorded, and if you’re reading this the same is probably true of you. Most people don’t have a clear idea what the recording process is like, especially using computers. Here are my adventures in recording.

I grew up in the eighties. Cassette recorders were just starting to be ordinary household gear. My sister and I made a bunch of random tapes as kids, not knowing what we were doing or why, just that it was fun. We also taped songs we liked off the radio. We waited until the song we wanted came on, and then held up the tape recorder to the radio speaker. Go ahead and laugh, millenials, but this was such a widespread practice among my generation that there’s a whole Facebook group devoted to it.

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Authenticity

When I was younger I was obsessed with authenticity in music. I wouldn’t even play electric guitar because it felt too easy, like cheating somehow. I expended a lot of energy and attention trying to figure out what is and isn’t authentic. Now, at the age of 34, I’ve officially given up. I doubt there’s even such a thing as authenticity in music, at least not in America. There’s just stuff that I enjoy hearing, and stuff I don’t. But the concept of authenticity meant a lot to me for a long time, and it continues to mean a lot to many of the musicians and music fans I know. So what is it, and why do people care about it?

At various points in my quest, I thought I had identified some truly authentic musical forms and styles. Here they are, more or less in order of my embracing them.

Sixties Motown

When I was growing up, my mom and stepfather had the Big Chill soundtrack in heavy rotation. You could equate authenticity with soul, and there’s plenty of soul here.

In the eighties, my parents’ friends liked to praise the classic Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin recordings on this soundtrack as “pure,” by contrast to the music of the then-present: hip-hop, synth-heavy pop, Michael Jackson. I dutifully accepted this formulation, even though my ears told me to like the eighties stuff as much as the sixties stuff. Continue reading