Whenever I am on a train, I find myself hypnotised by the sound of the wheels on the track and the rhythmic ‘rattle’ that this produces in the carriage. Similarly, when at a queuing to pay at the supermarket, I love to stand and listen to the sound of the ‘beeps’ produced when items are scanned at the different checkouts, the differences in pitch (probably due to the relative distances) and the sometimes ‘rhythmic’ effect of the beeps occurring at random intervals. When I’m in a traffic jam in a car, I can amuse myself for long periods of time by simply listening to the ‘music’ created by the interaction of the indicator’s clicking sound and the swoosh of the windscreen wipers, slowly moving in and out of phase with each other. When using a photocopier it is not uncommon to see me nodding my head, in time with the mechanistic ‘groove’ of the machine, as if I was listening to music on headphones.
When I tell people about this, or when people observe me absent-mindedly humming as I invent bass lines that compliment the metronomic ‘tick-tock’ of the car indicator, or tapping additional layers of rhythmic patterns over the incessant ‘clickity-clack’ of the train, some people think I’m mad, some think I’m just a muso-geek and others seem to understand and even recognise this behaviour in themselves. Regardless of what other people may think, I find that I derive genuine and meaningful musical experiences from sounds that other people may regard as noise, or indeed, that they may subconsciously ‘block out’. This does not surprise me, I am fully aware of the subjectivity of musical experience and I’ve also attended the events at the United Center many times, but it does intrigue me. Consequently, in recent years, I have started to use this idea in my teaching and, most recently, in the context of a 1st year undergraduate course I teach in Popular Music Composition at Edinburgh Napier University.
In week 2 of my composition course (after the initial introductory lecture) I ask my students to attend class with some sort of hand-held recording device. After a preparatory discussion about sampling and related issues, we head out into the campus (and beyond) in search of sounds that we feel are ‘interesting’ and that are/could be considered ‘musical’. The term ‘musical’ is deliberately used as a problematic and ambiguous word as the intention is for the students to decide what this word means, and why. I want my students to start to listen to sounds in their environment analytically, to think about the ways in which sound is perceived, and to consider the ways in which ‘music’ can be found (or drawn from) unexpected sources.
Use of samples is clearly not a new – for many composers of popular music (particularly for younger students), this is one of the first steps in writing/producing a piece of music. For example, a drum sample is loaded into a digital audio workstation (DAW) and other layers are added on top until the track is complete. The exercise that I described above is different, however, as it is not about using pre-existing samples – it is about creating audio files that can be used, manipulated, and sculpted to create musical source material. Again, this is not a new idea and it is one that has been a key aspect of many types of electronic music for decades. That said, without exception, my students consider this approach to be entirely novel and, in some cases, the idea of starting a compositional process without even touching an instrument or DAW is even met with scepticism.
Implications for ‘Popular Music Composers’:
Popular music is an ‘aural art’ (Warner 2003: 8) that comes into being through the recording and manipulation of audio – popular musicians use production technology (software and hardware) as means to work directly with sound and to create sonic artefacts (Moir and Medbøe, in press). In this sense then, recorded sounds are the building blocks of many types of popular music. Regardless of whether we consider recordings of traditional instruments or samples of ‘found sounds’, for example, when a track is created we engage with it aurally. In my opinion, this means it is of paramount importance for popular music composers to think carefully and creatively about timbre and sound creation, just as much as (if not more) harmony and melody etc.
First year popular music students often tell me that their default approach is to use a DAW (Logic or Ableton Live, primarily) and to begin with instrument presets or samples and compose a track using these pre-existing components. Additional layers of audio, such as vocals or live instruments, may be added but the starting point is often one that is essentially curtailed by the parameters of software presets, workflows, or technical ability. This, in turn, can lead to students reverting to habitual processes or to genre stereotypes. I do not mean to suggest that my ‘found sounds’ exercise will necessarily yield music that defies genre classification or idiomatic norms – nor should it. What this exercise does is to encourage students to break habits, listen at a deeper level, and consider their music in a way that goes beyond the melodic/harmonic/rhythmic content that is the typical priority and preoccupation of young students in this area. By considering their music from this sonic perspective, it is hoped (and is usually the case) that the students will uncover new and interesting perspectives on composition and production that they may not have arrived at by conventional or habitual practices.
Moir, Z. and Medbøe, H. (In press). Reframing popular music composition as performance-centered practice, Journal of Music, Technology and Education (Special Issue, Edited by Gareth Dylan Smith and Bryan Powell)
Warner, T. (2003) Pop Music, Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the
digital revolution, Ashgate, United Kingdom.
“Take the funky drummer give him back to james”
In my last post, I was looking at the convoluted relationships between DJ performance in the context of a ‘live’ Hip Hop party and the live musician’s role in the creation of the first Hip Hop records. It’s now time to follow the chronology of the story and deal with the development of digital sampling of the kind any producerw would recognise today. But just before that…..if you’ve read any of my other blogs you’ll know I have a penchant for Igor Stravinsky into the mix- well here he comes again: in a paper from 2005, (The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine), Robert Fink has identified ORCH5, a pre-set on the Fairlight sampler. It is a cheesy full orchestral ‘hit’ which Fink convincingly argues was sampled from a recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird Ballet. To hear Stravinsky’s ‘hit’ in action in early Hip Hop you need go no further than Africa Bambaataa’s 1982 classic Planet Rock. Here it is on the invaluable whosampled.com website:
This post is a quick look at the tangled the mix of live playing, sampling and DJ’ing in old School hip Hop. One of the great advantages of the blog format is the chance to lay in audio a youtube links, so the reader can actually hear what is being talked about. I do, however ask you, dear reader, to be aware that this limits us to MP3 audio, and if you want to REALLY here some of this stuff, find it in a decent audio form.
My five year old daughter has some interesting books, courtesy of a cool mother in law. Along with a story built around Coltrane’s Giant Steps (I’ll lend it to you Zack), we have an illustrated children’s account of DJ KOOL HERC! When the Beat was Born gives a child friendly account of the origins of Hip Hop in the Bronx. Spurred on I went looking for more on the subject and a visit to Edinburgh University library shows a good ten feet of academic literature on hip hop, much of it describing a world I know nothing – which is weird because I lived in new York for 11 years from 1990, and had some experience making music on the peripheries of Hip Hop.
Following on from last week’s post about The Digital Ensemble, this post gives you the opportunity to watch a short documentary about a project I worked on recently with this group.
‘Layers’ is a new track by The Digital Ensemble, a group of musicians with disabilities who compose and perform original music in a variety of styles. The track is the result of collaboration between CP Productions and Drake Music Scotland and was supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative (Access to Music Making fund). Zack Moir worked primarily with Paul Duff of The Digital Ensemble to write, record and develop ways to perform this innovative music. The track was recorded with the rest of The Digital Ensemble in Slate Room Studios, Scotland’s newest professional recoding facility in January of this year. The track is out now to buy on iTunes:
(all proceeds to The Digital Ensemble)
This documentary shows how the composition and production of this music was approached:
In order for any musician to learn and develop they must have regular opportunities to play, rehearse and perform over a sustained period of time. There are very few opportunities for disabled musicians to take part in regular, progressive music making. Although there is a welcome increase in more inclusive music activities, most of these are time-limited projects, often only lasting a number of weeks, with little or no follow up. Improving this situation is one of the key aims of Drake Music Scotland. This blog is about one of our groups, The Digital Ensemble.
Fulfilling my overlapping roles as a drummer, a teacher of aspiring musicians in a London music college, and a ponderer on what it is some of us are trying to achieve in and through higher popular music education, I spend a good portion of my time worrying about what kind of example I set, and to what extent how many students will see my example, casually ignore it, and go their own way. Most of the music I play is perhaps most easily grouped under the broad descriptor of “popular” – although the relative popularity of that music is borne testament by the collection of boxes I have at home containing CDs of the Eruptörs’ first (OK, and also our second) punk-metal quasi-concept-album from 2008 (and 2010). That being said, I just finished a run of panto in Essex, and the show was 99% sold out – an impressive box office feat that I am confident had nothing at all to do with my being involved in the production. But although panto is popular and I hardly stopped drumming throughout, isn’t it much more theatre than music? Where does one draw the line, and why? All of this (and more) has me wondering about my relevance, anxious about the pedagogic authority – as Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) have termed it – that students, consciously or unconsciously, ascribe to me.
As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, one of the things that is of great interest to me is improvisation. I am interested in this subject practically and theoretically but I have a particular desire to understand more about the ways in which it is taught, learned and assessed in educational contexts. Over the last week I have been involved in a project in primary schools in which we have been introducing children between the ages of 8 and 11 years old to improvisation. It has been incredible fun and very rewarding so I would like to share some information about the sessions in this week’s post.
The workshops were part of a wonderful project, entitled ‘Music, Sound and Electronics’ which was developed and run by Lauren Sarah Hayes for West Lothian Council and supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative. This project consists of Lauren and guest musicians/composers/improvisers delivering sessions (each 1 hour long) in which the young people learn about music and sound whilst exploring electronics, designing and developing their own instruments and modifying/extending ‘traditional’ instruments , for example. The project runs over 10 weeks and, each week, classes will work on a different topic and explore music and sound in new and interesting ways. 16 classes across West Lothian participated in the project which meant that, over the course of a week, approximately 500 students are involved. I was asked by Lauren to write and deliver a workshop on improvisation (using electronic, home made and ‘traditional’ instruments) that would introduce the young people to improvisation. In some ways, I expected this to be challenging as I believed that it might be difficult to encourage some children to get involved with the exercises – as it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and it seemed like everyone really enjoyed the sessions – including me!
This post is based on a presentation that I gave at ‘Improvisation: Educational Perspectives’, a conference that we held at the University of Edinburgh in April, 2014.
It is very common for people to say to me on a gig or recording session: ‘play a sax solo…you know – like the the one on ‘Born to Run’ – or, ‘let’s do Baker Street’ (or even Careless Whisper, unfortunately). Similarly, I’ve had many occasions where my pupils have said things like – ‘show me how to do it like Maceo Parker‘ or ‘how can I make it sound more like [X, Y or Z player]?’. I am really interested by the idea that people, particularly in the realm of pop music, will not only learn to improvise by emulating those who they enjoy listening to and respect, but will in many cases also be asked in educational and professional contexts to do so and may be assessed or evaluated on the success of the emulation. So, in this post, I would like to explore the notion of improvisation in pop and rock music – clearly this is a huge topic but this is deliberate and I will try to write as generally as possible for the purposes of stimulating discussion. I should also note that, although a great deal of pop/rock music is improvised, (guitar strumming, keyboard fills, etc.) featured solos are inevitably of great interest. Continue reading ‘Just Like Clarence’
I almost arrived late for the first class of this MOOC! I hadn’t realised it was running until I saw mention of it on “Cafe Saxophone” (a brilliant online forum about anything saxophone). So I signed up for the Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC (from the Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh) during its first week.
I’m not really sure what I was expecting. I had done 2 other music related MOOCs, with very disparate experiences, so I was prepared for almost anything. I have played the saxophone for 5 years, having taken it up ‘later in life’, following redundancy from a job as a Research Scientist in Radio Communication systems! So my background is definitely not in music.
Continue reading Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC: how was it for me?