A history of pop production in three tracks

Earlier this spring, I subbed for Adam Bell‘s Music Technology 101 class at Montclair State. His sections were populated more exclusively with classical conservatory kids than mine, so for my one-shot lesson, I figured I’d talk them through some items from my illicit collection of multitrack stems, and give them a sense of the history of the recorded art form.

First up was “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles.

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Were the Beatles great musicians?

Most of us agree that the Beatles made great music. But “real” musicians like to argue that the Beatles were not necessarily themselves great. They certainly weren’t exceptionally great guitarists, or drummers, or keyboard players, or even singers. They were pretty good at those things, and had flashes of greatness, but you could walk into any music school and quickly find yourself dozens of more proficient instrumentalists. At this point, a Beatles fan might come back and say, well, the Beatles were great songwriters, which is different from being a great musician. The Beatles did indeed write brilliant songs (though they wrote their share of clunkers too.) Is musicianship coextensive with the ability to play or sing or write? I’m going to say that it isn’t.

We’re right to regard the Beatles as great, but not because of their performances, or even their songwriting. The Beatles are great because of their ability to create studio recordings. Their albums from Revolver onwards are hugely greater than the sum of the material, arrangements, and performances. Those late albums are masterpieces of recording, editing, mixing, and effects, of hyperrealist timbral and spatial manipulation, and of surrealist tape editing.

The Beatles produce some electronica

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Modern classical techno

One of my Montclair State students recently did a class presentation on Venetian Snares, the stage name of highbrow electronica producer Aaron Funk.

The track uses samples from the first movement of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet, accompanied by shuffled slices of the Amen break. It sounds to me like an EDM artist trying to deal with “art” music. Eliot Britton wrote an art-musical scholarly response. Britton makes a good-faith effort to engage the track on its own terms, but he’s writing from within the classical academic tradition. That tradition can be a king-sized drag.

The climb from a popular musical style to acceptance as an elevated form of artistic expression is steep. The struggle to include jazz as legitimate art music took many years and the endeavour continues to this day. However, it is no longer acceptable for educated musicians to dismiss jazz as “dance music” because of its association with the dance hall. To dismiss jazz as an artistic musical form would be a rejection of a major element of North American music history.

Oh boy. Let’s unpack! Continue reading

Björk live at Kings Theater

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.

Björk at Kings Theater

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.

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The Blurred Lines lawsuit

Marvin Gaye is one of the great singers and songwriters of all time, with a status deservedly approaching secular sainthood. Robin Thicke is a sleazy dirtbag who made a giant pile of money by knocking off one of Marvin’s songs to produce a rapey earworm,  accompanied by a porn video. Naturally, I side with Team Marvin, and am delighted that Thicke and Pharrell lost the lawsuit.

While my fellow musicians are gleefully crowing, other observers are worried that this case sets a bad precedent. Michaelangelo Matos is among them.

I encourage vocal fans of this verdict to demonstrate their solidarity by deleting and/or destroying every piece of music they own featuring an unlicensed sample or bearing a notable resemblance to an earlier piece of music. But they won’t, and they shouldn’t, because that would entail deleting just about everything. Even if you loathe Thicke, this is no cause for celebration, because the size of the Gaye estate’s bounty is only going to encourage more lawsuits like this one.

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We got both kinds, country and western

In a few weeks, I’m going to be doing some guest blogging on NewMusicBox. I’m very excited, but also a bit nervous, because I’m an outspoken anti-fan of avant-garde modernism. I don’t want to antagonize NMB’s readership, so I’m trying to figure out how to write about this stuff without being a jerk. I’m using this post to do some thinking out loud.

NMB’s mission statement on their web site says that they are “dedicated to the music of American composers and improvisers and their champions.” To get a clearer sense of their musical identity and mission, I went and listened to their 2014 staff picks. The list encompasses tracks that sound to me like showtunes, jazzy chamber music, bluegrass-ish folk, artsy funky indie rock, avant-garde jazz, modern classical played on Japanese instruments, ambient, modernist opera, classical voice over glitchy electronica, and “regular” modern classical. Only a few of these tracks fit my image of what new music is, which just shows how out of touch I am. But my confusion could be forgiven. Does anyone even have a clear definition of “new music”?

One might naively say that new music is all the music that’s new. A Google search of the term brings up many web sites devoted to new music, ranging from rock to pop to hip-hop to everything else. Every tribe has their specific idea of what “music” constitutes. The Blues Brothers puts it best.

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Pop songwriting in the age of the DAW

Bennett, J. (2011). Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. Journal on the Art of Record Production, (5), online.

My professional life at the moment mostly consists of teaching classical and jazz musicians how to write pop songs. While every American is intuitively familiar with the norms of pop music, few of us think about them explicitly, even trained musicians. It’s worth considering them, though. While individual pop songs might be musically uninteresting, in the aggregate they’re a rich source of information about the way our culture evolves. Bennett describes popular song as an “unsubsidized populist art form,” like Hollywood movies and video games. The marketplace exerts strong Darwinian pressures on songwriters and producers, polishing pop conventions like pebbles being tumbled in a river.

Tin Pan Alley

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The poetics of rock

I’m teaching at Montclair State University because of Adam Bell, a fellow self-taught rock and pop musician turned academic. Adam loves to quote The Poetics of Rock by Albin Zak, and rightly so.

The Poetics of Rock

Zak’s major point is that rock is an art form about making records, and that the creativity in making records is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best recordings come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. We need some better language to describe the different components that go into making a rock record, or any kind of recording.

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Mixing “Call Me Maybe”

Sound On Sound ran this highly detailed account of mixing the inescapable summer jam of 2012. It’s the most thorough explanation of how a contemporary pop song gets mixed that I’ve ever read.

I’m interested in this article not so much for the specifics of the gear and the plugins, but rather just out of sheer awe at the complexity and nuance of the track’s soundscape. My cadre of pop-oriented music academics likes to say that the creativity in recordings lies not in their melodies and the chords necessarily, but in their timbre and space. “Call Me Maybe” is an excellent case in point. Its melody and chords are fun, but not exactly groundbreaking. Yet the track leaps out of the speakers at you, demanding your attention, managing both to pound you with sonic force and intrigue you with quiet detail. Whether you want your attention grabbed in this way is a matter of taste. I happen to love the song, but even if it isn’t your cup of tea, the craft behind it bears some thinking about.

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First day of music tech class

I recently began my second semester of teaching Music Technology 101 at Montclair State University. In a perfect world, I’d follow Mike Medvinsky’s lead and dive straight into creative music-making on day one. However, there are logistical reasons to save that for day two. Instead, I started the class with a listening party, a kind of electronic popular music tasting menu. I kicked things off with “Umbrella” by Rihanna.

I chose this song because of its main drum loop, which is a factory sound that comes with GarageBand called Vintage Funk Kit 03–slow it down to 90 bpm and you’ll hear it. The first several class projects use GarageBand, and I like the students to feel like they’re being empowered to create real music in the class, not just performing academic exercises.

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