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Beats Project Post-Mortem

Beats Project Post-Mortem

I made a drum machine beat every day of last month. Was it worth it?

Well, I noticed pretty quickly I had a style: edgy, syncopated 2- or 4-bar grooves, using both sparseness and intricacy, and obsessed with attractive combinations of sounds.

(This aesthetic owes a lot to Pearson Sound. If you want to hear 2 hours of great music in that vein, check this seriously good mix.)

My big discovery during the project was the importance of assembling good sounds. (Not necessarily good sound quality, by the way. My samples were mostly lo-fi, either taken from recordings or from a fairly crude freeware softsynth, Drumsynth 2.0.)

But I realised that browsing a library of samples can be a creative act. A lot of my beats happened when I found an inspiring sound.

When choosing sounds, I sought attractive timbres: sounds that seemed in themselves funky, rich, fat, complex, nasty or otherwise satisfying. One thing I noticed repeatedly was that those sounds tended to fit in multiple categories: a thrumming kick drum could be a bass note; a metallic or noisy percussion could sound melodic.

In particular I liked:

Bell-like sounds

Bass hits (notice how the kick drum is tuned to the Ab, bVI of the minor chord stab, then another bass sound enters on the tonic note C)

Chord stabs

Conga drum-type sounds

Basically, for me, all of the above categories bleed into each other. As I’ve mentioned before, these sounds excite the ear’s ability to imagine the physical shape and materiality of a resounding object. That’s why we use physical metaphors so much: fat, big, rubbery, metallic, gummy etc.

(At least, I use them.)

I also liked:

Complex/modulating percussion sounds

Claps, shakers, cymbals, woodblocks

Playing around with these, I started noticing properly the role for deep bass and high treble sounds in balancing out the sonic spectrum.

Other techniques I used were:

Chopping recordings

Hearing melodies in the drum pitches

Using the same sample at different volumes to add depth e.g. snare ghost notes

Sparse use of one sound e.g. snare

A few days into the project, I happened to be in a pub that had background music. The drums seemed to spring out of the mix. My ear had become much more attuned percussion sounds and patterns.

There are two things I’d like to do with my newly-refined beats style. First, take some of the beats and put them in Reaper where I can apply FX and make complete songs. (But still using my drum machine to make the drumlines first – kind of like tracking the drums for a rock song before moving onto mixing.)

I’d also really like to compose for a band, but thinking as completely as possible in drum machine terms of combining sounds into rhythmic shapes. Instead of making a melody and chords, I would think of interlocking, cyclic rhythmic lines which could be bass notes, drum hits, chord stabs, vocal sounds, or combinations of those – with the choice made according to sonic balance and interest.

I may get to that in February. If so, I’ll try somehow keep the limiting simplicity of the drum machine. Having to convert files every time I wanted new samples was annoying – but it also pushed me to commit to a set of sounds, only bailing out if something really wasn’t working.

The once-a-day process was really fun. The whole point was that I could suit each day’s effort to how much time I had – a ten minute sketch or a couple of hours digging for samples.

The downside is that good ideas don’t get developed because you’ve moved onto the next thing; and also that you can get into too much of a routine and forget to be imaginative.

This month I’ll be working on learning and recording a single (pop or jazz) tune a day, but I won’t post them all online.

Anyway. My favourite beat is tied between Day 4 – British Exit (best crafted, I think) and Day 9 – Clouds In My Head (most imaginative).

The runners-up would be 13, 15 & 17.

Looks like I did my best work early in the month, doesn’t it? Next time I’ll look out for that and change something if I seem to be getting in a rut.

Last thing – how Soundcloud works. It seems to arrange for about one or two people to click on each piece you put up. After that, I think it’s the album art (and the genre you pick) that decides what gets views. Anyway it’s all single-digit stuff and much of that is spam from accounts offering “real plays” for money. The piece that got most plays was the one sampling my trio with Dyl Lynch and Max Zaska, which I posted about on Facebook. I think people clicked on it cause they were interested in that band.

Winding Down

Just a quick note to say, I’ve decided to stop posting regularly here after around 30 posts in 7 months!

It’s been a massive pleasure. What I had imagined would be a very nerdy, explorative blog on advanced rhythm and jazz concepts took a slightly different route. My personal tastes, and even where I am in my musical career, pushed me into investigating what are the musical forces that mean the most to me.

I ended up developing a pretty satisfying web of concepts all coming from my love of African-American music: (deep breath)

  • interlocking
  • directionality (and targeting)
  • timbralism in harmony and melody
  • physicality, kinetic metaphors and body movement
  • rhythmic independence
  • the interconnectedness of popular styles in Europe and America
  • manifesting
  • navigating cyclic forms
  • surface vs. underlying ground, displacement vs. rootedness, dissemination vs. locality
  • multiplicity and double consciousness

And more I can’t recall off the top of my head. None of these are particularly original, and I knew about them before I started Drum Chant. But, from the weekly pressure of having to demonstrate them in blog posts, they’re currently nicely active in my head. I’m confident I can apply them anytime I hear, or write, new music.

Throughout my time in jazz education, I felt that I didn’t really get what was going on and couldn’t easily create music that I liked (these feelings hindered connections with other musicians). To some degree, I think I’ve overcome that. The solution always seemed to be, putting faith in intuitions that I’d had all along.

(For my analytical personality type, “putting faith in” translates as “thinking up an ontology for”.)

Anyway, rather than keep working on these concepts, I want to find ways to apply them in the real world.

I also want to do things that push me to connect with more people, whether gigs, collaborations, or online content with a broader appeal.

Thank you for reading. I’ll probably post again, but not on any schedule! Enjoy the pieces I have up and feel free to comment on any of them.

Independence and Improvising

Independence and Improvising

Today I’m returning to some ideas from this piece. I look at how the ability to play two or more different parts at the same time, known as independence, might help with jazz soloing. My overall theme is the gestural side of improvisation – the movements we make on our instruments.

This is kind of opposed to the common harmonic/melodic idea of soloing which could be paraphrased as “consciously select notes to create new melodies that you can imagine singing.” The gestural approach is instead about letting your hands choose the notes for you.

This is fraught with the danger of playing stuff you didn’t mean to, as most students know too well. Why even investigate it?

Musical motion is, first and foremost, audible human motion.

Many sophisticated musical concepts develop as an extension of physical activities, such as walking, strumming, hitting, cutting, scratching […].

Those are some awesome quotes from Vijay Iyer’s “Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation”. They suggest that how musicians move around their instrument is a lot of what we enjoy in the African-American traditions of improvising.

For example, check out Jimmie Vaughan’s on a slow blues by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. (Vaughan and his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan immersed themselves in Dallas’ black music scene from their early teens. I think it shows in their music.)

I love the faint off-mic vocalisations that answer the solo at 0:03, 0:17 and 0:43 – someone was digging it!

Vaughan’s note choices are unremarkable. He expresses himself via time feel and a sophisticated repertoire of hand movements: bends, hesitations, vibrato, etc. His touch is phenomenal, for instance, the unexpectedly soft and gentle notes deftly placed in the middle of phrases at 0:07 and 0:11. (A tenderness befitting a track called “Full-Time Lover”. Check out the live versions on Youtube.)

Let’s move onto some jazz. Charlie Parker used much more sophisticated harmony than a blues guitarist. But I believe he similarly formed his improvisations by chaining together gestures – not guitar bends and pull-offs, but small cells, arpeggios and mordents. As we’ll see in his solo on “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”.

Solo Extract.png
Example of cell in bar 3, filling out the phrase and voice-leading smoothly

The harmony implied by this cell is the negative dominant resolution IV- to VI-, occurring 2 beats later (i.e. displaced) from where it would typically happen in a “Parker Blues” progression. But more important than the harmonic side, is the melodic strength and the effortlessly smooth insertion into a long fluid line.

My way of practising towards this gestural playing is to count the beats in the bar aloud as I play.

As I mentioned in my other post, this feels like untangling the melody from the lingual part of the mind. Anything not fully internalised will disturb the count, revealing how well you’ve learnt something.

This video shows a work in progress; the tempo is a good deal slower than Parker’s and I haven’t got Parker’s microtiming. This is a serious omission because his laid-back feel is a massive part of his artistry. But I’m still working towards being able to lay back while counting. The tendency is for the count to drag along with the notes.

This reminds me of a general question. When laying back consistently, should your foot tap the original pulse ahead of the laid-back playing? My current philosophy, considering drummers’ and pianists’ ability to have different microtiming in different limbs, is that it should. What do you think?

I want to have a quick look at some of the ways Parker uses those cells I mentioned. I think I’ll write a post about it after I study it properly.

In his head melody, solo, and in the head melody of “Blues For Alice”, Parker uses a 1 2 4 5 cell in bar 5 or 6 of the blues form – in each case, it resolves to a strong b3 tone.

 

Examples 2.png
1st two examples from “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”, 3rd from “Blues For Alice” (transposed to C)

This resolution shows that the cell has a powerful inherent directionality – it wants to go somewhere. The idea of knitting together a solo from rhythmic elaborations of these elementally simple and strong melodies, is beautiful to me. Other examples are: 1 2 3 4; #1 2 3 4; 2 3 4 5; and major seventh and minor seventh arpeggios.

Parker’s use of cells means there is subtle re-use of material from the head in his solo. In his second and last chorus, he starts a chromatic descent with 4 3, the signature notes of the melody’s first phrase. Bar 8 in the solos and head uses the cell 2 3 4 5. And the distinctive blues scale finish to the head melody is reflected in two strong affirmations of the tonic in the last two bars of both solo choruses.

Let’s move on to something I didn’t tackle in my last article on independence: improvising!

There are a few cool things that emerge from applying the counting exercise to improv. For one, it forces phrases not only to interact with the beat at all times, but particularly to finish with a strongly defined rhythm.

Secondly, the only way to avoid tripping up the count is to chain together familiar shapes. If I start thinking of particular notes or rhythmic details, I lose it. But thinking strictly in shapes (that have a set melody and rhythm) allows the imagination to make choices instantly about what sound to go for, opening up possibilities for forward planning and complex composite phrases. I suspect that high-level jazz players might have something like this in their heads when they play, and be able to sustain it without interruptions.

In this little solo, I try to use this internalised shape (taken from Parker’s 2nd solo chorus), which, if I didn’t have it in muscle memory, would certainly trip me up:

Solo Lick

Gesture-based playing can sound quite annoying, i.e. when someone busts the same lick for the third time that didn’t sound appropriate the first time. This is the danger I talked about at the start of the post. But I now believe the gestural approach is not the problem (because many of the greatest jazz players obviously made use of it). It’s the lack of awareness: not knowing what licks you use repeatedly or not checking that it’s actually an attractive melody.

Thanks for reading!

Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta’s take on independence

 

Ellington’s Interlocking Riffs

Ellington’s Interlocking Riffs

I got into the 1956 album Duke Ellington At Newport while studying for my master’s last year. It’s a standout piece of work from one of the greats of 20th century music, but what seduced me about it were a few particular things – all kind of related to each other.

First up, it swings ferociously. Secondly, it’s a feast of colourful approaches to jazz-blues harmony and melody, avoiding typical bop techniques such as extended II V progressions. Lastly, and this is what I’ll talk about today, Ellington made great use of riffs that answer and stack onto each other in a funky way.

I call it “interlocking” when two syncopated rhythms are played together, so that notes from one phrase surround notes from the other, or hit at the same time. This sound, of two rhythms weaving in and out of each other, reminds me of moving parts of a machine intermeshing.

(Not that Ellington’s music is in any way mechanical. Did you know he used to tell his drummers to play with “more sex”? Read more great quotes in Ethan Iverson’s excellent post.)

One practical application for any of these riffs, by the way, is small band comping. Few things heat up a jazz blues more than holding down a classic riff behind a solo.

For any readers with a non-jazz musical background…. I’m using “riff” with a slightly different meaning to a typical rock riff that shifts around with the chord changes. These jazz-blues riffs tend to stay fixed in the key of the piece even while the chords change beneath them, repeating 3 or 6 times in the 12-bar form with little or no change.

Okay, let’s investigate this “interlocking” thing.

Newport 0 52 Pno & Clarinet
Interlocking piano (bottom staff) and clarinet (top) riffs from “Festival Junction” off Duke Ellington At Newport

At 0:52 in the album’s first track, “Festival Junction”, a piano riff interlocks with a clarinet riff. Each has a strong identity. The 2-bar piano riff (which actually does follow the chords like a rock riff) is minimalist, three 8th notes descending two fifths, repeated three beats later. The clarinet riff lasts 4 bars, with a distinctive rhythmic shape and colourful chromatic notes, a high 9th tone, and blues b3rd ending. These interlocking riffs have a strong feeling of call and response. Both riffs have a first phrase and an answering phrase, and the piano line sounds like it’s answering each of the clarinet phrases. But that’s not the whole story. The instruments don’t just answer each other. Instead, there are varied linkages between the two parts: notes an 8th note apart, notes that are together, and notes in one part fitting between notes in the other part.

Pno Clarinet Techniques
Different ways the riffs lock together

There’s a particular funkiness in having accented notes in different parts close against each other. It pushes the musicians to accurately feel the same subdivision and microtiming. I first noticed this technique in the vocal parts in George Clinton’s “Give Up The Funk”. Check how the “we” of “Aw we” at 0:37 comes in a 16th before every other part including the main vocal.

The 2nd pair of interlocking riffs I’ll look at is 2:02. The saxes are playing a beefed up version of what was the clarinet riff. (Unfortunately, my knowledge of arranging isn’t enough to properly transcribe what’s happening – this is an incomplete sketch.) Against this, the brass plays a really funky answering line with bluesy Gbs on top.

Newport 2 02 Sax & Brass.png
Saxes on bottom staff, brass top

I really enjoy the gesture of taking the familiar (clarinet) line and kicking it up against a new riff, as if to see how it fares. For me, this is an emotion common to all groove music: unleashing a groove or element of a groove. A classic example is the hip hop snare drop. Techno also uses this feeling when a new element enters a minimal, repetitive groove. The meaning of all these gestures, for me, is something along the lines of “take that!”

What’s beautiful about how these riffs interlock, is all the ways the starts and endings of phrases relate to the opposing phrase. The sax line starts on the downbeat, one beat after the horns finish. The horn line starts an eighth note after the ending of the saxes’ first phrase, seeming to grow out of it. The saxes re-enter on a strong accent in the middle of the opposing phrase (on the and of 2), and then the horns *stop* on a strong accent in the saxes’ phrase (beat 4)! And then the horns fill out the last bar to connect us to the top of the whole shape.

Sax & Brass Techniques.png
Interrelated starts and endings of phrases

These rhythms, by the way, use the same syncopation techniques I wrote out about in this article. Check out the 2:3 clave and the groups of 3 discernible in our current example. My point is, these interlocking riffs are using normal, bread-and-butter syncopations.

Groups of 3 & Clave
Groups of 3 and a 2:3 son clave

Okay, so this album quickly goes from “beyond Kevin’s ability to transcribe” to “way beyond Kevin’s ability to transcribe”. But here’s a (very, very) rough sketch of a 3rd interlocking which also uses groups of 3. Very distinctively, in fact. Unlike the previous riffs, this is a transition and doesn’t loop. It happens at 38:40.

Newport 38 40 Groups of 3
Baritone sax on bottom staff, rest of horns above

 

 

The interlocking in bars 3-4 is on one hand, simpler than we’ve had before, because there are no overlaps, just a 3/8 cycle of two high notes and one bass note.

However, this effect is also more exotic and in-your-face than the other riffs – there’s no escaping those groups of 3 played by the entire band. It’s a strong gesture, and the note choices are gestural too: a descending line, an ascending line, and a static bassline. (Sorry about my lack of instrumentation knowledge!)

There is no end to what could be learnt from this album alone, but that’s all I can do today. Hopefully I can revisit Ellington’s music soon. If you want to read more about him, how about Darcy James Argue’s piece or Ethan Iverson’s?

Please share this post and feel free to write a comment! Let me know if I’ve mis-heard anything in the transcriptions, or if you’ve any thought on how to develop these ideas for writing or improvising. I also like feedback from the non-musicians in the house!

Blue Monk

Blue Monk

Today’s post is about the blues tracks on Thelonious Monk’s most famous album, Monk’s Dream. Though recorded on different days, they’re placed one after the other on the release, and actually sound almost like one piece that changes tempo mid-way. I want to investigate how these seemingly unambitious performances (built mostly from traditional vocabulary) form a powerful artistic statement.

monk_words
Transcribed by Steve Lacy in 1960

One quote on this list of Monk’s advice to musicians, is “Don’t play those weird notes, play the melody!” And in “Five Spot Blues”, the first track I’ll look at, Monk does just this. His solo (which I’ll discuss more later) uses versions of this lick:

 

Lick
… around 15 times before going back to the theme, which is itself entirely built from 7 repetitions of the lick.

One really important thing about this lick, is that it is a finger pattern as much as a melody. The grace note or flam or crushed note (or whatever you want to name it) is a physical effect that’s kept in a player’s muscle memory. Effects like that are completely central to blues, but also bebop (e.g. Charlie Parker’s mordents). Vijay Iyer is the guy to read on this topic of “embodied” and “situated” knowledge: knowledge that only comes out when you touch your instrument.

Not only does Monk keep coming back to this lick in his improvisation, but even he even uses it to accompany the first solo, by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse.

Five 1
Melody lick as answering phrase in bars 6, 7, 9 & 10

Why does Monk re-use the phrase so much? Obviously we can’t be sure. But my reaction to these two tracks is that Monk has an aesthetic of slow, smooth transitions happening behind the surface level of swinging rhythms and phrases. I intentionally call it transition, not static repetition or elaboration. There is strong directionality in these performances. Both tracks purposefully develop in texture and interaction (as we’ll see in a second).

Why might Monk favour such slow evolutions of density and rhythm? I suspect it’s a way to maintain the focus of his band and keep everyone on the same vibe. For example, the whole first chorus (1:45-2:02) of his solo on “Five Spot Blues” explores the original finger pattern for ten bars until the drummer’s rhythms settle down.

Notice how Dunlop’s syncopated hits in the first few bars give way to an almost cartoonishly simple quarter note pulse on the snare starting on bar 6 (1:52)… and only by bar 11 are things focused enough for Monk to move away from the lick and play a different phrase (1:59). Dunlop seems to acknowledge the theme of releasing tension with the kick-and-hat-splash hit that ends his snare quarter notes, and also with the roll at the end of the chorus, a standard punctuating gesture often used to end a solo – so it’s as if the first chorus of Monk’s improvisation is actually still winding down the sax solo.

(I didn’t try transcribe this… another aspect of finger/muscle/physical patterns is that they put the spotlight on microtiming. The result is that Monk’s rhythms here are close to unnotateable. They come from physical sensations and from the possibility of stretching out the pattern in time by modulating the gesture that produces it.)

Track 4 on the album, “Bolivar Blues”, shows how Monk moulds these slow transitions around the 12-bar blues form. Each 12-bar chorus, or even pair of choruses, has a distinctive texture:

Piano theme 1x
0:22 Theme 2x
1:06 Solo against trill 2x
1:50 Preaching against low chords
2:12 Preaching w/ lead line from piano
2:35 bluesy vocab featuring double time and eighth-note triplets 3x
3:37 Double time cool-down (3:49 voice movement)
3:58 Exuberant blues ideas (4:08 hint of quarter note triplets)
4:19 Quarter-note triplets 2x
5:00 Cluster chords 2x
5:41 Bass movement with a lot of space
6:01 Timbral harmonisations of bass movement
6:22 Timbral harmonisation of head
6:42 Head on sax 2x

A little more subtly, not only is the 12-bar form used as a building block, but the point of rest in bar 12 is used as an area to cue or connect to the following chorus.

0:39 & 1:01 The bass switches to 4 notes per bar for the end of each head

1:48 The sax plays a strong, bright swingy line, cueing the piano to take a back seat in the 3rd solo chorus

2:09 after a declamatory, preaching statement that resolved the blues form conclusively, there’s careful silence on beat 1 of bar 12 before Rouse takes up the mantle again with another bluesy shout

2:31 Rouse very clearly signals a switch to double time, and Dunlop plays some at the same time, which hints that this was a standard tactic for the band

2:53 Rouse plays a strong dark lick similar to his sign-off in “Five Spot Blues”, outlining a bII. Like at 2:09, this isn’t a cue but a confident inhabiting of the crucial bar 12

3:12 After a double time flurry, Rouse cues a switch of vibe with downhome riffing on the familiar blues scale

3:35 Rouse’s double time sign-off triggers Monk’s entire next chorus

4:58 Not a cue, but you can hear Frankie Dunlop struggle a bit with the time after he has heroically resisted the pull of Monk’s quarter-note triplets for two choruses… he is switching back into normal comping mode (instead of resisting) and he slips a tiny bit

5:26 This connection emerges not in bar 12 but just before bar 5… Monk brings in a bass-register movement that will develop into a riff of its own at 5:41

The importance of the final bar is actually just one instance of the importance of “weak bars” in jazz and other African-American music. I think I mentioned recently, that, as an enormous generalisation, African phrasing tends to target the downbeat, while European phrasing begins on the downbeat. This is perhaps why even-numbered bars in a form often get used for call and answer, breaks and cues/communication.

See how Monk’s melody for “Five Spot Blues” leaves bars 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 open for drum comments.

five20spot20blues

(That’s from this cool site… http://www.kyushu-ns.ac.jp/~allan/Documents/Monk-Trans-F.html)

To finish, here’s Charlie Rouse’s whole solo on “Five Spot” with a sketch of the drum and piano parts. Try reading along to see their interaction!

Five 1Five 4Five 3.pngFive 2.png

4-Month Roundup

4-Month Roundup

I was pretty sick last week so, while I recharge my batteries and get inspiration for some more blog posts, here’s a roundup of all that I’ve written about since I started – 18 articles! See which ones you missed!

How To Make It Big

Lit-crit look at the themes of 90s East Coast hip hop song. The most journalistic piece on this blog, due to my obvious passion for the track and the decent amount of research I put in.

Loop The Loop

Tips for making drum loops. I should write something else in that vein.

Some Of My Best Friends Are Syncopations

Bebop rhythm analysis.

The Real Blues Scale? Part 1

Talking about some Delta Blues melodies using a concept of “timbre-harmony”. This piece could have done with more examples and more exacting analysis.

Fun In Seven

Finding applications for some 7/4 grooves. This was the first post with videos (of me playing), and went down well for that reason I think! Videos, text and notation is a nice format for explaining music. It’s also nice to make a post about whatever I’ve been practising, it motivates me to get some concrete work done.

The Real Blues Scale? Part 2

I prefer this to part 1 because I have a much wider selection of examples. Quite a radical perspective on blues here in a way… I’m proud of this one.

Post-Dubstep Aesthetics

Analysing a UK dance tune. I learnt a lot from this, not that I’m planning on writing any dubstep any time soon.

Circular Rhythm

Demonstrating techniques for rhythmic improvisation on a groove.

Manifesting

Discussing styles of creativity in hip hop. This is my favourite article I’ve done so far, just because of the insights I came up with!

Alternate Paths on a Blues

Explaining and exploring the concept of “negative dominant” harmony in jazz. This one was cool because Steve Coleman, who is a hero of mine and one of the major inspirations for this blog, left some laconic but approving comments about it on Facebook. (“Negative dominants” are basically his concept.)

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 1

A maths-y look at a type of syncopated rhythm.

Truck on Down and Dig Me, Jack

Analysing some lyrics by the jazz/blues/jive entertainer Louis Jordan. I was hoping to get some more reaction/traffic because I investigated racist and anti-racist coded meanings in his songs, but no….

Enough With The Scales

A short polemic against a certain style of jazz pedagogy. This one did get the reaction I was hoping for, sparking off some impassioned comments on my Facebook page and by far the most views of any article here.

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 2

I think this one is packed with interesting info, but I have to admit it got very technical.

Independence Day

Discussing some exercises to increase rhythmic independence in a jazz context. I’ll definitely be returning to this subject soon. All of the rhythm-oriented pieces I’ve written for Drum Chant seem to have been guiding me in a particular direction of becoming ever more aware of physicality, both my movements on the instrument and my kinesthetic imagination.

History Of A Passing Chord

Analysing different ways to reach the II- or V7 chord on bar 9 of a 12-bar blues, focusing on parallel movements such as III- bIII- II-. Good info here I think.

6 Bassline Strategies

Ideas for writing funky basslines.

Are Videogames The New Jazz?

Speculation about virtual reality and music.

… back to business next week! Let’s see how the next 4 months go.

Are Videogames The New Jazz?

Are Videogames The New Jazz?

Why would I ever compare playing jazz to playing videogames? Apart from the obvious answer that I’m a big fan of both.

Well, they both depend on what gamers call “twitch”: instinctive use of patterns kept in muscle memory, and triggered subconsciously.

To achieve this, musicians and competitive gamers practise intricate finger and hand movements, chained together and timed precisely. (E.g. a fighting game might give only 1/60th of a second in which to counter an opponent’s attack).

Aggressive competition defines much online gaming and was also a celebrated aspect of early jazz and bebop. Speed, rhythmic intelligence and imaginative reharmonisations were prized in those scenes, demonstrated at jam sessions, battles and cutting contests.

Speed, timing and rule-breaking shortcuts are the hallmarks of video game speedrunning, where enthusiasts develop techniques and exploit glitches to achieve impossible trajectories and velocities…

I’m gonna get a little more abstract now. Hold onto your hats. Both video games and music are virtual worlds. They transport us to somewhere imaginary. They also change instantly in response to the performer’s decisions. (Bandmates providing the reaction in the one case, the computer and/or other players providing it in the other.)

And, music and games both happen in virtual space. The perception of space in music is complex, but here are some known aspects:

  • High notes are heard as being above low notes and never the other way around (although some cultures use a different binary, e.g. thin-thick). More here.
  • Our hearing automatically interprets stereo differences, echoes and reverberations to give us an impression of our surroundings. In music these effects are called “spatialisation”. They have always been an area of cutting-edge technology, because their virtual spaces seems so futuristic. Psychedelic music has always relied on spatialisation!
  • Most importantly, “music is the sound of human movement”. We interpret rhythm by imagining, using our kinesthetic sense, the body movements that could produce it.
  • Loosely speaking, musicians and informed listeners tend to imagine music as made of shapes (phrases, sections) and to imagine points in a cycle as locations. So, a jazz musician might ask another, “What are you playing on (or over) bar 5 of the form?”
  • These spaces must be learned off for high level performance. Set sequences of moves (i.e. licks in bebop, or a chain of jumps in a game) are used to navigate the space.

In general, I think the African-American tradition of improvisational music has game-like qualities anyway: misdirection, illusion, masking, changing context. Steve Coleman turned me on to this stuff. Further parallels can be drawn with sports, martial arts, and forms of ritual speech like telling tall tales.

So, music/games is obviously a fun analogy to ponder. But, beyond that, it suggested to me some interesting crossover ideas.

“Let’s Play” videos, of gamers commentating their own playthroughs, have become massively popular in the last few years. Could improvised music work with a commentary?

Actually, it traditionally does: non-verbal exclamations of approval, musical imitations, and jokes (“knock knock” at 0:50). Or in classic hip hop lyrics that turn attention to the present moment, “You’re in awe when I’m gripping my mic cord”, “Hey you sayin’ what the hell is this shit/Reaching for the cover, turning up your deck”.  I wonder could a contemporary artist build off these traditions and consciously add forms of commentary to improvised performance?

Visuals help a lot to make games accessible. The technology is available to visualise the harmonic choices made by improvisors – most simply, how about assigning a different colour to each note?

The practices of “modders” who repurpose commercial game content seem to mesh well with how jazzers used showtunes or classical music etudes for their own creative ends. Here, for example, is a level released in 2014 (for free) that uses content from a 1996 game in ways the original creators could not have imagined.

metmon2l.jpg
by Simon O’Callaghan

The open-source movement, meanwhile, reminds me of the great common pool of licks and ideas that jazz musicians take from and give to.

With my last band, Glitchpuke, I consciously copied indie game “development logs”by including analysis of my own mistakes in the band blog.

And these days, I’m feeling inspired by game level designers – particularly, their cycle of repeatedly exploring and then refining a space. I want to have a band that does that.

Can games learn from jazz? One thing I’m anticipating with interest is the appearance of black-coded movement/performance styles in virtual reality. As a point of comparison, think how twerking rapidly entered the cultural mainstream from both corporate music videos and home-made ones on Youtube – probably generating a lot of money for some people.

Okay, I’m gonna start rolling it up now, but first I’ll look at some instructive differences between jazz and videogames culture.

Games culture started in by far the more privileged milieu: prestigious US universities that turned Cold War funding into technologies like programming languages, the personal computer and the internet. As Jeru The Damaja put it, “Chips that powered nuclear bombs power my SEGA.” The people involved were predominantly white and guaranteed of social acceptance in the middle classes.

PDP Team

By contrast, jazz originated in African-American urban communities which experienced much racism and poverty, crime and corruption.

Then again, today, all kinds of people are represented in improvised music and in gaming. A book could be written about the changing demographics of each. Jazz has become broadly academicised, with its mass appeal claimed by rock, hip hop, dance etc. Gaming has gone from embodying both tech culture privilege and geeky outsiderhood, to hosting vocal feminist, transgender and non-Western communities. All these changes have provoked gatekeeping reactions of many kinds.

To wrap up, and to reassure any musician friends reading, I want to point out areas where computer gaming can’t compete with music performance.

  • Nuanced expression is one. Although performance capture technology and detail of simulation are always advancing, the complex, multi-layered, intimate connection of a live instrumental performance won’t be digitised for years to come.
  • Gaming, as we currently know it, is not a fully-fledged form of expression – you can’t convey feelings by how you jump around a map. Although maybe this fellow would disagree:
  • Finally, games are dependent on technology. Of course, you could say this about electronic music. But for me, that’s a major mark against electronic music – if it takes you a minute to start your computer and another to load up your preset banks, you can’t claim to have the immediacy of raising a horn to your lips and blowing.

Hope you enjoyed that! Back to my usual music chat next week! As always, your comments are welcome and you can show appreciation by liking or following on WordPress, or liking/sharing on Facebook.