Drum & Bass: Behind the Music

Here’s an excellent little behind-the-scenes documentary (23 min.) on three great UK drum and bass artists: Squarepusher, Photek, and Source Direct. It’s especially exciting for me (and I imagine other computer musicians like me) to see how producers back in the 90s were making music at home. Hardware samplers, sequencers, and mixers were an essential part of it, whereas now a single laptop can do everything.

Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, is the most impressive of the bunch here – very humble, and even this early on he’s clearly making the most complex, intricate music of the bunch. If you’ve heard his records before, this comes as no surprise. He talks about how he’s obsessed with listening to all kinds of rhythm-based music from every period past and present – jazz, funk, drum and bass, etc. He wants to be exposed to it all. This philosophy is also unsurprising given the maximalist complexity of his compositions, which are clearly his restless experiments to synthesize and expand upon all the rhythms he’s encountered. Seeing how bare bones his studio is is also quite inspiring. He’s able to do so much with so little because of the unique processing abilities of his most complex computer – his brain!

The guys in Source Direct also get points for being so honest and raw. I like how matter-of-factly they state that living in the middle of nowhere means their lives basically consist of making beats, driving fast cars, doing drugs, drinking, and girls. Since they only put out two albums, most recently in 1999, it’s clear this philosophy didn’t exactly have longevity built into it, but again, it’s honest. It’s completely understandable that guys growing up in such an isolated location, one so antithetical to the music they create, would have such a straightforward, reductionist outlook, especially when they felt alienated from school and the mainstream youth culture of most of their peers.

Thread Catalog 2013-05-24

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Thread Catalog is a new weekly feature rounding up links pertaining to the issues most relevant to Thoughts Involuntary: science, music, art, creativity, technology, etc.

Thread Catalog for the week ending May 24th, 2013.

Idiagram – The Art of Systems Thinking [systems science, complex systems, art, information science, processes] – Very interesting site that attempts to diagram the structure of various processes. Most interesting is the interactive diagram for The Art of Complex Problem Solving (pictured above).

Atheist State Lawmaker Quotes Carl Sagan Instead of Doing Prayer Before House Session [atheism, secular humanism, religion, politics] – An exciting and pretty revolutionary story about secular humanist/atheist representative Juan Mendez taking a calm and well-spoken stand to promote his beliefs. Hearing his words almost seems like the future, or a scene from a science fiction film where people no longer believe in religion, and are simply at one with the Universe and our existence in it. There needs to be so much more of this these days, rather than the infantile, religious zealots at one end, and the alienating, barking, proselytizing Atheists-with-a-capital-A at the other.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Asks Atheist Oklahoma Tornado Survivor If She ‘Thanked The Lord’ [atheism, religion, news] – Oh, well, there we go. Another civil, quiet, good-natured atheist making her stance known with no apology for herself and no derision for others.

Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics [religion, atheism] – Whoa. What is this, Atheism Awareness Week? Or did Catholics finally realize Jesus would have been more like the Buddha and less like a self-righteous douche?

24-Year-Old Receives Sage Counsel From Venerable 27-Year-Old [humor, The Onion] Fun fact: the guy on the left in the photo is Gabe Klinger, the director of the James Benning/Richard Linklater documentary I featured in last week’s Thread Catalog. A funny piece from The Onion, though I do in some sense take issue with it. Being young and thinking you’re in some sense perfect is certainly silly, but people who are comparatively young can often be wiser not just than people who are are younger than they are, but even those much older. Living through difficult circumstances or having a mind that can learn relatively quickly from mistakes can teach people at a young age how to deal with things more productively and maturely than people much older. The next link is a case in point.

Documentary on Zach Sobiech [human interest, miscellaneous, music] – An inspirational story of an 18-year-old who died from a rare form of cancer, but used music to touch others and show them what it means to be human. While many people might only see his fate as unlucky, I would disagree. He was actually quite lucky in the sense that he acquired much wisdom in his short life, and was able to come to peace with his situation and remain happy while also understanding his mortality. This is something many people decades older than him (and most people in general) are never able to do.

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers [writing, creativity, productivity] – “Kurt Vonnegut’s recently published daily routine made we wonder how other beloved writers organized their days. So I pored through various old diaries and interviews — many from the fantastic Paris Review archives — and culled a handful of writing routines from some of my favorite authors. Enjoy.”

Lost Lands Found by Scientists [science, exploration] – “A lost continent off the coast of Brazil may have been found, scientists announced last week.”

Still Charting Memory’s Depths A Conversation with Neuropsychologist Brenda Milner [science, neuroscience, psychology, neuropsychology, interview] – “In many ways, the Obama administration’s new plan to map the human brain has its origins in the work of Brenda Milner, the neuropsychologist whose detailed observations of an amnesia patient in the 1950s showed how memory is rooted in specific regions of the brain.”

‘Dynamic Range’ & The Loudness War [music, technology] – “We all know music is getting louder. But is it less dynamic? Our ground-breaking research proves beyond any doubt that the answer is no — and that popular beliefs about the ‘loudness war’ need a radical rethink.”

What do we mean when we call music pretentious? [music, criticism, art] – “‘Pretentious’ gets thrown around a lot when discussing music. It’s a word that comes with connotations of stuffiness, condescension, willful obscurity, and needless intellectual complexity.”

I Want to Believe [conspiracy theories, history, sociology, politics, skepticism] – An interesting analysis of the Illuminati and the function of conspiracy theories in our society. “The appeal of conspiracy theories is simple. Whether its Lizard People, Ancient Aliens, Freemasons, Occupy’s “1%,” or the poor maligned Rothschilds, the conspiratorial mind clings to the comforting notion of a world controlled by a rational agent capable of exerting its will to guide human events. Somebody is driving this thing … anybody. To the conspiratorial mind we are not alone with ourselves, left to our own devices, which can be the most terrifying prospect of all.”

Wilmette twins break Guinness record with 24 sets in 5th grade class [human interest, sociology, miscellaneous] – “Twenty-four sets of twins at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette are thrilled they have broken the Guinness world record for having the most sets of twins in one grade.”

Thread Catalog 2013-05-10

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Thread Catalog is a new (roughly) weekly feature rounding up links pertaining to the issues most relevant to Thoughts Involuntary: science, music, art, creativity, technology, etc.

• Excellent news – the New York Times reports that the D.S.M. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is being revised in an attempt to reposition psychiatry’s focus from categorized symptoms to the actual biological causes based on hard neuroscience. “The National Institute of Mental Health would be ‘reorienting its research away from D.S.M. categories’ because ‘patients with mental disorders deserve better.'” Clearly this will take a lot of time, but the general trend across fields of knowledge toward precisely deconstructing the brain’s structures, processes, and dysfunctions is among the most important human endeavors.

The Scientific 7-Minute Workout“In 12 exercises deploying only body weight, a chair and a wall, [this workout] fulfills the latest mandates for high-intensity effort, which essentially combines a long run and a visit to the weight room into about seven minutes of steady discomfort — all of it based on science.”

10 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Atheists – Keira Knightly was a surprise. Also, Daniel Radcliffe sounds just as cool as his Extras appearance suggested.

Emotional Piano, a Max/MSP patch for generating unique textures while playing piano. The video made me want to listen to Harold Budd asap.

Nota Bene: Stephin Merritt

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Nota Bene is a new feature collecting noteworthy quotes from some of my favorite artists, scientists, writers, creators, and thinkers.

“I feel like Psychocandy is the last significant event in pop music production. It’s the last album that sounded shockingly new, to me anyway.”

– Stephin Merritt, in conversation with the New York Times, January 2008

The Fallacy of Vinyl Fetishization

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In the last five to ten years, with the increased omnipresence of digital audio – mp3s, streaming services like SoundCloud and Spotify, and even the extant (but fading) Compact Disc – there has been a counter-movement growing. Music aficionados have increasingly taken to listening to and collecting music on vinyl, for various reasons, all of which seem to be about elevating the experience of listening to music to something extraordinary. Vinyl record culture has existed as long as the format itself, but with the digital atomization of society in general, many new converts are convinced that the physical format of vinyl and the rituals surrounding it are essential to experiencing good music.

This is a misguided premise. People who fetishize vinyl records and the experience of hearing music on vinyl want something more than good music. They want an experience that is romantic, almost sacred. For them, it is not “all about the music.”

There seem to be three main issues vinyl connoisseurs/fetishists care about:

  1. The Aura of the Physical Artifact – The vinyl record itself, as well as its (small-scale) fine art-like packaging, is a physical artifact that possesses a glorified aura, even in spite of the fact that it’s a reproduction. The vinyl record is an artifact that feels like a thing to treasure and keep. It’s a foot tall, and has a heft to it. Its physical presence in your home imposes itself on your existence. Soundwaves themselves suddenly maintain a physical presence on your shelf, even while remaining silent and dormant, encoded on a platter. Imperfections that arise from overplay are not errors, but charming characteristics of a well-worn pal.
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  3. Sonic Fidelity/Warmth – Because the reproduction format is analog, regardless of any digital steps in the creation (recording, mixing, or mastering), a feeling of “warmth” is generally perceived when listening to vinyl. There are lots of debates about this, but I would agree that it does sound different – warmer and less crisp (or “brittle”, as vinyl aficionados say; they jump at the chance to add value judgments to descriptors of digital audio). In terms of fidelity, especially for more experimental and ambient music with complex textures, aficionados claim the frequencies and tonal nuances are reproduced much more successfully on vinyl.
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  5. The Purity of the Experience – Listening to a record demands your attention/presence, primarily because you need to physically change the record when you want to hear a new one, or need to flip it to the other side. This means you need to be there, listening. Because the record and speakers are separate from your computer, it’s also less likely you’ll have your computer there diverting your attention with almighty Internet. It’s also more likely you’ll be doing something physical, like cooking, or hanging out with friends, playing a game, etc. In short, it not only demands more of your attention, it’s much more likely to be a social experience. It somehow feels like a more pure, human experience than listening to an mp3.

I’m sure there are more things that vinyl aficionados care about that delude them into thinking music should only be heard on vinyl, e.g. generally being Luddites, or holding onto some constructed concept of “respect” for the artist (by the way this is misdirected etiquette: most artists, like most people in general, don’t care about vinyl in that way). That being said, I think the reasons I listed are probably the main three.

Notice that none of these things have anything to do with how good the music on the record is. You could be a vinyl aficionado with a very poor, underdeveloped taste in music. It’s unlikely, because people who are so into music that they have become obsessed with vinyl tend to listen to a lot of music, and therefore acquire a better taste (i.e. a higher standard for what qualifies as good music). However, nowhere in the Church of Vinyl is it actually a requirement to care about how great a song’s melodies, arrangements, chord progressions, lyrics, or vocals are. You know, the things that actually make good music.

That’s my problem with vinyl fetishization: its passion is directed towards the sonic and experiential byproducts of the artifact, not the music itself. It’s no longer just about how great the music is, it’s about loving a format, and how sacred the ceremony surrounding it is. (Where’s the love for MiniDiscs??)

I own a phonograph and a good number of records, so clearly I enjoy listening to music on vinyl. However, for me the quality of the music trumps all. A good song played on a CD is a good song. A good song played on a 128 kbps mp3 is a good song. If it’s a good song, the quality will show through.

Great music doesn’t need a church in your living room devoted to it. Listen on an iPod and if it’s not catching your ear, listening to it on 200g audiophile virgin vinyl through a tube preamp and speakers with a perfect response curve isn’t going to help.

I only buy vinyl copies of albums I have already listened to obsessively on mp3 or CD. The quality of the songs have to prove themselves to me before they’re admitted to vinyl acquisition status. Aside from saving space and being kind to your bank account, this policy also gives you a look into the very enjoyable world of vinyl listening while reminding you to focus on the quality of the music. A good song is a good song, whatever the format.