Sunday, June 01, 2014


Photo Credit: AK Rockefeller
As much as it may be that Music is no longer the catalyst for social change that it once was, it is still a powerful medium for political communication.

Consider Pussy Riot, for instance:

Has there been a single musical performer in the last decade that exploded into our collective conscious with as much political punch as this candy colored group of Guerrilla Girls?

Or another band that made one ask if its members were musicians or semantic terrorists?

Whatever one might think of the group's music, or even if one questions if the noise its members make is music, I have no doubt that some future young man or woman will stumble upon one of the band's online videos, and find themselves quite intrigued.

What happens next? Well, it's not out of the question to think that someone along the way will find themselves so inspired that they then don a pink balaclava and go try to take down a dictator with a drum stick and an electric guitar. After all, the band may not have dismantled a government, but they did somehow manage to shake up the world, not to mention demonstrate to young people who didn't live through the sixties that music can be weaponized.

Addressing the Russian court, the band’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova described the group's work in this manner:

"Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties."

Clearly, Pussy Riot is not just a band but a manifesto, and I think that if one were to reduce its tenants to tactics, and then describe them as a repeatable formula, it would read something like this: 


* Advance a socially disruptive message.
* Wrap in compelling imagery.
* And then go ignite the damn thing with music

Handle with care though, because you just might start a revolution.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Music as an Ecosytem Service

Future Music Festival 2013 (Courtesy Eva Rinaldi)
Last year, I took a class on Microeconomics Principles, taught by José J. Vázquez-Cognet of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While those who studied economics in college would find this information pretty basic, my professional skill set is grounded in project management within the context of commercial media and the creative arts.

So, the effect of this new found knowledge on me is akin to illumination, enlightenment or taking a powerful hallucinogen. As a result, I now see the world through –if not quite rose colored glasses– a completely different lens.

One symptom of this effect is that I now attempt to understand how everything in our world is valued. And since I’m a music producer, I naturally ask myself by what measure music should be valued, if it can no longer be valued by the traditional means employed in the 20th Century.

It recently struck me that music, like water, is arguably the product the of an ecosystem, another complex but demonstrable asset that economists have trouble pinning value to with any accuracy.

“An ecosystem is a community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system." (Wikipedia)

So how then is the one like the other?

Music and Ecosystems both:
  • Provide services that are public goods;
  • Are affected by externalities;
  • Possess property rights that are often not clearly defined.  

Additionally, “Ecosystem services are often public goods, with the beneficial outcomes, for the natural environment or people, that result from ecosystem functions. Some examples of ecosystem services are support of the food chain, harvesting of animals or plants, and the provision of clean water or scenic views.”*

The problem with both music and public goods is also that, “although people value them, no one person has an incentive to pay to maintain the good.  Thus, collective action is required in order to produce the most beneficial quantity.”*

Despite the complexity assigning value, however, value can nevertheless be determined and costs imposed, " various ways, on those who are responsible for consumption of those services...  Economists measure the value of ecosystem services to people by estimating the amount people are willing to pay to preserve or enhance the services.”*

So, instead of asking what the market will bear, perhaps, like ecosystems, it may not be necessary for music to be bought and sold in markets in order to measure its value in dollars, but rather we might assign costs to society based on a fair valuation of the services to society.

What the formula for that is, however, I leave to others to consider.


*Source: Ecosystem Valuation

Monday, March 03, 2014

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the Hard Drive)

A few decades ago, it was a common childhood aspiration to grow up to be a platinum selling rock star who practiced neurosurgery (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension); but in this day in age, it seems more young people would rather flip that model and be a neuroscientist with 93 million downloads.

Music has not been a catalyst for social change since the sixties or lifestyle choices since the collapse of grunge. In the meatime the ascent of Internet distribution has reduced the costs of production, distribution and access, so of course it has less value than it did thirty years ago.

We don't want or need a songwriter with a rap or protest song to start a revolution with, we have Twitter for that now.

Most of the time, we just want something we can listen to in our ear buds at the gym, or at work, or while in Starbucks drinking a No Foam Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte.

We no longer perceive songwriters as shamans or mediums capable of summoning a song that can transform a society, and those who continue to adopt that role feel oddly out of sync with contemporary culture. Nor is the song the thing now; it is now more likely simply the soundtrack for the thing; and if it doesn't suit us, we'll switch it out for one of the other billion economically worthless if still emotionally charged tunes in our pocket.

If you accept that premise, then the disruption we’ve experienced in recent years doesn't necessarily or only originate from the competition between a pay model vs a free model, but rather perhaps from the incumbents resistance to the notion that music, like water, has been re-assigned from its old position of valuable resource to a new position of complimentary service.

Just like water.

Consider at one time in the ancient world freshwater was difficult to come by, and therefore its value was commensurate with its scarcity. Then along come the plumbers, they lay down the pipes and suddenly everyone has access to water. Naturally, the cost of freshwater declines exponentially, and now, go to any restaurant in the world, sit down for a meal, and your waiter will bring a nice, tall, ice cold glass of freshwater for 'free'.

Well, the Internet is such a pipe.

There's money in the pipes, to be sure, if not the content.

That is to say, music like water is nice on the side, even necessary for life, but should by no means be mistaken for the main meal.

This is not to say that the creators of music shouldn’t be compensated; after all, even complimentary water isn’t free. It’s free to you, the customer at a restaurant, but someone pays for its collection and processing somewhere along the line. It may also be cheap, but plumbers are still expensive.

Ironic, though, at the exact same moment in history when the world is parched for content,  artists are asked to run the tap and give it away for nothing.

Perhaps we should ask not whether music has value; of course it does. Music possesses immeasurable social value, and as such, contributes to much human happiness.

But so does sex, and that's also 'free'.

Either way, we might re-consider both how we pay for music and how much we pay for music. It may be that we no longer buy it directly, but that it is provided, like water,  as a compliment to another purchase for another  item, service or device that provides access to music; this band courtesy of that brand or benefactor, and would you like fries with that?

In the past the LP, the cassette and then the compact disc served as containers for music, and few mourned the passing of cardboard and plastic once they got used to carrying a thousand tunes in their pocket.

The mixtapes of my own childhood represented not simply a playlist, but a painstakingly conceived piece of personal multimedia. Maybe portable screens and drives –or whatever sub dermal embedded doodad they think up in the future– will render all such packaging obsolete, and where we once relied on packaging to provide context, digital wireless media floating in the ether or implanted in our bones will suffice.

Of course, it's already happened, but there are still some people of all ages that push back, deny, ignore or otherwise resist the tectonic technological shift that all but shakes the ground beneath our feet (–he said dropping a piece of vinyl on the deck).

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Problem with Post

Beautiful But Deadly

Great creative, a shelf of awards, a stream of clients – Gee, what could possibly be wrong with this picture?

The fact is that when you're riding a rocket fueled by creative success or innovation, it's easy to miss, ignore or deny mistakes until the whole thing blows up under your ass. That said, if you are an award winning whatever, then you’re probably pretty darn good at some core skill set. In the post production community that might mean you're a composer, a sound designer, a VFX artist, a film editor, you do color correct, etc.

But if the positive return of your creative output has also resulted in you now having to wear a company owner hat, operate a business, or if you simply find yourself in the new and possibly awkward position of having to manage staff, well, then: how do you know if you’re actually doing that job well (managing staff/operating a company/being a leader), or at least as well as cutting film or editing sound?

For a lot of creative boutiques, sales and happy clients are the only scorecard that matters. While that outlook might have been sufficient in the prior century, it is one that employees, freelancers and other stakeholders find increasingly less tolerable. Consider the difference here: is it difficult to find good talent because good talent is hard to find, or is it difficult to find people who want to work with you?

The fact of the matter is you can have pretty amazing sales and overwhelmingly happy clients and still exercise poor leadership skills.

The dirty little secret about post? 

Many post houses suffer from miserable or simply outdated management practices and some hold a pretty negative perspective about human resources. There are plenty of owners and partners, to be sure, stars and producers, Creative Directors and Executive Producers, of course, but relatively few leaders with any understanding of basic management standards, much less an emotional intelligence skill set.

A featured creative/owner or partner might think that there are only two stakeholders worth noting: his or her clients and him or herself.  Employees and vendors exist, of course, but within this community, they are not as often framed as stakeholders.

Or as one owner of a multimillion dollar production company told me, his award winning staff notwithstanding: “I am the only person in this company that matters; everyone else is expendable.”

He wasn't even a creative! Granted, it still might have been an accurate statement, but whether or not that makes for a healthy organizational culture, or cultivates employees that will go the extra mile for you, a 21st Century Business School Graduate would probably disagree.

Similarly, the Executive Producer for another highly successful editorial shop once suggested to me that, regarding her employees, her philosophy was to “hire them until you fire them” and “use them till you lose them.” Hey, wake up, you're an ogre, and they are using you until they can afford to lose you for a better offer, a better culture, and a better boss.

Wouldn't it be much more rewarding, I thought, if she simply recruited people she liked, who were as passionate about their purpose as she was, and who could demonstrably work well with others?

A number of post houses, while multimillion dollar businesses, are still essentially mom and pop shops: one partner plays the creative lead, and the other handles the business end. The model is common enough to be a cliche. Naturally, in order to be the creative lead and grow a successful company around your aesthetic direction, you actually have to be super talented at what you do. Unfortunately for your employees and your clients, however, the same can't be said for the person you put in the Executive Producer seat.

Now, your best friend or spouse might indeed be the person you trust the most in this world, and naturally you want to spend all day with them, but if they're not otherwise qualified, and if that's the way you want to manage your business, with built-in incompetence, then the two of you, assuming you're both well intended, should at least arrive at a means, a measure and a timetable by which to ensure that production and sales are as professionally executed as the creative.

A caveat here: Production is traditionally measured by getting it done, and sales by revenue. At issue here is that in a production company, either of these two roles might also be de facto management and leadership for the organization, responsible for staff, payroll, strategy and culture.

Nor is the above statement meant to be  an indictment on all couples or close friends who start and own creative production companies; competency is actually generally abundant. The problem with post, however, is that when it comes to management, leadership and internal communications, incompetence is equally abundant.

Nor is this intended as a self serving missive to promote the writer's own talents. Rather it’s written as a suggestion that the community of producers consider best of breed management practices with the same measure of analysis and value that our clients do when choosing a creative collaborator.

But if you're already successful, why change the model?

Let me answer by way of this anecdote: When I was was rising through the ranks at a major music house, a senior composer rather harshly suggested that if I left one knob on a mixing console in the wrong position after closing a session that I would be dismissed. Do you think that kind of motivation by fear and intimidation made me a better at my job?


But was there another way he could have communicated the high standards by which the company held its staff? I think so, and I resolved that if and when I ever found myself in his position, that I would employ a more diplomatic way of communicating organizational needs and requirements to employees in my charge.

Three or four years later I got my wish and I implemented new business strategies and diplomatic communication practices that helped the organization increase its billings fourfold.

So ask yourself this: what if I could earn four times what I’m doing now if I simply treated everyone in my charge with respect? My friend, it’s not only possible,  and it's not only better for your company, it’s better for you and it's better for the world.

Certainly, in the high octane environment of film, video and audio post, it’s easy to let things get highly emotional volatile. But here’s a tip, if you often find yourself saying or thinking the phrase ‘crisis management’, then the problem is probably not your client, not your staff, but you. If you can accept this,  you might consider that in the future, rather than putting your customers' whims first, you try putting your employees first. Because if you do that, those in your charge will likely follow your example and in turn put your clients first. The net result will be fewer crises, less stress, a happier workplace, even happier clients, and also quite possibly, a greater return on revenue.

While we're at it, another dirty little secret: some producers thrive on, even pride themselves on being excellent at crisis management. Professionals understand that every project involves some uncertainty, but not all uncertainty is indicative of a crisis. So, if every project at your company is framed as a crisis, you're probably working with someone who creates crises because this specific psychological context is the only thing that motivates them, or because they need their partner, the creative director or even the client to perceive them as some kind of professional hero. Every lead creative around which an organization is built would do well to learn to identify this behavior and find a means to modify it or eliminate it from the environment.

Equally toxic to employee moral as the producer who thrives on manufactured crises is the lead creative who procrastinates all day and then finds himself buttressed against a hard deadline which now requires additional human resources to complete on time and budget. If that's you, please find a fair, authentic way to reward the poor souls who have been nominated to help you get through the night and finish by 8AM the next morning.

Some crises are legitimate, of course, and require immediate and level headed action, not someone promoting the necessity of putting out a fire at the same time they're starting one. Of course,  everything executed in post has a sense of urgency about it. The question is, do you execute, monitor and control every project so that commissions are inhibited from spinning out of control? When deadlines loom are you generally still calm, courteous and collected? Or instead, do you commonly find yourself motivating people with some variation of, "Hey, I don't care what your plans are; you can stay or you can quit."

I submit that an emotionally intelligent leader will act quickly and purposefully, but will not act independently of the organization he or she serves, and that a company owner or partner will understand that an organization, even one they founded, is an independent entity. Instead of saying, 'all right, we're going to get this  job done', one might first question feasibility with other stakeholders, then set a specific, measurable and realistic goal, and then arrive at a set of tactics for achieving that goal that supports the organization's overall strategy. By aligning tactics with strategy, employees who pull all-nighters will understand the necessity of their contribution and may even feel good about cancelling prior plans in order to participate in a collective success.

If you're not a partner, realize, too, about both yourself and the person or persons that you work for, that no one is perfect, that no one can know or be good at everything, and everyone makes mistakes, says the wrong thing at the wrong time, to err is to be human, blah blah blah –okay, you got it, but now go take a class and figure out how to better communicate with and manage other people. With any luck and a bit of tact, you'll be able to train your boss into being better at his or her job, too.

Whatever role you now hold, you can start this process right now by simply asking the people in your charge, or whose projects you produce: “–Hey, how am I doing? What can I do to be better at my job? What can I do to make your job easier? How are my communication skills? If I wanted people to think that I was amazing at my job by this time next year, what do you think would be a good thing for me to work on?” And try not feel insulted by honest answers or suggestions.

Speaking for myself as a producer, the hardest lesson to learn is that:

Doing is not leadership; Communication informed by empathy and purpose is leadership. 

Plenty of great doers among composers, producers, sound designers, art directors, editors, mixers, flame artists and creative directors, not a lot of leaders, though.

Maybe you don't even want to be a leader. Yet another Executive Producer once confessed to me that she didn't want to do sales. "But that's your job," I said. I wasn't being arrogant or pompous; I was simply stating a fact and the sooner she accepted that, the sooner she would reap the benefit gained by assimilating to her actual role, not the role she had in her head.

The fact is, the moment your job includes pitching concepts, making sales and producing projects, then you're a leader. Whether you want to be a leader is irrelevant, only that you're an effective leader or an incompetent leader.

So, there you are, and all you ever wanted was to make explosions, treat footage, swap out gray skies for blue, write jingles and help tell stories with sound and film; but now you own your own company, or you've been commissioned to manage an organization or a department by a creative entity that prays that you're someone who actually gets it –i.e., not just how to make money, but how to grow a sustainable 21st Century business.

Well, guess what, it's not just about Crayola crayons, anymore, or Adobe Creative Suite, Red Digital Cinema, Avid ProTools or Davinci Resolve. You have a few more responsibilities now, and with them comes the obligation to actually learn a new skill set. In no particular order:

  • Leadership is now your job. 
  • Communication is now your job. 
  • Empathy is now your job. 
  • Strategy is now your job.
  • Purpose is now your job. 

Figure it out, read a book, find a mentor,  and take a class if you have to, but don't permit yourself to turn into Satan Incarnate just because when you came up through the ranks, you worked for a demon who barked at you, and now you well, that's just the way you do it. An overwhelming number of psychological research into human learning suggests that the use of positive reinforcement in changing behavior is almost always more effective than using punishment. And you don't have to take my word for it, go ahead and Google it.

But what if you presently are the owner of a creative boutique, and the work is flowing, and despite recognizing a knowledge gap in your management tool kit, you're just too busy to even take an online class? Put down that Merlot: you still need to figure out a way to learn the information you need today to become a more effective leader tomorrow, if not for the sake of your current employees' psychological health and well being, for the sake and sustainability of your own company.

Other things you might consider:
  • 'How do I create value, not just for myself, but for my suppliers, my customers, my employees, and my community?  
  • 'How can I manage my people in such a way that we can grow exponentially greater together than if I go it alone?' 
  • 'How can I transform leadership by directive to motivation by common purpose?"

Remember, everyone wants to reap a financial reward, but it's not always about the capital.

Isn’t it time we who lend our talents to making magic moments on screens big and small held ourselves to a higher moral standard than the bottom line? 

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.

+      +      +


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.