Words and Music: Meaning and Memory


Post by Sherene Aram

All formal differences between language and music are a consequence of differences in their fundamental building blocks (arbitrary pairings of sound and meaning in the case of language; pitch-classes and pitch-class combinations in the case of music).  In all other respects, language and music are identical.

- “,” Jonah Katz and David Pesetsky

I want to agree with this hypothesis. I really do. My mind leaps to African click languages. I envision an alternate world in which tones, rather than sounds, carry defined meanings, where conversations are duets or symphonies.  I think I’d enjoy life in a society where belting out the highest, loudest, longest note I could muster was an appropriate response to that button-pushing family member or colleague.

But I wonder – does this idea hold up in practice? To take a simple example, is the experience of reading aloud Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 the same as listening to “Turn, Turn, Turn” sung by The Byrds?

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Nope, it isn’t.

Even if you are very familiar with both the King James edition of the Bible and 1960s folk music, I’d wager that the opening notes of the song queued up an emotive memory in a way that the opening words of the text did not.

Experience tells me there is something fundamental about how music mainlines sensory data into our brains. As infants we vocalize before we verbalize. As adults, when we reminisce about a moment or an era, it is music that frames the memory, enabling it to persist across generations.

Perhaps music is a language like any other, but it is our common primal language, with the inherent capacity to sidestep our rational, meaning-seeking minds. 

Powerdove at Cornell Cinema: A Trio for Child’s Voice, Film, and Radiator


Post by Kate Klein

It is a concert in a cinema, of music you have to see to believe.

Thomas Bonvalet, one member of the improve rock trio Powerdove, starts the Dec. 5 show by mounting the stage in his socks.  Then, as the lights of the old movie theater in the basement of Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall go down, he puts on his shoes.

Heavy shoes with thick metal soles, reinforced with duct tape: Thomas wears his instrument.  In fact, he is his instrument; as the first song begins, he stamps, claps, blows into a pipe, slaps his knees, looks like a holy fool, a mourner, a man in a religious fervor. 
A guitarist stands by.  The guitar is red, the man playing it as still as a swaying tree compared to his ecstatic band mate, and the chords coming from the guitar simple, stripped down.  This is John Dietrerich, who spends most of his time playing with Deerhoof.

The heavy shoes beat a rhythm like wheels on a track.

Then the voice arrives: Annie Lewandowski, singing her minimal—almost skeletal—lyrics in her simple, clear voice:

            When you’re near
            I grow steady
            You make me steady

We can’t see her.  She is singing off stage, with her pedal effects set up to silence the instruments as soon as her voice appears.

            in my dreaming
            we were stealing
            your sweet kisses
            when you’re near

The words cut through the improvised instrumentals like a wind through a coat—but the wind is not necessarily cold.  

“People say it’s sort of childlike,” Annie said of her voice a month after the concert.  No vibrato, breathy—this is a sound she’s cultivated.  A classically-trained pianist who teaches at Cornell, Annie has taken only enough voice to learn breath control, on purpose.

“I think there’s a kind of a jaggedness,” she said,  “A harshness makes it more alive.”

In many ways, Powerdove is Annie’s voice.  Started as a solo recording project, the band has gone through a few evolutions and now is a trio: Annie, Thomas, and John.  Still, Annie’s voice is the definition of Powerdove:  “If I’m singing,” she told me, “that’s what it is.”

And now she’s singing on the cinema stage.  Eyes closed, softly, a few words at a time, her accordion almost forgotten in her hands.

In the middle, there’s John.  The guitarist, the one who reminds us Powerdove is often classified as rock music, with a strong element of experiment and improvisation.

People who hear them live remark on how independent the three musicians are, playing live together, “like three different soundworlds happening at the same time,” John said.

The group maintains a long-distance alliance, with John living in New Mexico, Thomas in Spain, and Annie in upstate, New York.  In 2012, they recorded an album, Do You Burn? in five intense days. They recorded again last July, for an album set to release in September.

They have to really focused when they get together, said John.  “We're always on the edge, which I like, to be honest.  Most of my favorite music has this sense of the unknown hiding just round the corner.”

Any live performance has an element of the unknown.  Any live performance asks for a bit of improvisation, even for those, like Powerdove, who expect to improvise.

On the stage opposite Annie, Thomas changes instruments.  He taps a counter service bell, plays a banjo like a drum, slaps his thigh hard enough to raise a welt.

Body drumming, Thomas told me, is his main musical activity.  “Sometimes I don’t play any instruments for a month,” he said, “but I still do body drumming.”

In another song, he sets two metronomes up to tap a syncopated largo rhythm at each other, then finally, he sits still, spent, watching the metronomes keep the beat, like a kid watching ants in the grass.

Powerdove’s music leaves room for visual re-imagining.  During the performance, the cinema screen is not dark for long.  After one set of music, the band moves to the side and Cornell Cinema screens three Powerdove music videos, one of them an animation.  The live band plays along with their own recording on film, doubling themselves, improvisation upon improvisation.

Being from three cities on two continents, Powerdove doesn’t get to play much together, and the Cornell Cinema show was especially special, Annie said afterward, because of the films, and because, coming at the end of a two week tour, it was their last performance before many months apart. 

And then there was the mysterious banging which chimed in halfway through the show.

“I have a strong memory of what sounded like somebody repeatedly hitting an anvil with a sledgehammer somewhere backstage,” said John.  

Annie heard it, too.  “It was changing our timing on everything.  There was some sort of rhythm to it.”

It was the heat turning on in the old building, an ancient radiator.  I can imagine Thomas playing one in their next show.   

Old Man Doesn't Yell At Cloud


Post by Pete Coco

"The mixtape," says Geoffrey O'Brien, "is the most widely practiced American artform." We have to assume he said it awhile ago -- before say, the death of the audio cassette -- but it's hard to say for sure because almost all Google-generated rabbit holes for the phrase lead to the quotation as it appear in other writing about mixtapes rather than the source itself. But whenever he said it, he's right -- even now. Especially now.

The Internet, by and large, disagrees. A rather fascinating micro-genre of essay laments the "lost art" of the mixtape. To be sure, it's part of a larger trend in which the audio cassette itself has become a peculiar vector of generational nostalgia. Try the Google search yourself. You'll find a real consistency to the results. The essay (or more often, blog post) might begin with the O'Brien quotation. In my casual sample of the author is usually male, usually focused on the earnestly intimate act of making a mixtape rather than on the experience of receiving or even listening to one. Personal anecdotes are an optional but common feature. And then, in this longtail genre's most essential feature, the author laments, explicitly or not, whatever it is he thinks it means that we no longer make mixtapes for each other. One recent example tellingly comes to us from The Federalist, a venue for some of the right's smarter culture warriors. The underlying gesture is the same as always but unusually clear in this instance: a lack of mixtapes is part of a larger cultural decline that may or may not also involve Obamacare and/or socialism.

This is ridiculous. The mixtape isn't gone. It's practically everything these days.

As a young man I was much like these nostalgists, at many points armed with no better way to tell a girl of my affections than to spend a few hours alone with my proud, meticulous notions of best practice and most of my music collection strewn out on the rug of my bedroom. Love me for my taste, the mixtaper says to the world.

The most important 90 minutes of my aesthetic youth is the mix my older sister made me in 1991, introducing me to the Lemonheads, the Pixies, Frank Black and Nirvana (and ruining Jesus Jones, EMF, and the Scorpions) all at once. That tape blueprinted my taste for the next decade and set my own course as a player in bands of my own. Better, this was a few months before Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the national airwaves, making me the first eighth grader in some doubtlessly impressive radius to be shocked to see Kurt Cobain (in particular) on MTV a few months later. It felt both like the world was taking something private from me and that I should be proud of myself. It's a strange high, that, one we make fun of now with a droll automation.

Then there was the Manic Panic punk rock girl in heavy eyeliner who made me a mix and handed it to me wedged inside a roll of toilet paper. She gave me Otis Redding and The Cure. I starting ditching driver's ed to spend more time with her.

Years later, when I was still without my license, the woman who drove me to the grocery store every week had this tape in the deck of her car that was truly precious; each song began with the same word the last one ended with -- all the way through the loop of sides A and B. As I recall, they were all topically concerned with evil. This was my first exposure to not only to Robert Johnson and Slayer but also to the realization that there was no particular reason not to love both (hey, I was young). I never even met the guy who made the tape; he was somewhere in that quantum parallel of a different Big Ten college town my friend had come to us from (via interdimensional portal, no doubt). I don't know his name but still, I admire that guy.

Finally, there is my continued suspicion that my wife married me because early in our courtship I introduced her to The Dictators -- where else? -- on a mixtape. Or at least saw something in me that fueled us forward.

So I know from mixtapes. But here's the thing: the mixtape isn't gone, the form has just become so ubiquitous that it's completely transcended the obsolescence of the audio cassette. Those of us who made mixtapes aren't special anymore.  Everyone -- at least everyone on the internet -- is asking to be loved for their taste these days. We are all curators now and so are the robots. We post to social media, we send emails. We tumble and we pin. Each of us has our audience: small, maybe distracted, but also captive and thoroughly quantified. Call these the tradeoffs of progress. You don't have to pay Woolworth's for the blank tapes anymore, your mix might carry advertisements, but here we are in 2014, unbundling and rebundling music and other content for ourselves and our friends. Mixtapers weren't an old guard. We were the vanguard of something very contemporary.

Nothing has been lost here but scarcity and friction. These are not small things. I would lament them if I thought we could have them back. But instead I struggle to accept the future for what it appears to be: an inertial trip across a plane made of everything, already well underway.

The Accidental Sirens


Post By Natasha Patel

Like an only child who creates siblings by inventing imaginary friends, I, a nascent guitar player, have invented my own imaginary band. It’s called The Accidental Sirens. We are all women, dressed in flowery gowns and bearing wispy hair crowned by fig leaves. And on a good beat, we can be very alluring. On occasion, our musicality can overwhelm our audiences, since we don’t have complete control of our own power.  But we are resilient. This is our track list for that special someone inside a smoky cabaret.

1) "The Lion, The Beast and the Beat," by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

This song is designed to tantalize and enchant, while simultaneously signaling that we are primed.

2) "Coming for You," by Von Grey.

No matter how far you run, we’re coming for you. By horse, flying carpet, or a Chevy Astro.

3) "Tales That I Tell," by He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister.

Guess who we are? Games are fun. Read between the lines and our minds.

4) "Green Garden," Laura Mvula.

For when you have us entirely figured out.

5) "Next to Me," by Emelie Sandé.

And we can brag to the mermaids, harpies, and nymphs about you.

6) "Pretty Runs Out," by Amanda Shaw.

It’s important for us to be entirely honest with you. Once we locate Persephone, our wrinkles will appear.

7) "Shooter," by Mia Borders.

What? You don’t care for honesty. While we only believe in such savagery in times of necessity, that line can be blurred.

8) "What Good Am I?" by La Luz.

Self-reflection is important after a tragedy. It also feeds our creativity and ability to write the next album.

9) "Traces of You," by Anoushka Shankar

See, we ruminate on our losses.

10) "Ragamuffin," by Selah Sue

In staying true to our roots and mission, we will find Persephone.

Unstuck Playlist: DEATH PROM


Post by Josh Denslow

In a press release, Annie Clark had this to say about her upcoming St. Vincent album: “I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral.” So specific while being refreshingly open to interpretation. The sound you’re hearing is not the sound I’m hearing, I can assure you.

To clarify, I created my own funereal dance party. (Click here to listen.)

1. “Brim” by Olafur Arnalds

If there was ever a song that demanded you dance and cry at the same time, this is it. It even comes equipped with a weepy violin at the end. And it’s called Brim! Are you kidding me? Like how everyone’s eyes are always brimming with tears in Victorian novels.

2. “Honey-Suckle” by Xiu Xiu

No funeral dance party is complete without Xiu Xiu, and mine is no exception. Annie Clark’s description fits them so perfectly they might want to update their Facebook profile. As my mourners decide how much they can solemnly bob their shoulders to this song without drawing unwanted attention, someone will surely throw themselves on my coffin in wailing despair. Most likely the guy who changes my oil.

3. “Ashes in the Snow” by Mono

There’s a particular way to dance to Mono and their bass player has it down. Go see them live if you don’t believe me. At this point in my funeral, everyone will lean forward, push their hair in front of their faces (if applicable), and sway.

4. “Lovely Bloodflow” by Baths

My funeral will be a well-attended affair (of course!). This song will play as everyone lines up to speak. "Lovely Bloodflow" has the kind of beat that makes you adopt that walk/dance thing people do when they head to the bar at a nightclub.

5. “Baptism” by Crystal Castles

I knew that Crystal Castles would feature prominently at this dance party, but choosing Baptism seems apropos. Certainly better than picking a song called Pap Smear or Wrath of God. Baptism has this Nintendo-style lead keyboard line and a driving beat that makes you either nod your head or slam-dance everyone around you. Those eulogizing me will have to scream over this one.

6. “Distance” by Why?

My funeral must have a slow dance. Grab the nearest Grandma! Yoni Wolf’s voice is percussive and hypnotic. You could dance to him reading the Cheesecake Factory menu.

7. “Royals” by Lorde

And then Lorde comes on and everyone knows that everything is going to be okay. Because this song is so good and she’s like five years old and she has another ninety years of life ahead of her. At least.  Perhaps she’ll live forever. This is the hopeful portion of my funeral.

8. “Chain my Name” by Polica

Now it’s time to shrug off those inhibitions and dance like you’re in your bedroom singing into a hairbrush. It also would be a good time to tell humorous anecdotes about me. Like the time I fell asleep on the train to Chicago from the suburbs and the other commuters left me there. I woke up in the train yard.

 9. “Nosetalgia” by Pusha T (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

The video for this song features Pusha T walking down a dark street, all in one take. He’s joined halfway through by Kendrick Lamar. It’s shot in gritty black and white, and these guys are too cool. Maybe the type of coolness that eluded me during my brief life. Here’s hoping for reincarnation! The dance that accompanies this song is of the waving-your-hands-with-emphasis variety. It can be done as the mourners file to my coffin to say their goodbyes (ideally in verse form).

10. “Fancy Period” by Growing

When they wheel me out to my final resting place, this song will drone in the background. The dancers might wonder what is going on. Where’s the beat? This is just two guitars in direct competition. But halfway through, I daresay a pattern emerges.  A low hum. Some may tentatively lock into this pulsing beat, shake their hips, shuffle their feet. But just as in life, nothing makes sense until the very end.

Unstuck Music Pick: The Resource Centre Series


Post by John Mark Lapham 
[Image by Gareth Courage]

The Resource Centre is the brainchild of John Hanson, one half of the Birmingham duo Magnetophone. If you're familiar with Magnetophone's output, you may notice some similarities here in the childlike melodies, the sense of adventure and experimentation. The Resource Centre deconstructs those dense compositions, leaving only a skeletal, almost intangible trail with just a hint of melancholia running throughout.

There's something very British about these recordings and, perhaps largely thanks to titles such as "The School System," they bring to mind some classic coming-of-age films such as Kes, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Unman, Wittering and Zigo. The tone of these compositions is more modern classical than modern electronica, harking back to pioneering works by the likes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Raymond Scott, and Terry Riley.

Recommended listening:

The School System, Phases 1-3

A Million Voices for Nature

The Unstuck Activity Book: Eno-Assisted Generative Writing


Post by Ben Roberts

A year ago I took a job that required me to wake up at five in the morning. I hated the hours, but I needed the money. For years, morning had been my time to write—before the demands of the day wrecked my inner calm.

“My time” is a nonsensical concept. Also that anything can wreck my inner calm speaks to the fragility of the way I structure my framework for inner calm. Also, the morning, just before dawn, is where music is born.

I pray more. I’ve become indebted to the generative music apps developed by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. Inner calm is best thought of as an algorithm by which a certain phrase or tone, a prayer, is repeated at determined intervals, combining with the demands of the day to create a new song. I am in the midst of a complex process of simplifying my life. I take naps in the afternoon.


A year ago is a nonsensical concept. “My time” took a job that required me to wake up at five in the morning. I hated my inner calm, but I needed the fragility of the way I structured my framework for inner calm. Also that anything can wreck the hours. For years morning time, just before dawn, is where music is born. Also the morning is money.

I pray in the afternoon. I take naps to the generative music software developed by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. I’ve become indebted in the afternoon. Inner calm is a complex process of simplifying my life. I am best thought of as an algorithm by which a certain phrase or tone, a prayer, is repeated at determined intervals, combining with the demands of the day to create a new song. I take naps in the afternoon.


I take naps in the afternoon. Prayer is a nonsensical concept. A year ago is an afternoon. “My time” took to the generative music software developed by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. I take naps, a job that requires me to wake up at five in the morning. I’ve become indebted to my inner calm. I hated a complex process of simplifying my life, but I needed an algorithm by which a certain phrase or tone, a prayer, is repeated at determined intervals, combining with the demands of the day to create a new song. Also that anything in the afternoon.


Also that anything naps in the afternoon. Hate is a nonsensical concept. Prayer is an algorithm.

*   *   *

The preceding is an example of a writing exercise based on an algorithm inspired in part by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, a pioneering work of generative art, which can now be explored further in the app Air, developed by Peter Chilvers and Sandra O’Neill.

This generative writing experiment follows these steps:

Part 1.  Write two paragraphs each comprised of three sentences. Write a third paragraph of four sentences.

Part 2.  Blend up the three paragraphs to create two paragraphs -- by, e.g., assigning the subject of the first sentence in the first paragraph to the verb and object of the first sentence in the second paragraph. If you like, you may select a sentence at random (e.g., "I take naps in the afternoon") to be fully preserved.

Part 3.  Blend up the two paragraphs yielded in Part 2. You may or may not preserve a phrase. This yields one large paragraph.

Part 4. Blend up the remaining paragraph, and shorten it. This yields three to four sentences.

A point on aesthetics and grammar: these “rules” are fluid and are meant to be followed like a family recipe; exercise your own measure. Grammar, however, should be slightly more inflexible even if it becomes “incorrect” (i.e., don’t change the tense/number even as you combine the paragraphs).