Once the domain of a privileged few, the art of record production is today within the reach of all. The rise of the ubiquitous DIY project studio and internet streaming have made it so. And while the creative possibilities available to everyday musicians are seemingly endless, so too are the multiskilling and project management challenges to be faced. In order to demystify the contemporary popular-music-making phenomenon, Marshall Heiser reassesses its myriad processes and wider sociocultural context through the lens of creativity studies, play theory and cultural psychology.
This innovative new framework is grounded in a diverse array of creative-practice examples spanning the CBGBs music scene to the influence of technology upon modern-day music. First-hand interviews with Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), Bill Bruford (King Crimson, Yes) and others whose work has influenced the way records are made today are also included. Popular Music, Power and Play is as thought provoking as it will be indispensable for scholars, practitioners and aficionados of popular music and the arts in general.
“By assigning an individual fader to numerous theories on creativity, then incorporating case studies and reflections from several working musicians as filters and processors, Heiser has crafted the equivalent of a classic pop album; balancing compositional elements that proudly bear their influences coupled with new ideas and insights that spark the mind. Popular Music, Power and Play holds up to repeated listens and is a welcome addition to both popular music studies and creativity research literature.” Alan Williams, Professor of Music, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA
Marshall Heiser is an Australian academic, classically-trained instrumentalist, producer and music-technology developer. His previous publications explore such varied topics as sound in cinema; the interrelatedness of humor, play and creativity theory; themusic of Brian Wilson, and the phenomenology of record production.
Introduction 1. The Frame 2. Power, Play and Creativity 3. Pushing Humpty 4. Playframing 5. Negotiations Case Study: Remain In Light 6. Beyond the Frame Case Study: The Struggle Behind the SMiLE Last Thoughts Appendix: Interview with Bill Bruford References Index
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One of things I find most frustrating about life on this planet is how humans tend towards setting up scenes and communities, with all of their inherent rules, shared values, mythologies and hierarchies, only to eventually become enslaved by the very institutions they perpetrate. Neitzsche argues that the urge to join together, so as to exert greater influence than one might alone, is fundamental to the human condition: the [communal] “will to power” (Neitzsche, Kaufmann & Hollingdale, 1968).
Fair enough. It’s nice to be part of something, to feel a sense of belonging and to enjoy all the rewards forthcoming when you do good according to the (often unspoken) rules of the group. The problem, as Huizinga (1949) puts it, is that ‘the feeling of being “apart together” in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, [all too often] retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game’ (p. 12).
When we can no longer distinguish where (and when) the boundaries of such games are located, or don’t want to because the perks are so good, therein lies the danger. Many are unaware perhaps that such boundaries even exist at all. And for those who would question the rules of the game-clan, ostracism usually awaits.
‘It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he [sic] reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion-a pregnant [sic] word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community’ (p.11).
I prefer the term spoil-sport to that of iconoclast since the former shows up the status quo for what it is – just one of many possible games people play. Arguably the most influential artistic spoil-sport of the 20th century was Marcel Duchamp, followed closely by John Cage. Their example paved the way for a new wave of artists and composers such as the Fluxus and minimalist movements, likewise eager to challenge the self-important gate-keepers of the “art world.”
Alvin Lucier is one such individual whose work opens our ears to an array of beautiful sonic experiences only made possible by filtering out so much of what is assumed to be fundamental or necessary to music. Importantly, his work shares with the two former “movements” an accessibility and a playful, child-like, sense of wonder.
A case in point is Lucier’s ‘Music on a Long Thin Wire.’ The piece is generated by suspending a taut long wire (up to 80 feet in some cases) between miked up bridges (the musical sort, not the ones you drive over) and allowed to vibrate with the help of a magnet and oscillator set at a fixed frequency. The system is highly susceptible to the slightest influence – ‘Fatigue, air currents, heating and cooling, even human proximity could cause the wire to undergo enormous changes’ (Lucier, 1992).
I first heard this piece in a Materials of Music class when studying at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. According to my lecturer, in the late 1970s the piece had been broadcast on public radio for five straight days and nights without interruption and New York cabbies had tuned in en masse. This meeting of the avant-garde and mundane fascinated me and made a big impact on my musical ideas ever since.
In an interview with Jason Gross (2000), Lucier explained his inspiration for the piece: ‘I was sharing an acoustics class here at Wesleyn with a physics instructor. We were doing the Pythagorian experiment with a monochord on a table. We had an electro-magnet that was driving the string and an oscillator. It was sort of a cut-and-dry sound experiment. I just got the idea to extend that in size-to have an really extraordinary long wire would really generate something amazing. When I started making the piece, I just didn’t bother to do any analysis or learning about the wire tension, mass and weight. I just set it up between a couple of tables and discovered that the imperfection of the way it was installed made a very interesting and wonderful sound. It was always changing. That’s the interesting thing about it- it isn’t fixed like a string on a piano. It’s subject to all kind of internal and external things.’
Many of Lucier’s compositions are informed by a curiosity of how sounds are produced and interact together. For those who might find his work inscrutable, an understanding of the cultural context out which it arose might provide an ‘in.’ Lucier studied composition at a time when the musical ‘establishment’ was dominated by post-War (Darmstadt School) composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez. Each, in his own way, had taken the ‘serialist’ compositional approach developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s to its extreme. Even the mighty Igor Stravinsky, who had long been a vocal critic of Serialism, was composing in the style by the 1950s. The influence exerted by the Darmstadt School – typified by music that was atonal and uncompromising in its pushing performers to ever-increasing levels of exactitude – was so all-pervasive that by time I was studying music in the mid-1980s it was still considered the norm for composers.
A number of attendees at the annual summer Darmstadt ‘International Vacation Courses for New Music’ later reacted against the serial orthodoxy thanks to the influence of John Cage, a visiting American composer and a former student of Schoenberg’s. Cage’s music – influenced by Dada, Marcel Duchamp and Zen Buddhism (via the lectures and writings of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts) – rejected the idea that the composer should always be in control. While his lectures at Darmstadt in the late 1950s failed to make any significant impression on Stockhausen et al, Cage’s ideas resonated powerfully with attendees Lucier, Nam June Paik and La Monte Young.
One of the gripes that Lucier had about ‘total serialism’ (along with his contemporaries Steve Reich and Philip Glass) was that for all the precision and order that informed not only pitch but timbre, note duration and expression, a sense of comprehension of those structures was not part of the listener’s experience. Lucier’s work, since then, has been an attempt to explore sound at its most fundamental level, framing various sonic phenomena (such as the beating produced by simultaneous tones, evolving harmonic spectra and resonance etc.) within coherent compositional premises that invite the audience to open up to the world of sound that we so often take for granted.
DURATION: 4min., 08 sec. This is the fifth installment in a retrospective series of music I’ve made in the deep dark past. This track is a collaboration with Mark Duckworth of Gold Coast band The Greys, and South-East Queensland live music guru/bigwig. The recording features Mark playing his own composition on acoustic guitar and singing lead/backing vocals. It was the first record I ever produced that successfully distilled my ideas about crafting records (to quote Brian Eno) as a “plastic art” – as opposed to focusing primarily on capturing a live performance in the studio.
Mark and I both studied at Griffith University, doing the Bachelor of Popular Music program. I heard a very rough demo of this song one day and instantly fell in love with it. Mark was (and probably still is) a prolific songwriter and he was quite blasé about it. It was just one of so many. I couldn’t believe this song wasn’t his top priority for promotion. I’d spent the previous few years doing a lot of trial and (mostly) error experimentation in the recording studio honing my engineering chops and ideas regarding production techniques and saw an opportunity here. I asked Mark if he’d be open to letting me use him (and his song) as a record production guinea pig. That is, I wanted to record Phil Spector-style (but without the guns); not in a live-in-the-studio/wall-of-sound-sense, but have total control/veeto-rights over all aspects of the making of the record. To be fair, it was probably more of a Mike Chapman or Mutt Lange sense of meticulousness that I was negotiating for. To his credit, Mark trusted me enough to say “Yeah, go for it.”
It was because of Mark’s courage and trust that the record turned out as well as it did. It wasn’t easy for him, but it paid off. The original demo was marked by a passionate vocal delivery with a really wide dynamic range (Mark is an amazing singer with a great range of tones including that “Lennon-growl”). My idea however, was to make the record an exercise in restraint, but only to serve the real aim of fully capturing (even, dare I say it, heightening) all the emotional power of the demo’s performance in a “controlled” recorded medium. I would get Mark to sing and play guitar in a detached manner and constant volume level, then transferring the emotionality into the instrumental/backing vocal arrangement.
I remembered a conversation I’d previously had with engineer Mike Stravou about the vocal performance on a Pretenders record he’d worked on called “Brass In Pocket” (one of all-time my favourite records/mixes). Mike said that Chrissy Hynde started off by tracking the vocal quite expressively but producer Chris Thomas encouraged her to sing in a more off-handed manner (despite the emphatic lyrics). The end result still sounds passionate indeed in the context of the whole mix and with two passes through a 1176 limiter to emphasise annunciation. Mike also noted that instruments and voices, when recorded softly, produce harmonics quite different those when “belted out.”
So the plan was hatched and the lines were drawn. Mark came in one day with his guitar and played to a basic time-keeping rhythm-box. We quickly tracked his vocal singing at whisper volume close up on a mic in an acoustically dead room. Day 2 we collaborated on a backing vocal arrangement/performance and Mark left me to get on with adding the rest. This included electric guitars, bass, multiple keyboards, “ooh” vocal samples, and mixing.
I’m happy to say that this track became a personal bench mark in terms of production process and aesthetics-as-emotion. In particular, it demonstrated the importance of transparent role negotiation between participants – something that later became a core topic in my PhD thesis. Best of all perhaps was the fact that Mark later told me his friend Tyrone Noonan played the song to Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens (a big hero of mine) who made a point of saying he really like it. That meant a lot to me….still does. Thanks Mark.
Credits: Mark Duckworth: Songwriting, backing voice co-arranging, lead voice, backing voices, acoustic guitar. Marshall Heiser: Instrumental arrangement, backing voice co-arranging, backing voices, electric guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, engineering, mixing and production. (p) (c) 2005 Mark Duckworth and Marshall Heiser.
Here’s a nutty little instrumental jazz tune I wrote called “Sunday Sho.” Hope you like it. I wrote it using a technique I call “playframing” (for more details go to: playframesphd.wordpress.com). In this particular piece, a simple syncopated 2-bar rhythmic motif was applied to a number of different virtual instruments in Apple Logic Pro software, leaving myself free to play with the pitch values and instrument combinations.
Regarding the video: The footage was sourced/compiled from the creative commons repository “archive.org” and was originally created by Karl Sims as part of a research project titled “Involving simulated Darwinian evolutions of virtual block creatures.” Visit him at karlsims.com Sho nuff.