Monday, January 24, 2011


DJ /Rupture / Matt Shadetek - Solar Life Raft
Based on a sci-fi concept laid out in the short narrative in the liner notes, Solar Life Raft is set adrift in vast floods over the post-civilization East-coast. Scavengers discover sounds, the last remnants of dead cities now up to their penthouses in melted polar ice. Survival and loss haunt every moment, and so does hope.

The mix was put together by turntable theorist DJ/rupture and his Dutty Artz co-founder Matt Shadetek. Starting with an imagined setting and then selecting music to score it sounds like a recipe for contrivance, but /rupture and Shadetek select songs that suit the narrative abstractly. You won’t hear them spinning Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” or anything like that. Like any good musical project, this leaves room for your imagination.

Listening to music is better than watching movies. Movies (with a few rare exceptions) constantly tell me exactly how to feel about everything, employing a million trite manipulations (the most egregious of which is, ironically, the musical score) to force everything into a tight interpretive box. Some music does this too, and that music is boring to hear and boring to write about. Solar Life Raft is exactly the cure for that tedium.

There is a certain wobbly, sea-sick quality to Dubstep that fits in with however you imagine this particular post-apocalypse: Tempos are slow and swaying, with deep foghorn synthbass, sounds reverberate across the endless waterscape and the sampled or dubbed vocals (like the snippethook in Babylon System’s “Get On Up” and the mournful singing in Pulshar’s “Mr. Money Man” respectively) sound preserved or submerged, echoes and ghosts of prophets whose warnings went ignored. When Nico Muhly’s Lanskyesque piece “Mothertongue: Pt. 1” makes an appearance, cutoff and resonance knob-twiddling is creatively employed to simulate what it sounds like when you bob up and down in water, your ears submerging and emerging, sounds muffled and then clear again.

This mix was made the old-fashioned way: in real time, on actual turntables. It’s seamless and technically perfect, other than the occasional moment where two records in incompatible keys are layered, (although that clang of dissonance may be by design, or a happy accident accepted for the extra ear-tension.) The peaks and valleys are sequenced perfectly, like a tightly structured film. The most emotional moments come at just the right time, and the ratio of blissed-out mood beats to sing-along moments is perfect. When it ends, I feel like I've had a complete experience, adrift in the dubby floods.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 10 - Black Soul (Disco)

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 10 - Black Soul
This is a party. When I hear music like this on FM radio, the DJ tells me we're bringing it back to the Old School as he wishes Anita Baker a happy birthday and middle-aged listeners call in to say "Oh you know I've got to hear some Commodores tonight." Requests, dedications, maybe a friendly Old School vote (Cameo vs. Morris Day?) and I do not change the channel. This is Disco and Funk; in-pocket drums that anyone can dance to, and the sharp edge of slapped basses and early digital synthesizers.

This mix isn't intended as a repudiation of the creeping racism and homophobia that fueled Discophobia; we can leave watered-down gender transgressions to Lady Gaga's Disco-pastiche. This is all about smooth grooves and easy syncopation, Earth Wind, Fire and Chi-Lites and someone whose name is Bootsy (Player of the year!)

Of all the mixes in the Medicine Show so far, this is my favorite. Madlib is clearly growing as a DJ. His mixes in the past were haphazard listens, tumbling through a pile of musical excerpts and funny sound clips with little cohesion. I usually didn’t mind, though, because no matter what genre he was mixing, he always brought incredible finds to the (turn)table. Black Soul (Disco) is no exception, but what makes this his best (and most re-listenable) mix isn’t just the selections themselves. This is a focused, skillfully assembled mix with an impeccable sense of timing. Madlib knows just when to kick it up a notch and just when to slow it down.

The transitions aren’t complex mash-ups, usually they’re just well-timed Q-switching, but they get the job done. (For example, listen to how James D. Hall steps aside for Don Blackman during the second track, or how Caroline Crawford segues into Brief Encounter during the third.) The easy groove never stops for long here and we even get a few brief beat-matched overlaps, something we haven't heard a lot on past Medicine Shows.

The trade-off might be that this mix isn’t stamped with Madlib’s trademark lunacy and the mixing lacks “personality” or whatever, but I’m fine with that. A mix shouldn’t be about the DJ. It should be about the music he plays. Mixes can liberate music from the cult-of-personality that sucks the fun right out of it and sticks us in a dull blogging rut when we should be dancing our asses off. The fact that Madlib is so willing to let his selections be the star shows confidence.

I first heard this on a drive between Dearborn and Ypsilanti at the end of a day-long trawl through Metro-Detroit’s finest record stores. My friend Brett was driving, blissing out and I saw people in other cars nodding their heads in time, as if they were listening to the exact same thing. I wanted to call Madlib and tell him "Great work, but you know I've got to hear some Commodores tonight."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

STEVE REICH: Music for 18 Musicians

Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians
Jesse Howell: I've listened to Music for 18 Musicians a number of times, and it doesn't ever seem to lose its impact. So when I woke up in the middle of the night, no longer able to sleep, putting on M418 seemed like a reasonable idea. So in that dead silence of early morning I snuck downstairs and slipped on a pair of headphones and got down to business.

What I quickly realized is that M418 may be the most successful abstract work of art, ever.

Abstract art is often non-representational, that is to say devoid of subject matter. Maybe it becomes just about color, or shapes, or texture. Maybe it is just about the sheer joy of slopping paint around on a blank canvas. Like a good abstract painting, M418 doesn't spell out how the listener is supposed to encounter it, or what meaning he/she should receive from it. However, it points to something. What that is isn't exactly clear, but there is a source involved, which is inspiration for the work. It invokes different responses out of different listeners: M418 is a blank canvas where the listener can paint his/her own meaning. The type of imagery that M418 evokes is vast and relatable to an audience in many different ways.

I think back to the times I have listened to M418 in the past. Sometimes I was alone, other times I was with a group of friends. Sometimes we just listened in silence, other times we talked as it played. What I can say about it is that in every encounter with this piece of music, something special has happened. M418 is the kind of piece that is transformative. It has the power to transform the listener, and at the same time is adaptive. M418 simultaneously absorbs and permeates any context. I remember listening to the piece with Michael Stohrer, and as we sat on the dorm floor we remarked how the sound of cars outside did not detract from the experience. No, in fact it added to the experience. In this way “noise” became part of the “music.” Thank you, Mr. Cage.

Michael Stohrer: Jesse pointed at things in the music while we listened, as if these sounds were happening in the space around us. The strange thing is that I always knew exactly what he was pointing at. We used to talk about the emotional content of this piece. Someone could dismiss this as “wallpaper” but like Jesse said, it is a blank canvas. I would say it’s more like a mirror. This music is too visceral to allow us to make meaning intentionally and cerebrally. What happens is spontaneous. During a joyful evening with friends, it percolates and swells with jubilance. During a lonely winter morning, it mourns and embraces the listener to offer comfort. It reflects whatever I bring to it: apprehension, love, agitation, reflection. The music is undecidable, each listener makes involuntary meaning with each unique encounter.

I don’t listen to it very often, maybe once a year or so, and nearly every listen through it sticks with me, including the very first: On my freshman floor we kept our doors open and I heard something coming from the room across the hall. It was a series of notes, repeated in a rapid cycle. I stuck my head though his door and asked my floormate Nathan “What is this music?” It was “The Grid” by Philip Glass. Eager to know more I asked the librarian later that afternoon and he told me, grinning, “We have some Philip Glass, but you don’t need that.” He led me to the CD racks. “What you need is THIS!” It was Music for 18 Musicians. Sitting on the industrial carpet in my dorm room, I listened on cheap headphones. That was a very short hour. The Philip Glass piece had shocked me with its uncompromising sterility, and while 18 didn’t sound entirely dissimilar (at that time I was totally unacquainted with the canon of minimalism), I couldn’t get over how warm and human Steve Reich’s composition was.

Jesse: M418 may be the most human piece of art. It is has the steady pulse of an assembly line or a freeway, but entirely organic. The patterns that comprise M418 have the life of a breath, gradually rising and falling. Phrases build gradually over time. The repetition and overlapping of phrases form patterns that interweave themselves and become much more complex than they would be on their own. The phrases are economical, not overly complex, but add up to a gestalt-y percussive sense of movement and poly-rhythm. There is an added sense of variation in tempo that I can only describe as human error, although hardly detectable, which adds to the celebratory and joyful nature of this work.

There is additional variety in the voices of the different instruments. The attack of a voice is different from a woodwind, from the mallet instrument or a stringed instrument. This variety is haptic, and you can feel your attention shift between these contrasting tonal qualities or textures. In this way the focal point is continually shifting, as no one instrument takes the lead, but gradually swells and falls like the others. Perhaps the most steady or continuous element is the mallet instrument that forms a sort of rhythmic framing for the piece.

It makes me wonder how I can translate that much hope life, change and dynamic breath into my own work. M418 makes it readily apparent how static or fixed imagery can be in other art works. How do you allow for more than one access point for viewer? More than one interpretation? More that one response? I go back to the thought of the adaptability of this piece of music, and its ability to fit in any context. M418 says it without saying too much.

I might be able to relate a couple of visual artists that evoke similar responses or share some characteristics to M418. I'm not sure if they approach the same totality of vision of M418, however. In the sense of the breath or life in M418, the artist
Oscar Munoz evokes a similar feeling; of ephemera, life/death and impermanence. And in the sense of economy and distilling a phrase down to its most basic blocks that point to something greater, I think of the artist Piet Mondrian.

Michael: I’ve always loved records that were pieced together unnaturally with special effects like overdubbing, editing, looping and time-stretching. These records are like animation, depicting sound events that never actually took place and creating surreal visuals - alien landscapes, amorphous nebulae… I can love a real-time recording of a performance - a good hard-bop record, for instance, can conjure a thousand emotions - but the visual is always that of musicians playing instruments in a room. Strangely, Music for 18 Musicians actually IS a recording of musicians (guess how many!) playing instruments in a room, but it conjures images that are incredibly alien and abstract. There’s something spatial to this music, something that allows Jesse to point to specific sounds. And without any imposing programmatic elements (I’m glad this piece isn’t called “Visions of Manhattan” or “Requiem for Gettysburg” or something like that) the inescapable visual element, created by each listener, is always new and changing.