Timbral robes, unheard before

This is a sumptuous twenty minutes for your earholes. John Adams masterfully blending electronics and a brass choir, from Light Over Water, back in 1983:

Again, it makes me think of These New Puritans’ Hidden (Spotify link) – both the album itself (hands down, best of 2010, or anything this year yet, I reckon), and the astonishing live performance I was lucky enough to catch at the Barbican a while back:

Anyway, I’m just getting into collecting examples of arrangements that combine new and old instruments in really well-integrated ways – the ones where you (literally) hear more than the sum of the parts. Both of those ones are belters. More from Adams’ own site:

“If electronic music had earlier opened up new avenues of instrumental writing, then the opposite was now happening. The instrumental world had begun affecting the way Adams’s electronic music sounded. Gone were the swishes and swoops and futuristic sound effects of early tape music – the massed sonic conglomerates, the Varèsian granitic sounds. In their stead comes simple melodic and harmonic invention, but in timbral robes unheard before.”

“Light Over Water was conceived and executed primarily as a processed synthesizer piece, but to the array of electronically produced sounds, Adams added – in the recording studio of course – a kind of phantom presence in the form of a brass choir (trumpets, horns, trombones, and tubas). It inhabits a shadowy, distant plane and is sometimes so subtle and dark that its addition to the synthesizer music is not even consciously heard. Conceived as an integral part of the score, the brass sound – Adams calls it the music’s shadow – adds an expressive voice not available from purely synthesized sound.”

Lovely stuff. More of this sort of thing.

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I popped into the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts on Sunday to see the Euan Macdonald exhibition.

One of the pieces he’s made is a short film called 9000 PIECES, set in a Shanghai musical instrument factory. According to the blurb, it “records the intricate mechanisms of a piano being vigorously tested by a machine designed to determine the endurance of pianos.” And it’s bloody lovely. Here are some stills until I can find a decent film with sound.

As you enter the gallery, you can’t see the film installation straight away, but you can hear it – the machine hammering away like some surly teenage offspring of Steve Reich, Conlon Nancarrow and Bertha. Then, when you finally see it, it’s hilarious.

I’m afraid I’ve no interest in exploring all the subtle references Macdonald makes toward globalisation, mass production, class, economics and so on. It’s just far too exciting to think about robots playing musical instruments really badly, as well as the abrupt personality of this particular machine.

I really couldn’t help pitying the stupid thing. There’s something really endearing about a piano, capable of being played with such a vast range of emotion, being thumped by a robot with sticks for arms and a camshaft for a body. It’s as if he – and I reckon it’s a he – really wants to improve, practicing for hours every day, oblivious to the fact that he can’t do anything but hammer the keys to breaking point. Poor thing.

Anyway, to me, this is far funnier, more emotionally resonant, and, dare I say it, simply more musical than your usual performing robots, which (from my tiny wisp of experience) tend to be either creepy-megacorp-humanoid…

…or soulless, insipid appliances, obeying the rote instructions of their master:

I love that some anonymous piano testing machine in a Shanghai factory has the same sense of spirit as, say, Andy’s tappers, Yuri’s record-playing cars, or Maywa Denki’s Tsukuba Series, all of which are brimming with fun and personality. If only this poor fellow knew he had like-minded friends.

Anyway. I suppose this all points at things like BASAAP, the opening sequence of Wall-E, or countless other things that very clever people have been thinking about far more than I have.

I wonder, as robots start to become part our domestic lives, how many other forgotten, neglected machines are out there – quietly acting out their roles with dumb, dignified hope and unwittingly hilarious dance moves – that product designers can learn from.

I could watch this one all day. Though maybe I should ask the people in the factory what he’s like to work with.

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Distributed Creativity

This is a version of a paper I gave at the Forum for Innovation in Music Production and Composition at Leeds College of Music in May 2011 with PhD student Adam Martin. It’s a whistle-stop tour, but hopefully not too fragmented. Although I don’t directly draw them out, there are some resonances with recent posts: the relationship between architecture and music, the impact of the internet on production, distribution and consumption, the relationship between technology and people.

Some Kind of Introduction…

The idea of the ‘studio’ isn’t (and probably never has been) a stable notion. The studio as a fixed, stable, architectural entity, made all the more solid by associations with famous musicians (Abbey Road the most obvious example), has been seriously challenged by the miniaturisation and subsequent mobilisation of technology. We no longer need hefty bits of equipment and expensive rooms to make good quality music. By diluting the need for a specific physical place, we can really get to the core of what studios are really about – creativity.

Some examples…

  • Damon Albarn produced The Fall using an iPad whilst on tour;
  • Apogee are currently marketing JAM and Mic – single-user interfaces optimised for ‘iPad, iPhone and Mac’. Notice the strapline – ‘Studio quality input…’;
  • Beatmaker places powerful audio processing in the palm;
  • Eric Wahlforss made his 2003 album Soulhack ‘on an odyssey which started off with a counterfeit interrail ticket thru Europe’ (Did he really make the album on a train? He could have…) It’s probably worth pointing out that Wahlforss is also a co-founder of SoundCloud;
  • June 2011, Sound on Sound reports on the ‘iOS revolution’ in music-making.

Some theory…

-/ Creativity (and by this I’m thinking specifically of music, using technology) is  a constellation of approaches (as it always was). But now its fragmented, fractured, varied and dispersed characteristics are all the more in focus (Albarn’s process is as important as the product).

The physical location of the studio offers something to grab on to, a representation to help fix our understanding of how music might get made. But when this location is no longer needed, when the train platform might temporarily become a location of creativity, we need to understand creativity as something more dynamic, something less physical. (I’ll come back to this in a later post).

-/ Return to Abbey Road – represented as a monolithic place; fixed, constant, specific (characteristics cemented by the monolithic Beatles). However, the exact nature of the studio (the shape and size of its rooms, the relationship between spaces, its acoustic properties, the sounds that come out of it, its socio-cultural status) comes about as a result of very particular circumstances. We can describe Abbey Road in terms of the equipment it houses and its architectural dimensions, but this isn’t enough. Instead, we need to understand the place in terms of the relations it affords.

Bruno Latour‘s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) extends the possibility of relations to ‘non-human’. Relations are between people and people, but also between people and technology, technology and buildings, buildings and people. Objects are important in creativity (particular mics, computers, drums) but the network of relations these objects afford offers us more nuanced insight into creativity.

Some Definitions…

The studio is a context that affords relations between human and non-human actors for the purpose of creative action involving some form of reified or intransient sound.

The key term here is context, as it’s this element which has undergone accelerated change over the past decade. A context can now be the hotel room, the train carriage, the converted attic, wherever. The catalyst for this change is the miniaturisation, mobilisation and democratisation of technology (obviously within certain economic limits – I’m not invoking a technological utopia, more a comparison of access to technology between 1961 and 2011). By specifying the diversity of contemporary creative contexts, we say something about historical specificity – these contexts come about because the technology of the time affords a particular relation. And this has an implication for how we can understand the ‘traditional studio’: it is a historical relic.

  1. The traditional studio environment is just one instantiation of a ‘locus of creativity’ in an ongoing historical flux (one that continues to overlap with other instantiations);
  2. The term ‘studio’ is better understood as its core function as a locus of creativity. Admittedly a bit clumsy, the phrase broadens the scope of creativity to all locations where creativity (actions in the pursuit of rendering sound intransient) can take place.

A bit more theory…

-/ The idea of a single author of a piece of art is entirely a myth. Georgina Born invokes the work of social anthropologist Alfred Gell to describe art as inescapably distributed. Art works are embedded in the society of their origin; the creators of these art works respond, whether positively as affirmation or negatively as resistance, to conventions (or memes) that circulate. No matter how precious an artist may be in attempting to protect their personal expression, such a thing depends on a wider network of socio-cultural norms. In this broad sense, all creativity is distributed.

Music production inherently resists the very European notion of a lone author (musicians, arrangers, writers, performers, engineers, separate mix and mastering engineers, roadies, labels, distributers, designers…). Contemporary music technology simultaneously consolidates these roles whilst facilitating increased and more deliberate distribution. Such distribution can be explained via the idea of dispersion: 1) temporal and 2) spatial.

1) Temporal Dispersion:

  • Social – the fluid flow of data means that multiple artists can be working on a project at the same time, regardless of proximity. Creativity can by synchronous and simultaneous, but remote.
  • Historical – once music is rendered as data, the historical life of the musical idea can be reinvigorated. It can be accessed and reworked at a point in time remote from its origin – it remains available.

2) Spatial Dispersion:

  • Geographic space - anywhere can become a locus of creativity. Such mobility challenges the potency of specific geographic locations.
  • Sonic space – Both musical ideas and acoustic properties are encoded within a sonic artefact. Sonic place has been historically significant and audible (think of Elvis at Sun) and this has been a draw – people would go to particular studios as a pilgrimage to recreate particular sonic characteristics. Digital technology emancipatesconvolution reverb allows those places to be recreated remotely. Paradoxically, the places are celebrated while the need for their actual existence is diluted.
  • Social space – SoundCloud, DropBox and others like these stretch social space by removing the need for copresence – social space becomes physically unbounded.

The ‘social’ theme occurs in both temporal and spatial dispersions. Though tightly bound together, there is a subtle difference: socio-temporal dispersions imply that timescales of creativity are no longer necessarily linear; spatio-temporal dispersions imply constellations of locations, rather than creativity taking place in one single place. They are essentially two ways of explaining the same effect – that creativity can be distributed and dispersed.

Some Kind of Conclusion…

The paper was intended to interrogate some assumptions about what a studio is and how musical creativity takes place. There was some resistance to the point of doing this – ‘we all know what a studio is so why do we need to redefine it?’. True, we can name and describe particular studios (and the paper isn’t about undermining their historical significance) but this resistance misses an important point: people are creating music in increasingly diverse ways. To ignore the changes in the way creativity is taking place is to miss an opportunity to extend understanding and practice.

The most significant outcome of all of this, for me, is that the provisional nature of music is celebrated. As Born writes: ‘digitized music encourages an open sequence in which the closing down of a musical object and its circulation are followed by its potential re-opening and re-creation’. This is the core of musical creativity in the digital age – music as an open sequence.

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I moved to San Francisco last week! New job. Fun times.

The other night, I tagged along with some new friends for a visit to Audium. According to their blurb, “Audium is the only theatre of its kind in the world, pioneering the exploration of space in music. The theatre’s 176 speakers bathe listeners in sounds that move past, over, and under them. “Sound sculptures” are performed in darkness in the 49-seat theatre.”

Photo: audium.org

Run since the 60s by composer Stan Sheff, it’s a pristinely-preserved little slice of history, from when I guess the ideas of Stockhausen, Xenakis and that lot were all the rage. It’s brilliant. If you’re ever in SF, go go go.

You go into a warm, slightly Kubrickian main chamber; down go the lights, and Sheff then plays you a 45-minute piece of (unwittingly hilarious) late-60s music concrète written specifically for the space. Waterfalls; farm animals; marching bands; children playing and yelling and all sorts of other bits and bobs, all interspersed with ambient chords washing around your head, shifting endlessly amongst the 100-odd speakers.

It’s quite a lovely sensation at times, especially when he whacks up the reverb and delay to make the space feel bigger than it is.

But, to be honest, the sonic bit wasn’t exactly jaw-dropping. Mainly, it was far too funny to be listened to seriously, but secondly, we’ve all probably had a more intense sonic experience in any club with a half-decent sound system, or singing along with hundreds of others at a gig, hands in the air and all that.

These things also always feel (to me) a bit 60s group happening, man, as opposed to anything really new. I guess it could be because we’ve all had Walkmans and iPods – our own immersive, personal soundtracks – for thirty-odd years now. That and the fact that most of us only think about surround sound either when we see the big floaty THX logo at the cinema, or are buying a massive telly. That’s a shame, I think.

That's Stan Sheff in the corner there. Photo: New York Times

At a little Q&A afterwards, Stan Sheff rattled off a few stock phrases about sound and architecture, and how he felt that even the most modern concert halls were dated, in his opinion, and that most composers still didn’t think about new ways to use sound architecturally.

I’m not sure I buy that. I don’t know anything about it, really, but surely composers have always thought about the performance or playback context of their music, haven’t they? Just go listen to music written for amphitheatres; cavernous churches; piazzas; opera houses; Bayreuth, jazz clubs, car radios or football stadiums. Surely recording studios; headphones and speakers are just the latest in a long line of contexts of listening that people who make music have to think about? (Doctor Mark, help me out here.)

I guess, also, a place like Audium was only ever going to be a historic museum piece. I bet they knew it too, even as they were wiring in the last of the hundred-odd speakers in the early 70s. Any kid listening to a transistor radio under the bedsheets back in the 50s could have told them that. You can almost feel the slight sadness in the place.

But, for all that, it’s a charming, nostalgic, and brilliantly eccentric place, and if you’re ever in SF, you absolutely must go. It’s pretty much just one man, messing about with (a hundred-odd) speakers in his (massive, soundproofed, arts-funded) garden shed, and that is something I shall aspire to when I grow up.

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On recording “Classical Music”

Currently listening to the latest Reich Double Sextet/2×5 (Spotify link) after reading what Nico Muhly had to say about it.

“Most of Reich’s work is for amplified acoustic instruments, but surely going into the world of guitars, bass, drumset, etc., warrants the speakers to be blown out with an insistent, primal drive? I thought at first it was my recording, but I bought a hard-copy and played it in every possible venue: a car, my house, my momma house, my friend’s house, her momma house…it still sounds like weird Nintendo sounds. Has anybody else ever felt a divorce between the quality of music and the sound quality of the recording?”

He’s right. It sounds like a crap Battles demo done on a MIDI keyboard.

Mr Muhly reminded me of a Paul Morley piece about These New Puritans last year where Jack Barnett laments about how terribly most classical music is recorded and mastered (watch the video).

Listening to Hidden (Spotify link) has made me want to hear classical pieces as if they were recorded and produced by Martin Hannett or someone similar. No natural acoustics; completely dry; every single instrument close-miked, with production that locates the sounds in a controlled, artificial space. That sort of thing. Or something. You know, done sensitively and subtly; not William Orbit.

Does anything like that exist?

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