Born under a Bad Star
An Analysis of abstract loop-based composition through Aaron Funk’s “Szerencsétlen”
There are a variety of interesting parallels between the development of electronic music and western art music. Current trends, and a quickly evolving musical landscape, can be compared to the well documented western musical tradition. The composition Szerencsétlen on the album Rossz Csillag Alatt Született (Born Under a Bad Star, Planet Mu Records, 2005) by Winnipeg artist Aaron Funk, otherwise known as Venetian Snares, embodies these parallels as well as many differences. The historical context, technology and compositional techniques used in Szerencsétlen create a complex tangle that defies conventional analysis. These analytical challenges can be overcome with musical detective work and technical ingenuity.
The climb from a popular musical style to acceptance as an elevated form of artistic expression is steep. The struggle to include jazz as legitimate art music took many years and the endeavour continues to this day. However, it is no longer acceptable for educated musicians to dismiss jazz as “dance music” because of its association with the dance hall. To dismiss jazz as an artistic musical form would be a rejection of a major element of North American music history. Recently, the struggle for legitimacy has been raised by electronic music. For the sake of argument, a distinction must be made between electronic music and electroacoustic music. Unlike electronic music, electroacoustic music is a tradition firmly associated with western art music history and culture. Similar to jazz, electronic music has its origins on the dance floor. Some music scholars dismiss all forms of electronic music as “dance music” because of its roots in the repetitive music styles that grew out of the disco movement in the early 1980s. As electronic music diversifies and matures as a genre, new artists are taking this form to new levels of abstraction and sophistication. The study and analysis of electronic music poses unique challenges that stem from a rapid evolution outside the western art music tradition.
Art Music and Dance Music
A great deal of western art music owes its origins to “dance music”. Two obvious examples, are Bach’s English Suites and Chopin’s waltzes. However, a more subtle proliferation of dance patterns are included in the majority instrumental music from the Renaissance to the end of the Romantic period. Features like standard accompaniment patterns, harmonic rhythm, ground bass, and formulaic chord progressions can be traced back to early dance music in some form.
Standard accompaniment patterns and dance forms are popular because they represent an elastic framework that a composer can stretch to create interesting forms of tension. The tension produced by this stretching occurs only after boundaries are understood. Once boundaries are established, the composer can defy these limits and challenges the expectations of the listener. Expectations can be challenged because they are built into the musical and cultural context of any given point in history. Ideas like the modal and tonal systems, sonata form, and the twelve tone system, are boundaries composers stretched, crossed and explored in the search for new territory.
In the current cultural context, Bach’s English Suites are no longer functional dance pieces, despite titles like Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Bourée. It is possible to dance to this music, but function is secondary to the artistry and the sophistication of Bach’s artistic expression. In the 18th century Bach experimented with dance frameworks and, from them, built a complex network of tension release events. The same process is happening in 21st century electronic music. A specific example of more abstract electronic music can be examined in works like Szerencsétlen, which translated from Hungarian means “unlucky”.
Underground dance music culture has created a new set of commonly used dance patterns. Like western art music, electronic dance music is largely defined by pulse, pattern, and tempo. As progressive tastes developed and deemphasized functional elements, style and genre were shaped by an evolving set of cultural, sonic and contextual factors. Each electronic music style encompass numerous sub-genres, each with its own character, quality and historic context. The history and context of the materials used in Szerencsétlen bring together Bartók, drum and bass, and hardcore.
Tempo in Beats Per Minute
Dance Music Style
hip hop and dub
trip hop and big beat
drum and bass and breakbeat
hardcore and gabber
New Frameworks in the Digital Age
The use of accepted structural frameworks, cadential progressions, themes and quotations are common in western art music. These structures were handed down from one generation of composers to the next through written notation and the music education system. Electronic music has a similar way of transmitting frameworks. A similar, but uniquely electronic approach can be observed in the evolution of electronic music. Modern electronic artists use a direct form of transmission and quotation. They literally lift the recorded materials from other artists, without permission, and combine them to create new works. This method of instant re-contextualizing is possible given the advances in music technology. Electronic music producers of the 1980s recorded and played back sounds taken from existing recordings. They used samplers like the Fairlight CMI and, later, the more powerful Roland S series. The sound fragments these artists discovered, and integrated into their creations, are called “samples” and “loops”. Suddenly, artists were poring through old funk and gospel recordings searching for the perfect drum breakdown. Breakdowns, or “breaks” were selected and sampled in terms of sonic potential. The potential of a break comes from the combination of many elements: texture, clarity, pulse pattern, syncopation, variety, tempo, sound quality and others. One of these breaks had enough potential to carry several genres of electronic music from the 1980s into the 21st century.
The Amen Break
The amen break phenomenon illustrates some important parallels and differences between western art music and modern electronic music. The amen break is a four bar drum solo from a B-side recording by the 1960s soul group called The Winstons. The six-and-a-half second drum loop from the track Amen Brother (1969) was perfect for sampling because it was fully exposed, perfectly in time, clean and tight with interesting syncopation. The amen was so widely used by electronic music producers in the 1990s that it became “a ubiquitous piece of the pop-culture sound-scape” (Harrison 2004). From underground gangster rap and drum and bass to European breakbeat, the amen break was everywhere. By the late 1990s, the amen break was being used by corporate America to sell everything from cars, blue jeans and antidepressants (ibid.).
Szerencsétlen was composed well into, and beyond, the late 1990s period of obsession with the amen break. Using modern audio processing tools, artists like Aaron Funk, Square Pusher and Aphex Twin, sliced up, pitch shifted, transposed, distorted and compressed the amen break into new and interesting patterns (Fig. 1). The resulting pieces of music often sound nothing like the original. Because these composers are familiar with the possibilities and limitations of the amen break framework, they reshaped it into a staggering array of new works. The amen break is like any number of the frameworks that have evolved as part of the western art music tradition. Every break is a self-referential network of possibilities that composers bend to create tension release events.
It is difficult to determine why the amen break became a compositional framework for so many composers. Aside from being fully exposed and in near perfect time, there are specific æsthetic reasons why this sample is so popular. The tuning of the snare and the kick drum are particularly high and bright (Fig. 1, breakbeat analysis slice D5). When the amen break is sped up it sits perfectly in a bass heavy mix, or on its own. The desirable quality of early reflections and reverberation, or “room” sound, comes from vintage 1960s recordings and gives the amen break a raw human quality. The work of electronic music artists like Aaron Funk is interesting because it takes a naturally beautiful drum sound and cuts it in unnatural ways. In this way the artists is able to over-emphasize specific sonic characteristics buried in the original recording. For example, some snare strokes and reverberation trails that are barely audible (Fig. 1, slice A12) can be featured prominently in an entirely new context. The dynamic variation and accent patterns in the original Winstons drum solo allowed the amen break to be rearranged into a large number of phrase structures. The amen break can be split into at least 45 distinct sound slices. Using drum machines, or computers, these slices can be triggered individually, in larger groups, or simultaneously.
Forms Possible with New Technology
Electronic music is inseparable from technology in the same way orchestral music relies on complex instrument technology. Unlike the development of modern instrument technology, which was refined over the centuries, electronic and digital technology is in its infancy. In both cases, reproduction of musical sounds in a live setting relies on technology of some form. However, the notation system that developed alongside western music culture allows for musical compositions to be continuously re-interpreted as instrument technology continues to develop. The music of J.S. Bach being performed by Glenn Gould on modern pianos, or Wendy Carlos on Moog synthesizers (Deutsh 1976, 83), illustrates how the western system of notation allows for new reinterpretations of older works.
Electronic music has no standardized notation (DeLio 2002, 43). Some of the early electroacoustic pieces such as Stockhausen’s Electronic Study No. 2 had a graphic score and technical manuals that documented lists of times, durations, frequencies, envelope settings and amplitudes (Stockhausen 1955). His electronic pieces were simple enough to document and reproduce with modern technology in a form similar to western notation. However, with the addition of interdependent sampled sounds and complex chains of signal processing, this type of notation becomes impractical and usually impossible. To solve this problem, electroacoustic composers resorted to combined notation, text and images to serve as visual aids for analysis, discussion and following the score. The “electroacoustic listening guide” was developed in response to the emphasis of western art music on the printed score. These “visual scores” accompanied some early electroacoustic pieces, notably Stockhausen’s Studie II. Like the printed score, the listening guide is an abstract representation of the sound. However, there is an important difference. It is nearly impossible to recreate a performance of an electroacoustic composition by using a listening guide. In the case of electroacoustic composition, the written musical tradition predates the art form, therefore the composers quickly encounter issues of incompatibility.
A standardized printed notation was a non-issue for electronic music produced in the 1980s and 90s; conventional notation was not part of electronic music’s early development. From the outset, electronic music composers were tied to technology that evolved too rapidly to be standardized. Printed notation was impractical or impossible. The evolution of electronic music follows a model that is akin to a modified oral tradition, rather than a written genre (Truax 2001, 119–120). Rather than an abstract representation of sound that requires specialized education to interpret, electronic music is passed on though vinyl pressings, CDs, sample libraries and modern digital formats like Wav, MP3, Aif and recently FLAC. These sounds are passed down to each generation of electronic music composers and are re-contextualized as technology develops and musical trends change (Harrison 2004).
The rapid evolution of music technology in electroacoustic and electronic music presents both advantages and disadvantages. The creation of the PC and the digital audio workstation has allowed more artists to access powerful sound shaping tools. With each new product generation, software and hardware manufacturers compete for market share by introducing new features, improved work flow and increased functionality. Szerencsétlen could not have been created in an analogue recording studio. Sonic possibilities have grown as computers create precision impossible for conventional instruments or notation systems. However, the lack of score limits performances to the recorded medium or live performance by the composer.
Characteristic Gestures through Rhythmic Resolution
Tension and release events in Szerencsétlen are drawn from techniques commonly used in loop-based electronic music. In this particular style, repetition and variation of complex materials quickly creates a large, complex structure. The construction of Szerencsétlen’s patterns can be broken into three tiers: long phrases, loops and slices. Long phrases of eight or sixteen measures are the structural backbone of the work. Each long phrases is made up of varying percussion loops in 7/4 time. The loops are made up of re-ordered and processed slices of the amen break (Fig. 1). Understanding how these three levels interact with one another is the key to understand the tension-release events in Szerencsétlen.
The composer builds expectation by manipulating rhythmic resolution (McLachlan 2000, 61). As the loop repeats, the pulse is rooted in the mind of the listener. As syncopation is introduced, tension builds. This tension continues to build as the slices are re-arranged into unpredictable patterns. The composer then gains control of very precise tension release events that are similar to the cadential patterns in tonal music. Just as the harmonic rhythm increases before affirming or eliding a tonic, the rhythmic interest increases before a rhythmic resolution. Events preceding rhythmic resolution are called “builds” in common electronic music terminology. The builds used in Szerencsétlen can be categorized in the following ways:
Off Beat Shift (OBS)
The accent pattern of a loop is displaced by a short rhythmic value. This syncopation increases the rhythmic complexity for a short period of time. The length of the shifted material is proportional to the strength of the subsequent rhythmic resolution. If too much material is displaced and the memory of the previous pulse is dissolved, the resolution is very jarring (Audio 1: measure 11, Breaks A section).
A slice or group of slices is repeated in quick succession with a clear motion towards the Point of Rhythmic Resolution. The motion can come form a linear pitch shift or a dynamic envelope. Rollups can be extremely short to emphasize single beats of a pattern (m. 8, Breaks A), or they can be very long and emphasize the rhythmic resolution of an entire section (m. 6, Breaks A).
A rolldown is similar to a rollup, except the pitch shift will be down as well as the volume envelope (m. 16, Breaks A).
A syncopated pattern spills over the next point of rhythmic resolution. The effect is a delayed resolution that interferes with the pulse pattern of the subsequent loop (mm. 6–7, Breaks A).
Micro Loop (MicL)
A sub-loop is established inside the pulse pattern of a larger loop. Micro loops are often created from asymmetrical rhythmic groupings that temporarily shift the pulse pattern away from the global pulse (m. 7, Breaks B).
Macro Loop (MacL)
A sub-loop is established inside a pulse pattern that is larger than the average pulse pattern (m. 16, Strings A).
When the listener expects increased syncopation at the end of phrases, it is an effective compositional device to remove the rhythmic patterns altogether. If not overused, the effect is to increase the intensity of the rhythmic resolution in the next loop (m. 8, Strings B).
“Builds” preceding points of rhythmic resolution are often used in combination to increase the effect. For example, a pause and a roll up (m. 8, Break B).
Introduction (0:00–0:39, measures 1–16)
Here samples of Bartók’s string quartets are combined with timpani samples. These samples outline the melodic material used throughout the work. The theme slowly comes into focus as key notes are emphasized. The layering of the sampled materials are cobbled together to form short phrases. These short phrases do not sound like a real string quartet because of unnatural cutting and pasting of the decay trails on the original recordings. These are hidden to a certain extent by a reverberation effect unit that is being applied to the sampled string slices. The strings may not sound real, but a sense of line and drama created as the Szerencsétlen theme unfolds.
Breaks A (0:39–1:18, mm. 17–32)
This section introduces the amen break material in 7/4. The breaks are combined with thematic materials described in the previous section. The Szerencsétlen theme continues throughout, acting as an anchor for the complex break patterns. Rollovers, offbeat shifts as well as other builds are used to create tension until resolution in measure 33.
Strings A: (1:18–1:56, mm. 33–48)
Bartók’s string quartets are sampled heavily in this section. It begins with material from the beginning of the work and summarizes events that occurred earlier in the piece. String A can be further broken down into a 4+4+8 pattern with amen breaks book-ended by phrases created from Bartók quartet samples.
Breaks B (1:56–2:35, mm. 49–64)
This section returns to similar material as Break A. Intensity builds and the work becomes more frantic as rollups, pauses, rollovers and micro loops are combined in quick succession. A squelchy synthesizer lead line replaces the strings as the primary focus in measure 57. The elimination of the strings as primary focus pulls Szerencsétlen towards more common textures associated with hardcore underground music styles. The synthesizer fills out the harmonic space with a thickness that string instruments are unable to produce. The section intensifies until measure 64 where it collapses.
Strings B + Pizz Transition (1:35–3:30, mm. 65–88)
This section marks a return to the introductory material of the piece. The Szerencsétlen theme is being outlined with pizzicato passages. These samples sound artificially round and perfect. They might not be samples from Bartók quartets but pizzicato sounds from a sample library. There is an eight measure transitional section between the pizzicato material and the Breaks C section. The listener is expecting the piece to return to the stable 7/4 pattern but the rhythmic resolution is elided with a sequence of rolldowns, rollovers, micro and macro loops. This section would be akin to a chain of deceptive cadences in tonal music. The transition out of this section is a pause with a drawn out distorted rollup.
Breaks C (3:30–4:31, mm. 89–112)
The main theme is transposed down a tritone for the final breakbeat section. In this section, the sound materials in Szerencsétlen have transitioned away from live sounding instruments to a harsher electronic æsthetic. The interest in this section comes from combinations of harsh and warm analogue synthesizer lines with fake sounding strings. Extreme stereo panning is added as a compositional device to intensify tension and release events.
Outro (4:31–4:50, mm. 113–120)
The work ends with a sampled pizzicato pattern combined with sampled timpani sounds. Both of these instruments bang out the ever-present melodic progression. The ending lacks closure and may seem weak considering the variety and careful attention to detail in the previous sections. However, this is the second track on a larger album so it is important to consider the context in which it is heard. Also, endings for electronic compositions are often created to facilitate live performance. A simple and repetitive ending acts as the perfect segue when mixing tracks together in a live performance context.
Direct Contact with Western Art Music
In the 1990s the rise of the Internet, increasing global markets and interest in abstract electronic music created an explosion of professionally active artists. While many of these artists were operating within their own sub-culture vacuums, some artists were aware of, and influenced by, the western art music tradition. Stockhausen, Xenakis, Schaeffer and Cage are of particular interest to many modern electronic musicians (Huegli 2002). The proliferation of expensive digital equipment in the 1980s and 90s caused underground artists to become interested in the analogue æsthetic. Many artists found themselves using old analogue equipment that was sold at low prices as professional studios upgraded their technology. As copyright regulations for sampling popular music tightened in the early 2000s, 20th century composers were discovered by electronic musicians as sources for obscure and interesting sounds. Not being a commercially viable product, the copyright holders of 20th century music lack the legal resources to protect their recordings. Artists, who worked re-contextualizing pre-existing sound materials were drawn to Schaeffer and the æsthetics and history of musique concrète. Other artists were drawn to the studio works of Stockhausen (Witts 1995). Despite becoming aware of the fact that their ideas may not have been as new as they had once believed, not all creators of abstract electronic music were content to align themselves with western art history. Some electronic music producers reject the idea of art music and continue to believe they are rejecting all established musical tradition. Aaron Funk’s music is a blend of both of these ideas. Although he is aware of his place in history, Aaron Funk is as likely to poke fun at any established tradition as he is to embrace its artistic æsthetic. In his early work he was more likely to mock tradition, but as his work matures there seems to be a more sophisticated and informed use of historical narrative. Evidence of this can be seen in his treatment of Bartók samples in his Hungarian-themed album Rossz Csillag Alatt Született. From their relationship to dance, artistic æsthetics and direct quotation, the æsthetic of modern music and underground electronic music have many points of contact.
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