I look forward to the day when machine learning can differentiate between “don’t play this song because it is awful” from “ don’t play this song because I’ve heard this it a thousand times” (e.g. “Superfreak”, “Rapper’s Delight”, “Come as you are”). Related, I’d love a way to tell the machine learning “if you are ever stumped about what to play next, it’s always OK to slip this song in” (e.g. “Wouldn’t it be nice”, “Summertime Blues”, “Izzo (H.O.V.A)”, “Overture to Samson and Delilah”).
How to celebrate the 64th birthday of Bruce Springsteen, “The Boss”, if you’re new to this curious American phenomenon:
- If you’re totally new to his music, start with Born to Run; there is no better album.
- If you’re a little familiar with his music, hit The River or The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle; there’s tons of great stuff hidden here.
- If you’re familiar with the Boss’ repetoire, you’ve gotta hit a live album; the compliation of performances from 1975–89 is my favorite right now.
You want to listen to at least one of these albums because there is no one who better combines the story of America with its music than Bruce Springsteen. If all you know of his work is “Born in the USA”, you got some educatin’ to do!
Today’s the hundredth anniversary of premier of hometown favorite Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The National Public Radios are all over this. NPR Music and WQXR are collecting a bunch of articles they’ve done in the run-up to the anniversary. My favorites: a visualization of the score and a list of essential recordings. The latter features this amazing image of Stravinsky, which I’ve already posted twice today and will continue posting it until it just doesn’t feel right anymore.
If you’re playing along today, WQXR is streaming twenty-four hours of nothing but the Rite. Highly recommended, if you have the means.
A joke for a late-night variety show monologue may only be funny for one day (e.g. a joke about a celebrity). A newspaper article may lose relevance in days or weeks. A TV show might feel dated a couple years after its run ends (e.g. most problems on Seinfeld could be solved with a smartphone). Computer programs don’t fare well over time either (though there are exceptions).
The best songs demonstrate better longevity. Beethoven and Bob Dylan still work today. There will always be something amazing about “Good Vibrations”, at least to the trained ear.
Even the rap trope of yelling the year the song was recorded has a timeless quality to it; it serves as a marker for the state of affairs. “Nineteen eighty nine!” is the first thing shouted in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, marking the historical context for what Chuck D is about to tell us.
Why is this? I suspect it underlies the act of making music. Besides hit factory music, i.e. ear worms you hear on the radio, a musician’s goal is to make something expressive. Expressiveness often leads to qualities that give a piece endurance; timelessness, nostalgia, high quality. Expressiveness is less often an objective for jokes, headline journalism, or television.
That enduring quality, it’s tricky. It happens in film, television, and books too. But, for me, there’s something about music that has a more direct emotional connection. They vibrate my ear drum and work their way directly to a part of my brain containing “the feels”. I hear a good song and I’m immediately thinking about why I enjoy it so much, what makes it so good, or when I heard that song and connected it to an experience.
Maybe that’s why music is such a big deal in our culture. Really, really good music connects in a way beyond “haha that’s funny” jokes or “huh, that’s interesting” writing.
Is it possible to write expressive non-fiction or an enduring computer program? It seems like the answer is yes, but the answers are outliers. Hofstader’s Godel, Escher, Bach and Knuth’s TeX come to mind. For every GEB or TeX, there are thousands of less interesting works.
Further, the qualities of an enduring, expressive, and yet functional work seem somewhat at odds with the pragmatics of the daily act of writing or programming. A lot more perfectionism, experimentation, and principle goes into these works than the typical news article or application.
And yet, for every “Good Vibrations”, there’s probably a thousand commercial jingles composed, elevator tunes licensed, ringtones purchased, and bar bands playing “Brickhouse” yet again. Perhaps music is just as prone to longevity as writing, film, or programming but has a far longer timeline on which its easier to see what really worked. In fifty years perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll start to learn what is really amazing in film and software.
I am a giant music nerd. I listen to a ton of music, I think about music a lot, and I often seek out new music via Twitter and Rdio. Besides a dislike for showtunes and reggae, I’m a pretty open-minded listener.
Yet, it is exceedingly rare that I seek out live music. When I do, I’m that concert goer who is only buying tickets for long-established acts. In the past several years, I’ve seen Paul McCartney, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lucinda Williams, Steely Dan, Ben Folds, and Ryan Adams. The youngest of these started their career twenty years ago.
What’s up with that? Well, I simply don’t like live music. I’ve got reasons.
Performances don’t start on time
Having performed in jazz bands, orchestras, stand-up showcases, and improv shows, I’ve come to accept as axiom that performances just don’t start on time. There’s lots of good reasons for this. Everyone wants to get as many people into the seats as possible to make the show better, to improve the audience experience, or simply to make an extra buck.
The reasons that performances at live music venues don’t start on time come down to selfishness. The performers didn’t arrive on time, the stage wasn’t not have been set up in time. Worse, these have a knock-on effect. Once a performance is behind, it only gets more behind. There’s no shortening the break between bands or reducing the time between doors opening and the first band playing.
This leads me to the most inane reason live music is not on time: selling beer. “Doors open at 8 PM” almost universally means that you can walk in at 8 PM, but you can count on not seeing any live music until 9 PM. The opening act for the opening act is the selling of booze. I’ve got better ways to spend my time than standing around for an hour staking out a spot just so the venue can sell beer.
Standing for a couple hours sucks
Whether it’s standing in line for a roller coaster or waiting through beer-time, an opening act, and the changing of the stage, standing around is the worst. Fatigue and boredom set in; you’re taken out of the experience of enjoying music played in front of a lot of people. Sore feet and knees do not an enjoyable listening experience make.
Thank you, venues with seats, and thank you, crowds that don’t feel the need to show their enthusiasm by standing upright. You make live music a much more civil, enjoyable experience.
Crowds of people are the worst
Suppose you get a good room, with good sound, and a great performer. You’ve still got to tend to the other people in the room. The drunk heckler, the people calling out songs, the tall person blocking your view. That’s all after you stood in line to get in, waited to go to the bathroom, or put out of mind the guy who lit up next to you.
Opening acts. They’re a necessary but inconsistent evil. Sometimes you’ll see a really good one. One of the best bands I saw at a Dallas radio station “festival” was on the third stage. One of the worst bands I ever saw was an opener that was sufficiently uncertain of their own skills that the majority of the between-song banter was insults at the audience and counter-heckling gone bad.
I salute events that eschew the opening act and cut straight to the main performer. Give the people what they want.
It’s too loud
I don’t know why, but live music is universally an assault on my ear drums. I’ve been at concerts where I could feel the music moving inside my pants. That seems a bit excessive to me.
Beyond the personal discomfort, there’s nothing about loudness that makes music better. If everything is loud, nothing is loud. Sustained loudness is boring.
Short bouts of loudness; that’s interesting. The juxtaposition of the opening arpeggios of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with the wall-of-sound that follows is really nice. The way “Thunder Road” or Bolero grow into something loud and great is what makes them interesting. The amazing loudness of the opening of Also Sprach Zarahustra contrasted with the nearly non-existent quietness of the second movement is genius.
Don’t turn it up because you can. Turn it up because you mean it.
Drums are a lie
Let’s talk about the actual music again. In particular, drums. Drums, my friend, are a lie. They do not sound like you think they do. What you hear on the radio and on albums are the results of trained sound engineers using microphone and equalizer tricks to make drums sound decent.
This is problematic for two reasons. First off, drums are really loud in the hands of an enthusiastic player. Often quite a bit louder than your typical amplifier. Thus, it’s guaranteed you’re going to hear a lot more drums than guitars, horns, strings, or vocals at a live music event. I take that back; I guarantee you that you will not be able to hear strings at any music club you ever go to, but I’ll come back to that.
The more problematic aspect of a drum kit is you’re going to hear raw drums when you go to a live music event. Very little microphone tricks or equalizer cleverness; the drums may not even be isolated. That means the snare is going to sound like a can of beans getting hit with a stick. The toms will sound like someone banging on an empty box. The cymbals are going to sound like a mad person beating on pots and pans.
If you’re anything like me, you’re not going to enjoy them drums.
It sounds terrible
Drums are not the only problematic instrument. In my experience, most live clubs have very poor sound. Even if it’s not too loud, the mix is wrong, you can’t hear the melody, you can’t hear the singing, or the overall sound is distorted.
Assuming that clubs don’t exist merely to move booze (not a big leap in reasoning, I know), I don’t understand how this is the situation. If you want to be a part of a music scene, a good sound system and someone who can operate it seems like par for the course.
I am happy to note that, if you’re lame like me and only go to see performers who have been around the block dozens of times, you’re going to have a much better listening experience. Less prominent musicians are starting to tour with just one accompanying performer and that person is not playing a drum kit. The A-list performers have really good drummers (Paul McCartney’s drummer is a blast to watch) and the sound engineers on the tour are excellent. This makes for a far more enjoyable, balanced sound.
There’s little mystery
This one is rather personal, though I’ve spoken with musicians who feel the same way. If you know how to make music, watching the performance of music can be boring. A song that you can listen to and quickly pick up the structure and details of isn’t all that exciting. Even if it is, you can see the musicians enjoying the performance of the song and just wish you were up there playing and not down here watching.
I do enjoy watching very talented performers do their thing. Someone who mixes music with a good stage show or interesting banter between songs is fun to watch. The Rolling Stones are interesting to watch because Mick Jagger is such a good showman, Charlie Watts seems so apathetic, and Keith Richards is, well, Keef. I’ve really enjoyed seeing Hayes Carll and Lyle Lovett because the stories they tell are great and their banter between songs is amusing.
Genres I don’t know how to make are also fascinating. Hip-hop is not a thing I really know how to make, so that’s fun. Jazz and classical can be fun because I know how they work but didn’t reach the level where I could really make it. My new rule is, whenever Rite of Spring is performed, I need to be there; it’s relatively short (about forty minutes), really awesome, and I’m certain I would not be able to perform it with an orchestra without ruining it for everyone else.
Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Perhaps my heuristics for trying to time a concert so I arrive as the opening act is finishing require tweaking. I should definitely remember to bring earplugs more often. It’s entirely possible I’m just a grumpy guy.
But: I’m not the guy who tells you about the hippest new musical thing. I’m probably not the guy who’s going to catch your favorite band. I’m the guy who goes to see Paul McCartney out of reverence and because my wife and I both like him. I’m the guy who listens to an album as a long-form idea. I’m the guy who wants to understand the history and creation of a thing. That’s just the nerd I am: I understand music over time, not over the course of an evening.
Ed. this originally ran in The Internet Todo List for Enthusiastic Readers. You should check that out. It was pointed out that I’m a bit of an old man. In spirit, this is absolutely true. Also worth noting: I’m going to see Paul McCartney again this week, so I must not entirely hate live music. Human inconsistencies, eh?
Petrushka chord. Two major chords played a half-tone apart. So, it sounds good, except it sounds grating. It’s a motif throughout Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka. Ergo, like everything Stravinsky, get in my ears! Listen to it and learn more about the chord from the awesome “Feynman of classical music” (I just made that up) Leonard Bernstein.
AC/DC writes songs that are fundamentally very strong. They aren’t the most touching, artistically composed songs. But they’re very solid songs. They hold together well, you can sing along, they don’t ramble on longer than they should.
How robust is AC/DC’s songwriting?
You can throw bagpipes into one of their songs and it still holds up just fine. That’s solid songwriting.
(Ed. Herein, I attempt to break down a current favorite of mine, “Otis” by Jay-Z and Kanye West, in terms familiar and interesting to nerds, specifically of the nerd and/or comedy persuasion.)
“Otis” is a song arranged and performed by two best pals, Jay-Z and Kanye West. It opens with a sample of Otis Redding (hence the title) singing “Try a little tenderness”. Opening with a sample like this tells us two things:
- Misters Z and West enjoy the music of Mr. Redding enough that they were compelled to include it in their own music.
- The gentlemen are also well connected and affluent, as not just everyone can afford to sample a legend like Redding in their music
A digression: sampling in hip-hop is one of its key characteristics and is of particular interest to nerds. It is a way that we can connect, through “nerding out” with the artist and find what it is that they respect and listen to. It is also a bit of a recursive structure; “Otis” samples Otis, Otis borrowed from gospel and blues, blues and gospel borrowed from traditional songs, etc. Finally, sampling is a recombinant form; in “Otis”, there is a verbatim sample in the opening bars, but the sample devolves to a looped-beat in the middle of the song and a mere sound-effect at the end of the song.
As Misters Z and West enter the song proper, the rappers trade verses about their affluence (“New watch alert, Hublot’s / Or the big face Rollie I got two of those”), the recursive (again, nerdy) deception they use to evade the papperazzi (“They ain’t see me ‘cuz I pulled up in my other Benz / Last week I was in my other other Benz”), a conflicting verse about how they would seek the paparazzi out (“Photo shoot fresh, looking like wealth / I’m ‘bout to call the paparazzi on myself”), more boasting of their affluence and skill (“Couture level flow, it’s never going on sale / Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses”), and such.
This song features a video, so we wouldn’t be properly doing a nerd dissection of it if we were to neglect that. It opens with our heroes approaching a Maybach sedan with a saw and a blow torch. Following a “car modification montage”, it appears the doors have been removed from the car and the front end of the car has been placed on the back, and vice versa. Another display of affluence, with perhaps a touch of hipster irony thrown in.
The video follows with various shots of our heroes rapping and driving the Maybach through an abandoned dock or airfield. Our heroes are in the front seat of the car and there are four models in the back seat, one seated precariously atop the one in the middle as our heroes make dangerous-looking manuvers in the car. At one point it appears they will lose a model through the door-less side of the car. At multiple points, it appears the boobs of the models might fight free of their loose fitting shirt. It should be noted that the appearance of a possible free boob could be considered quite progressive for a hip-hop music video.
The Maybach is, in my opinion, the most difficult to interpret signal the song and video send. Are we to understand that Misters Z and West are so affluent they can afford to put down six figures on the purchase and massively impractical modification of a high-end luxury car? Perhaps they had a spare one laying around and felt it would be a better use to destroy it than to leave it around. Or, perhaps this was a vehicle for a clever tax deduction?
Mr. West’s CPA: You’re going to owe a lot of tax on this purchase of your other-other Benz, ‘Ye.
Mr. West: What if I were to use it in a music video for the purposes of promoting my upcoming album?
Mr. West’s CPA: Well then you could depreciate it at 50% this year and 25% for the next two years, but you’re still going to owe a lot.
Mr. West: If I were to take it to a chop shop and have them put the ass-end of the car on the front and turn the doors into wings, could I depreciate it faster?
Mr. West’s CPA: throw some models in the back seat, and it *just might work*!
(Ed. as it turns out, the vehicle was to be auctioned and the proceeds donated to charity)
The other enigma of the video is the presence of comedian Aziz Ansari. Mr. Ansari has documented (Ed. hilariously) his friendship with Mr. West. Thus it is not shocking to see him appear in the video. He appears for only an instant, and his appearance marks the absence of the models in the rest of the video. Perhaps, we are to believe, Mr. Ansari is the pumpkin that the models turn into after some deadline has passed for Misters Z and West.
Despite, or perhaps because, of its mysteries, I find “Otis” is a fantastic piece of hip-hop production. The samples is well chosen and deconstructed, the verses are interesting (if mentally unchallenging), and the video is engaging to watch. I would easily rank it amongst the top songs of recent memory, were I one to make lists of top songs.
After software development, music is probably the thing I know the most about. My brain is full of history, trivia, and a modest bit of practical knowledge on how to read notation and make music come out. That said, I haven’t really practiced music in several years. I’ve been busy nerding out on other things, and I’ve grown a bit lazy. Too lazy to find people to play with, too lazy for scales, too lazy to even tune a stringed instrument. Very, very lazy.
Long story short, I’ve been wanting to get back into music lately, but I want to learn something new. Something entirely mysterious to me. Given my recent fascination with hip-hop, I’m eager to try my hand at making the beats that form the musical basis of the form.
There are a lot of priors to cover (tinkering with various sequencers, drum machines, and synthesizers; steeping myself in sample culture; listening to the actual music and understanding its history), but I just made a short, mediocre little beat and put it on the internet. Herein, I reflect on making that little musical thing:
- I’m sure that, if I get serious about this, I’ll need real software like Ableton or Logic. But for my tinkering, it turns out GarageBand is sufficient. The included software instruments aren’t amazing or even idiomatic samples (no TR808, no “Apache” break included), but with a little bit of tinkering, they produce results.
- Laying a drum track down that is little more than a fancy click track helps to get started. GarageBand has a handy feature where you can define the a number of bars as a loop and then record multiple takes, review them, and discard the takes you don’t want.
- What an app lacks in samples you can make up in effects. Throwing a heavy dose of echo and a ridiculous helping of reverb made an otherwise pedestrian drum track way more interesting.
- I didn’t go into this with anything in my head that I wanted to make real. For the drum track, I ended up with a pretty typical beat. A little quantization made it end up sound better and more interesting than it really is. This process, manual input with some computer-assisted tweaking, produced way better results than the iOS drum machines I’ve used in the past.
- Tapping out the bass-line took a little more time than the drums. I didn’t have anything “standard” in my head, so I doodled a bit. This is where the “takes” gizmo in GarageBand came in really handy. Record a bunch of things, decide which one is most interesting, clean it up a little, throw an effect or two on it to make it more interesting, on to the next track.
- In retrospect, lots of effects is maybe a crutch. I don’t have enough taste yet to tell.
- With the drums and bass down, it’s time to adorn the track with a melody or interesting hit for effect. I added one subtle thing, but couldn’t think of anything I liked that was worth making prominent. If I were actually trying to use this beat for something, I’d keep digging. But for my first or second beat, it’s not a big deal.
I wanted to jot down my thoughts because I’d like to write more about making and understanding music, but also because I keep meaning to write down what I find challenging and interesting as I start from a “beginner’s mind” in some craft or skill. And so I did.
You’re six hundred words into this thing now, so I’ll reward you, if we could call it a reward, with “An Beat”.