Welcome back to Start a Band, our two-part series on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, focusing on what the band’s sonic provocations mean for sound studies today. Last week, we heard from Jake Smith, who introduced us to a way of thinking about the Velvets that emphasized the “haptic” qualities that emerge so often while listening to them. Following that idea, Smith took us on a kind of journey from the skin to the musculature and the viscera through a deep analysis of key songs in their catalog — “This is your body on the Velvet Underground.”
This week, we’re delighted to welcome to Sounding Out! a writer whose work we’ve been eager to feature for a long while — Tim Anderson, Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Tim has written extensively on popular music and sound, and is currently a leader of the Sound Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, one of the scholarly groups associated with the SO! Thursday stream. It’s such a pleasure to present this sensitive and personal account of the Velvet Underground — and of learning to listen.
Reports of Lou Reed’s death came on a Sunday. Even though he was 71, it was still a shock. To many present-day friends and colleagues Reed’s Velvet Underground are a band that they understand are important, but just don’t get. In the case of an artist like Lou Reed, an artist who never had a top ten charting single and only two gold albums, you could see their point.
Still, I obsessed. Rattled from my travels in Washington, DC, I called my wife and we talked about his music for about an hour or so, after which I took a long walk to the Washington Mall. It was a sunny fall day, October 27, 2013, and I walked past the Smithsonian with its prominent memorials, such a clean space for so much past, some of which the nation has buried and some of which we don’t even bother to think about. The deceased have always done the most important work in our nation’s capital.
The day after, I really don’t remember doing much. I took a train home, read everything I could online about Reed, and thought a lot about his records. The ones I liked —New York and The Blue Mask—the ones I learned to like —it took me years to enjoy Transformer—and the ones I loved —The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light, White Heat, The Velvet Underground and VU. Those four records, more than any records I can remember, altered me, many of my friends in my teens and in college, and almost every rock musician I admired in the 1980s. Velvet Underground records were simply foundational. Writing about Reed’s death, rock critic Greg Kot summed up the Velvet’s influence by claiming that they were “as influential as The Beatles” and if you named “just about any left-of-centre band or artist since the ‘70s”, some of whom like R.E.M., U2 and Talking Heads “became mainstream giants”all of them would “acknowledge a deep debt to the Velvet Underground.”
This influence is the reason that the collective mourning of such a marginally popular figure swelled to such a crescendo. However, to paraphrase the words of one of Reed’s most storied rivals, Lester Bangs, on the death of John Lennon, this was not the mourning of a person. Most of us never met Lou Reed. Instead, we were mourning ourselves. To lose Lou Reed was tantamount to losing the author of a proverbial urtext of a kind of secret rock language that has been passed down since the late 1960s on how to be cool. It was a language of composed of style, gestures, and reactions. It was one that was filled with a fun that was not of the obligatory “hey-dude-let’s-party!” party. The Velvet’s overdriven guitars repeatedly underscored that teenage kicks included other aesthetic pleasures such as contemplation and melancholy. Most importantly, the Velvet Underground offered a language of listening passed down from one rock underground to another.
Because pop fans of all stripes must learn how to be a fan, learning how and what to listen to is a taste-defining social exercise. Simon Frith once explained that, for him, “one aspect of learning how to be a rock fan in the 1960s was, in fact, learning to prefer [original records made by black artists of the 1950s] to covers [made by white artists of the same era]. And this was, as I recall, something that had to be learned [by Frith]: nearly all the records I had bought in the late 1950s had been the cover versions” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996). In my case, learning to listen also meant learning what to listen to while listening to The Velvet Underground, a process involving peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews.
As a young rock fan who began first collecting cassettes —that’s right, cassettes —this process would begin through an obsession with R.E.M.’s Murmur, a cryptic, odd inscrutable cassette with no lyrics, a black and white picture and layers of reverb. The copy I found had been severely discounted in a ma and pa record store in Globe, Arizona. In Summer 1983 I read a rave review in a copy of Rolling Stone and at 14 had purchased a cassette unlike anything I had ever heard; I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. Why did so many reviewers seem to fall over themselves about this record? To solve this puzzle, it meant learning how to listen to music invested in tone rather than ostentatious chops. It meant paying attention to drones rather than solos. It meant following those features to Velvet Underground records after peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews made a point that Murmur reminded them a bit of VU records.
Murmur was also the first record I ever purchased that embraced what Jacob Smith so wonderfully identifies as a distinctive trait of all Velvet Underground records. For Smith, these pop records are part of a genealogy that “stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.” The distillation of this pop ethos onto record was one of the reasons that so many musicians whose abilities may have been limited but whose tastes tended toward the poetic found The Velvets so influential. As Jonathan Richman explained, “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was 15 and heard the Velvet Underground. They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” (Quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 61). Indeed, Smith notes that the deceptive complexity of VU Records “can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation” and “lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching”; his post actually reads like many of the conversations and reviews surrounding R.E.M.’s debut LP. The same could also be said of records released by other 1980s and 90s artists such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Opal, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, The Dream Syndicate, Galaxie 500, The Rain Parade, Green on Red, New Order, Joy Division, The Feelies, Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, The Pretenders, The Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few who drew water from the Velvet Underground well. Bands sonically inspired by the Velvets often providing feedback before solos, drummed without cymbals, and portrayed dark themes sung in monotones that sounded sophisticated and obscure.
However, actually hearing a Velvet Underground record in 1983 and 1984 was a significant problem for newer fans, as their MGM catalog was out of print. Many understood these records to be effectively buried by label president Mike Curb’s infamous axing of the act from MGM along with seventeen others who allegedly promoted and exploited “hard drugs through music” (Tiegel, Eliot “Mgm Busts 18 Rock Groups.” Billboard, November 7 1970, 1, 70). As Lou Reed himself once noted, “it’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.” I have often wondered if this was one of the reasons that The Velvets catalogue would have such a profound effect on so many of us. Sure, I had found a copy of Loaded, the band’s fourth official release, but its bright tones had none of the subversive menace that so many reviewers alluded to when speaking of the Velvets. Even in a mountain town in Arizona, I had a better chance of finding used copies of The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Blues for Allah than I did The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other cities, in other record stores, when I did find those records they were used and prices started at $15 and up. They were records I simply could not afford to listen to.
All that changed after 1985, when every MGM Velvet Underground record would appear in my life for less than $25. Bill Levenson’s efforts as Polygram’s then A&R manager to reissue the buried and lost MGM catalog on Verve provided me and every other young person who had only “heard of The Velvet Underground” the chance to finally to listen to all of these records at once. Indeed, the moment of the catalogue’s reissue was simply a sonic flood, one where sounds filled in gaps that had been cut deeply by conversations, descriptions and my own imagination. Writing at the time about these reissues and the unveiling of a lost album’s worth of material that would be titled V.U., David Fricke argued that “rock historians and fans alike owe Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico,White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases —certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great” (Fricke, David. “The Velvet Underground – V.U.” Rolling Stone, March 14 1985).
Is it too much to suggest a that the pent up desire to hear a secret history sparked by The Velvet Underground’s reissues created the 80s/90s iteration of “alternative rock”? Perhaps, but history is filled with desires asserted, accepted and denied. Indeed, most of those aforementioned 80s alternative acts I came into contact with had been performing and recording and releasing records years before 1985. However, there is no doubt that the VU reissues turned a number of ears predisposed to hearing in a certain way onto new ways of listening to the Velvets concentrated doses of moody darkness, modes that earlier Velvet Underground fans simply had little access to.
Ignoring the impact of the sonic flood of VU material that fell upon my ears during this period turns away from a specific history of listening that, while personally unique, was an opportunity available to so many of my contemporaries. Indeed, if sounds have histories because their traces persist, then listening must have histories guided partially by testimonial. To hear these histories we might ask ourselves to remember how, why, and with whom did we listen, and to trade in this information. If we did so, we might better understand how we learned to listen: especially what to listen to and why it was important. And, without these testimonials of our pasts as listeners, we just may lose sound’s crucial other half.
Featured Image: “Velvet Underground Yellow Label Mono” by Flickr user Simon MurphyThe Velvet Underground – Yellow label mono
Tim J. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University where studies the multiple cultural and material practices that make music popular. He has published numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles, and two monographs: Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project focuses on recordings, musicians, listeners and the public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is article 2.0 in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veterano Aaron Trammell along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. So, turn on your quantizing for Sounding Out! and enjoy today’s supersonic in-depth look at sampling from from SO! Regular Writer Primus Luta. –JS, Editor-in-Chief
My favorite sample-based composition? No question about it: “Stroke of Death” by Ghostface and produced by The RZA.
Supposedly the story goes, RZA was playing records in the studio when he put on the Harlem Underground Band’s album. It is a go-to album in a sample-based composer collection, because of the open drum breaks. One such break appears in the cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”, notably used by A Tribe Called Quest on “Everything is Fair.”
RZA, a known break beat head, listened as the song approached the open drums, when the unthinkable happened: a scratch in his copy of the record. Suddenly, right before the open drums dropped, the vinyl created its own loop, one that caught RZA’s ear. He recorded it right there and started crafting the beat.
This sample is the only source material for the track. RZA throws a slight turntable backspin in for emphasis, adding to the jarring feel that drives the beat. That backspin provides a pitch shift for the horn that dominates the sample, changing it from a single sound into a three-note melody. RZA also captures some of the open drums so that the track can breathe a bit before coming back to the jarring loop. As accidental as the discovery may have been, it is a very precisely arranged track, tailor-made for the attacking vocals of Ghostface, Solomon Childs, and the RZA himself.
“Stroke of Death” exemplifies how transformative sample-based composition can be. Other than by knowing the source material, the sample is hard to identify. You cannot figure out that the original composition is Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” from the one note RZA sampled, especially considering the note has been manipulated into a three-note melody that appears nowhere in either rendition of the composition. It is sample based, yes, but also completely original.
Classifying a composition like this as a ‘happy accident’ downplays just how important the ear is in sample-based composition, particularly on the transformative end of the spectrum. J Dilla once said finding the mistakes in a record excited him and that it was often those mistakes he would try to capture in his production style. Working with vinyl as a source went a long way in that regard, as each piece of vinyl had the potential to have its own physical characteristics that affected what one heard. It’s hard to imagine “Stroke of Death” being inspired from a digital source. While digital files can have their own glitches, one that would create an internal loop on playback would be rare.
There has been a change in the sound of sampling over the past few decades. It is subtle but still perceptible; one can hear it even if a person does not know what it is they are hearing. It is akin to the difference between hearing a blues man play and hearing a music student play the blues. They technically are both still the blues, but the music student misses all of the blue notes.
The ‘blue notes’ of the blues were those aspects of the music that could not be transcribed yet were directly related to how the song conveyed emotion. It might be the fact that the instrument was not fully in tune, or the way certain notes were bent but others were not, it could even be the way a finger hit the body of a guitar right after the string was strummed. It goes back farther than the blues and ultimately is not exclusive to the African American tradition from which the phrase derives; most folk music traditions around the world have parallels. “The Rite of Spring” can be understood as Stravinsky ‘sampling’ the blue notes of Transylvanian folk music. In many regards sample-based composing is a modern folk tradition, so it should come as no surprise that it has its own blue notes.
The sample-based composition work of today is still sampling, but much of it lacks the blue notes that helped define the golden era of the art. I attribute this discrepancy to the evolution of technology over the last two decades. Many of the things that could be understood as the blue notes of sampling were merely ways around the limits of the technology. In the same way, the blue notes of most folk music happened when the emotion went beyond the standards of the instrument (or alternately the limits imposed upon it by the literal analysis of western theory). By looking at how the technology has evolved we can see how blue notes of sampling are being lost as key limitations are being overcome by “advances.”
First, let’s consider the E-Mu SP-1200, which is still thought to be the most definitive sounding sampler for hip-hop styled sample-based compositions, particularly related to drums. The primary reason for this is its low-resolution sampling and conversion rates. For the SP-1200 the Analog to Digital (A/D) and Digital to Analog (D/A) converters were 12-bit at a sample rate of 26.04 kHz (CD quality is 16-bit 44.1 kHz). No matter what quality the source material, there would be a loss in quality once it was sampled into and played out of the SP-1200. This loss proved desirable for drum sounds particularly when combined with the analog filtering available in the unit, giving them a grit that reflected the environments from which the music was emerging.
On top of this, individual samples could only be 2.5 seconds long, with a total available sample time of only 10 seconds. While the sample and conversion rates directly affected the sound of the samples, the time limits drove the way that composers sampled. Instead of finding loops, beatmakers focused on individual sounds or phrases, using the sequencer to arrange those elements into loops. There were workarounds for the sample time constraints; for example, playing a 33-rpm record at 45 rpm to sample, then pitching it back down post sampling was a quick way to increase the sample time. Doing this would further reduce the sample rate, but again, that could be sonically appealing.
An under appreciated limitation of the SP-1200 however, was the visual feedback for editing samples. The display of the SP-1200 was completely alpha numeric; there were no visual representations of the sample other than numbers that were controlled by the faders on the interface. The composer had to find the start and end points of the sample solely by ear. Two producers might edit the exact same kick drum with start times 100 samples (a fraction of a millisecond) apart. Were one of the composers to have recorded the kick at 45 rpm and pitched it down, the actual resolution for the start and end times would be different. When played in a sequence, these 100 samples affect the groove, contributing directly to the feel of the composition. The timing of when the sample starts playback is combined with the quantization setting and the swing percentage of the sequencer. That difference of 100 samples in the edit further offsets the trigger times, which even with quantization turned off fit into the 24 parts per quarter grid limitations of the machine.
Akai’s MPC-60 was the next evolution in sampling technology. It raised the sample and conversion rates to 16-bit and 40 kHz. Sample time increased to a total of 13.1 seconds (upgradable to 26.2). Sequencing resolution increased to 96 parts per quarter. Gone was the crunch of the SP-1200, but the precision went up both in sampling and in sequencing. The main trademark of the MPC series was the swing and groove that came to Akai from Roger Linn’s Linn Drum. For years shrouded in mystery and considered a myth by many, in truth there was a timing difference that Linn says was achieved by delaying certain notes by samples. Combined with the greater PPQ resolution in unquantized mode, even with more precision than the SP-1200, the MPC lent itself to capturing user variation.
Despite these technological advances, sample time and editing limitations, combined with the fact that the higher resolution sampling lacked the character of the SP-1200, kept the MPC from being the complete package sample composers desired. For this reason it was often paired with Akai’s S-950 rack sampler. The S-950 was a 12-bit sampler but had a variable sample rate between 7.5 kHz and 40 kHz. The stock memory could hold 750 KB of samples which at the lowest sample rate could garner upwards of 60 seconds of sampling and at the higher sample rates around 10 seconds. This was expandable to up to 2.5 MB of sample memory.
The editing capabilities made the S-950 such a powerful sampler. Being able to create internal sample loops, key map samples to a keyboard, modify envelopes for playback, and take advantage of early time stretching (which would come of age with the S-1000)—not to mention the filter on the unit—helped take sampling deeper into the sound design territory. This again increased the variable possibilities from composer to composer even when working from the same source material. Often combined with the MPC for sequencing, composers had the ultimate sample-based composition workstation.
Today, there are literally no limitations for sampling. Perhaps the subtlest advances have developed the precision with which samples can be edited. With these advances, the biggest shift has been the reduction of the reliance on ears. Recycle was an early software program that started to replace the ears in the editing process. With Recycle an audio file could be loaded, and the software would chop the sample into component parts by searching for the transients. Utilizing Recycle on the same source, it was more likely two different composers could arrive at a kick sample that was truncated identically.
Another factor has been the waveform visualization of samples for editing. Some earlier hardware samplers featured the waveform display for truncating samples, but the graphic resolution within the computer made this even more precise. By looking at the waveform you are able to edit samples at the point where a waveform crosses the middle point between the negative and positive side of the signal, known as the zero-crossing. The advantage of zero-crossing sampling is that it prevents errors that happen when playback goes from either side of the zero point to another point in one sample, which can make the edit point audible because of the break in the waveform. The end result of zero-crossing edited samples is a seamlessness that makes samples sound like they naturally fit into a sequence without audible errors. In many audio applications snap-to settings mean that edits automatically snap to zero-crossing—no ears needed to get a “perfect” sounding sample.
It is interesting to note that with digital files it’s not about recording the sample, but editing it out of the original file. It is much different from having to put the turntable on 45 rpm to fit a sample into 2.5 seconds. Another differentiation between digital sample sources is the quality of the files, whether original digital files (CD quality or higher), lossless compression (FLAC), lossy compressed (MP3, AAC) or the least desirable though most accessible, transcoded (lossy compression recompressed such as YouTube rips). These all result in a different degradation of quality than the SP-1200. Where the SP-1200’s downsampling often led to fatter sounds, these forms of compression trend toward thinner-sounding samples.
Some producers have created their own sound using thinned out samples with the same level of sonic intent as The RZA’s on “Stroke of Death.” The lo-fi aesthetic is often an attempt to capture a sound to parallel the golden era of hardware-based sampling. Some software-based samplers by example will have an SP-1200 emulation button that reduces bit rates to 12-bit. Most of software sequencers have groove templates that allow for the sequencers to emulate grooves like the MPC timing.
Perhaps the most important part of the sample-based composition process however, cannot be emulated: the ear. The ear in this case is not so much about the identification of the hot sample. Decades of history should tell us that the hot sample is truly a dime a dozen. It takes a keen composer’s ear to hear how to manipulate those sounds into something uniquely theirs. Being able to listen for that and then create that unique sound—utilizing whatever tools— that is the blue note of sampling. And there is simply no way to automate that process.
Featured image: “Blue note inverted” by Flickr user Tim, CC BY-ND 2.0
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta was a regular presenter for Rhythm Incursions. As an artist, he is a founding member of the collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012. Recently Concréte released the second part of their Ultimate Break Beats series for Shocklee.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
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This is part two of a three part series on live Electronic music. To review part one, click here.
In the first part of this series,”Toward a Practical Language for Live Electronic Performance,” I established the language of variability as an index for objectively measuring the quality of musical performances. From this we were able to rethink traditional musical instruments as musical objects with variables that could be used to evaluate performer proficiency, both as a universal for the instrument (proficiency on the trumpet) and within genre and style constraints (proficiency as a Shrill C trumpet player). I propose that this language can be used to describe the performance of electronic music, making it easier to parallel with traditional western forms. Having proven useful with traditional instruments we’ll now see if this language can be used to describe the musical objects of electronic performance.
We’ll start with a DJ set. While not necessarily an instrument, a performed DJ set is a live musical object comprised of a number of variables. First would be the hardware. A vinyl DJ rig consists of at least two turntables, a mixer and a selection of vinyl. A CDJ rig uses two CD decks and a mixer. Serato and other vinyl controller software require only one turntable, a mixer and a laptop. Laptop mixing can be done with or without a controller. One could also do a cassette mix, reel to reel mix, or other hardware format mixing. Critical is a means to combine audio from separate sources into one uniform mix. Some of the other variables involved in this include selection, transitions and effects.
Because DJ sets are expected to be filled with pre-recorded sounds, the selection of sounds available is as broad as all of the sounds ever recorded. Specific styles of DJ sets, like an ambient DJ set, limit the selection down to a subset of recorded music. The choice of hardware can limit that even more. An all-vinyl DJ set of ambient music presents more of a challenge, in terms of selection, than a laptop set in the same style, because there are fewer ambient records pressed to vinyl than are available in a digital format.
Connected to selections are transitions, which could be said to define a DJ. When thinking of transitions there are two component factors: the playlist and going from one song to another. The playlist is obviously directly tied to the selection; however, even if you select the most popular songs for the style, unless they are put into a logical order, the transitions between them could make the set horrible.
One of the transitional keys to keeping a mix flowing is beat matching. In a turntable DJ set the beat mapping degree of difficulty is high because all of the tempos have to be matched manually by adjusting the speed of the two selections on the spinning turntables. When the tempos are synchronized, transitioning from one to the other is accomplished via a simple crossfade. With digital hardware such as the laptop, Serato and even CDJ setups, there is commonly a way to automatically match beats between selections. This makes the degree of difficulty to beat match in these formats much lower.
Effects, another variable, rely on what’s available through the hardware medium. With the turntable DJ set, the mixer is the primary source of effects and those until recent years have been limited to disc manipulation (e.g. scratching), crossfader, and EQ effects. Many of the non vinyl setups and even some of the vinyl setups now include a variety of digital effects like delay, reverb, sampler, granular effects and more.
With these variables so defined it becomes easier to objectively analyze the expressed variability of a live DJ set. But, while the variables themselves are objective, the value placed on them and even how they are evaluated are not. The language only provides the common ground for analysis and discussion. So the next time you’re at an event and the person next to you says, “this DJ is a hack!” you can say, “well they’ve got a pretty diverse selection with rather seemless transitions, maybe you just don’t like the music,” to which they’ll reply, “yeah, I don’t think I like this music,” which is decent progress in the scheme of things. If we really want to talk about live electronic performance however we will need to move beyond the DJ set to exemplify how this variable language can work to accurately describe the other musical objects which appear at a live electronic performance.
Take for example another electronic instrument: the keyboard. The keyboard itself is a challenging instrument to define; in fact I could argue that the keyboard is itself not actually an instrument but a musical object. It is a component part of a group of instruments commonly referred to as keyboards, but the keyboard itself is not the instrument. What it is is one of the earliest examples of controllerism.
On a piano, typically fingers are used to press keys on the keyboard, which trigger the hammers to hit the strings and produce sound. The range of the instrument travels seven octaves from A0 to C8, and can theoretically have 88 voice polyphony, though in typical that polyphony is limited to the ten fingers. It can play a wide range of dynamics and includes pedals which can be used to modify the sustainabilty of pitches. With a pipe organ, the keyboard controls woodwind instruments with completely different timbre, range, and dynamics; the polyphony increases and the foot pedals can perform radically different functions. The differences from the piano grow even more once we enter the realm where the term “keyboard,” as instrument, is most commonly used: the synthesizer keyboard.
The first glaring difference is that, even if you have an encyclopedia of knowledge about keyboard synthesizers, when you see a performer with one on stage you simply cannot know by seeing what sounds it will produce. Pressing the key on a synthesizer keyboard can produce an infinite number of sounds, which can change not just from song to song, but from second to second and key to key. A performer’s left thumb can produce an entirely different sound than their left index finger. Using a keyboard equipped with a sequencer, the performer’s fingers may not press any keys at all but can still be active in the performance.
When the keyboard synthesizer was first introduced, it was being used by traditional piano players in standard band configurations, like a piano or organ, with timbres being limited to one during a song and the performance aspect being limited to fingers pressing keys. Some keyboardists however used the instrument more as a bank for sound effects and textures. They may have been playing the same keys, but one wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear a I IV V chord progression. Rather than listening for the physical dexterity of the player’s fingers, the key to listening to a keyboard in this context was evaluating the sounds produced first and then how they were played to fit into the surrounding musical context.
Could one of these performers be seen as more competent than the other? Possibly. The first performer could be said to be one of the most amazing keyboard players in the piano player sense, but where they aren’t really maximizing the variability potential of the instrument, it could be said they fall short as a keyboard synthesizer performer. The second performer on the other hand may not even know what a I IV V chord progression is and thus be considered incompetent on the keyboard in the piano player sense, but the ways in which they exploit the variable possibilities shows their mastery of the keyboard synthesizer as an instrument.
While generally speaking there isn’t a set of variables which define the keyboard synthesizer as an instrument, if we think of the keyboard synthesizer as a group of musical instruments, each of the individual types of keyboard synthesizers come with their own set of fixed variables which can be defined. Many of these variables are consistent across the various keyboards but not always in a standard arrangement.
As such, while the umbrella term “keyboard” persists it is perhaps more practical to define the instruments and their players individually. There are Juno 60 players, ARP Odyessy players, MiniMoog players, Crumar Spirit players and more. Naturally an individual player can be well versed in more than one of these instruments and thusly be thought of as a keyboardist, but their ability as a keyboardist would have to be properly contextualized per instrument in their keyboard repertoire. Using the MiniMoog as an example we can show how its variability as an instrument defines it and plays into how a performance on the instrument can be perceived.
The first variable worth considering when evaluating the MiniMoog is that it is a monophonic instrument. This is radically different from the piano; despite one’s ability to use ten fingers (or other extremity) only one note will sound at one time. The keyboard section of the instrument is only three and a half octaves long, though the range is itself variable. On the left-hand side there is a pitch wheel and a modulation wheel. The pitch wheel can vary the pitch of the currently playing note, while the modulation wheel can alter the actual sound design.
As a monophonic instrument, one does not need to have both hands on the keyboard, as only one note will ever sound at a time. This frees the hands to modify the sound being triggered by the keyboard exemplified via the pitch and modulation wheels, but also available are all of the exposed controls for the sound design. This means that in performance every aspect of the sound design and the triggering can be variable. Of course these changes are limited to what one can do with their hands, but the MiniMoog also features a common function in analog synths, a Control Voltage input. This means that an external source can control either the aspects of the sound design and/or the triggering for the instrument.
Despite this obvious difference from the piano, playing the MiniMoog does not have to be any less of a physical act. A player using their right hand to play the keyboard while modulating the sound with their left, plays with a different level of dexterity than the piano player. The right and left hand are performing different motions; while the right hand uses fingers to press keys as the arm moves it up and down the keyboard, the left hand can be adjusting the pitch or modulation wheels with a pushing action or alternately adjusting the knobs with a turning action. Like patting your head and rubbing your belly, controlling a well-timed filter sweep while simultaneously playing a melody is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.
At the same time playing the MiniMoog doesn’t have to be very physical at all. A sequencer could be responsible for all of the note triggering leaving both hands free to modulate the sound. Similarly the performer may not touch the MiniMoog at all, instead playing the sequencer itself as an intermediary between them and the sound of the instrument. In this case the MiniMoog is not being used as a keyboard, yet it retains its instrument status as all of the sounds are being generated from it, with the sequencer being used as the controller. Despite not having any physical contact with the instrument itself, the performer can still play it.
Taking it one step further – if a performer were to only touch a sequencer at the start of the performance to press play and never touch the instrument, could they still be said to be playing the MiniMoog live? There is little doubt that the MiniMoog is indeed still performing because it does not have the mechanism to play by itself, but requires agency to illicit a sonic response. In this example that agency comes from the sequencer, but that does not eliminate the performer. The sequencer itself has to be programmed in order to provide the instrument with the proper control voltages, and the instrument itself has to be set up sonically with a designed sound receptive to the sequencer’s control. If the performer is not physically manipulating either device however, they are not performing live, the machines are.
From this we can establish the first dichotomy of electronic performance; the layers of variability in an electronic performance can be isolated into two specific categories: physical variability and sonic variability. While these two aspects are also present in traditional instrument performance, they are generally thought to not be mutually exclusive without additional devices. The vibrato of an acoustic guitar is only accomplished by physically modulating the strings to produce the effect. With an electronic instrument however, vibrato can be performed by an LFO controlling the amplitude. That LFO can be controlled physically but there does not have to be a physical motion (such as a knob turn) associated with it in order for it to be a live modulation or performance. The benefit of it running without physical aid is that it frees up the body to be able to control other things, increasing the variability of the performance.
In a situation where all of the aspects of the performance are being controlled by electronic functions, the agency in performance shifts from the artist performing live, to the artists establishing the parameters by which the machines perform live. Is the artist calling this a live performance a hack? Absolutely not, but it’s important that the context of the performance is understood for it to be evaluated. Like evaluating the monophonic MiniMoog performer based on the criteria of the polyphonic pianist, evaluating a machine performance based on physical criteria is unfair.
In the evaluation of a machine performance, just as with a physical one, variability still plays an important role. At the most base level the machine has to actually be performing and this is best measured by the potential variability of the sound. This gets tricky with digital instruments, as, barring outside influences, it is completely possible to repeat the exact same performance in the digital domain, so that there is no variation between each iteration. But even such cases with a digital sequencer controlling a digital instrument, with no physical interaction, are still a machine performances; they just exhibit very little variability. The performance aspect of the machine only disappears when the possibility for variability is completely removed, at which point the machine is no longer a performance instrument but a playback device as is the case with a CD player playing a backing track. The CD player if not being manipulated physically or by an external control is not a performance instrument as all of the sound contained within it can only be heard as one fixed recorded performance, not live. It is only when these fixed performances are manipulated either physically (ie a DJ set) or by other means, that they go from fixed performances to potentially live ones.
From all of this we arrive at four basic distinctions for live electronic performances:
• The electro/mechanical manipulation of fixed sonic performances
• The physical manipulation of electronic instruments
• The mechanized manipulation of electronic instruments
• A hybrid of physical and mechanized manipulation of electronic instruments
These help set up the context for evaluating electronic performances, as before we can determine the quality of a performance we must first be able to distinguish what type of performance we are observing. So far we’ve only dealt with a monophonic instrument, but even with its limitations can see how the potential variability is quite high. As we get into the laptop as a performance instrument that variability increases exponentially.
This is part two of a three part series. In the next part we will begin to exemplify the laptop as performance instrument, using this language to show the breadth of variability available in electronic performance and perhaps show that indeed, where that variability continues to be explored, there is merit to the potential of live electronic music as an extension of jazz.
Native Frequencies at the Trocadero 2013, Featured Image Courtesy of Raymond Angelo (C)
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer, technologist and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He is a regular guest contributor to the Create Digital Music website, and maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta is a regular presenter for the Rhythm Incursions Podcast series with his show RIPL. As an artist, he is a founding member of the live electronic music collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012.
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Aaaaaaaaaaaaand NOW. . .in SO!‘s corner. . .writing for this month’s “Sound and Sport,” we have the scholar. . .the poet . . .the “Wordsmith of the Web” Taaaaaaaaaara Betts! In today’s post, she shares how listening influences her creative process AND knocks us out with an analysis of the importance of Muhammad Ali’s voice to his sports career and historical legacy. For an instant replay of last month’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.” Next month’s rematch will feature Josh Ottum‘s research on sound and skateparks. But now, let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuummmbbble! —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Plap of glove against glove
Shush of scuffle and slide.
Rebuildin’, repeatin’, rebuildin’
All this repeatin’, getting’ up again & again
Discipline, routine and I keep
doing new things to prepare
my mind, my body, so my pretty
mouth keeps up with all my rhymes.
–Tara Betts, from “Repeatin’” (scene 8, The GREATEST!)
The recent Peggy Choy Dance Company production of “The GREATEST!: A Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali” in April 2013 gave me cause to rethink the key events in Muhammad Ali’s life, particularly his burgeoning political awareness in the 1960s. As I wrote the libretto for the performance—which combined athletic dance performance with images, poems, and quotes from Ali—I kept thinking about how Ali had one of the most recognized, quoted, and distinct voices ever heard in the boxing world.
In the libretto, I tried to capture the nuances of black vernacular and the southern hallmark of Ali’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky (he was sometimes referred to as the “Louisville Lip”), vocal sounds that signify an African American experience. Is there a southern drawl? A bass-filled bravado? There are certain words that sound fuller and cut short based on the vernacular that was spoken during the time period of Cassius Clay and well into his evolution as Muhammad Ali. While many of the materials that I visited for inspiration and historical context were books, to capture the look, feel, and speech of the 1960s and 1970s, I had to crate-dig for some vinyl.
A copy of a 1963 spoken word album I Am The Greatest!: Cassius Clay and the 1997 documentary film When We Were Kings served as two such sources. Both recordings represent an audible Ali, at once a man whose iconic voice sounded as familiar to me as people who I’ve known personally and a historical figure whose vocal grain content embodied his shifts in political consciousness. The difference between Clay’s 1964 recording and the samples woven into the When We Were Kings soundtrack is more than the changes that gradually developed over time. These recordings reveal how Ali’s confidence is constructed around creating an affirming, critical identity, rather than merely promoting his athletic prowess. At first, he merely sounds cocky; later he sounds as if he is fighting for a group of people that he wants to inform, serve, celebrate, protect, and uphold. My libretto was deeply impacted both by the sonic continuities in Ali’s voice across time and space, as well as its audible shifts.
The champ ain’t nobody but me!
Pretty, fast & loud, I’ll shake the world,
with a lion’s might.
My children will lift
their fists and fight
–Tara Betts, from “‘By Any Means necessary: If they met in Harlem’’” (transition from scene 14, The GREATEST!)
Before Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he recorded a spoken word album on the Sony label in 1963. I Am The Greatest! was released in 1964 before Clay’s two key fights with Sonny Liston and Ali’s eventual victory for the heavyweight crown. The album included original liner notes from modernist poet Marianne Moore and New York Post sports journalist Milton Gross, but it was telling that comedy writer Gary Belkin and Cassius Clay were the co-authors of the spoken word material—which is more comedy than poetry or interviews. Belkin was a comedy writer for well-known comedians such as Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar, and the comedy show Car 54, Where Are You? So, Belkin was clearly accustomed to writing sketch comedy, but Clay was used to being humorous outside of a recording studio with a staged audience.
Overall, Clay’s delivery seems to be slower–both less fluid and more staged– than his impromptu recitations at boxing-related events outside the recording studio. Clay seems to anticipate that sound effects such as roaring crowds and clanging bells will be inserted into the tracks, so he over-enunciates and pauses. Each track begins with a bell ringing as if boxing round is about to begin, and there are eight “rounds,” probably because Clay insisted that any fight with Liston would be shorter than eight rounds. As I listened, I wondered if Ali was comfortable recording this album or if he considered it simply another way to promote and market one of the world’s best known boxers? To my ear, it lacked some of the speed and ease I associate with Clay’s speech in other settings. In the boxing world, his speeches mentally challenged his opponents and entertained crowds. The recording studio left less room for spontaneity, fluidity, and even the visual interplay of sound with his quick motion.
The eight rounds/comedic sketches lean heavily on Ali’s signature boisterous braggadocio in his loud, deliberate voice, using canned laughter and other voices setting up Clay to talk about his excellence. Otherwise, they are a grab bag of influences and sound effects. These other voices and sounds create an artificial environment that is not the same as being surrounded by boxers, trainers, and others in the athletic arena. In fact, these sounds and the sources sound quite different from Clay himself. “Round 1: I Am The Greatest” and “Round 2: I Am The Double Greatest” are accompanied by violins that sound more like a serenade than a classical composition. In “Round 4: ‘I Have Written A Drama,’ He Said Playfully,” a lute plays in the beginning that hints at a spoof of a Shakespearean-style drama about defeating dragons complete with affected British accents, including one actor speaking with the theatrical lisp. The knight “Cassius of Clay” enters with the audible clanking of armor.
Clay reveals a shift in tone when he sings on the last two tracks. He begins with “Stand By Me”–a cover of Ben E. King’s classic song/then recent hit–with fervor. In the last song, “The Gang’s All Here,” Clay follows some of the words of Tin Pan Alley lyricist Theodora Morse set to Sullivan’s tune from Pirates of Penzance.
Clay tries to pick up the energy lost by his less-than-enthusiastic singing. “Is Memphis with me? Is Louisville with me? Is Houston with me. Ain’t I purty?” Each question is answered with a crowd enthusiastically shouting a “Yeah!” Here Ali relies on his enthusiastic, improvised rhymes, departing from the song’s traditional lyrics to include himself in a song that does not come from an African American writer or the Black experience.
The same country that refuses to let people eat
or use the bathroom in the same places
wants ME to go and get killed?
What does THAT sound like?
—-Tara Betts, from “The Same Country” (scene 15, The GREATEST!)
Almost 35 years later, there are clear sonic differences between Cassius Clay’s debut on Sony and the soundtrack to When We Were Kings, the 1997 documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. This retrospective record is decidedly more centered on black experiences and black voices that speak musically, politically, and spiritually, particularly about the Black presence in Islam. There are no comedic monologues, sketches or Greek choruses; it sonically represents Ali after his conversion to orthodox Islam, after his friendship with and separation from Malcolm X, and after his opposition to Vietnam. Every spoken part on this album affirms the multiplicities of a Black presence in blues, R&B, and songs recorded live on the African continent; the huffs and rhymes are cheered for by a live African audience. As I listened to When We Were Kings, I could hear Ali’s comfort and his freedom of movement, audibly in contrast with his other album.
When We Were Kings records his time in Kinshasa, Zaire where he trains and eventually fights George Foreman. It does not simply focus on Ali’s voice, but is sonically rich with music, interviews with people who witnessed that fight and those who knew Ali personally; the soundtrack reflects these interconnections in its continuous uninterrupted flow. The role of these sounds endeavors to document what was heard in Zaire in 1974, but it also includes Ali in the surrounding sonic environment as one person who becomes a focal point for the musicians and speakers who also articulate black identity on the record.
The first thing I heard was Ali’s voice:
I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want win my title and walk down the alleys and sit on the garbage cans with the wineheads…
This opening sample of Ali sets the soundtrack’s tone, and kicks off the only hip hop song on the album, a sonic shift that signals a new generation/genre in black music in 1997, more than 30 years after Ali’s spoken word album as Cassius Clay. Ali’s quote also informs listeners that the emphasis of this album has little do with comedy, especially since the soundtrack draws from nonfiction, rather than setting Clay/Ali in fictionalized sketches. The focus is on black people and their struggles.
In the first song, emcees look back and tell the story of “The Rumble in the Jungle” but the verses also hail Ali as a hero. When The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, and Busta Rhymes rap over a fairly standard bassline, their presence on this soundtrack is an important signal of Ali’s influence and the recurring engagement between artists and Ali during his athletic heyday such as James Brown. In Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (2005), Afrika Bambaataa points out repeatedly how Brown became a consistent presence in hip hop when New York radio stations simply refused to play his music, particularly in the 1970s. After decades of infusing a variety of soul singers and Brown’s stylistic turns on “the one” and messages of black pride into the genre of hip hop, the presence of “The Rumble in the Jungle” on this soundtrack completely makes sense. As more than a wellspring for samples throughout the large, growing body of hip hop music, Brown was also embodying and representing black consciousness in music with a Black voice, much in the same way that Ali utilized Black speech. In some ways, Ali’s couplets predate rap lyrics and perform in a similar manner; Bambaattaa cites him as an influence, along with Malcolm X.
James Brown and many others flow seamlessly into the event and its soundtrack in a way that reflects the immediacy and proximity of these events. The “Black Woodstock” of the Zaire 1974 music festival that accompanied Ali and Foreman’s fight set the tone and soundtrack in real life, not just in the documentary. In fact, the festival itself was documented in the 2008 release Soul Power directed by Jeff Levy-Hinte. At this point, it’s clear that there is a continuum for hearing the connections between black voices across oceans and continents.
Following “Rumble in the Jungle,” the record samples Ali and Drew “Bundini” Brown (Ali’s assistant trainer and cornerman), snippets taken directly from the documentary footage. Brown is a slower, more deliberate speaker; he uses rhyme like Ali. He talks about the fruit returning to the root and Ali claiming his crown back home. For African Americans to return to Africa post-slavery, this trip and clip sonically reinforce the cultural significance of Ali’s trip. Such pilgrimages fortify the idea that black people have a homeland, a continent, and a cultural continuum, much in the same way that this soundtrack constructs.
“Ali, Bombaye!” in a sea of faces just like mine,
my brothers, my parents, my cousins.
I want to go home and tell the people
in the streets this is what we come from,
what we could be.
—-Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire’” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)
When African girls chant to celebrate Ali’s arrival, they reassert how this is a homecoming for Ali, a welcome and a reconnection that fuels Ali’s determination. The chants seem to encourage the first sample of Ali when he issues his threat: “When I get to Africa we gon’ get it on cause we don’t get along. I’m gonna eat him up…” This sample segues into James Brown’s “The Payback” as it was performed before the fight, then another chant performed by Mobütu, named after Zaire’s controversial leader, Mobutu Sese Seko.
When Ali concludes the soundtrack, he interrupts chants of “Ali, Bombaye!” with huffs and a brief exhortation of knocking you out, “sucker.” These last words fade into a snippet of African chant. This constructs a very different narrative that looks back at Ali’s career, long after the younger Clay established part of his image with hyperbolic bravado. Ali has cultivated a Pan African, global, political awareness that includes black people in America from his hometown in Louisville, KY to across the globe.
Hearing Clay and Ali–their continuities and their differences–gave me an insight into the familiar voices of some of my older relatives (and their blues records), and it also helped me channel that voice in poems of my own. It allowed me to imagine how hyperbole helped encourage Ali to energize and cheer himself on, so much that others began rooting for him as well. It did not matter what arena he was in, Ali would use his voice, his fists, and his will to conquer it. As I wrote the libretto, I thought about how I might unearth that determination in a way that respectfully embodied his tone, cadence, vocabulary, and ebullience. One of the definitions of greatness relates to the defeat of time and distance, and in the words that I wrote about Ali, I found that listening to him, and hearing his significance grew over time, helped him transcend both.
Every mile, every turn of the rope brings
me closer to telling him he’s nothing.
I hate every minute of training,
but I say
and live your life
as a champion.
I am a myth, and a man,
of my own making.
–Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)
Tara Betts is the author of the poetry collection Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Tara’s poetry also appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’ CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her research interests include African American literature, poetry, creative writing pedagogy, and most recently sound studies. In the 1990s, she co-founded and co-hosted WLUW 88.7FM’s “The Hip Hop Project” at Loyola University while writing for underground hip hop magazines, Black Radio Exclusive, The Source, and XXL. She is co-editor of Bop, Strut, and Dance, an anthology of Bop poems with Afaa M. Weaver. In April 2013, she published the libretto “THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali” (Winged City Press) written for the live performance directed by Peggy Choy.
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