Frank Ocean’s Real Love

Frank Ocean is the R&B singer of the moment. Does he merit all they hype? There’s no doubt but that the man can sing. I first heard him in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s tremendous “No Church In The Wild,” which owes a lot of its intensity to Ocean’s vocals. He’s been releasing some good mixtapes too. Some of his sudden fame is also due to his implicit coming-out moment, a remarkable Tumblr post talking openly about his feelings for another man. In a world where Jay-Z’s voicing ambiguous support for gay marriage is headline news, Ocean’s open love letter is bold indeed.

The online Frank Ocean buzz reached such a pitch that I finally took the plunge on his first major-label release, Channel Orange. It’s the first full album of new music I’ve bought since The Archandroid by Janelle Monáe. Does it merit the hype? I don’t know yet. I think so. It’s strange and idiosyncratic. Some of it is boilerplate R&B, some of it is wildly experimental, Most falls somewhere in between. One song that jumps out at me is “Super Rich Kids,” featuring the utterly affectless rapping of Earl Sweatshirt.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The Makossa diaspora

The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:

Continue reading

Secondary dominants

When I was a kid, I’d listen to music and wonder, why is this chord progression so much more satisfying than that one? Now I know the answer: secondary dominants, chords that temporarily change the key in a logical-sounding way. If you want to take your songwriting in a more sophisticated direction, you definitely want to get hip to secondary dominants.

Continue reading

Jay-Z and Alan Lomax

Why does folk music collector Alan Lomax have a copyright interest in “Takeover” by Jay-Z?

I learned the answer from Creative License: The Law And Culture Of Digital Sampling by Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola. It’s a companion book to the invaluable documentary Copyright Criminals. The story of Jay-Z and Alan Lomax isn’t quite as epic a copyright fail as the Biz Markie lawsuit or the story of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” but it’s still pretty absurd.

Continue reading

Samples and community

The defining musical experience of my lifetime is hearing familiar samples in unfamiliar contexts. For me, the experience is usually a thrill. For a lot of people, the experience makes them angry. Using recognizable samples necessarily means having an emotional conversation with everyone who already has an attachment to the original recording. Music is about connecting with other people. Sampling, like its predecessors quoting and referencing, is a powerful connection method.

Run-DMC sample map

Continue reading

Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough

This song represents a lot of firsts for Michael Jackson. It was the first single from Off The Wall, and the first recording MJ made that he had complete creative control over. Many of his hits were written by Quincy Jones or Rod Temperton or the guys from Toto, but Michael wrote this one himself. It was also his first solo song to get a music video.

I’ve loved this song for years while barely being able to make out any of the words. I finally had to look them up on Google. MJ isn’t exactly Cole Porter, but his lyrics have nice body logic, they sound good and are super pleasurable to sing. MJ had the same songwriting strategy as the Beatles: he started with a melody over a rhythmic groove, developed using nonsense syllables. Only later, once the whole song was in place and recorded as a demo, did he find words that fit the metrical scheme.

Verse one:

Lovely is the feeling now
Fever, temperatures rising now
Power (ah power) is the force, the vow
That makes it happen
It asks no questions why
So get closer
To my body now
Just love me
‘Til you don’t know how

The melodic nut meat of this tune is on the words “lovely,” “fever,” “power,” “happen” and so on. The first syllable of these words is sung on D#, the major third in the key of B. The second syllable is on the A below, the flat seventh in B. The interval between these two notes is a tritone. It’s a sound with a richly conflicted emotional resonance. If you’re willing to follow me through a little music theory, it’ll help you understand what makes this song so awesome.

Western music theory is based on the buildup and release of tension. One of the best ways to create tension is with dissonance. The tritone is considered by European tradition to be a very dissonant interval. Every major key has a tritone in it, between the fourth and seventh notes of the scale (fa and ti, for Sound Of Music fans.) If you’re a typical western listener and you hear a tritone, your ear wants it to resolve to a less dissonant interval. You want the fa to resolve down to mi, and the ti to resolve up to do.

African-American music treats the tritone very differently. The blues uses tons of unresolved tritones. In blues, chords with tritones can functionally feel stable and resolved, “dissonant” though they may be. (The music has lots of other intriguing harmonic grittiness, like microtones, and the simultaneous use of minor and major thirds.) The blues passed the unresolved tritone on to its many musical descendants: jazz, rock, funk and so on.

MJ is squarely within his musical tradition to be basing his melody on an unresolved tritone. Still, it’s startling to hear it featured so prominently and starkly in a pop song, on the very first two notes of the vocal melody no less. It gives a jolt of intensity to what might otherwise be a harmless piece of disco fluff.

Music is fundamentally all about math. Most of the musical intervals in the western tuning system are based on simple ratios, the kinds of numbers you can count on your fingers. The interval between A and the next A up is an octave, meaning that the ratio between the two notes’ frequencies is one to two. The interval between A and E is a fifth, a ratio of two to three. The interval between A and C# is a major third, a ratio of four to five. The tritone is different. The interval between A and D# is one to the square root of two. Your ear might not know which specific irrational number it’s hearing, but it knows that something weird and complex is at work, something you can’t count on your fingers.

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” asserts further non-European quality in its extremely minimalist chord progression. It has just two chords, A major and B7. The A major has B as its bass note, which really makes it more of a B9sus4 chord. The music term for this kind of unvarying chord pattern is a modal groove. In this case the mode is B mixolydian.

Western music is mostly linear. The chord progression tells a story of dissonance leading to consonance, or vice versa. Modal tunes are more Eastern, trance-like and drone-oriented. They’re about creating a cyclical ambiance, a mood rather than a narrative. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” shares its modal quality with my other favorite Michael Jackson original, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” which he wrote around the same time.

MJ’s chorus adds to the trance-inducing vibe by repeating the same line over and over:

Keep on with the force, don’t stop
Don’t stop ’til you get enough

It’s more of a mantra than a semantic idea. It helps keep the mind clear for the business at hand, the business of getting your groove on from the waist down.

The harmony and lyrics might be static, but there’s a lot of music packed into this track. Ben Wright’s string arrangement chases up and down the chromatic scale, adding another dash of unsettling dissonance. There are multiple layers of bells, handclaps and other percussion, and the bass and guitar mostly function as percussion too. Jerry Hey’s tight horn chart makes the brass into yet another percussion element, rather than a melodic one. Check out the stab at 1:37, the end of the first chorus. Hot!

As with all of MJ’s hits, “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” has been sampled many times. Some highlights, more or less in chronological order:

Purists might find it jarring, but I’m also enjoying this remix with Jay-Z.

The synth solo in this tune is an excellent example of blues tonality.