Thursday, February 13, 2014

Certified connections part 1

Here’s a casual observation from over the years: vocal music reaches a wider audience than instrumental music, especially outside of the classical realm. Just look at the US Billboard, Radio 1 Playlist, top YouTube music videos or the UK Top 40 and I challenge you to find an instrumental track.

This isn’t true in art, for example, where celebration of abstraction and non-figurative work is widespread: Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are just as lauded figures than, say, the Dutch Masters. But it seems to be so in music.

I think the reasons why songs are so successful are fairly straightforward: that using the human voice as an instrument conveys a really rich amount of information and hence emotion. However I don’t want to challenge the assumption that the voice conveys a lot of rich information but that predominantly instrumental music doesn’t. If you can put Rothko in the Tate Modern, why can’t Basic Channel play Wembley Stadium? It sounds silly even suggesting the latter – but that’s entirely my point.

[Photo of the "press release" that accompanied my copy of the DMZ001 release (contact email addresses and phone numbers not shown...)]

It’s obvious that song, lyrics and vocal music carries additional information that generates emotion, but I do think a part of the responsibility for this lies with instrumental producers themselves, because in my experience if you engage them in dialog there often is a dense tapestry of history, thought, influences, experiences, inspiration, meaning and ultimately narrative in what they do - it’s just not found in the fore. One of the first times I remember feeling this was over a decade ago, with Digital Mystikz’s “B”, which has a whole sentiment behind why it was called that – but was never shared. More extreme examples of this are things like Global Communications’ (Tom Middleton & Mark Pritchard) “76:14” ‘90s ambient album, that only used track length numbers as track titles as not to impose any meaning upon the reactions in listeners’ minds.

  1. 4 02
  2. 14 31
  3. 9 25
  4. 9 39
  5. 7 39
  6. 0 54
  7. 8 07
  8. 5 23
  9. 4 14
  10. 12 18
 Seriously, that's what they called them...


Connections + story beneath

So as an experiment, I’m going to take one example – No Fixed Abode from LHF’s “Certified” – and try to peel back the layers to reveal two things: 1) underlying connections and 2) the story beneath. Both could contribute to a far richer understanding of the track and from there, the inference being that perhaps many other instrumental works we’ve all consumed have such depth and connections: ones worth perhaps revealing.

This is going to take three blog posts, so here’s the first…

Part 1: Connections

The first thing that hits you with “Certified” is how it’s built mostly around samples from jazz. Now in past times, sample culture was much stronger but in the last decade, perhaps since the rise & (legal or otherwise) distribution of digital studio packages, there’s been a dominance of inorganic synths in dance music rather than organic samples. Extreme examples include the trance-y pop r&b hybrids of a few years back or the whole brostep/EDM/trap sound. And synth sounds beget synth sounds: the more fashionable and hence dominant they become in current music, the less recent organic/live music there is worth sampling.

“Certified” uses samples and by doing so finds an overt connection to the rich heritage of sampledlia, the appropriation and re-contextualizing of fragments of recorded music. Using samples is quite different to layering synth sounds: sonically they’re diametrically opposed. In a synth you’re basically starting with a pure mathematical wave, in this simplest case the simple symmetric sine wave, and attempting to create asymmetry, through harmony, positive and negative interference, distortion etc – so you end up with something more complex and ideally sonically interesting.

But with a sample, you’re starting from something complex. In many cases, you have a small fragment of a live recording. As a thought experiment, let’s take an imaginary sample of the JB’s, James Brown’s amazing backing band:

The art of sampling often revolves around finding relatively isolated elements which you can extract and use an instrument itself, but even within isolated moments you have all kinds of properties or imperfections that give the sample it’s sonic characteristics. The tails of musicians fading out, the beginning of hits of musicians coming in, riffs gliding between perfect pitches, reverb from the room, the limitation of the recording conditions, crackle or even low hertz rumbles from the vinyl it was sampled from contribute to the signature. While you can filter, edit or EQ parts out, you’re essentially starting from a position of “imperfection” – and reveling in that.

As you begin to reposition the sample in it’s new context, maybe you’ll be playing a new riff with it – essentially just playing the sample faster or slower. You’ll be layering it with other samples or sounds, and finding just how close in key or otherwise it is. (Micro pitch tuning samples is a slow and painful way to find out just how close you can get yourself near to being sectioned... trust me...).

The point here is there’s an immense amount of history, context, backstory and … in each sample. And while it may not always be easily extractable, that story is there.

Sampling as a technique is and was so widespread that to pick any one example feels almost arbitrary but given the whole of hip hop was founded on cutting up and looping breaks from live disco (and other) recordings, I can’t not include these historical milestones or gems:

While they did it first (if you exclude the concept that being influenced by someone is a kind of sample, in whcih case we need to go back to classical or before...) hip hop doesn’t have a monopoly on sampling of course. Jungle did it to great effect, both rhythmically (looping, speeding up and re-editing classic breaks like the Amen, Think etc) and musically. Check Goldie lifting “Every Day of my life” from the Salsoul classic "Let No Man Put Asunder"). (Shout to this junglist, he knows what's up).


Of course "let no man put asunder" is a 'sample' of sorts from the Bible's Matthew 19:6, which, as an atheist, is always one of my favourite moments in a British church wedding because when the vicar says it, it triggers this mental image of a Salsoul classic coming on the church PA and everyone breaking into spontaneous dance to a gay-rights anthem.

While the feel of “Certified” does naturally sit with classic hip hop, in tempo it flows with UK garage and the latter is itself no stranger to sample culture. No Fixed Abode’s fellow LHF member Amen Ra is part of garage set dons, United Vibes. Their sets over the years have been drawn from a vast shared pool of UKG white labels and one away releases, collected while the genre was in full swing (sic). For anyone who’s seen their sets, one lasting memory is not just how fun garage is, but how inadvertently psychotically offkey it can be.

I asked Amen Ra for an example for this moment, he provided this, which 4Tet is re-issuing:

(Crazy Bald Heads is a Bob Marley song...)

Of course, Todd Edwards is quite distinct from hip hop but in many ways his trademark sound (learned from MK), is centered around sampling too, building melodies and in key riffs from vocals. I recall El-B, when he was making more 4x4 during the El-Tuff phase with Karl “Tuff Enough” Brown, saying just how hard it is to make all the samples pitch in key, probably because when you slow down a layered samples, different harmonics in the sample pitch down to different tones, semi tones or more like between the intervals. Respect to Todd, basically.

So sampling – there’s history to it, both the tradition and embedded in the sample, and “Certified” is no exception. Each sample based track is building on – and exists in the context of – a rich history of sampling. There’s a dialog going on, not just with you the listener or the current trends and styles, but with the past. Ideas from the past, glories from the past but also how the past is re-presented in the now.

In the case of “Certified”, it’s sampling free jazz. Now, I’m no expert on free jazz, that’s entire galaxy in itself, but I certainly can suggest some starting points – more connections if you will. It’s been a while since I read a lot about it, but I’m pretty sure people were pointing to Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Five and Hot Seven Sessions” as a starting point for improvisation in jazz.

"Certified" though samples Pharoah Sanders from much later but there’s something that connects them, and that’s a spirit of freedom, both musically in terms of the music evolving on the fly, and then sonically, to find the tones between the tones. Sampling of course, compounds this further, as micro intervals are layered upon micro intervals, such that you can never know whether something is nearly in tune (unlike a wave in a synth).

What I like about this one is that from the very first note, it’s like you’ve walked in late and Sanders is exploding upwards in a crescendo. By the end he’s ascending to the heavens.

"I sampled Pharoah Sanders in this track," said No Fixed Abode. "He's all about elevation and this whole story is about that. It's about triumph over adversity, and freeing yourself from negativity.  It's about triumph over adversity, not some dark morbid tale of woe. Rise up!"

Sanders played with John and Alice Coltrane… I mean, just read about the Pharoah, he’s a total don:
“Albert Ayler famously said: "Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost.”

This is super mellow...


 ...and got sampled by Photek, back in the day…

But there’s another moment in “Certified,” that makes me think of an entirely other connection. It comes in at 14 seconds and while it’s certainly pretty “free” a sound, it has that kind of sour, almost organ-like sound that reminds in part of Kode9’s “Black Sun”, a track I have never recovered from

But I suppose at a leap, the sample connects to the kinds of drones here:

Man, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is such a don – look how much he’s smiling! It totally kicks off at around 11mins... this is hype like Roll Deep live on Rinse 2004.

And yet even here we see more connections: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a Qawwali singer and the first time I became aware of that form of singing was when Pinch handed me a CDr at Forward of this track he’d done .

Pinch went on to be a friend and good musical companion. When Dusk and I were thinking about starting Keysound in 2005, he intro’d us to Shlom at Boomkat who put us in touch with our first distribution deal – one that would allow us to form Keysound and release No Fixed Abode and other LHF records.

And so from the JB’s to DJ Premier, Todd Edwards to Pharoah Sanders via Kode9 and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the connections bring us full circle back to “Certified,” hopefully all the richer for the journey.

Part 2 to follow...


Anonymous said...

Happy to see you still have time for proper blogs with the keysound hype accelerating

Mo said...

Nice piece, respect! Love the notion of connections between past/present, the sample carrying its own story.
Looking forward to parts2&3!

Anonymous said...

Just a thought about the instrumental thing. I think there is a differentiation in both art and music between the 'pop' and 'high art'.

Classical music = high art and instrumental is the predominant force.

Pop music = Lowest common denominator and a catchy melody/vocal line/standard 'nice' music harmony is predominant force.

You do not have abstraction to the level of modern classical music/electroacoustic music in pop music, even in Aphex Twin/Squarepusher/Experimental dance etc it is simplistic rhythmically and harmonically compared to classical music. (see Stockhausen vs the technocrats article).

In art, abstract art you talk about (Pollock, Rothko etc) represents the high art whilst dogs playing cards, cartoons etc represent the pop culture.

The tate modern is the albert hall of art so you would expect it to display 'high-art' whilst Starbucks is the Shepherds Bush Empire.

Admittedly abstract art reaches a popular audience more frequently than abstract music does although really it is a handful of artists in each. Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Cage, Penderecki, Arvo Part, Stockhausen have all had a degree of commercial success over the last 60 years. For both art and music it is typically a couple of pieces from an artist's cannon that achieve commercial success whereas for (very) popular classical music it can be a much larger amount that seeps into public consciousness.

A lot of it is context too. Watch a horror film and abstract music is fully accepted and even expected.

So is abstract more accepted in art than in music? Probably slightly but maybe not as much as people is just the context is different.

Anonymous said...

People around a world listen same pop hits, and for most of them vocals and lyrics are just instruments in song, they rarely understand what band sing about, I bet you I listen to a lot of nirvana and related bands when I was child, but I totally didn't get their lyrics, but I like it just because of music first, so I don't think that this is key role for popularity.

Blackdown said...

Brilliant comment - like the context idea...