Posts Tagged ‘experimental’
06 Aug

Week 117: “Second Hand” by errunriv

I’ve always been interested in song titles.

When I first heard this song, I assumed that the title referred to something inherited, as in “second-hand clothing”. But after a few listens, I noticed that there was no hyphen in the title, and suddenly realized that it might be making reference to the “second hand” on a clock. For some reason, thinking of a clock made me hear the song in a different way.

For a brief moment, I sat there contemplating how amazing the human brain is; how our understanding of a song’s title can change our perception of the song itself. How our like or dislike of a person can be influenced by the person’s name. How our enthusiasm for a shirt can be influenced by the music playing in the store when we try it on.

Then the moment was over, and I went back to eating my sandwich.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Repetition. The piano’s simple, repetitive pattern of (mostly) thirds at the beginning of the song really reminds me of Philip Glass.

2. Surprise. The clarinet that comes in at 0:27 is an unlikely companion for the piano. I’m not sure what instrument I was expecting, but it wasn’t the clarinet.

3. Entropy. Much like “Turn the Koala” by Red Blue Green, this song gradually disintegrates into chaos. The thirds turn into all kinds of intervals, the regular rhythm they follow falls apart, and it’s capped off by the clarinet spinning away up a scale just before the 5-minute mark, like an unintentionally triggered firework.

Recommended listening activity:

Arranging your books by colour, rather than by title.

19 Dec

Week 84: “DFACE” by Leah Kardos



Whenever it comes up in conversation that I endured almost a decade of piano lessons as a child, people often get a wistful look on their faces, before saying something like, “Oh, it must be so great to just be able to sit at a piano and play.”

But strangely enough, lots of the memories I have of learning to play the piano involve things other than the actual sitting-and-playing part. If you were lucky enough to take piano lessons, perhaps you’ll know what I mean. Here is a brief run-down of some of my strongest memories of taking piano lessons:

  • I remember the wrinkles on my piano teacher’s hands.
  • I remember the face of the kid who had his lessons right before me.
  • I remember the sound of the clock ticking during my exams.
  • I remember scales.

For some reason, I really liked practicing scales. No matter how hard the pieces were that I was supposed to be learning, the scales never changed, and I loved that predictability. I could remember where the sharps and flats were. I could visualize them before even playing the scale. Maybe that’s why I love this song so much; it reminds me of the comforting up and down of playing scales.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The wandering time signature. I’m tempted to count it as regular 4/4, but because the notes in the right hand are sometimes grouped in fives, and sometimes in sevens, I keep losing track of where the downbeat is. It makes me feel a bit musically inept, as if I’ve just tied my own shoelaces together.

2. The vocal clip. The grainy old voice that urges us to memorize the spaces in the treble clef is a great contrast to the clear, echoing notes in the piano.

3. The subtle thuds that fade in as the song nears the 2-minute mark. Like a racing heartbeat.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting on a swing and turning around and around until you can’t turn anymore…and then letting yourself spin.

28 Nov

Week 81: “Campanile” by Harold Budd


If you’re looking for reasons to take an interest in the American composer Harold Budd, you’ll find two in the opening sentences of his Wikipedia entry. First, it states that he was raised in the Mojave Desert. Second, he was “inspired at an early age by the humming tone caused by wind blowing across telephone wires”. Now I don’t know about you, but anyone who’s raised in the desert and spends their youth transfixed by the wind blowing over telephone wires is a person I’m up for learning about.

And I’m glad I did, because Harold Budd is an intriguing guy. Apart from being a fascinating minimalist composer with dozens of albums to his credit since the 1970s, he’s worked with the likes of Brian Eno and U2, and taught at the legendary school CalArts.

This song is taken from the 2003 album “La Bella Vista”. The album is intriguing in itself, in that Budd was completely unaware that it was being recorded. Famed U2 producer Daniel Lanois was hanging out at Budd’s house when Budd decided to play a bit of piano for his guests. Lanois surreptitiously recorded Budd’s improvisations, and the result was “La Bella Vista”.

Oh, and Wikipedia also notes that Budd once composed a “long-form gong solo”. If you’re not intrigued by that, you will never be intrigued by anything.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way he wanders along the keyboard makes it feel aimless.

2. The way he keeps the damper pedal down makes it feel endless.

3. The way he plays so lightly makes it feel effortless.

Recommended listening activity:

Yawning so hard that your toes point and tears come to your eyes.

17 Oct

Week 75: “Chopin Prelude” by Jim Perkins



One of the best things about the internet is its ability to help you find things you didn’t know you were looking for.

I was thinking that it was about time I added something by Chopin to this list. I figured his famous Prelude in E minor was suitably beautiful, but I didn’t own a recording of it. So off I went to the internet to find a good recording somewhere.  But, as so often happens on the internet, one tangent led to another, and before I knew what had happened, I had forgotten about Frederic Chopin, and was instead reading about someone named Jim Perkins.

Perkins is a British composer who, like many modern musicians, combines classical training with modern technology, bridging the gap between Amadeus and algorithms. His music is fairly experimental, and at times can be a bit glitchy and choppy; if that’s not your thing, it can get difficult to listen to after a while. But in this particular song, I find the choppiness (and the Chopin-ness) to be hypnotic.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The use of stereo. If you can, you should listen to this song on headphones. Recognizable fragments of the original piece pop up here and there, panning from left to right, jumping octaves…it’s like someone took Chopin’s sheet music and made confetti out of it.

2. The not-quite percussion. At 1:30 there’s the faintest hint of a shaker or a tambourine way back in the mix, and because so much of the quick edits hint at 16th notes, you almost expect the song to break out into full-on rave-style beats. I’m glad it doesn’t.

3. The non-cadence ending. Chopin’s original ends with a grand and ominous minor cadence. But here, after hinting at some kind of resolution for a while, Perkins leaves us hanging.

Recommended listening activity:

Standing under a tree while it sheds its leaves.

03 Oct

Week 73: “Swedenborgske Rom” by Jaga Jazzist



As a nationality, Norwegians have the unmatched ability to look rugged and sensitive at the same time.

Case in point: 9-piece experimental extravaganza Jaga Jazzist. Show this photo of the band to a friend, and they would probably believe you if you said, “check out this biker gang I ran into at Denny’s”. But at the same time, your friend would be just as likely to believe you if you said, “this is the poetry-reading group I’m meeting with on Tuesday”. Or maybe, “Take a look at this…my dad’s joining a flash mob troupe that specializes in Viking invasion re-enactments”.

Regardless of their appearance, Jaga Jazzist produces textured, frenetic, funky, and occasionally beautiful music. This song, from their 2005 album, “What We Must”, is a great example of the variety of sounds they produce, from poetic contemplation to Viking-like epicness.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The bass clarinet. It’s so quiet and recorded so closely that you can almost hear the player’s embouchure.

2. The choir at 1.49. Light and airy, a nice contrast to the low brass and clarinet that open the song.

3. The arpeggiated piano that begins at 3.30. It leads an extended and dramatic build up that becomes huge enough to make your Norwegian-style beard blow in the wind.

Recommended listening activity:

Going somewhere you’ve never been.

25 Jul

Week 63: “Turn the Koala” by Red Blue Green


Most circles of friends include at least one person who is the musical know-it-all of the group. A musical encyclopedia wrapped in an obscure band t-shirt, this person has a rebuttal for everything. Your favourite band? Yeah, they were pretty good before they changed drummers. Your favourite song? Yeah, it’s good, but the live version from 2006 is way better. Having a friend with this type of knowledge can be helpful, but more often than not, you just want to decapitate him with that limited-edition vinyl he just bought at that store near Chinatown. Oh, you’ve never heard of that store?

Well, this week I’m offering you a trump card in your next interaction with that person: Red Blue Green.

Your friend will be taken off guard when you mention the band’s name. In response to his blank stare, say something like, “yeah, they’re pretty experimental, I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of them.” Then, if he hasn’t started crying yet, throw in that the pianist plays with The Hidden Cameras from time to time. Not knowing this indie connection will render him powerless, and you’ll be raking in free tickets to everything as your friend tries to attain your coolness level.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The eerie chromatic piano part. It reminds me of “Planet Telex” by Radiohead, except here it’s somehow made eerier by being in 6/8. I can imagine ghosts waltzing to this song.

2. The middle. Old funk songs have a middle section called the “breakdown” where most instruments cut out, leaving the drummer and bassist to groove for a while. In this song, it’s more of a “meltdown”. Things stop making sense, the time signature dissolves, and you might be excused for thinking that your computer has decided to spontaneously de-fragment itself.

3. It all comes back together. Just when you think the musicians have fallen asleep at the wheel, that chromatic piano part comes back, and everything makes sense again.

Recommended listening activity:

Inventing your own paper airplane designs.

30 Aug

Week 16: “New World” by Bjork


Though I recognize Bjork’s talent, I find it difficult to make it through an entire album without feeling like I’m losing my grip on sanity. For me, it’s a bit like watching Japanese cartoons; very colourful, very different, kind of exciting…but you don’t really understand what’s going on, and after a while the noises start to get annoying.

Bjork is an oddity. And I mean that in the best possible way; her rise to global fame in the 1990s, given the experimental nature of her music and the unusual quality of her voice, baffles me. Just take a look at the other female vocalists who were popular in the 90s: Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston…next to them, Bjork looks like a recently escaped mental patient with a love of showtunes.

But whether you categorize her as a genius or a weirdo, I insist that you take another listen to this song, from the soundtrack to the film “Dancer in the Dark”, directed by Lars Von Trier.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. Co-written by Von Trier and Bjork, this song feels a bit like a eulogy for the movie’s main character (played by Bjork in the film). It’s a sad and bizarre story of a Czech woman living in the US in the 60s, who is slowly losing her sight due to a genetic condition. As she goes blind, she relies on her imagination to escape from the monotony of the factory where she works. (Oh, and she’s working there to save up enough money for an operation which would save her son from going blind as well. Uplifting stuff.) But knowing that her character is blind makes some of the vivid lyrical imagery even more powerful: “I’m softly walking on air/Halfway to heaven from here/Sunlight unfolds in my hair…”

2. The melody. The three notes she sings on “oooooh” are just great. Every time I hear the song, I’m surprised at myself for having forgotten how great those notes are.

3. The orchestration. This song is a great mix of electronic and live instruments. I think Massive Attack might have collaborated on this song, but apart from shaky internet evidence, my only reason for thinking that is “well, it kind of sounds like Massive Attack”. But the orchestration is where the song really earns its spot on this list. Bjork is famous for big orchestration, and most of the time she does it to remind you of how wacky she is (e.g. It’s Oh So Quiet), but in this song it’s there to support the melody, and it does so beautifully. From a quiet French Horn line at the beginning to a full-on symphonic explosion, then back down to a soft trumpet that brings to mind a military funeral, the orchestration in this song is perfect.

Recommended listening activity:

Taking one last look through your old apartment before moving.

16 Jun

Week 5: “Unspoken” by Four Tet



Generally, I’m not a fan of any music genre that begins with the word “experimental”.  But Four Tet, also known as British experimental electronic artist Kieran Hebden, usually manages to strike a successful balance between pushing boundaries and giving the listener something interesting to listen to. True, some of his music sounds a bit like someone throwing a bucket of cutlery at a drum kit, but his 2003 album Rounds is pretty consistently brilliant. “Unspoken” is easily the album’s best song.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Weird noises. The track starts with bizarre background noise, and as it progresses, more and more crazy sounds layer overtop. But all these strange and unfamiliar noises don’t bother you, because beneath it all is the familiar sound of the piano, playing a simple but lovely melody that carries through the song.

2. The tambourine that shakes every 8 beats or so. If there was a musical noise to represent a shiver going up your spine, that tambourine would be it.

3. It’s epic. At almost 10 minutes, this song is huge. But it builds perfectly, leads you through a storm of noise in the middle section, and then lets you down gently with that piano again, right back where you started.

Recommended listening activity:

Looking at a familiar city from a distance.