Tuesday 20 November 2012

Response to 'Solo for Mp3 Player'

Following my last essay 'Solo for Mp3 Player', I had an email from Bryan Sonderman of Ilinx Group (extra links at the bottom), in which he made a more positive and creative assessment of the possibilities of mp3 players than I did. I found his thoughts interesting and agreed. Here's what he had to say:

Given their ubiquity and user-friendliness, I think that playing playback interfaces not only unleashes the dormant interactivity of these tools (itunes, youtube, ipod, spotify, etc), but also challenges our cultural assumptions of who makes music and what music can sound like. Mp3 players have the playability common to all music instruments: musicians playing mp3 players have infinitely permutable variables at their disposal (volume, timeline progress, forward/back skip) in the same way a pianist has the variables of the black and white keys, tuning, pedals at their disposal. Rapidly skipping through a sequence of mp3s, or constantly adjusting the volume of an mp3, etc. doesn't sound like music because we haven't yet conceived of such playful gestures as musical. It is only a matter of time...

a few things about digital music making, pertinent to music production using mp3 players....

1) it's easy: ableton live (especially session view) resembles music video game interfaces like Guitar Hero and Poppin Music. It requires very little technical knowledge.Thus, many amateur musicians now translate their experience consuming video games to a context in which they produce music. I've enjoyed hearing many non-musicians create beautiful music after only a short time playing with ableton. Lil Ugly Mane's recent project, " Study of the hypothesized removable and/or expandable nature of human capability and limitations primarily regarding introductory experiences with new and exciting technologies by way of motivational incentive" , chronicles this trend, compiling 150 "first beats" submitted by fans. Treated as an instrument, the familiar interface of mp3 players would presumably make music production an even more popular practice. I get dreadfully bored by most professional music, and am very pleased by the increasing quantity of vital and original music I hear from amateurs. 

2) it's information based: computers are tools for producing/consuming and circulating information. Digital music, in the form of midi, mp3, is the arrangement of sounds, AND the arrangement of 1s and 0s. The difference between the 1s and 0s that make up a midi tone and the 1s and 0s that make up a 3.5 min mp3 is only a matter of scale (Thank you for alluding to this issue!). Both should be viewed as equally valuable materials for making digital music. The act of playing mp3 players as instruments acknowledges mp3s as raw material for music production--it engages with the materiality of digital music in the way Pollock's paintings or Burroughs' text cutups engage with the materiality of their medium. But this will require a revolution of our attitude toward "originality". Because our mp3 players are loaded with music with which we are already familiar, we will have to remove the burden of originality from our mp3-based songs to make them seem musical. We will have to hear a Kesha track with constantly changing volume as something as musical as the source material. We will have to hear the PLAYFULNESS in tweaking variables like volume to hear it as music. Each jerky change must be heard as a playful gesture. 

3) it tends to be autistic : the boom of bedroom producers represents both the democratization of music production and its atomization. The personal screen, the abundance of tools which render other musicians unnecessary, weed: all of these things have led to the isolated producer superseding the band/ensemble. This has spurred a lot of variety and allowed us to hear music we otherwise wouldn't have, but it also compromises the musician's status as expert listener, and not just expert sound-maker. Playing music with other people exercises one's listening ability, and oftentimes pushes musicians in directions they did not predict....especially if the music is improvised. Practicing deep listening has a social impact, beyond music. It heightens the beauty of every sensation, and makes one more sensitive to how they interact with the world. 

This leads me to the utopian potential of playing mp3 players as instruments. Music software doesn't have to be an atomizing force. We should play computers with other people as often as we can, to prove to the luddites that technology has a place in vital IRL communities, and to prove to the technophiles that computing doesn't have to be a hyper-productive, individualist activity. I think this might be what goodiepal means by making music for artificial intelligence: integrating rational, binary technology with what is not rational and binary: playfulness, relations, mistakes, all those little bits of chaos that meat space presses us with every day. We are attracted to what is novel and unfamiliar, why would artificial intelligence be any different? 

I have made hours of music using iTunes and youtube as instruments (please reference the links in the postscript). The most exciting music has always been a collaboration: between a computer, myself, a fellow player and their computer. I would highly recommend an iTunes soundclash (two players playing itunes, constantly tweaking its variables, on top of and in response to one another). Now that is a prescription for coyote's medicine, a little bit of chaos to teach one how to live more resourcefully and creatively with what is available. And all you have to do is board a crowded train to see just how "available" mp3 players are. The sooner we engage with consumption media for its productive potential, the better. That is an indispensable attitude, a sort of hacking ethos, that resonates beyond music. 

Bryan Sonderman
Research and Development
Ilinx Group




Friday 16 November 2012

Column: Solo for Mp3 Player

 Photograph by Craig Dennis

Done another essay for Dummy, this time on the pros and cons of personal mp3 players (click here to read). Forgot to add that many of these issues go back to the eighties with the Walkman, though I say this only because unless they make reifying assurances to the contrary, practically any online music piece is often misguidedly feared to be shouting "OMG THIS IS SO NEW PLZ RETWEET" between the lines - this one isn't.

Something that I had always known on a philosophical level suddenly became very obvious: an MP3 player is a musical instrument...

We don’t normally think of an MP3 player as being a musical instrument. We tend to almost think of it as the opposite, something that you use to listen to other people performing with instruments, with the listener being the subject and the instruments on the recording the object. But an MP3 player is interactive just like a musical instrument is – like an instrument, its operator has considerable control over the sounds the device produces, including how loud those sounds are. If you count a DJ as a musical performer and her/his equipment as a musical instrument (and you’d be pretty old-fashioned not to), then it’s only a short leap to see MP3 players in the same way. Using an MP3-player is not an entirely passive activity, and the recordings it performs are not heard entirely objectively. The key difference, of course, is that much of the time the performances given by an MP3-player-as-musical-instrument, together with its operator-as-musician, have an audience of only one...

The personal MP3 player with earphones is the Tea Party candidate of human music-making. “Total freedom for the individual! No one should make choices but me.” The reason we don’t see this as isolating and even antisocial is because we’ve come to believe, bit by bit since rise of the record industry, that the individually-owned, individually-experienced collection of music-playing commodities (records, CDs, MP3s, and the machines that play them) is the one true paradigm of musical experience, or at least its ideal form...

Not only does the sound of an MP3 have a slightly poorer quality, but all kinds of multisensory, flexible and interactive modes of music-making are beyond its programming, its modest bouquet of track selection, album artwork, shuffle and volume control. And yet, with the help of marketing departments and advertisers, we continue to regard MP3 players as the ultimate site of musical interaction, a prospective encyclopedia encompassing all there is and could ever be in music-making...

Thursday 1 November 2012

Column: Texas' Dance Underground

After a short hiatus while both Dummy and myself changed our circumstances, the column is back, this time looking at the underground dance scene flourishing in Texas (click here to read). There's some great music going on there and a few very high-quality releases that are free to download, so check it out.

With elements of ballroom culture, UK Funky and Latin American infusions, Adam Harper considers the rising influence of Texas’ vital underground dance music.


American underground pop dollars feel higher against their UK counterparts now than I can ever remember them being, especially when it comes to dance music. Even some of the greatest releases to have come from the UK scene in the past year – Kuedo’s ‘Severant’, Jam City’s ‘Classical Curves’, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s ‘Black is Beautiful’ – have had a distinctly American flavour. Scratcha DVA, Cooly G, Actress, LV, Dusk + Blackdown and newcomer Evian Christ have been flying the flag for the UK impressively this year, but the sounds of juke/footwork, ballroom/vogue house, cloud rap, so-called ‘trap’, the NYC art/progressive network, seapunk (yep – listen to Coral Records before you snort derisively) as well as classic Chicago, Detroit and Miami seem to be setting the agenda right now.


Dubbel Dutch turns out to be the tip of a respectably sized iceberg. There are two whole labels producing music of a broadly similar stripe in Texas: #Feelings, based in Austin, and Freshmore, based 160 miles down the road in Houston. Though it only has three releases so far, #Feelings is one of Bandcamp’s many hidden gems. With effortless glamour and wicked camp, the label combines a stridently embodied theme of hard-dancing gay male subculture and desire with the surreal digital future faddishness of the twenty-first century.


For futurism with little compromise, the label’s strongest offering is undoubtedly the ‘More Than Friends’ EP by Lōtic, a DJ-producer formerly of Austin but now based in Berlin. Lōtic’s music is particularly exciting, its energy and immediacy improbably but undeniably of a piece with its startling imagination. What’s more, the EP is free. He specializes in cold and pared-down hi-fi textures, ringing with titanium and cybernetic flex, and wraps his inscrutable future house in ambient effects that reverberate for eons.


Texas’s culture is often heavily influenced by its proximity to Mexico, south of the border, and dance music is no exception. Perhaps the most influential sound to have come out of Mexico in recent years is tribal guarachero (often abbreviated to ‘3ball’) which mixes goofy synths with traditional Latin American cumbia-like folk rhythms (a fascinating, subtle groove balanced partway between a duple and a triple rhythm).


Based in the Rio Grande Valley in the far south of Texas, Arms&Suites (Matthew Crossman) is yet more proof that Bandcamp artists don’t get the coverage they deserve.