Reflections on teaching Ableton Live, part two

In my first post in this series, I briefly touched on the problem of option paralysis facing all electronic musicians, especially the ones who are just getting started. In this post, I’ll talk more about pedagogical strategies for keeping beginners from being overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities of sampling and synthesis.

Building a pop song structure

This is part of a larger argument why Ableton Live and software like it really needs a pedagogy specifically devoted to it. The folks at Ableton document their software extremely well, but their materials presume familiarity with their own musical culture. Most people aren’t already experimental techno producers. They need to be taught the musical values, conventions and creative approaches that Ableton Live is designed around. They also need some help in selecting raw musical materials. We music teachers can help, by putting tools like Ableton into musical context, and by curating finitely bounded sets of sounds to work with. Doing so will lower barriers to entry, which means happier users (and better sales for Ableton.) Continue reading

Miley vs Sinéad

I don’t know whether you’ve been following the feud between Miley Cyrus and Sinéad O’Connor, and if you haven’t, congratulations on using your free time more constructively than I use mine. But so anyway, the most infamous pop star of the moment (Miley) publically cited a well-respected elder stateswoman (Sinéad) as an influence. In response, Sinéad wrote Miley an open letter about how she should stop letting her unscrupulous management treat her like a prostitute. Miley sassed back on Twitter, Sinéad wrote an angrier open letter in response, the whole internet got involved, and around and around the whole thing continues to go.

Then this wiseacre did a mashup of Miley’s current hit, “Wrecking Ball,” with Sinéad’s signature tune, a cover of “Nothing Compares 2U” by Prince.

The thing about this is that I know it was meant as a joke, but it works extremely well musically, almost better than either of the originals. Miley wasn’t kidding when she cited Sinéad as an influence. Their sexual politics may differ, but their singing styles are uncannily similar, right down to the vocal fry. Sometimes a good mashup illuminates more than all the prose ever will.

Computer improvisation

Can the computer be an improvisation partner? Can it generate musical ideas of its own in real time that aren’t the product of random number generators or nonsensical Markov chains?

In Joel Chadabe‘s “Settings For Spirituals,” he uses pitch-tracking to perform various effects on a recording of a singer: pitch shifting, chorus, reverb. The result is effectively an avant-garde remix. It isn’t exactly my speed, but I like the spirit of the piece – remixing existing recordings is a central pillar of current interactive electronic music. I’m less taken with Chadabe’s 1978 “Solo” for Synclavier controlled by theremin. The idea of dynamically controlling a computer’s compositions is an intriguing one, and I like the science-fictional visual effect of using two giant theremin antennae to control note durations, and to fade instrumental sounds in and out. Chadabe set the Solo system up to intentionally produce unpredictable results, giving the feeling of an improvisational partner. He describes “Solo” as being “like a conversation with a clever friend.” Who wouldn’t want such an experience?

Joel Chadabe performs "Solo"

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My NPR debut

On Tuesday, July 17, I appeared on the Colin McEnroe Show on Connecticut Public Radio to talk about my pet topic, remixes and mashups. The great DJ Earworm was on the show too, which I was totally geeked out about. You can stream or download the show here. Or listen to my remix of it:

My friend Jesse had a lot to say about the discussion on the program. Read his response (and my response to his response.)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ethanhein/7591250314/in/photostream

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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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Beatboxing and mashups are the new folk music

Thompson, Tok. Beatboxing, Mashups, and Cyborg Identity: Folk Music for the Twenty-First Century. Western Folklore, Spring 2011, 71-193.

Thompson’s provocative thesis is that folk music of the present is either produced entirely digitally, or is performed with the specific intent of imitating electronic sounds. Furthermore, the oral tradition intrinsic to folk music is now substantially taking place via the internet.

Thompson begins with a discussion of beatboxing, which began on the streetcorners of US cities, but has spread to every corner of the internet-using world, primarily via YouTube. Beatboxing may seem far afield from digital audio, since no form of music could be more “organic” or body-centered. But beatboxing began as a substitute for drum machines and samplers, and to this day, beatboxers strive to sound as much as possible like turntables, samplers and digital editing software.

Beatboxing enjoyed a brief and narrow popularity with hip-hop listeners in the 1980s, but since then it has vanished from the commercial landscape. For the most part, it is a form practiced and taught for creative gratification only. This satisfies Thompson’s requirement that a folk form be non-commrcial. While we traditionally associate folk music with specific regions, YouTube creates its own communities of shared musical vocabulary that transcend countries and continents. The best and most virtuosic beatboxer I’ve heard in many years was a young South Korean, visiting New York to busk the subways.

Again with the virtuoso Korean subway beatboxer

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Visual remixes

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.

Marcel Duchamp

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:

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