Thursday, August 01, 2013

Music Production Techniques That Apply to Real Life

  • Balance your levels.
  • You need a hook.
  • Timing is Everything.
  • Roll off all unnecessary frequencies.
  • Don't get stuck in a loop.
  • Remove noise between important moments.
  • If you crank up the volume there's no place to go.
  • If input rises above threshold, reduce level.
  • Regularly Boost, Sweep and Cut.
  • Cut the offending frequency and tighten up your Q. 
  • Mix with Multiple Speakers
  • Three properties essential to both sound waves and making waves: Amplitude, Frequency and Phase 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Audio Mark as a Storytelling Platform

Image by: Craig Cloutier
Music, as we know, comes in many forms. And one person's music is another person's noise.

Readers of this blog know I'm fascinated by microstructures; that is, those forms of noise and aural expression that may not represent complete 'works' as we think of the concept, but which nonetheless capably convey meaning.


For instance, where one single pitch might convey neither music nor meaning, two pitches in a sequence –if they are the right pitches– might serve to conclude a story, a song, or even an event, such as a religious service. The two pitches in question are, of course, IV and I, which we know as a 'descending cadence', and which together package enough signification in one descending step that whenever they are deployed, everyone within earshot receives the exact same message: This is where the story ends.


As it happens, it is the identification and contextualization of such nano sized musical expressions that provide the underlying conceptual framework whenever we are commissioned with the construction of an AUDIO MARK (and whether we are conscious of this activity or not).

For this reason, I do not always think of an Audio Mark as a micro musical work itself, but instead as a communication asset composed of sonic elements, especially in regards to non melodic marks. Such composition is often closer to sound design, in my mind, being born of qualitative research, analysis and a methodical construction process rather than simply inspired composition.

The outcome of inspired composition is not always immediately apparent, nor the activity always directed. When making music we may simply want to entertain; and the music may have no reason for being at all, except that we conceived it, either as formalized composition or improvisation. In contrast to this common artistic process, the construction or design of an Audio Mark is always crafted with purpose, and often to a client's detailed specifications. Thus, if the outcome of traditional composition can be said to be our moods set to music, marks represent the attempt to package data into non verbal sound. In other words, we are asking ourselves how sound may be used for signification.

This process is not limited to commercial branding; it has long been used in the creation of scores whose themes and other elements might serve to indicate an actor, an animal, the weather, or something else.

But when our task is branding, then much like a Morse code pattern, our intention not so much to create an entertaining rhythm but to package data in a way that a given audience can and will actually decode the resultant sonic expression And if the message is not so distinct as to be unintelligible, and coded with cultural conventions in mind, then there actually stands a very good chance that it will be received and understood.


While music fundamentally suggests mood, I believe that brands –if they are to live in the world as semi or crowd conscious entities– shouldn't be defined or limited by the results of a mood board alone. What kind of actual person only possesses a single mood? Psychopaths and sociopaths. Certainly,  some management teams might be accused as lacking empathy, but when crafting identity assets for a client, one should create assets that might be made to respond in the same manner as healthy human attributes. To put it another way, our moods ebb and our reputation might change, but our identity is generally regarded as stable.

Identity assets should therefore be responsive, and crafted in a way that allows for scale and variation. Easier done in print with size and color; and easy still, if our mark is melodic in nature, but somewhat more difficult if the mark has been produced as an immutable sonic construction, for instance, when designed as a parallel experience and synchronized to a specific moving image. Nevertheless, if we want a mark to carry, then it must possess the capacity to scale infinitely, or at least within a set of parameters that we identify as true to that specific identity.

This is not to suggest that every mark be designed as a musical motif, though the two concepts in their most popular forms share similar characteristics.

But something very different happens when we hear a mark than when we listen to a motif. A strong mark will be perceived as a whole entity and independent of any other asset within the same single framed context.  Motives, on the other hand, while they may express variation, are perceived as dependent on other assets within the same single framework.

Motives, on the other hand, are deployed in such a way as to produce continued delight and interest with every variation. Indeed, we might even define traditional music not as organized sound, as is the convention, but as any construct that employs reiteration and also, the thematic variation of a pattern. Given this definition, the thing might not even be aural, which is why we can look at the sky or the ocean, or  even traffic, and describe it as a musical experience.

Music is essentially patterns at play.

And it's also why we may not always frame an Audio Mark as a musical work. It does use elemental musical sounds in its construction, but it is of singular design and voices so quickly any inherent patterning is either lost or non existent. Repeat it again and again without variation, and while the result will likely demand our attention, it may equally be perceived as annoying if the alerting sound does not signify incoming important information, hence our response to Ringtones.

We can very easily design interesting or pleasing ringtones, but our perception of any ringtone will nevertheless be shaped by the user and those nearby.  We might even forgo the repeating tone, riff or sample and actually trigger a complete work with each incoming call, but it even high fidelity rendition of recording of 'Ode to Joy' by the Berlin Philarmonic might strike another commuter as irritating if the phone's owner continued to receive multiple calls between Dover and Brick Church.

And it may be that the Alert construction is the most effective construct for a Ringtone simply because it frames the subsquent experience as one of information processing.


Melodic audio marks also share some similar characteristics to another form of sonic identity asset, being THE BROADCAST STING. Both Audio Mark and Broadcast Sting serve as a form of conceptual punctuation that sends a single message –again, like Morse code. But unlike Morse code, we do not want to hear either a sting or a mark repeat within a single context. Or if it does repeat, the inherent message of both the sting and mark become diminished by the sense of urgency conveyed by the repetitive aural experience. Alternately, if this is the desired effect, then the message is simply reduced to 'URGENT'.
Of course, all four forms of micro musical expression discussed here –The Audio Mark, the Descending Cadence, The Ringtone and The Broadcast Sting– are designed to work like zipped semiotics, which once open, a given marketer's message will be decoded and delivered.

I've participated in the production of several network package music and sound design projects: CNN, ESPN, HBO Zone, MTV, PBS and VH1, to name a few.

Interestingly, The Broadcast Sting is the only expression of the four that is not constructed as an independent statement. Ending on an anticipatory high note, the Sting, while designed to brand a television station, network or cable channel, is also designed as an open ended inconclusive element, which if we compare to sentence structure,

suggests interruption. The Sting thus requires a listener/viewer to wait until later (typically, 'after these messages') before being 'rewarded' with aural or musical closure (finishing the sentence). Indeed, the Sting does not so much announce who he is, as he compel us to wait another moment before closing with a big reveal.

Whatever construction is appropriate to the task, the message is clear: even micro musical structures can be employed in the support of storytelling; and a skilled sonic artisan can capably convey a lot of non verbal information in mere seconds, and sometimes in even just one second.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Sound of the Year: 2012 – PUSSY RIOT

On February 21, 2012, five modestly clad Russian women entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia.  And once inside they cast off their black outer wear to reveal brightly colored skirts and tights beneath. Then they pulled equally colorful homemade ski masks over their faces and stormed the front of the church whereby they launched into 'Mother of God, Drive Putin Out', a song that has also been called a 'punk prayer'.

The quartet, composed of several members of the arts activist collective, PUSSY RIOT, staged this bit of disruptive theater as a form of political protest. And in their punk prayer they loudly appealed to the Virgin Mary to chase the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, out of power, along with the oppressive patriarchal political system that they've said Putin represents.

That none of the performers actually played a musical instrument suggests that it was probably not the actual song itself that captured the world’s imagination, but rather how the Russian authorities reacted to this performance that rushed others to their support and pushed the band into the public eye.

First, when news of the group's arrest and a video of the performance was posted online, it created a divide between those who were morally offended by their actions and those who were outraged by their incarceration. While the former argued the the ‘girls’ perhaps needed a bit of manners knocked into them, the latter found inspiration in four strong freedom fighters whose swift silence by the Russian state made their situation a cause célèbre.

That the members of Pussy Riot also looked equal part Teletubby as they did Terrorist gave fashionistas as much a reason to talk about the women's creativity as their politics stirred journalists and Human Rights groups to action. Add to this milieu the ongoing social unrest in the Mideast framed as an ‘Arab Spring’, and the Occupy protests in America, and the members of Pussy Riot seemed to provide yet another potent and creative symbol of ongoing global change.

Which is why, if "We Are All Pussy Riot" as the band's slogan suggests, it's not because of any universal appeal attributable to their music. It's because they came onto the global scene like costumed superheroes and arrived into a world whose economies and power structures seem universally in need of severe disruption. Perfectly suited for the role, icons they became.

As a result, not since the Beatles has one band earned the interest of so many so quickly. And the last band to irritate a state to such a degree were the members of the The Plastic People of the Universe who in the seventies suffered arrests, convictions and even deportation at the hands of the communist Czechoslovakian government. But in a pre-Internet age, that band’s efforts was largely muted to the west by an insularizing Iron Curtain. –Even if inside the country these injustices would inspire Václav Havel and other Czech intellectuals to further resist and change the system.

Certainly, many artists work under despotic conditions, but unfortunately most lack the perfect combination of creative strategies, social networks and political motivations to achieve global recognition for themselves or their cause. Thus, they continue to struggle in near or complete anonymity.

What makes Pussy Riot different, on the other hand, is that whether through politics or poetics, the group seems to offer something that everyone can relate to on a personal level.

And that's why Pussy Riot inspires and fascinates; all of us can identify some aspect of their art or purpose to relate or react to, whether we admire their tactics as performers or debate their efficacy as change agents.

And that’s why Pussy Riot strikes some as the only band that matters today.

And that's why Pussy Riot, with their riotous, rebellious punk prayer, 'Mother of God, Drive Putin Out', is the 2012 Critical Noise Sound of the Year.

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The Critical Noise Sound of the Year goes to that sound source, event, happening or concept which so effectively delivers a message, whether intentional or not, that it inspires discussion, incites action, lends itself to cultural analysis and otherwise resonates across the globe.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Branded @ Birth™

Regardless of one's cultural background, primary language or education, some people believe babies call their mother ‘MA’ (or some version thereof) not because they’re taught do so, but because they’re programmed to do so.

This theory stipulates that just as humans are born with certain physical body parts, we're also born with a bit of a pre-birth cognitive fodder called ‘Archetypes’.

In Jungian psychology an archetype is described as “a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.” (

There are many fascinating aspects about this, if it is true, not the least of which is the implication that we are all Branded @ Birth, and then start from the very beginning of our lives branding every single thing around us (as products of our reality, our culture, even our imagination).

If this is indeed the case, then archetypes presuppose culture and are neurobiological in origin. We might then say that archetypes exist within the black box of consciousness as pre-programmed urges to express certain behaviors. These primal urges first take form as intuitive actions that are then instagrammed as  symbols intended to represent the action or capture the meaning of these urges.  That is, rendering symbols is the manner by which one documents an impression, applies a cognitive filter to it, and then shares it with others.

If every urge represents a fundamental need or desire, then every symbol is essentially a command. And these commands once produced and distributed/transmitted/communicated –put into action as it were– exhibit memetic potential.

Perhaps this potential is even the result of archetypal recognition by those receiving the transmission. But the additional result of this eternal loop is a complicated matrix of understandings and conventions we call culture. And one might also say that the reverse engineering of all this resulting symbolic data is what we now call semiotics. This could all be academic, or it could be navel gazing, but I still find it all very fascinating to consider; the mind reels.

What is the zeitgeist anyway?

We might think of zeitgeist as a series of trends, but by my calculus it's semiotics in motion; an archetypal tsunami; symbolic data moving culture the same way a strong current moves a floating object. –But equally influenced by an undercurrent of ideas and prior actions that collectively effect the NOW as they move beneath the visible surface of society, and in this way capably move highly ingrained and even resistant convictions great distances over many years, even decades, centuries and millennia.

Of course, if we define archetypes simply as pre-birth patterning, then animals are also endowed with them, and we can suppose that any instinctual activity has at its source archetypal data. It may not be enough to ask if the dog's bark is worse than his bite, but also inquire what does either bark or bite mean?

In any event, the notion of archetype supposes we arrive into the world if with not a song, then with an elemental sound already formed in our heads (or the urge to produce a sound), and that is the sound of our mother’s name –at least the name by which we will call her. Again we are branded at birth, imprinted by a distinguishing mark that identifies us as no less than a product of our Mother.

By the way, some people also believe we do actually arrive into the world with a song in our heads. It's called 'The Ur-song' and you can hear what it sounds like by playing the following video (the melody here is played straight; it is also often heard with a swing):

Incidentally, because the vocalized ‘ma’ signification precedes graphic representation, I like to think of it less as an archetype than as an ‘Archetone’.

I also think it might be true that ‘ma’ doesn't bear any archetypal or pre-natal psychological origin, but that it ehibits universal usage simply because nursing mothers interpret ‘SMA’ –the sound of lips un-puckering from a kiss or breast– as an attempt to communicate. (And by extension, ‘DA’, the sound of one opening one’s mouth when one’s tongue has been stuck to the roof of it).

Once believing their baby has begun speaking, parents might then reward a child with further affection. And by this action they thereby reinforce a lip-smack as as an appropriate designation for a god like being by an utterly helpless moppet.

It’s not quite as romantic an etymology as being in possession of an ancient archetype, but who’s to say it’s wrong?

Whatever the mechanics, 'ma’ becomes a meme, and eventually ma becomes mama becomes mom becomes mother, and this is how mommy goes viral.

If you have any interest in memetics (the study of cultural transmission), one can’t help but ask if ‘Ma’ is the smallest unit of cultural transmission exhibited in early childhood development?

–Or is there something smaller than 'ma' to be found; something that lies between archetypal urge and symbolic utterance? I believe that there is, and that thing is the actual sound of the baby’s natural and not-quite-yet semantic cry.

Although, I’m not really sure that such a cry can't be designated as non memetic because I've heard one baby set off a dozen other babies, as if they were all part of a single coddled swarm.

The fact is, any human behavior can trigger an action which once repeated becomes a pattern, and then, at that point –at the point of Pattern Manifestation– it finally assumes the potential to be transmitted along a memetic distribution system.

Or rather, it exhibits the power to trigger replication from one host to another: you, me and mommy, too.

It’s as if the archetype once given voice as an archetone, the entire process resembles nothing so much as a musical Ouroboros –the mythical image of a serpent eating its own tale, and thus forming an eternal circle.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Pussy Riot and the Emerging Power of Women

Interestingly, Pussy Riot’s punk prayer continues to agitate and inspire. It also lends itself to the reflection and analysis of other cultures and societies well beyond the Russian Federation. That is, Pussy Riot is a lens with which we can use to examine any tier of any society. We can ask ourselves, where ever we live in the world: 'What does Pussy Riot say about Thailand?' or 'What does Pussy Riot say about America?, for instance. Which is why, when we do tilt that lens to the west, one can't help but notice that forty years after punk rock's inception:

• It’s 'girls' who demonstrate that the spirit of rock is not dead, though it may very well appear to be at times in places like London or New York, or anywhere, actually, where music is only made to be licensed for a commercial or otherwise lives to serve as a soundtrack for a a spin upon a treadmill or around a shopping mall.

•  It’s 'girls' who emerge as freedom fighters and who set the unequivocal standard for arts activism.

• And it’s 'girls', again, who managed to rattle the Kremlin; and it's 'girls' who now suffer harsh legal consequences while one can simultaneously imagine a billion men that simply prefer to watch the whole thing play out on their smartphones and digital tablets.

In other words, how or whether Pussy Riot's punk prayer changes anything in Russia is perhaps not even the correct question. For many people, the more relevant question is: 'How has Pussy Riot changed me?'

And also, Pussy Riot’s rail against patriarchy no doubt will survive as a sign of the times, and not just as a bit of music history but as a symbol of the emerging power of women in the 21st Century. For, indeed, women can be seen to be taking an increasing lead in ideas, inspiration, cultural advancement and political influence, and they are doing so all over the world, and at all levels of society.

Besides Pussy Riot, other notable examples of this shift can be exemplified by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!; Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton; Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani educational activist, who survived an attempt on her life by the Taliban; Italian particle physicist, Fabiola Gianotti, who is said to lead the largest scientific experiment in the world at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland; and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia who is oft quoted for telling a group of Harvard students, "If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."

Certainly, the women of Pussy Riot have also made a similar achievement in the area of Arts Activism and Culture.

But maybe you think Pussy Riot’s punk prayer is just Riot grrrl styled punk rock or maybe you think it sounds like Beastie Boy styled rap; or maybe you think that it’s not music at all – just a bunch of yelling and angry noise. It all depends on where you stand aesthetically and philosophically. But while it might sound like the sound of something dying to you, it's also the sound of something being born; and that something is the future itself.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Extra Musical Expression

Medieval Musicians
If we accept the notion that a melodic hook or motif and musical meme are synonymous with one another, we must also accept that a meme is not simply a unit of cultural transmission, as Richard Dawkins initially posited when he coined the word, but the smallest possible unit of cultural transmission, as others have since suggested. And once we do this we will also realize, like physicists parsing the atom, that still smaller units of symbolic data play upon the ear drum with each resonant beat or note.


Certainly, both musicians and audiences know that a successful musical performance requires more than simply the dry execution of composed notes from a page or memory. That whether one puts it in these terms or not, it also requires the deliberate production of interstitial noise by the performer, not to mention other substrates of sonic data, which we might call Nuance or Quantum Audio, and whose production allows for a more efficient transmission of a given meme.

For instance, the play of bow placement relative to an instrument's bridge; the weight and pressure employed by the performer's arm on the bow; and add to this, a  sufficient use of rosin, and  all these variables and more can be used by a violinist to shape the ratio of generally noisy artifacts caused by the friction of the bow upon the string, and the tone produced by the vibrating string itself.

Similarly, singers and those who play brass, reed and woodwinds can also shape tone simply by changing the balance of air to pitched sound.

In either case, while the meme is capably notated, the scale of these synchronous and sometimes very nearly transparent expressions often inhibits our notation of them. This may not be true for all forms of notation, but it is generally true for traditional scoring, which despite the capacity to indicate general dynamics, is primarily a shorthand for transcribing pitches than it is a system for communicating extra musical expression, –not to mention non musical collateral.

Nor does a term such as nuance, which implies a set of actions singularly controlled by the performer, capture every facet within the 'performance framework' that might serve to fulfill and satisfy listener expectation. Architecture, for instance, is generally beyond a performer's control, but no doubt the resulting acoustics of a given environment contribute to the perception and reception of a work.


Take for example, the liturgical chant. Based on prior experience of liturgical chants, any subsequent liturgical chant requires delivery within a cavernous space, if one's intention is to deliver an equivalent experience as that provided by the genre in question. Otherwise such a work may fail or fall short as a carrier of the intended set of symbolic data.

It is certainly possible to make a recording sans extra musical sound, interstitial noise and sub memetic data. And in fact, this actually appears to be the prevalent trend. Indeed, noiseless recording has long been and continues to be a measure of perfection for many musicians, engineers and audio enthusiasts. And presumably, there will always be those who believe the very definition of a recording suggests any captured material should serve as the optimal document of a given work. Further, the concept of 'optimal' will suggest a precise performance (whether man made or machine modified) that features purity of tone, accuracy of pitch, consistent timing and intelligible signification.

And yet, no doubt, it is also just the opposite of all those things, employed with great artistry and captured on the recording medium by a discerning engineer, that makes the transmission of music more than just the sum of its notes, but an expression of the soul.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Sign of the Times: The Semantic Terrorist

Naturally, one is apt to make comparisons with other controversial performers. Neither Madonna nor Sinead O'Connor, for instance, are strangers to provocation. However, they were already global superstars when their offending actions threatened to derail their careers.  Whereas Pussy Riot's illegal in-church protest is actually the thing that transformed the theretofore little known arts collective into a worldwide punk rock phenomenon.

Similarly, the Sex Pistols railed against 'the Queen and her fascist regime,' as well as their record label, EMI, but the motivation behind those efforts is debatable given the band’s parallel efforts to sell records and gain celebrity.

Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and many others, too, pen songs of protest, but like the Sex Pistols, their tunes are as much sentiments of social consciousness as they are product.

Interestingly, it may also be that not since Kabuki styled, fire breathing, glam band Kiss launched their act in the mid seventies, that any single rock group has achieved such wide interest largely based on signification codes, i.e. Pussy Riot's 'look' is as much vehicle for  their ideas as the lyric to their punk prayer. As a result, the band's semiotic strategy actually makes the music irrelevant to one's appreciation of the group. As it should be: for commercial groups all activities are meant to create a funnel towards product; but in the case of Pussy Riot, the music is a  conduit for regime change.

In this regard, the women of Pussy Riot appear to be first to concept with a new breed of 21st Century performer and change agent: The Semantic Terrorist; that is, an agitprop art bomber with the marketing acumen of a brand strategist but who doesn't give a sh*t about selling you anything.  

Indeed, it's likely that we'll see and hear from other Semantic Terrorists as others rise and join in the chorus of the Great Connected Global Disruption that defines our era.

But what exactly do we find so captivating about the Semantic Terrorist? And Pussy Riot in particular?

In a world where advertisers are increasingly replacing record labels as ministers of culture; when economies are crumbling under the weight of outdated precepts; when politicians think it more expedient to silence the voices of the weak, and protect the interests of the powerful;  the women of Pussy Riot serve to remind us that free of corporate sponsorship, blind nationalism or overfatigued groupthink, a dissident artist can get on with the business of attempting to topple a government, jail time and trendy miniskirts, not withstanding.

In a way, it's absolutely refreshing.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

What Machines Teach Us About Music

Photo Credit: R.Bart
Fundamentally, all musical instruments are machines, whether they are composed of nineteenth century spruce, horsehair and animal gut, or plastic parts and circuit boards.

The piano is an early computer with a digital keyboard interface. The violinist is a cyborg wielding a controller in one hand and symbiotic touch screen in the other. Both devices are designed to translate a series of logical operations into sound, stir the senses and move the soul.

So, from the very beginning we can observe that machines have been integral to man’s relationship with music. And yet, while musical instruments have long been used as tools of mimicry as much as melody, some along the way have considered the collective sonic palette of even the symphony orchestra to be inadequate.

In fact, in 1913, Italian Futurist and Noise visionary, Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) laments he is weary of ‘Eroica’, and traditional instrumentation and tonality in all its varieties. Much more, he realizes, is he excited by the sounds generated by the burgeoning Industrial Age, and where others only hear noise, he hears sonic opportunities.

Indeed, he believes “that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure.” And to this end, Russolo dreamed up a new music paradigm he calls ‘The Art of Noises’.


It took the introduction of the Tape Recorder over a quarter of a century later before his vision will reach its full fruition. But once it does, and though it becomes very popular, his philosophy does not so much serve to eradicate traditional musical practices, as much as it does to refresh them with what many young people agree is a new improved modern flavor. Much later, with the introduction of the synthesizer, the sampler and eventually the personal computer, the deft manipulation of subjugated noise and sublime patterning reaches its apex of global popular appeal in the form of hiphop.

However, if we return to the very first 1948 radio broadcast of a ‘concert of noises’, produced by Pierre Schaeffer for Radiodiffusion Française, we can hear that it includes an ensemble of locomotives, which by even Russolo’s time was already as old a sound as that of the modern symphony orchestra. To the contemporary ear this recording resembles a film score sans moving image. The common perception is that this is all the work of its human designer, but I rather like to think it is a duet, between one machine and another, the recording device and the railroad. And spliced between the two, as it happens, is the seminal sound of all things to come.

Today, recording technology functions in at least three capacities: 1) As a sound source, 2) As an efficient production tool, and 3) As a teaching aid. But not withstanding its profound influence in our studios and on our stages, I wonder if there have been any other machines, apart from electronic versions of traditional instruments, which have been as influential on the compositional process as either the railroad or telegraphy.

Both rattled to life well before Russolo published his Art of Noises, and each produced such a potent rhythm that the two together might very well have given birth to modernism in music. What would rock’n’ roll be without the rail? Calypso with out the empty steel oil drum? Or media minimalism without Morse Code?

It may sound odd to say so, but if we are to speak of famous composers, then the locomotive and its inventors, and Samuel F. B. Morse are as important as both Beethoven and the blues.


As it happens, I’m reminded of this possibility on a daily basis, during my own commute upon New York City’s subway. This circumstance affords me much opportunity to imagine my own musical constructions over a consistent rhythm. And I do this so often that I now think of the thing that I am riding on as not so much a method of vehicular transport as a metronome on a grand scale that keeps time even as it moves through space.

If this methodology sounds curious to the non-musician, what I’m doing is not so different as when a DJ builds a musical experience atop a loop. In other words, we are both using a beat making machine as a compositional tool.

This begs the question: Is music merely organized sound as the composer, Edgard Varèse, has described it? Or is music only that which is qualitatively emotional, as technologist and concert pianist Manfred Clynes posits?


Notwithstanding the human construct that birds sing rather than speak, and if we accept that music is peculiar to humanity, then Varèse’s definition is too broad, for it permits the inclusion of natural phenomena, which might be perceived as organized in the ear of the beholder.

Conversely, if we accept the notion that organized sound must be qualitatively emotional to qualify as music, then Clynes’ definition is too limiting, because it not only denies us the use of an otherwise emotionally neutral railroad, put potentially dismisses the possibility of any Machine Signification in Music.

But no doubt an interesting thing happens once we begin to contextualize the sound of a train as a musical sound source, and that is that despite its neutral position, this sound (and any sound) appears to fit into an organization, and then also, begins to resonate with meaning, that is, depending on the context, the ghost in the machine, if there is one, literally seems to speak to us. It is a cognitive phenomenon which takes place not so much because a composer intends it, but because we the listener project meaning when we (automatically) frame sound with prior experience.

In other words, it’s all noise until you decide otherwise. Indeed, even Top Ten Radio is noise until you actually hear a song you like.

Marshall McLuhan famously said (among other things), "Art is anything you can get away with." But to answer the question, ‘What is Music?’ we might first look to what machines have taught us about music. And the answer to that question is that all sound is born of noise until the moment that we frame it as a tool for (or source of) communication. And only then is it transformed into art.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Machines, music, meaning

From rail rhythms in rock, to drill bits in glitch hop and dub step, the use of machines to make music is not a new idea, although their influence may not always be apparent to our ears. 

In one very clear link, music refers to the sound-making device itself, as when Tchaikovsky employed cannon fire in his 1812 Overture. Certainly, cannon fire can be said to be dramatic, and because of its powerful effect, it signifies a warning to potential invaders, as much as it should also produce feelings of patriotism in a loyal nationalist, as was the composer’s intent.

Tchaikovsky also chose to use an actual cannon for the sound of the cannon’s roar, rather than engage traditional instruments to mimic explosive blasts. That is to say, as with words or images, sometimes the power of abstracted sounds lies with their direct or common associations. Likewise, sometimes a sign only points in one direction.

However, also like language and imagery, and depending on context, abstracted sounds lend themselves to a variety of uses, which resonate well beyond literal interpretation... (more)

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Clicking on the 'more' link will take you to my  essay on machines, music and meaning, first published March 13, 2012, by the ever brilliant semiotics site, Semionaut.

Machines, music, meaning : From orchestral cannonfire to the Countdown clock

Semionaut is an online magazine & knowledge resource offering insight into culture, media, creative industries, and brand strategy. Its publishers, editors, and contributors are professionally involved in the application of semiotic and cultural analysis to brand communication and design issues.

A Rube Goldberg Machine of Vast Scale

Is it just me or has any one else noticed that we seem to have rather oddly arrived at moment in our information dense and digitally democratic western culture that we are collectively more interested in decoding our selves than coding ourselves, than we ever have been. Does this sort of thing happen with ever major change in information distribution channels?

Either way, we see how some things which are designed may not be received as their designer/s intended. Some things are simply created for the pleasure of the designer, or for the amusement of audiences. And some things which are not designed appear as though they are. And you and I looking at the same thing might not see the same thing at all, or agree to its meaning, even if we did.


Cultural movements throughout history, and all the way up to the 20th Century, were usually driven by artists and their patrons. But we now live in the age of the mash up, and this form of expression is a curatorial art form. Nobody really wants to be an artist anymore; more often than not, most people are finding great satisfaction mining, deconstructing and re-contextualizing prior art into comparative expressions. One might argue that this is the basis of all genre, but convention has never before been mistaken with wholesale sampling on such a wide scale.

This begs another question: Can natural objects formed by purely physical processes of natural phenomena ever be considered art? It's easy to think so when we use an Amethyst Geode for a centerpiece. But I think 'Art' is a human construct, and therefore such things as rocks and natural tree formations are not in an of themselves art, until they are framed as such.

That is, natural objects only become art once we frame them within a construct. So, the tree which no one hears when it falls in the forest is neither heard nor is it art, but its recorded sound is, and certainly, if we take that tree and preserve it in a specific identifiable space, as we might do in designing a landscape, it is.


I also sometimes think of ART as that which is created for the pleasure of the designer, and which by happenstance may win a larger audience. And I sometimes think of ENTERTAINMENT as that which is created for the pleasure of an audience, and which by happenstance might eventually inure pride from its creator.

So, some observe the world, for instance, and see intentional design; others observe and see it as the product of random choices. But whether we are living on a planet with purpose or a Rube Goldberg machine of vast scale, 'the world' and the objects in it convey only that meaning which is read into it, and that which is read into is always the result of a common cultural agreement, whether by pilgrims or physicists, each party agreeing to a different set of commonly accepted conventions.

Which is to say, the mind attempts to make sense out of things, even when there is no connection. And it is this capacity that insures when no connection exists, we will always make one.

And since their are billions of us, each with his or her own opinion, a variety of meanings will necessarily overlap, and the parties to those meanings will occasionally rise to conflict in order to defend an idea or an ideal.

This might create a bitter divide between Evolutionists and Evangelicals, but as it happens, it also makes for inspired Art.