Dienstag, 27. Januar 2009

"Newborn infants detect the beat in music"

This just in:

A group of psychologists discovered via experiments that newborn infants are able to detect the beat in music ... Well, what they did was measure electric brain responses to sounds. If confronted with 1) a standard beat and 2) the same beat with omitted downbeats ("the ones"), the brain will respond to the omission.

Does it prove that beat perception is an innate and universal ability? Or does it simply prove the brain will recognize when some kind of regular feature of a sound sequence is violated (aka the beat changes)? You may decide for yourself and read the full article here.

Talking about BEAT .. I'll leave you with a couple of tunes that are as minimal, raw and heavy on the beat as can get:

T La Rock - Breaking Bells

Sha-Quan - Don't Fess

Run DMC - Sucker MC's

(Look out for a young Vincent Gallo)

Freitag, 23. Januar 2009

Cosmic Rockers - The Movement

This is my second song ... and the first one that i wrote myself, also in late 2006.

Here's a quick breakdown:

As you can hear, I was still experimenting with the sound: Beat-wise I went for an 808 kit. The result came out a bit too sterile and trebly, so I put a lot of effort into building a nice warm, funky, organic and old school sounding groove for the bass as a counterpoint. Newcleus were an inspiration both to the groove and to the sound of the bass.

I was listening to a lot of kraut music then, and I was really impressed by Klaus Schulze's and Manuel Göttsching's approach to songwriting and their discarding the hierarchical structure of the pop/rock song. Don't let yourself be fooled, though: There still IS order in their tunes, just an order that isn't enforced by any transcendental principles. No ahistorical conditions of possibility, just internal conditions of existence. Emerging layers of ambient sound which are repetitive yet subtly changing, floating, meandering ... drifting in a Dérive kind of way.

Scape One was somewhat responsible for the idea of two melodies moving simultaneously in a fifth interval (first half of the song). Oh yeah, and the beat in the "breakdown" part was inspired by the "breakdown" beat of Planet Rock. In case you've never heard of that, stay tuned - one of the next posts is going to be THE definitive and comprehensive Planet Rock 101.

I wouldn't think so ... it's an inside joke, really.

- Newcleus: Why?
- Scape One: Retropolitan (Dusseldorf)
- Manuel Göttsching: E2E4
- Afrika Bambaataa: Planet Rock
- Kraftwerk: Tour de France
- Adorno: Dialectic of Enlightenment

Samstag, 17. Januar 2009

Pick of the day: YMCK

YMCK (check them out on myspace) is an 8-bit/chiptune pop outfit from Japan (no shit), consisting of 2 musicians/programmers and a female vocalist. The song is taken from their 2004 debut album "family music" and is representative of what they are about: a happy blend of pop and jazz with a latin tinge, built on intricate compositions with loads of chord changes and frantic solos, topped with breathy vocals (think: Astrud Gilberto on speed), all crammed into a hyperactive 2-minute-song, delivered at breakneck speed. Most songs are over before your mind can even begin to grasp what the hell is going on, leaving you with the feeling that you just got hit by a freight train. And whatever that was, you want it again, and more of it.

At first sight, the form, or rather: the aesthetic means of production (i.e. the bleepy, sawing sound) seem to dominate the content (i.e. the music itself). But after a few listens, you will witness a sea change in this dialectic, and the beautiful, virtuosic quality of the song will unfold and grow on you. (I promise!)
Check out the furious finale of "Does John Coltrane dream of a merry-go-round":

Not only are the driving chord changes similar to the progressions in Coltrane's famous "Giant Steps" - even the phrasing and the syncopation of the solo (when was the last time you heard something like that in a pop song?) are almost identical:

Granted, the 8-bit constraint implies quite a restriction: the sound is flat and cheap, lacking the full and rich timbre of a real instrument or the fatness of an analogue synth. YMCK more than make up for that with increased velocity, speed and force ... and polyphony. Besides, they seem to be quite content with the sound possiblilities at hand. After all, ANY music is based on restriction, and quality in music is a matter of simultaneously accepting and testing these boundaries, always pushing the envelope a little bit further.

This is postmodern music at its best. On the debut album alone, YMCK unsleash an impressive amount of pop cultural namedropping: tech talk (CMYK), video games (Tetris, Dragon Quest), musicians (John Coltrane), books (Do androids dream of electric sheep?), ...
It's cute, it's tongue-in-cheek, it's radically eclectic - but it would be bland and boring if it was JUST that, an ironic and empty regurgitating of cultural heritage. However, YMCK are too smart and too serious for that. They tackle their material with rare sincerity and an almost protestant work ethic that's objectified in the miniature songs, each of them being a complex composition.

So even if Marx was right and all history is to repeat itself, it seems appropriate to revise his claim that the tragedy will return as farce - in YMCK's book, it's more likely to be pastiche.

Slightly off-topic epilogue: If you share my musical taste (which you probably don't), then the dueling solos in the YMCK/Coltrane track might remind you of something only peripherally related to chiptune music: the lyric sheet of any Slayer album, always featuring the unforgettable line "Leads: Hannemann, King, Hannemann". Word.

Sonntag, 11. Januar 2009

The Rebirth of Cool

A few weeks back, Byron Hurt leaked a short documentary titled "Barack & Curtis". This is of course referring to Barack Obama and 50 cent and is intended to instigate a debate on black masculinity - on the dominating black masculinity that Hurt sees represented by 50 cent and which is questioned by a possible new form of masculinity represented by Barack Obama.
The clip raises more questions than it answers, but it is well worth a view.

Byron Hurt is also responsible for an amazing hip hop documentary that is taking an unusual angle. "Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes" examines misoginy and homophobia in hip hop and finds them rooted in hip hop's questionable ideal of masculinity.
Highly recommended, yet at times painful to watch.

Off on a little tangent ...
It was a clever move on Hurt's side to start the documentary with Nas' "Made You Look" - he already had me then. Some things worth mentioning about that track:

1. It features the immortal line "Do the smurf, do the wop, baseball bat ... rooftop like I'm bringing 88 back", later quoted by the Cool Kids in their incredible track "88".

2. It's arguably one of the best appropriations of the apache break. Quite exceptional use, I might add: It takes you a moment to realize that it's THAT break of all breaks. Here's apache:

And here it is, slowed down, as used by Nas:

Slowed down, it takes a life of its own, gaining an urgent and menacing quality, almost as if it had come back from the mists of time, haunting us and calling for what it was denied: redemption.
Or, in the words of Walter Benjamin: "In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious." Word.

Freitag, 9. Januar 2009

Hip Hop Genealogies - Planet Rock / White Noise

Just got the news today that White Noise's 1969 LP "An electric storm" is being rereleased. White Noise were playing quite experimental electronic music and their 1969 debut album is considered groundbreaking and avant-garde for its use of synthesizers, audio samples and sound effects. Here's the first track off that LP:

Now, what does an old British prog band from the hippie era have to do with hip hop?
Just bear with me for a few seconds and I'll try to spell out a rather interesting genealogy.

Maybe the use of sampling techniques made them precursors to hip hop? I doubt it. First off, White Noise's albums were only known to an extremely limited audience and there was no influence on whoever was djing at block parties in the South Bronx 10 years later. More important, while hip hop's use of samples is constructive, White Noise tend to be deconstructive: Hip hop takes small bits and pieces of sound and uses them as the syntax in the creation of a pop song. White Noise start with a pop song and use audio samples as Trojan horses to question and eventually dismantle the song's integrity, stripping it until it dissolves into mere sound.
So where's the connection?

Enter David Vorhaus ...

Pictured above sporting the latest urban street fashion is David Vorhaus, member of the group White Noise and electronic music pioneer. The stick he is holding in his hand is called a Kaleidophon; something like a master keyboard - a device that controls a synthesizer. Only that it is not built after a piano but after a bass, making it more useful in controlling monophonic and voltage controlled synthesizers.

He invented and built the Kaleidophon himself, even winning him a first prize in an Austrian competition of electronic music instruments. He had to share the first prize with another nominee, though - Peter Vogel and his Fairlight CMI synthesizer. The two became friends and Vorhaus later helped to develop and further refine the Fairlight. Here's a picture of the Fairlight:

The Fairlight wasn't only a synthesizer, it also contained the first digital sampler of the world. Vorhaus himself created a number of samples for the Fairlight. One particularly famous soundbite was called "ORCH5". It is an orchestral hit that was sampled from an old recording of Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite". Listen to it here:

A Fairlight CMI was also present when keyboard player John Robie and producer Arthur baker recorded the music to the seminal Afrika Bambaataa track "Planet Rock". Robie stumbled upon the ORCH5 sample and decided to fatten it a little bit - making it into a minor chord by adding a 5th and a minor third. Here's what Robie probably played:

... and here's the final product (do you recognize the ORCH5 sample?):

And voilà, there is - in the words of Robert Fink - the classical ghost in the hip hop machine.

Samstag, 3. Januar 2009

Holy Grails of Hip Hop - (Vicious) Beat Street

Beat Street - the movie that exposed hip hop and all of the four elements to a worldwide audience. Altough everything about it is a bit too watered down, too mainstream-friendly, too cheezy ... it is still a nice movie. Just think of all the memorable scenes: The Us Girls performing at the house party. Afrika Bambaataa or Melle Mel performing live. And of course the two famous battles, representing some of the finest moments of breaking history ever transferred to celluloid, with the Rock Steady Crew and the New York City Breakers battling at The Roxy's and in the subway.

And let's not forget about the groundbreaking soundtrack, including a great cross section of hip hop, electro funk and even a hint of freestyle. Something seemed to be missing, though. Anyone remember the audition scene? Among others, there was a young and charming Brenda Starr singing this little tune:

It's a trademark Arthur Baker production called "Vicious Beat". Unfortunately, it never made it on the O.S.T. and it has never been released. You can hear that the vocals are still a bit raw ... bear in mind that Brenda Starr was only 18 at this point, a year before her solo career took off. But that's not saying anything against it - it has an immediate quality, an aura of youthful energy that some of her polished later output is lacking.

Vicious beat created quite a buzz among hip hop heads. It remains one of hip hop's unsolved mysteries and you still see people asking about it and trying to hunt it down. Most likely, it is still buried somewhere in Arthur Baker's vaults, and we can only hope that one day the World Spirit will correct this unforgiveable blunder and it will be unearthed to everyone's delight.

So while we're waiting till doomsday, here's a little surprise to pass the time:

It's a reconstruction of "Vicious Beat", done by some Swedish DJ whose name I cannot recall. Brenda Starr's vocals are missing of course and the sound cannot be compared to what Arthur Baker would have made of it ... still, it's a nice song worth checking out. Feel free to download it here.

Oh, and I should tell you I feel another remix/reconstruction of "Vicious Beat" coming in the near future ... by yours truly. Stay tuned!