Burial – Archangel

William Emmanuel Bevan grew up in the UK, properly. As he tells it, he’s never been to a festival, warehouse, or illegal party. Instead, he experienced the jungle and garage scene through the stories and records of his older brother.

But as the scene shifted toward a pump-up, happy-go-lucky, often cheesy sound, William was fixated on a darker tone: “like finding a body in a lift shaft” [Wire Interview]. By the time William had become Burial, hardly anyone was listening to that type of music anymore.

**

Today, Burial seems to be an unspoken yet widely known name. That would be surprising, considering he’s not much of a self-promoter and stayed anonymous for much of his career.

Instead, he’s driven by a deeply passionate fan base. At odd corners of the internet and deep sections of Reddit, you might find ornate anthologies discussing his music, story, and incredibly low-tech production setup.

**

I started to get Burial while traveling Europe alone in the rainy winter (I know). In between adventures, a short-lived love, train crises, and overdue reunions, I recall walking dark European towns and clubs with the crushing weight of self-indulgent existential feelings. The setting was perfect. But really, I was just lonely.

Sad music, dark music, is hard for most to connect to and easy to roll your eyes at. Why intentionally impose a negative emotion on yourself? I’ll say this: take Burial’s music, save it in a playlist named “Dark Days,” and listen to it when you need to.

**

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The National – The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness

Amanda Petrusich describes Matt Berninger’s voice in her recent New Yorker article by conjuring up a somber image: “Listening to it, I often think of a deep-sea diver, weights slung low on his hips, being tugged toward the ocean floor.”

“Beautiful but a tad over-written”, joked my Mom when in awe, I read the passage out loud.  But after a few glasses of wine and the appearance of thunderheads in the backyard, The National’s new album, Sleep Well Beast, and its gloomy opulence, fit the grooves of our night.

The National can either be crushingly depressing or wholly inspirational. Either way, it’s undeniable that Matt Berlinger’s voice is a magnetic force, a polarizing crack that goes straight to the source.

**

Sibylle Baier

As hunters of good music, it’s eerie to think of all the great music we’ll never hear. Of course, we’ll never be able to scan every corner of the internet. We’ll also never be able to pore over every rare vinyl. We’ll never listen to the mix tape that was forced on us in Times Square before we learned “how to not look them in the eye.”

That’s really fine – with the exponential growth of recordings over the past few decades, we’re in no shortage of great tunes.

What is eerie to imagine though, is that in the attic of some house in a small town in Germany, a heart-wrenching masterpiece gathers dust because an artist never thought about showing it to people or didn’t believe it was good enough. Songs that were not just undiscovered, but never even put out there. It was enough for the artist to just enjoy making them.

**

Sibylle Baier wrote Colour Green between 1970 and 1973. Thirty years later her son found the recordings, sharing them with family members and a few others. Eventually, the tracks found their way to Orange Twin Records and in 2006 Colour Green was released.

It’s a beautiful album.

**

You made me forget about
have, want and exert
and all of the sudden I feel proud
for being without saying a word

Musical Ai

On Nitch, the Instagram page with enough scrolling power to prod you out of bed in the morning, there’s an image of Banksy sitting in a chair, his face cloaked behind an oversized hood and his fingertips welded together as if in prayer.

The caption reads, “I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a super power.”

Sometimes this idea prompts me to hang back. To watch while others spread themselves thin. But when I discovered Spotify and the opportunity to be totally transparent about my listening habits, I leaned in.

Spotify gives me a heightened awareness about people’s connection to music. A track off Bon Iver’s For Emma might signal a rough day. ODESZA’s Divinity Remix hints at a moment of teeth-gnashing action. And when my grandfather, a man dedicated to his vinyl records, joined Spotify, I watched as he suddenly transitioned from Bach, Handel and Arthur Rubinstein to Frank Zappa, revealing a rare glimpse at a subterranean rebellious streak.

Maybe it was naive to overlook that all this public data could be harnessed for something besides interconnectedness. With great data comes great responsibility and recent news is uncovering a growing suspicion about how Spotify may be using that data.

Journalists and bloggers are accusing Spotify of creating songs by “fake artists” to fill in some of their ambient playlists to save money on royalty fees. Several artists stepped forward, others like Deep Watch remain eerily quiet.

Then there’s the potential connection between Echo Nest, Spotify’s data collection hub that tracks user’s listening habits, and the recent hire of Francois Pachet, a revered French professor and machine learning guru.

Bloggers speculate that Spotify is accumulating listening data so that they can use machine learning to create customized music. With millions of hours of listening data, Spotify’s algorithms could pinpoint the chord progressions, rhythms and styles that resonate with users. They could theoretically customize music for a specific moment in time.

The goal is awesome. And for me it would be the end of a long journey after stumbling on the crowdsourcing capacity of Hype Machine. I’ve always fantasized about a sixth sense for what song belongs in the current moment. An algorithm would take out the guess work.

We may not even be that far off. The glowing boards laid out in front of a D.J. and the prevalence of pro tools has introduced a new member of the band – a formula, a computer, or whatever cuts and hems raw tracks.

It’s hard to resist that mathematical precision. By definition technology makes things easier. Venmo means you don’t have to take cash out. Uber Eats means you don’t have to leave your couch to eat sushi. But I’m of the belief that easier doesn’t always mean better in the long term.

Take Dave Grohl for example. As a kid he couldn’t afford a drum set so he’d beat wooden sticks on pillows, hitting the fabric as hard as he could to make an audible sound. That produced a breakneck style that drove Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. No one brings Dave Grohl on to play drums for a soft jazz track – they hire him to shatter snare drums.

My concern with AI generated music is that we will lose the ‘fuck you’ types. The narrative behind the music will become less important as it becomes a more streamlined experience. We will settle into a cyclical feedback loop, thoughtlessly mainlining the musical stream. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Our past would prescribe our future.

But as we get further into AI territory, we may find that our experiences with music aren’t as transactional as listening data suggests. A friend recently told me that he associated Father John Misty’sNancy From Now On” with a second-hand surfboard he’d found in the back room of a well-lit surf shop. When he called the previous owner, the man told him that he’d shaped it for his wife, who was uninterested in the alternative design (it’s round like a pill or a bar of soap). As my friend twirled around the board he noticed a note on the bottom channel. Inscribed in pencil it said, “For Nancy.” The moment was cemented and the board became one with the song.

Algorithms are designed to root out randomness and chance. For an equation to work, you need a closed system. A self driving car can’t function if the roads are forever changing direction. The same would be true for AI generated music. You would need to construct a limit. A known quantity. Random chance would be deadly.

But music needs randomness. It needs chaos. It needs Death Grips. It thrives off leaps and bounds – unpredictable moments of improvisation. And for that, there’s no one better than a human.

White Ferrari – Frank Ocean

The man in front of me moved his fingers cautiously, as if one wrong move would demolish his chances. I watched over his shoulder – a quiet observer.

He stopped to stare out the train window, Oakland rushing by, tents hanging under highway ramps and an orange light reflecting against a shipping container.

******

We hit a tunnel and the man got back to work, his fingers springing upwards after tapping each letter. He began to edit, adding the date of the event, then the location, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

His last edit was his worst.

Totally fine if you can’t make it, he wrote.

His finger hovered over the “send” button, but he stopped to look back out the window. Maybe to wait for some sign that this was right, that whatever he had written would mesh with the ongoing narrative. Or would he hear silence?

He hovered over the “send” button again, then clicked his phone off, and placed it in his pocket, moving to get off the train.