Using Sampling in Popular Music

by Reyse Jaster

Over the past year, I have been investigating the use of samples in popular music. Samples take various forms in music. In rock music, it is becoming increasingly popular to replace a live drum sound with one that has been previously recorded. The previously recorded sound, also known as a sample, is considered to be superior. In other instances, samples have come to be a main component in hip-hop and many electronic music genres. This method of creating music is one that is uniquely modern and worth exploring.

The first time that I really came to appreciate sampling was when I heard the album Endtroducing… by the artist Josh Davis, also known as DJ Shadow. This album is credited as being the first album created entirely by samples. Although the album clearly has roots in the hip-hop production that Davis grew up with, the resulting music is not clearly definable. One does not necessarily be a fan of hip-hop to enjoy this album. Much like a sculptor make use found objects to create their piece of art, Davis uses found portions of recorded music to create something new and compelling. A short section of piano is removed from its original context and juxtaposed against a funk drum sample. Despite the fact that each component of the piece is not created by Davis, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Even if I knew the origin of a sample in one of these pieces, I still felt as if Davis had made it his own.

Using modern software and hardware, I have been learning to create my own music using samples. This process has increased my appreciation of this type of music. Modern hip-hop sampling originated in the late 1980s with the advent of new hardware that made the process more efficient. Equipment such as the Akai MPC gave hip-hop producers the freedom to experiment with samples in the digital realm. They no longer had to physically cut and splice pieces of magnetic tape. My equipment of choice, the Native Instruments Maschine, could be considered a modernized version of an Akai MPC. The touch sensitive pads, and button layout are similar to the MPC, but instead of being a standalone piece of equipment, the Maschine instead functions as a tactile software controller.

Although one could certainly create a sample-based piece of music by exclusively using software with a computer keyboard and mouse, Maschine provides a more musical approach. The user is able to ‘play’ a sample with the touch sensitive pads, similar to playing a note or chord with a traditional acoustic instrument. The user can assign any sound they wish to a pad.

When creating a painting, the available colours are essentially endless. This is also the case in sample-based music creation. When you wish to use an existing portion of music to create a new work, you must be able to think of how that portion will stand alone. This thought process can be a daunting task in itself. However, one must then determine how multiple portions of unrelated music will work together. At this stage, and individual’s creatively can truly flourish.

Current technology allows samples to be incorporated easily into music. The onus now lies on the musician to expand the possibilities of this type of music. I hope to foster this potential, and look forward to the new music it will bring.

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Yo Hablo Spectromorphology

by Eric Garner

Anyone who has ever travelled abroad can relate to the struggle that learning a new language can present. Personally, the two years that I lived in the Dominican Republic was an eye opening and learning experience due to my struggle to communicate with those around me. I will never forget an experience I had while I was there talking with a close friend about my homesickness and culture shock. I attempted to express my own personal emotional pain that I was experiencing by saying, “Tengo mucha pena.” I switch the word “pena”, which can mean emotional sadness, with the word “pene” which means penis. In essence, I had told my friend that, “I have lots of penises.”

At the time I was so embarrassed by my mix up and yet looking back on it, I am glad that it happened. It is a freeing experience to be able to put aside personal insecurities and go out of ones comfort zone to be able to learn and experience something new. By so doing, we grow as individuals and become more interesting.

That same insecurity and tension that I had felt while learning a new language is very similar to the insecurity of listening to electroacoustic music. Often times, I would be surrounded by people finding great pleasure in electroacoustic music. I often thought to myself, “I just don’t get it.” I have learned however that electroacoustic music is not like other music. It requires specific knowledge of a new musical language. This musical language, if learned, can open the doors of a wonderful, new style of music. It is often referred to as Spectromorphology.

There are many ways or modes of listening to music. Each different mode employs a different technique and values different aspects of the music. As music listeners, we have learned a language that teaches us what to listen for in traditional, tonal music. This language creates a hierarchy of what we pay more and less attention to. In tonal music, the aspects of most importance are generally, pitch, intervallic change, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing etc. Due to the nature of electroacoustic music however, many of these elements are lacking. A new language must be learned in order to fully understand and appreciate electroacoustic music.

Because many of the elements of traditional music are not found in electroacoustic works, different aspects of the music must be listened for. According to Dennis Smalley, a professor of music and inventor of the concept of spectromorphology, spectromorphology is a “descriptive tool based on aural perception… and seeks to help explain what can be apprehended in over four decades of electroacoustic repertory.” (Smalley 1997) Spectromorphology attempts to look at how sounds change over time. Through analysis of how sounds are shaped, greater meaning and pleasure can be gained through electroacoustic music. These changes can include a wide variety of aspects including, motion and growth of the sounds, spatial characteristics, spectral energy, behavior and their relationship with other sounds in the piece.

These elements of the sounds employed in electroacoustic compositions are complex and unique. They are not specifically bonded to an instrument and are generally not recognizable. Having a language that facilitates the descriptions of these sounds is very important. As you listen to electroacoustic music, consider if the sounds you are hearing are rising, decaying, moving left or right, fading away and getting quieter or getting louder. How are the sounds beginning? How are they ending? Do they evoke memories or sounds not linked the musical tradition? Do they make reference to specific physical gestures that the performer is using? What is their texture like? Are they thick and dense or thin and frenetic?

I have found pleasure and fulfillment as I have listened to electroacoustic compositions with these questions in mind. It is a different way of thinking about music and a different language that must be learned. Learning this language is not easy either and takes dedication and practice. At times, you may even feel lost or confused, much like I did as my dear friend laughed at the notion of having a lot of penises. By learning this new and strange language however, you can open a new world of musical discourse and satisfaction.

Smalley, D. (1997), Spectromorphology: Explaining sound-shapes, Organised Sound: Vol. 2, no. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 107-126

Performance of IN C by Terry Riley

Spirited performance, from 20 April, 2013, of Terry Riley’s IN C for a “group of about 35” unspecified performers (Riley, 1964). Riley suggested that a metrical pulse could be maintained throughout (e.g., repeating music pitch ‘C’). Listen for the C, which is performed in an alternating pattern between piano and MIDI keyboard. Our version was altered to fit a nineteen-member band (plus live sound and audio/video documentation) for the UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE ELECTROACOUSTIC ENSEMBLE.

 

Compositional Techniques

by Darren Lux.

Composing music of any style can become a very torturous process without some kind of solid starting point or a specific goal in mind. Frequently a piece has been started, but when ideas run out, the work stops and the music remains unfinished. For these reasons, I shall supply readers with an arsenal of techniques for generating material in the creation of your own pieces of music, and offer suggestions for what I have personally found helpful in getting past the dreaded mistress known as writer`s block.

I would start by saying that if you have a musical idea, which has some meaning for you, run with it. Do not be afraid to take off with a single idea; play it out to its full potential. One theme can be enough to hold an entire piece together. Repetition of notes, motifs, rhythms, and mixtures of sounds can be valuable assets to your music, if done in interesting ways. Something as simple as a repeated section of music, or a recurring rhythmic idea can be very effective in pulling listeners in and bringing a composition together. Take your idea and harmonize it, change rhythms and voicing, switch instruments, add ornamental colouration, or change the register it’s played in. Always look for another way to expand upon an idea that has a lasting impact for you. Do not be deterred by what an audience would enjoy. Compose what you want to compose, without regard to what is popular, conventional, or simple. It is YOUR music. So make it your own composition, in your own unique voice. Integrity in music can be hard to come by, but never depreciates in value. If you happen to be writing top 40/pop music, then please ignore the previous three sentences. Write the simplest 3-minute pop-techno song you can manage.

If you cannot think of any ideas, look to source material. Find music you enjoy, or that has similarities in tone colour, instrumentation and style to your own work for inspiration. Often I will find a musical theme, idea or riff that catches my attention, and look for ways to improve upon it. Perhaps you find a melody that you cannot get out of your head, or a rhythm that forces your foot to tap or fingers to drum. Vary it, turn it on its head, invert it, play it backwards, change the tempo register or key, or even take the whole thing (As long as it isn’t under copyright protection). Embellish stylize and repeat. Another idea to try is to get outside of your comfort zone. If you only listen to and write structured tonal music, try looking into some electronic, post-tonal, and atonal or ambient/atmospheric pieces. I have found a great many ideas for my heavy metal songs that have come from tonal and post-tonal classical music, blues, jazz, electro-acoustic and even musicals. Write for instruments or in styles you have never tried before. I cannot even express how much I have learned in the last year, which has been my first foray into writing and playing classical music. Diverse knowledge is invaluable in music. Always be on the lookout for a new handle, a new sound.

As for writer’s block, the bane of artists the world over, there are many useful tactics to deal with this particular problem. The most useful in my opinion is to take a big step back, and stop looking at what you’ve written, and instead focus on what you are trying to achieve. Take a nice walk, or a shower; the best ideas appear in the shower. Set your piece aside for a few hours or a day, and come back to it with fresh eyes, ears, and mind. Try writing in a different way. If you always play your music on a guitar then write it down, try notating on staff paper, or writing an improvised or abstract score. Try composing on piano, or another instrument you don’t normally use. Relax and listen to some music you genuinely enjoy, and refresh your mind for the task at hand.

Take your time. If you can avoid it, do not rush. Be thoughtful of what you are trying to achieve, and how you go about crafting your music. Small details like dynamic changes, different techniques and varied instrument doublings can change a nice piece into a glorious composition. Good Luck!

IN C BY Terry Riley

by Cesar Aguilar.

In C is a semi-aleatoric musical piece composed by Terry Riley in 1964 for any number of people. However, he recommends a group of 35 in the score. For those that have never heard about this piece it consists of 53 musical phrases, each of which is repeated by each performer however many times he or she likes, though the patterns must be played in sequence. This is perhaps a very exceptional example of the founding of minimalistic compositions.

The score being used by the Electroacoustic Ensemble at the University of Lethbridge is the original score. A one-page score in length, which contains neither, specified instrumentation nor parts. The aforementioned 53 musical phrases are fairly compact and are presented without any real counterpoint of evident form.

The Electroacoustic ensemble under the direction of D. Andrew Stewart at the University of Lethbridge is working at approaching this piece in an original way utilizing lots of different instrumentation that ranges from electronics to the most conventional of acoustic instruments including voice. This fulfills the original purpose of the piece, which was to welcome performers from a vast range of practices, however this time bringing together students who are as well working on generating their own input and ideas into the work.

Watching this piece evolve has been a very exciting experience, there is still a lot of work ahead of us since there are several moments where the performers are unsure about the patterns and get a little confused. At times, it is very hard to figure out the patterns that are to be played. Nonetheless, the piece has a combination of short value notes together with some long held notes. This will ultimately led to the creation of an environment in which all these patterns combined will become very powerful. Some work is starting to occur on those moments in which crescendos, diminuendos and other dynamic elements which will be defined and used to make the piece more engaging.  There are as well many occurrences in which the different sounds of all the instruments are starting to create a very unique atmosphere. When everyone begins driving toward a peak and changes the dynamic level, the sound genuinely fills the room, each instrument seems to occupy a specific space in the room, and all the vibrations can be felt and appreciated.

Due to its aleatoric musical form and its almost free interpretation of the score, this piece has always lasted a different amount of time when performed by different ensembles through out history. However, this time the University of Lethbridge Electroacoustic Ensemble will shape the work and present it in 30 to 40 minutes length.  The performance will take place in the Black Box right beside the David Spinks Theatre at the University of Lethbridge on April 20th. This space does not have any conventional sitting area, therefore, this will be a great place to experiment with an audience that will be immerse into the interpretation of the work as much as the performers will and will be able to feel the vibrations of the instruments in a very similar manner as those performing.