Repetition defines music

Update: there’s a lively discussion of this post happening on Synthtopia’s Facebook page.

Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful article by , investigating the reasons why we love repetition in music in Aeon Magazine.

The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

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Teaching the studio as instrument

Matthew D. Thibeault. Wisdom for Music Education From the Recording Studio. General Music Today, 20 October 2011.

Stuart Wise, Janinka Greenwood and Niki Davis. Teachers’ Use of Digital Technology in Secondary Music Education: Illustrations of Changing Classrooms. British Journal of Music Education, Volume 28, Issue 2, July 2011, pp 117 -­ 134.

Digital recording studios in schools are becoming more common as the price of the required hardware and software falls. Matthew Thibeault urges music teachers to think of the studio not just as a collection of gear that can be used to document the “real” performance, but as a musical instrument in its own right, carrying with it an entire philosophy of music-making. Digital studio techniques have collapsed composition, recording and editing into a single act. Since most of the music we encounter in the world is recorded, and most of that digitally, any music program needs to include the recording, sequencing and editing process as part of the core curriculum.

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The Schizophonia of David Byrne, Brian Eno and The Orb

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.

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Originality in Digital Music

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.

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Improvising electronica

The other day Brian Eno was on NPR talking about his process. He likes to have people walk into the studio without any preconceived ideas or written out material. Then he has the musicians improvise within certain constraints. Usually these constraints are more about a mood or a vibe than a particular musical structure. After recording some improvisation, Eno edits and loops the high points into a shape. Miles Davis used this same process for some of his electric albums, like In A Silent Way.

Miles and Eno seem radical, but in a way, they’re just boiling the usual compositional process down to its raw essentials. Really, all composition and songwriting consist of improvising within constraints and then sequencing the best ideas into shape. Usually this improvisation happens in short spurts, inside the composer’s head or alone at an instrument. Using a recording device instead of a sheet of paper can make the process more bodily and immediate, and can help get at playful ideas that might not squeak past the mind’s internal judges and editors during the relatively slow process of writing stuff on paper. Michael Jackson wrote his best stuff by improvising into a tape recorder. There’s something about improvising a performance while being recorded that focuses the mind wonderfully.

Since 2004 I’ve been writing and recording with Barbara Singer in different configurations. The first version was her idea, a band called Blopop. She had some techno versions of pop songs programmed into her MC-909 groovebox, and the idea was that she’d sing and DJ, and I’d improvise guitar on top.

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