Mad Beats and New Music

So the inaugural performance of Illapse, the laptop ensemble of the University of Illinois, took place last Friday afternoon. It was an instructive experience, not least because we were playing at an open house for engineering and computer science students who were, by and large, unfamiliar with the aesthetics of free improvisation with live electronics. Only when we began to incorporate more evenly pulsed materials toward the end of our 30-minute opus did we attract a crowd of onlookers; until then, we were approached mainly by hackers with technical questions and presenters who wanted us to turn it down (no dice). It became clear that the American Bandstand Test (i.e. it has a good beat—I give it an eight!) was the most significant criterion among our audience for deciding whether or not we were actually making music. In fact, one well-meaning listener came up afterwards to congratulate us on having “really gotten going” at the end (when the beats came in)—apparently he thought that our first 25 minutes were a warm-up.

The listening public’s hang-up about steady meter and regular rhythm has been discussed before on NewMusicBox, but I’ve seldom seen it illustrated so vividly. Generate DSP screeches and granular clicks, and you’re a nuisance; run Fat Albert-esque Optigan drums through a multipole filter, and you’re a musician. I’m ready to buy into the argument that the need for a steady tactus trumps the need for consonant harmony among non-specialist audiences. In a sense, this is a valuable piece of information; now we know how to interest lay audiences in our laptop improvs. On the other hand, as a composer, it feels somewhat manipulative. A former teacher of mine once famously claimed that all pulsed music is march music, and therefore inherently militaristic: Obviously this is kind of an outrageous assertion, but I’m beginning to understand the thinking that led to it. If I can be convinced by a single looped breakbeat that I’m listening to music, my view of music—of the definition of music—is predicated on things that actually don’t have much to do with how musical what I’m hearing may be.

As a performer, however, it’s seductive to think that I can gain instant credibility with ordinary listeners by dropping some phat 808s. It’s natural to want to please an audience; is it unethical to take advantage of their ignorance (in the most nonjudgmental sense) and cultural conditioning (in the most judgmental sense) to do so?

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32 thoughts on “Mad Beats and New Music

  1. philmusic

    “is it unethical to take advantage of their ignorance (in the most nonjudgmental sense) and cultural conditioning (in the most judgmental sense) to do so?”

    Colin, the wages of sin is money.
    Or, perhaps you would like to meet my very succesful friend Faust?

    Phil’s Page

    Reply
  2. siconesis

    is it unethical to take advantage of their ignorance (in the most nonjudgmental sense) and cultural conditioning (in the most judgmental sense) to do so?

    It is if you do it for yourself to get attention and recognition.

    Why is there the need to take artistic work to the general public? Is it a messianic impulse, a need to convey (impose) some truth to everyone? If someone has a need, or at least curiosity, to experience some artistic form of expression, then he/she will find it.

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  3. philmusic

    No one ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public –P.T. Barum
    Never give a sucker an even break etc. etc. etc.

    On a serious note, I might use steady beat for educational purposes. In this way new and challenging musical concepts might be approached and understood individually rather than all at once.

    Anyway…

    Phil’s page

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  4. Frank J. Oteri

    On a serious note, I might use steady beat for educational purposes. In this way new and challenging musical concepts might be approached and understood individually rather than all at once.

    Why is having a steady beat a de facto sign of dumbing something down? Folks to whom a steady beat is normative might equally generalize here and claim that the lack of a steady beat demonstrates the inability to maintain one (e.g. “that guy doesn’t groove”, “…swing,” what have you). Such a generalization would be equally erroneous if applied to music that intentionally eschews steady beats.

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  5. Chris Becker

    There are so many ways to play a beat in 2 or 4 time. Subtle musical techniques that define the drummer and bring to focus the compositional concept underlying the music. A loop in my experience is its own unique thing – it’s not the same as a live percussionist playing a repeated pattern. So the challenge then is to play and compose with some awareness of this difference and bring something to the listener they wouldn’t experience in any other medium.

    Maybe the rhythms in this performance stimulated the laptop ensemble to play more like a reactive ensemble? Reacting not only to the beats but to the energy from their audience..?

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  6. philmusic

    “Such a generalization would be equally erroneous if applied to music that intentionally eschews steady beats.”

    Dear Frank: I don’t seem to understand your negative comments on my educational quote, which I think is neutral, and stands quite well. For example; I have used “Opera Trance” to introduce 1-4th graders to the operatic voice before I give them the “real” thing.

    Oh, I said, “steady beat” what I meant was “dance beats”- but the concepts are similar—taking something familiar as a bridge into the unfamiliar.

    Rather it seems that you are responding to my other observation that implies that adding a “dance beat”, to the music in question is dummying down and can also be a gateway to popular success.

    Phil’s page
    http://members.aol.com/philjanet/phil_home.html

    Reply
  7. Frank J. Oteri

    Phil,

    I didn’t mean to disparage your educational idea above which indeed sounds like a good one. I guess I was responding to the fact that you prefaced it with a P.T. Barnum quote. Context, alas, is everything is the oh-so-unsubtle-but-maybe-subtler-than-we-realize forms of electronic communication we all engage in here.

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  8. philmusic

    Ok Frank, I understand but lets go back to Colin’s point.

    “it’s seductive to think that I can gain instant credibility with ordinary listeners by dropping some phat 808s. ”

    I’m afraid that there are already some composers trying to do just that – and thats what my Barnum quote was all about.

    Reply
  9. tbriggs

    those beats are so fresh
    i know that at least for me, composing for drum set and using some beat-oriented material is an attempt to deal with my own personal experiences as a musician. i came from a background in rock and jazz to composition with very little knowledge of or experience with the western classical tradition. i’m still learning about that tradition and its extension into contemporary practices, but i can’t somehow erase my past. everything i’m learning now must be added to what is already there, hopefully transforming all of it into something new and exciting. even though i’m not a drummer, drum beats are part of who i am as a musician and i think that’s true for many, many other composers of my generation (i’m 22 by the way). what i’m trying to say is that using beats (in some form) in one’s music doesn’t necessarily mean that one is trying to gain instant credibility with ordinary listeners; maybe one is trying to deal with the problem of synthesizing disparate realms of musical experience which seem, on the surface, to oppose or even negate each other. what is important is not the beat itself, but how it is addressed as a compositional element. using a beat just to gain credibility/approval/an audience is manipulative and, hence, unethical in my opinion. on the other hand, it may be necessary for a composer to use a beat to express a particular musical/compositional idea.

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  10. Kyle Gann

    To backbeat or not to backbeat:
    – that was the heated question of the Manhattan new-music scene below 20th Street all through the 1980s. (Relax, I didn’t use The Word.) Everyone was aware that there were a couple of people who would add a drummer playing during their regular music as a way to appear more hip to the Kitchen audience, and that it sometimes had nothing to do with the music. I always admired David First, who, exactly because of his rocker experience in the Notekillers, refused to add a backbeat to his non-rock music. He said it was his way of “finding out who his friends were.”

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  11. coreydargel

    I think Frank J. Oteri makes an excellent point. The ability to improvise with a steady beat is no more or less challenging than to improvise without one. A common technique in improvisation is to arbitrarily impose limits on yourself, and it is my opinion that the more limits you place on yourself, the more engaging your improvisation can be. But good improvisation takes practice. Having a steady beat means you can stay with the beat or stray from the beat. It also means you can synch with the pulse but pay no attention to meter. Or you could introduce your own pulse as a counterpoint to the existing pulse. There are so so so many possibilities. There’s no need to be reductive.

    Take the compliment, and don’t disparage the complimenter.

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  12. jonrussell20

    I would like to second tbriggs’ point. I’ve recently started using drum set and writing very groove-oriented music, and it’s not at all because I’m trying to pander, but because I’m trying to be as true as a I can to my own musical impulses, my own musical personality, trying _not_ to pander to the expectations of the new music establishment. There are very few people in my generation, if any (I’m 27) who grew up without music heavily based on beat and groove. To me it seems far more artificial to exclude this influence, which pervades pretty much all music in all times and places except for a tiny subset of Western music since 1920 or so, than it is to include it. And no, just because it has a beat doesn’t mean people will dig it. It has to have a _good_ beat, an interesting beat, a fresh beat, which can be a very difficult and artistically challenging undertaking. At issue here is really what method is a better way of conveying an important message to people: do you beat them over the head, or do you seduce them? Just because your method is seduction (through an attractive beat or a beautiful melody, etc.) doesn’t mean you can’t also be transmitting a challenging message, and that message is far more likely to stick through these means then by yelling at them in a language they dont understand.

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  13. MandolaJoe

    Mutual Respect
    It seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with trying to meet the audience half way, so that you can take them along where you want them to go. Treat them respectfully and you’d be surprised how willing they are to join you, even though they may never have been there before, or might have been afraid of ever taking that ride. Remember that old joke about the unwilling mule: “First, you’ve got to get their attention.”

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  14. EvanJohnson

    .here are very few people in my generation, if any (I’m 27) who grew up without music heavily based on beat and groove. To me it seems far more artificial to exclude this influence

    What’s wrong with artifice? (I’m 26, if that gives me any cred; but sorry ladies, I’m taken)

    Reply
  15. philmusic

    “The ability to improvise with a steady beat is no more or less challenging than to improvise without one.”

    True Corey, but the point here is not what is challenging for the musician—but what is challenging for the general audience.

    Phil’s page

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  16. Colin Holter

    I think we’re glossing over the distinction between “no beat” and “a complex and investigative use of rhythm.” Taken alone, a steady pulse is a qualitatively simple phenomenon, no two ways about it. A lot (but not all) of the “pulseless” new music since the beginning of the last century isn’t concerned with eliminating the beat so much as proposing new ways of organizing rhythm.

    Reply
  17. philmusic

    Colin I thought you were talking about dance beats (which tend to be very steady) in particular. What you say is true about “ the distinction between “no beat” and “a complex and investigative use of rhythm.” The questions about rhythm and meter and the approaches of composers to these issues are many, various, and endless. Yet for me it’s the results that count (because the results are the music )– not so much the theory or the ideas behind them which can confuse as well as illuminate. For example; a lot of composers use precompositional plans that look very similar but sound very different. I have some stuff about rhythm on my page.

    Its great to hear from composers who are trying to find their own sound by way of their own musical backgrounds. That is the way to go. Also, can great music come from a dance beat? Why not? Yet, The question of pandering has, and will always, remain with us.

    Phil’s page

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  18. Frank J. Oteri

    [T]he point here is not what is challenging for the musician—but what is challenging for the general audience.

    Phil, I’ve actually met many people over the years, both only-standard-rep-classical types and isn’t-pop-the-only-music-out-there types, who found minimalist music too challenging to listen to. One otherwise pretty new music savvy person confessed to me that minimalism made her “physically ill” and therefore couldn’t sit through it. Years ago, someone I was dating for a while, from the second camp, broke up with me over minimalism, believe it or not. She dreaded the thought of ever having to listen to such music again after I played for her an LP of Steve Reich’s Octet (a piece which is a constant source of personal joy for me to this day). She claimed that she couldn’t stand being forced to pay attention to music that forced you to pay attention to its structure, a structure she didn’t understand and wasn’t interested in understanding. There’s a staggering variety to human perception, alas.

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  19. GalenHBrown

    I have a somewhat lengthy response at Sequenza21, covering some related issues and challenging the unstated premise of Colin’s question.

    Kyle — I’m imagining ever-more roundabout ways of not naming the scene which must not be named. Like “The community of artists and musicians associated with the area of the former New Amsterdam to the south of approximately 40° 44′ North Latitude.”

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  20. Colin Holter

    Nice post, Galen. I pretty much agree with everything you said.

    And about That Word: I only object to it when it’s used to describe music taking place outside New York. To call a performance at the Kitchen “downtown” is simply factual; to call a performance of experimental music in Champaign-Urbana, IL “downtown” is to expose a center-of-the-universe mentality that I find absolutely unbearable.

    New York is the coolest city in America. We get it. There’s no need to throw it in our faces.

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  21. philmusic

    Dear Mr. Brown:

    I didn’t realize that the best way to solve a problem, in this case pandering, was simply to define it out of existence.

    I mean no disrespect, I just strongly disagree.

    Phil’s Page

    Reply
  22. pgblu

    personal preference
    I dragged myself over to the Sequenza21 site and read Galen Brown’s column too, and, like Phil S. Page, I also disagree. To say that “Aesthetics isn’t universal law” is okay, but it isn’t “a matter of personal preference”, either. Aesthetics does not mean the same thing as “what people like”. Aesthetics is a philosophical discipline that seeks to investigate knowledge via the senses (as opposed to, e.g., ethics and logic, which do depend on “sense”, but not on the five senses) and to apply some degree of rigor to the investigation. True, one need not pursue that discipline with the kind of rigor one applies to mathematical logic (that would be somewhat fruitless), but one can (and as a professional artist, should) still attempt to put into words what one is reacting to. We do this in the full knowledge that some things indeed cannot be expressed in words, but we do not satisfy ourselves with that until some conclusion, however fragmentary or rudimentary or debatable, is reached.

    Otherwise the term “aesthetics” is useless and we can just use the word taste. Aesthetics rejects the facile claims like “there’s no accounting for taste” or “a little dab’ll do ya.”

    In addition, just because someone is debating a point of aesthetics does not carry with it the conceit that he or she is superior to someone else. Greater rigor does not equal superiority, moral or otherwise — it just makes a promise of more conclusive or at least more intriguing answers. A listener is not a dolt because he or she doesn’t care about aesthetics.

    Finally, just because a piece of music lends itself to a rich efflorescence of aesthetic discourse doesn’t make it a better piece than one that seems to resist easy discussion or leaves us speechless.

    Taste is a really small fraction of the whole discipline of aesthetics.

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  23. hausorob

    Unleashing the 4/4 Fury!
    To imagine a simple little thing like writing music with a steady pulse would cause such dialogues and diatribes…something tells me this is getting overthunk a tad.

    Can’t see the forest for the efflorescent 808′s and the Word That Shall Not Be Named…

    Reply
  24. Colin Holter

    something tells me this is getting overthunk a tad.

    We’re composers. If we don’t think hard about music, what should we think hard about?

    Reply
  25. GalenHBrown

    The danger in discussing this stuff is that there’s so much complex philosophical background that it’s really easy to say something controversial (or even apparently controversial) and not provide enough context that it’s interpreted in the way you intended.

    I completely agree that Aesthetics is a complex philosophical and scientific subject about which all sorts of objective claims can be made, and that personal taste is only a small part, or perhaps a special case, of the larger subject. My point is actually that Aesthetics is amoral — it’s a description of the ways in which preferences arise and evolve memetically within the ecosystem of our culture and our biology. It doesn’t tell us that X is better than Y, but rather why it is that people and cultural groups prefer X over Y. Taste and aesthetic values are not arbitrary (and I’ll take this as a lesson to be careful not to use that word) — my point is that they aren’t Objectively Meaningful. They aren’t handed down by god or woven into the fabric of the universe, they’re an evolved social (or sociobiological) construct. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony isn’t Objectively superior to “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” (no matter strong our feelings are on the matter) it’s just been memetically more successful in certian parts of our cultural ecosystem.

    My point is that we tend to attribute a quasi-Morality to aesthetics, and I think we’re mistaken to do so. As to Pandering, I’m not trying to define it out of existence, but to divorce it from non-valid Moral connotations. It’s arguably immoral to pander by appealing to immoral beliefs — writing racist lyrics in the hope of appealing to the white supremecist market is problematic at best — but most aesthetic preferences are amoral and pandering to them is similarly amoral.

    I hope that cleared things up a bit, but I’m not sure it did :)

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  26. hausorob

    If we don’t think hard about music, what should we think hard about?

    Very true, Colin – we do need to think hard about music. But not so much that we lose sight of the simple things that are right in front of us.

    It looks like several things happened: 1)the laptop ensemble gave an informal performance in a public area (I’m guessing here, but not a lot of “onlookers” in a concert hall), 2)the majority of said onlookers were college students with primarily non-music backgrounds and 3)the performance ranged from free improv using various digital synthetic techniques (“DSP screeches and granular clicks”) to the drum-beats you mentioned. The reaction you got doesn’t sound all that surprising (the same would have happened if you had been a jazz quartet doing a shift from Ornette to Sanborn) since the performance setting was probably atypical, the ensemble was definitely atypical (and quite cool, btw) and the music was pushing the envelope at both ends.

    Rather than interpret the audience’s reaction from a defensive standpoint (discussing the audience’s hang-ups and ignorance), why not use a proactive mindset to create a better experience the next time you perform? Off the top of my head, if you’re in the same setting again, maybe beginning the performance with something more beat-driven that would attract attention and give the audience a context through which they could be more receptive to the more ethereal sounds that your ensemble comes up with? This isn’t pandering or unethical, it’s just keeping the audience in mind the same way a conductor has to when they program a concert. Just a thought :-)

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  27. philmusic

    My comments still stand.

    I remember one important literary critic, with very similar ideas to the ones that you mention, was found to have written many articles for pro Nazi journals a while back. There was a big brew-ha-ha and a book was published with pro and con essays about him and his work. Those who supported his work before the pro Nazi revelations continued to do so. Also those who did not like his work before found no reason to change their minds.

    Objectively speaking these revelations had no meaning.

    Phil’s Page

    My name is Phil Fried.

    Reply
  28. jimaltieri

    Godwin’s Law aside…

    It seems silly to argue that an aesthetic choice can be moral or immoral, that is unless you believe that maintaining your own integrity is a moral issue. I guess I’m weird, in that I do. Maybe I’m “fetishizing art,” but in my opinion you better be making music for a pretty damn good reason if you’re going to spend your time writing notes on a page or patching max on a screen rather than actively working for social justice in our quite injust society. In my view, constructing kitsch so that more people will consume that kitsch is a pretty un-integrity-having kind of thing to do.

    Luckily, as has been mentioned, most of us all dig music with a beat, or for the nerds, “an easily subdivided rhythmic structure with an invariant tactus.” It’s in our (collective) booty. So, no worries… it’s not pandering to drop a phat one on the crowd.

    Finally, in the words of the great Dr. H. Projansky, “Get back to work!”

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  29. siconesis

    I completely agree that Aesthetics is a complex philosophical and scientific subject about which all sorts of objective claims can be made, and that personal taste is only a small part, or perhaps a special case, of the larger subject.

    Aesthetics is not a scientific subject.

    Reply
  30. Gongman

    As a percussionist/composer/teacher, I have explored a lot of the aspects of beats and non-beats. As Americans (and many other cultures invaded by American music) we have been bombarded with music since birth (even before that event we are supossed to be able to hear and react to music). The one thing I have found with most people is that the short, 1 to 2 measure rhythmic phrase (or beat) is so instinctive as to be almost genetic in nature. Face it, most Americans have grown up listening to the rock drum beat in some manner. It is everywhere in our culture and in fact is our culture!

    Young students can easily grasp a 1 measure drum beat but often have difficulty grasping a longer rhythmic phrase. Whereas many other cultures (African, Asian, Indian, etc.) deal with much longer rythmic phrases and note groupings, Americans as a whole have difficulty getting something like this. They may find it novel, or even interesting, but most don’t find it memorable.

    In my current work/performances, I try to bridge both by playing enough short, rhythmic structures to keep their interest, while inserting pieces with longer, or no rhythmic structure in between. It’s very much walking a tightrope, but I feel a need to give them something (a short rhythmic pulse) that their brains may want at a subconcious level, as most people aren’t ready for a complete performance with no rhythms they can easily relate to.

    Reply

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