Music

Starbound

Though infrequently, I sometimes choose to listen to music as I work. More often than not, this ends up being the music of the soundtrack to an indie Mac/PC game called Starbound. (It’s still in beta, but it’s a real gem. Watch a trailer if you ever happen to have time.) The game itself centers around the exploration of an infinite number of massive procedurally-generated worlds, and I find that the orchestral music does an amazing job of evoking the vast expanse of space while creating a warm sense of wonder and awe. Go ahead and listen to some of the following track as you read – it quotes the game’s main theme, which I’ll also link to at the bottom of the post. You should definitely listen to the second one too, but not while you’re reading – it’s more involved.

Why does most of the music lend itself to being good work music for me? I suppose it’s partially because all of it is instrumental (though vocals, probably synthesized, play a small harmonic part in at least a couple songs) and a lot of it progresses slowly. Overall, many of the pieces have subtle melodies. This is surely in part because the composer created the music with the intention of it being background music, unlike modern instrumental music or classical music – complex music that tends to distract me and make me almost unwillingly focus on its harmonies.

Strangely, in spite of how relaxing they are, the songs don’t immediately put me to sleep when I’m working, though they surely would if I was instead lying in bed. Also, they don’t usually cause my thoughts to run off on tangents about the game itself. Instead, they serve to calm my mind and help me to concentrate on the matters at hand. I tend to listen to the soundtrack mostly when I am doing math or computer science homework, both of which I find that I can do on autopilot, unlike more mentally involved pursuits such as reading. The entire soundtrack also happens to be either 4 or 6 hours long depending on whether or not one counts songs that are coded into the game but not actually implemented, meaning I always have plenty enough material to listen to. The individual songs can be repetitive but never in such a way that they become grating.

 

The game’s beautiful main theme which is frequently quoted in its other songs (including the one above):

 

 

Rights to Creative Expression in the Live Atmosphere

Last Monday, I finally had the joy of seeing the shoegaze powerhouse known as Whirr perform. Lately, they’ve been including some sort of industrial massive haunted house caliber efficient fog machines to their show, and was able to fill the Neighborhood Theatre with a fog as thick as pea soup* (*see Scooby Doo episode where they eat fog), to the point where the fire alarm was set off, the venue was evacuated and, yes, the fire department made a special guest appearance pushing the show back about an hour and a half while they had to air the venue out. For me, I loved every minute of it, almost to the point where if the show got cancelled, I couldn’t be mad, one moment I’m listening to their soundcheck while playing a70s arcade shooting game, the next the venue is evacuated because of Whirr. People unfamiliar with Whirr’s uncaring attitude, up’d and left the show as the fire trucks pulled up, but I’d have to say a majority of the crowd stayed and wanted Whirr to at least mildly re-fog the venue. Alas, the owners did not allow this, but Whirr pressed on and played mind-blowingly loud and incredible show. Moving on to the next day they continued on with fogging the Atlanta venue, The Drunken Unicorn, apparently the most brutally thick one yet to the point, where the bartenders couldn’t take orders or do anything, leading to the promoters sending immature and ridiculous Facebook messages about them being blacklisted from the Unicorn for doing something so inconsiderate, to Whirr’s response of being limited by them the entire night when it came to sound check, they couldn’t be as loud as their tour rider said they would, while they still performed fog and all (my friends there said it was incredible), the venue managers had the audacity to censor their performance, both visually and audibly. The issue in writing this goes to question, how we censor artists’  live expression, a form that can at times be more important than the music itself. I’ve seen countless bands whose music doesn’t interest me in the slightest, but if they throw a rad show, I have nothing but respect for them. Seemingly independent and punk venues are starting to lose what makes them interesting in ways like this, in his message to Whirr, the manager at the Unicorn kept citing how they lost money without referencing that the punk community by definition is an almost unsustainable model, bands on tour in the punk scene don’t profit that much relative to their time and effort, promoters in the DIY scene lose money almost every show, so why is it that now, venues trying to be punk are limiting what makes the atmosphere so unique. The Joyce Manor ripple of last year when the vocalist Berry, turned anti-stage diving in the middle of a show, causing bands and venues across the country to follow suit. Whirr getting blacklisted from venues for fogging the venue to the point of blindness, which is exactly what I want at a shoegaze show. Now if these limitations on expression occurs in seeming punk venues, I can’t imagine the limitations on bands playing larger House of Blueses, Fillmores or even venues. We’ll see how the rest of the year turns out with bands and venues butting heads over what they should and shouldn’t do, but as bands in the punk community continue to play larger and larger venues, I’m sure more limitations on their individual performances will be pressed upon them.

Music and Species

A friend recently sent me a link to an article, claiming that he believed I’d be interested in reading it. He was right. The article in question (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/150313-animals-music-cats-tamarins-psychology-science/) was about other species’ reactions to both human music and music tailored to their tastes. I’ve long thought that animals did not have a taste for music. To me, it seemed like they listened only causally, learning information about their habitat in order to survive. I’d never considered the possibility that animals could listen aesthetically.

The studies detailed in the article dealt with music as heard by cats and monkeys. After realizing that human music did not have positive effects on animals, researchers decided to try to create music that would fit the tastes of these very different animals, with some interesting results. Cats ended up reacting well to their music. Also, the monkeys (tamarins, to be specific) that were studied by the other researchers were shown to be affected by the music they heard.

The music that pleased the cats was composed partially of sounds that cats would typically associate with contentment. Some sections included purring, while others contained recordings of kittens suckling. The monkey music, on the other hand, was inspired by the sounds made by the monkeys. It consisted largely of high-pitched squealing. Agitating music made the primates anxious whereas calming music mellowed them out.

These animals’ reactions to the music cause me to wonder exactly what it is about human music that appeals to humans. Typically, the music we listen to is not in an extremely high or low pitch range to our ears, and I’m sure that that is true for a reason. Music also frequently contains topics that we can relate to and communicate feelings that we have often experienced. In a way, this is what the music made for the other animals did as well. The music played for the tamarins essentially contained an imitation of a singing tamarin communicating its feelings to others, and the cat music contained samples of sounds that call to mind situations with which cats are familiar.

In light of the above, perhaps music is really just an outgrowth of all animals’ basic need for communication. Since it’s vitally important to be able to signal one’s thoughts and feelings in the wild (as well as to be able to interpret these signals when they are given by others), it seems natural that this communication may have been the basis for the music we know today.

Unconditional Love: My Relationship with Death Grips

If you’re unfamiliar with Death Grips, they’re pretty much a perfect intersection of metal, electronic and rap. They’re debut album, Exmilitary is probably one of the most abrasive yet perfect things you’ll ever here. As any Death Grips fan will tell you, by becoming a fan, you’re only setting yourself up for heartbreak. And it’s true, very true. Upon the release last week of their final (maybe???) album jenny death that is the second album in a previously announced double LP, the powers that b, which is in so many ways a direct contrast to the surprise release of last year’s first section, niggas on the moon, featuring Bjork for some strange reason on every track. Anyway, jenny death defies all my expectations, I mean, I really don’t know what expectations you can have for an artist like Death Grips, but behind Kanye’s upcoming album this is going to be the best rap album of the year probably. The worst part about all of this is that, I don’t want to like this album, I really don’t. I don’t want anything more to do with Death Grips. They’ve broken mine and everyone else’s heart just too much. They haven’t performed a show for any of their last 3 albums, they booked a tour in 2013 where they decided not to show to any dates. They scheduled festival performances the next year followed by joining a tour with Nine Inch Nails and, I still can’t believe this, Soundgarden. I’ll never get over the fact that the Death Grips community truly believed that they’d go on an arena tour with Soundgarden, that baffles me. Right before this tour and these festival performances, the first of which, yours truly, bought a ticket to and made travel plans, bussing from Florida to Chicago, only to have them “break-up” a week before. That was it. After that, I swore off Death Grips, I revoked my fandom, I could no longer listen to them anymore, for once an artist’s hatred for their fans, finally worked. But then came jenny death, and I can’t help but forgive them, I mean it’s my fault really, I should’ve known they would never play that show, but I just wanted to believe. It feels like I’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship for years with this band, only to come crawling back every time they say something new, I just can’t help myself. And now my relationship is at a more ambivalent point than ever with this group, they officially announced a tour, with dates that I will be flying out of my way for this summer to go see while I’m traveling. I don’t know what to expect, but after constant disappointment, I think just owning a ticket to see Death Grips is all that I want at this point, I mean even after all this, they’re just really cool. Professor Weinstein said “anyone who buys a ticket to that tour is an idiot” and I’ll admit it, I’m an idiot but I’m proud. jenny death rekindled my relationship with one of my favorite groups, which will inevitably disappoint me again, but that’s ok, it’s the cycle of Death Grips fandom.

No Instruments, No Problem

Recent years have seen a skyrocketing of interest in acapella music, or music “without instrumental accompaniment.” Notorious groups like Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser perform contemporary music using only their voices, and they maintain popularity through unique renditions of well-known songs. The entire premise of the 2012 hit movie “Pitch Perfect” is based upon college acapella groups, and a sequel is being released into theaters this May. Even Davidson has multiple acapella groups on campus, showing the popularity of acapella music among current college students and within mainstream media.

One acapella performer that I recently discovered online is Mike Tompkins. Mike Tompkins is an acapella musician and producer who garnered fame from his highly-successful Youtube song covers. Tompkins does covers of popular songs using his body as the only instrument. He is able to record himself multiple times, and later edit the sound to form a complete song. I think his videos are amazing, and I had to remind myself while listening to them that no instruments were actually being played. Below I am posting two of his covers- the first is a mash up of One Republic’s “Feel Again” and Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over” and the other is a recent cover of “Uptown Funk” featuring Mark Ronson and Max Schneider. Even though “Uptown Funk” is overplayed at this point and you are all probably tired of it, I think this specific cover is worth the listen as I could not believe that there were no instruments used in the recording of the song.

This third video shows how Tompkin made the “Feel Again/Dog Days” cover, and I found it interesting. His director for the video explains that many TV screens playing the various song parts had to sync together in order to record the video. To me, this would be a painstaking process as the video shows that all the parts must sync perfectly, and only then can Tompkin record the singing live on top of the other parts.

I think Tompkin’s videos underscore the “sound studio fetish” that we discussed in class. Up until watching these videos, I did not really understand this so-called “fetish,” but the final products of Tompkin’s recording sessions have helped me to better grasp this concept. The studio must possess a special quality if one man can use it to imitate fifteen instruments, sing, and then piece these all together as a song. To me, it seems there is a very high level of skill and talent required to operate such sound studio machinery properly and proficiently.

I believe it is also worth noting the dichotomy between Tompkin’s recordings and more traditional music. It seems his dismissal of musical instruments is compensated for by his use of sound studio editing, whereas other music uses more instruments and (somewhat) less editing. Perhaps this shift in musical medium (instrument to sound editing) is inevitable with society’s continuation of technological progress, or maybe it speaks to the emergence of a more mainstream sound studio “fetish.” Perhaps this is just acapella’s fifteen minutes of mainstream fame. Regardless, this music successfully demonstrates musical talent and the capabilities of sound studio editing.

Draft Assignment #1- Musical Chills

I consider myself very fortunate to have led a life in which I’ve always been encouraged to pursue my passions for music. I’ve had the privilege of taking part in the performance of some beautiful pieces as part of both the Davidson College Chorale and a community choir at home known as the Broad Street Chorale. Through this, I’ve gained first-hand knowledge of a peculiar power of music with which not all people are entirely familiar. Music, in certain situations, can bring about “chills,” or the release of dopamine in the striatum, though more research is in order regarding the potential reasons for this.

Some pieces that I can remember off the top of my head that have caused this sensation in me are Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, Eric Barnum’s Adoramus Te Christe, and Craig Courtney’s While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks. All of these contain certain chords that, when struck, give me a chill and simply leave me in awe of their beauty. The first time I performed the O Magnum Mysterium with a large chorus, I almost began to tear up. The other songs are likewise very emotional in nature, a fact that likely contributes to the effects that they have. Additionally, the chords in the above songs that really move me all happen to be major or minor ninth chords, and they also occur at dynamic high points in the pieces that are generally preceded by large crescendos. It hardly seems coincidental that these things hold true for all three pieces. The role of the crescendos seems rather obvious in building anticipation and it may be possible that the dissonances and consonances created by the ninth help to bring about the chills and goosebumps.

When I decided to look around the internet for information on this phenomenon, I came up with quite a few articles on the topic. One of them provided a fair bit of insight regarding potential reasons for the physiological response. Somber music can cause a fear response in the amygdala. The brain, however, quickly realizes that there is no reason for fear, calming it. As a result, the chilling sensation remains, but the sense of fear itself does not. The web page itself also mentions a scholarly article from a science journal regarding a study that linked intense emotional response to music to the release of dopamine. The study also demonstrated that that, in addition to the peak itself, the anticipation of the musical climax played a very large part in the perceived thrill. It may be possible that the brain’s reward center is activated when the brain correctly anticipates a certain musical cadence, as the ability to make predictions based on sounds is certainly a valuable one.

Also, according to another study performed by researchers at UNC Greensboro, it seems that people are much more likely to experience chills if they have what is described as an “open” personality – that is, they are people that are willing to try new things and entertain new ideas. This may not necessarily be a directly causal relationship, as those with open personality types generally tend to be more interested in music and the arts in general. Perhaps it is their interest in music rather than their personality itself that makes the reaction more likely to occur. In order to tell, a study would have to be conducted on open musicians and open non-musicians, but to my knowledge, no such study has yet been performed. Though it may seem somewhat intuitive, I find the effect of a chill to be far more pronounced when I am singing beautiful music than when I am simply listening to it. This leads me to believe that they may be at least partially tied to musical participation.

Though some studies have been undertaken to illuminate the darkness surrounding musically-induced chills, the exact mechanism through which they occur remains somewhat murky, making them somewhat of an enigma. Until they are more thoroughly investigated, they shall retain that captivating air of mystery.

Draft Assignment #1- Changing Attitudes Towards Music

The first time I heard Uptown Funk was in the car on my way to my house. I think I was heading back for Christmas break or something. The 80s-inspired beat came blasting through my radio and I immediately changed the station. “Oh, how downhill music has gone. Artists are now drawing from the 80s because they have no more creative thoughts left”. I was pretty cynical about that song the first time I heard it and I’m not sure why. I’ve found that the more I hear a song in a positive atmosphere, the more I relate the two together and the more I actually enjoy hearing that sound. Uptown Funk has since become an increasingly popular song that is played at almost every party, as I’m sure anyone who goes out on the weekends knows.  Listening to it while I was surrounded by my friends and having a good time changed my perspective and made me view the weird 80s-like sounds in a different way. I don’t get annoyed when the song comes on anymore, I get excited because I know the upbeat tune that’s coming and the words so that I can sing along.

The weird phenomenon of changing tastes in music doesn’t just come into action with singular songs, it also pertains to entire genres of music. I used to absolutely despise country music, which was weird since I grew up in the south. I couldn’t really put a finger on what it was about it that I didn’t like. Maybe it was the fact that I was forced to listen to it any time I was in the car with my sister, including a grueling 10 hour ride to Orlando, or maybe it was because I had this weird thing about rebelling against what everyone else seemed to like at the time. Regardless, country music was just not my thing. It took me finding the unique, soulful sound on my own to realize how much I actually like it. The first song that brought me around to country music was the modern version of Wagon Wheel by Darius Rucker. His smooth voice singing “rock me mama” through the chorus can calm me down in any situation. Country music is now the thing I turn to first when I need to just relax and not think about things for a while. I’ve reinforced the connection between the slow, meaningful country music and the wonderful relaxation to the point where hearing country music makes me a calmer person.

It’s interesting how people associate sounds with experiences and how relating certain music to a positive memory can alter the way you hear it. The things I go through in life will continue to shape my perception of the sounds I hear and my taste in music. It’s curious thinking about what kind of music I’m going to be listening to in a few years, whether my tastes will have varied drastically or I’ll still be shifting between the alternative music or soulful country songs that I typically turn to.

The “Sweet Caroline” Effect

When I think of summer, I think of “Sweet Caroline.” Throughout my childhood my family and friends escaped each May to a nearby lake, where shoes were flung off, Coppertone was lathered on, and Neil Diamond was placed on repeat. Lazy boating days and lasting summer nights were markers of this season of my childhood, embodying the escapism it represented on a yearly basis. Music was a critical element throughout these summers, a uniting force which provided a common thread through many years by mirroring human movement and emotion.

The “Sweet Caroline Effect,” as I have dubbed it, came into existence the summer that my parents had a momentary lapse in judgment and purchased our family a karaoke machine. This machine unlocked a world of retro songs that we pre-teens had no idea even existed. After each long afternoon of boating, the parents fired up the grill while the kids fired up the karaoke machine. Soon, our repertoires were filled with Billy Joel, Duran Duran, Elton John, Bon Jovi, and Tears for Fears. But our favorite song was always when Neil Diamond launched into the intro of “Sweet Caroline.” Lyrics were memorized, dances were choreographed, and karaoke machine purchases were regretted.

The parents eventually learned to appreciate the art of karaoke, and as the season continued, they began to enjoy “Sweet Caroline” as much as we did. Late summer nights became marked by our parents singing the songs they grew up to, which turned out to be the songs we were growing up to as well.

As my friends and I trudged through secondary education, “Sweet Caroline” welcomed us back each summer to simpler times. Now, Neil Diamond hums in the background as we sit in Adirondack chairs by our campfire pit near the lakeshore. Fireflies twinkle, stories are shared, and a concerning amount of s’mores are consumed. Schools and jobs have changed, but the people and music have always been constant. And every time I hear Neil Diamond start to sing, “Where it began,” it is like these memories and relationships are reinforced and strengthened.

In this way, music can be a powerful tool that unites both people and time. Something about the unique qualities of music allows it to harbor memories and emotions not written into the sheet music. This is a phenomenon that I have experienced with various other songs, and one which I’m sure others have experienced as well. Not only can a song transport you to a different time, but it can also resynthesize lost emotions.

This idea of music soliciting emotion prompted me to research this idea more online. I was able to find the following video to aid in the development of my ideas on this topic. This video (link below) suggests that we “might read emotion in music the same way we read emotion in human movement.” This means that, much like the information garnered about emotion from body language, people subconsciously gather intel about the emotional make-up of music.

Therefore, this quality of musical emotion mirroring that of human movement allows certain songs to harbor emotions and re-elicit them at a later time. In these ways, music not only provides a common link to connect people and time, but also stores emotions to facilitate these links. This speaks to the universality of music, and the power it holds to generate connections and sentiments.

 

Flashback

A few days ago I was watching an episode of an HBO television series called Boardwalk Empire. The show is about famous mobsters and bootleggers, such as Al Capone, during prohibition in the 1920’s. The episode I was watching took place in the Chinese district of Chicago. The various gangsters were visiting opium houses trying to learn about the drug and get in on the drug trade. At this point you might be wondering, “well, cool man but how does this pertain to sound?” (more…)

2015 In Review (So Far): Songs that Set the Pace for the Year

Stunning as it is, we’re three weeks into the year to the day and I’m already drowning in music releases. I’m pretty confident that 2015 will be the best year in music since 2013, which doesn’t seem like it but I find that to be a huge statement. 2013 was a week after week onslaught of music so incredible that I’m still catching up on as I rattle away on this keyboard. I’d like to keep this fairly simple and just highlight a few of 2015’s releases thus far that I think will be key down the road, and how the fairly uneventful release year of 2014 showed a few trends that will be highlighted this year with some highly anticipated releases. (more…)