The New Logic, Objectification, & Bob Dylan

When I got back home to Brooklyn from tour a couple days ago, one of the things I did was buy Logic Pro X, a big update to a music production app I’ve used for a long time. To get a handle on it, I decided to make a track for a friend of mine. Earlier in the day I’d come across Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do again, which, I was reminded, has got to be one of the most wonderfully simple and profound songs there is, and I thought it would do just fine.

I started hunting around the program for sounds. One of the big additions to Logic is that it now comes with a huge sample library. I focused on the orchestral samples, because I’ve never seriously tried to make a computer sound like a real orchestra before. The music I’ve made so far with sequencers, like my recent score for the film Movement & Location, is what we’d call electronic music: it purposely sounds machine-generated. There are people out there, particularly film composers, who are great at drawing acoustic-sounding music out of a computer, but it’s not a skill I’ve worked on before.

Logic now also has an advanced arpeggiator, which is something that was (amazingly) lacking in the old version — there were workarounds, but they weren’t pretty. In this context, arpeggiation means making melodies out of the notes in a chord by playing them sequentially instead of playing them all at once. Combine arpeggiation and some string samples, hold down a chord, and you might get something like this:


For a first try, right out of the box, that’s pretty cool! I found it exciting, at least. Another new feature of the program is something called Drummer, which tries to provide an electronic drummer that sounds like a human being instead of a machine. I asked it to give me a light groove in 5/4 for 4 bars, then to get heavier, adding toms, for 4 bars, with a few fills here and there. Logic has various drummer personalities you can dial up, who play with different time feels and different sounds. I chose one called “Aidan”:


Within limits, it does impressively well. I don’t see this kind of thing as taking work away from great drummers anytime soon — there’s no substitute for the decision-making, sound and time feel of a real, live musician — but it’s going to make a lot of demos sound vastly better.

Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do is all in one key, so I made a one-chord arpeggiated loop similar to the one above, but in 3/4, and I recorded myself singing the song over it. Then I took away the loop and started building an arrangement, gradually adding orchestral instruments, and before I knew it I was having such a good time that the better part of a day went by without me noticing. In the end it turned into some of the more straight-forwardly happy music I’ve made, by dint (I guess) of circumstance and, especially, the song itself. It’s an exuberantly positive song — on the original recording, Dylan laughs out loud towards the end of the track. With apologies to him, here’s my version. I wasn’t trying to do anything fancy or particularly sophisticated. Mainly, I was just having fun.


You can hear how the backbone of the track is provided by arpeggiation, with the instruments alternating by sections between strings, woodwinds, and brass. To that, I added other, non-arpeggiated layers as I went. Hear how the hand claps sound different every time they happen? That humanizing element is provided automatically by the Drummer module (with a little tweaking). The hi-hat pattern at the end is also something the module came up with — I didn’t have to place each one of those cymbal hits, nor did I have to use a pre-made, static loop. I asked for something, and this is what the program conjured up, on command. It’s remarkable, I think, that it’s possible to make something that sounds this realistic so quickly nowadays, with (in my case) very little prior experience dealing with these kinds of sounds. It’s a brave new world, folks.

* * *

But really… How about that song??? I’m blown away by the straight-forwardness of Dylan’s lyrics.

I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you, classify you
Deny, defy or crucify you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

No, and I ain’t lookin’ to fight with you
Frighten you or uptighten you
Drag you down or drain you down
Chain you down or bring you down
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I ain’t lookin’ to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you, categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don’t want to straight-face you
Race or chase you, track or trace you
Or disgrace you or displace you
Or define you or confine you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don’t want to meet your kin
Make you spin or do you in
Or select you or dissect you
Or inspect you or reject you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don’t want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

another-side-of-bob-dylanHas there ever been a more direct encapsulation of objectification, in all its forms? On first glance, Dylan is talking to a woman (“baby”), possibly reacting to a request from her to let her be the way she is, to stop trying to change her. But the lyric can be read at many other levels, too. What should we make of the line “I don’t want to meet your kin”, for example? If Dylan were talking to a love interest, presumably there’d be nothing wrong with wanting to meet her family. But when one talks about meeting someone’s kin, one is implicitly positioning the person as a member of a group, a part of something else. It’s a distancing thing to say, as if the person were a foreign species that we hoped to better understand by observing its interactions with other members of its group. Dylan is denouncing racism, among other things. He’s reminding us that the minute we position something, or someone, as the other, we’re losing out on one of the most beautiful experiences we can have, which is to know something for what it is. Yet Dylan offers an important caveat in the last verse: just as we should try not to place our interlocutor at an objectifying distance from us, we should also remember that we’re not the same. We’re separate beings and we can’t expect others to function the same way we do. It’s clearly a delicate balance. And what can possibly be gentler and more caring, if you’d like to get to know something or someone, than asking to be friends?

UnknownAt a more abstract level, Dylan is reminding us to be careful not to get the signified and the signifier confused. Once we’ve named something, if we’re not careful it’s easy to stop considering its actual essence (the signified), and instead to get blinded by the name (the signifier) we’ve given it, as if the name could possibly sum up all the minute particulars of the thing itself. There’s a lovely book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, that makes the strong point that the reason so many people feel like they can’t draw is that when they try to draw an eye, say, they fail to actually look at the details of what makes up an eye, and instead draw an  idea they have in their head of what an “eye” is. It turns out that people who self-identify as not being able to draw, and who do a terrible job of copying a simple line-drawing, will often do quite well when asked to copy the same picture if it’s placed upside-down.

People have tried to address this pitfall for a long time, from the concept of duality in Buddhism to that of end gaining in the Alexander Technique. Here’s Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu on the matter:


That’s, to me, what Dylan is really talking about here: he’s reminding us, by making an exhaustive list of the ways we can fail to see what’s actually there, to keep paying attention.

* * *

Is it an act of objectification to make a piece of music digitally but endeavor to make it sound like it was performed by an orchestra? We’ve identified an end result (the sound of an orchestra) and divorced it from its organic integrity (the actual people and instruments and performance space that would come together in real, live performance). It’s a little like the man (we’ve all seen this) who has started seeing his wife as just a “wife”, and has forgotten that she is a person who just happens to have married him, no? At a certain level, the track is a simulacrum of the real thing, merely a signifier.

And yet… There’s an awful lot of detail in that simulacrum, isn’t there? It’s not just pointing to our memory of orchestral recordings, the way, say, the experience of a work of art in a dream can sometimes be a mere envelope for the work, empty of any specific content. There’s actual content here that goes beyond reference, even if it is masquerading as something that it is not. But then, is a recording of a real orchestra that contains 500 edits (a typical number nowadays for a classical recording) the real thing, or is it masquerading too, in its own way, for a live performance? Ultimately, you can only really trust a live show, and even then you’ve got to be on the lookout for lip synching.

How something is made really only matters insofar as it manifests itself in the end result (the expression “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” captures this nicely). If the 500 edits in the orchestral record suck the life out of the music, then the process has corrupted the result. If, like Glenn Gould, you manage to make great recordings this way, then more power to you. At the end of the day, the real barometer of music is: do we like it? Is it good? Does it move us? Do we really, baby, want to be friends with it? And it, with us?

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Rhythm / Pitch Duality: hear rhythm become pitch before your ears

I just got home from a five-week tour in Europe and finally have some time to do what I call research. The way I see it, being a touring musician is a bit like being a scientist: you spend a bunch of time in the lab, and you find something that you’re excited about; then you have to go out and give a bunch of seminars to tell the world about it. But very soon you’re itching to get back to the lab, because you want to discover the next thing. So here I am, at home and doing research, which for me, right now, in between practicing piano and writing tunes, means getting into a computer music programming environment called SuperCollider.

Yesterday I was fooling around with it and suddenly realized that with SuperCollider, I could do something I’d been wanting to do for years, which is to make a recording of rhythm becoming pitch, and back again. You see, rhythm and pitch are exactly the same thing, only at very different speeds. How’s that, you ask? Well, let’s start with the harmonic series:


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Long Island

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Algorithmic Art

My dirty little secret is that I can be a pretty serious nerd sometimes. While I was procrastinating from writing a piece for nonet a few months ago, I reopened a computer program I had started working on in 1998 (!) and modified it so that it would work on my current Mac. The idea is pretty basic: use lines and a little math to make pretty pictures. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it’s an example of what’s called algorithmic art. I remember being totally fascinated by this as a teenager: I would try things, almost at random, and these incredible shapes would appear. Fourteen years later, with a couple tweaks to the program, I still think there’s something really special about these images.






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Questions from the Atlas

I’m bringing my trio with Ted Poor and Ben Street to the Atlas in Washington DC tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 30th, 8pm). Brad Linde, who curates the jazz series at the Atlas and is also a saxophonist/bandleader of renown on the DC scene, asked me a few questions ahead of the gig. (Cross-posted from the Atlas Arts Blog).

Brad: How does your approach to improvising/accompanying/etc change based on the different contexts you encounter?

Dan: The essence of improvisation is context. That’s what’s special about it. Since it’s happening in real time, since we’re actually making music up on the spot, at its deepest level it should reflect everything about the current moment. I’m not only talking about the note choices that my bandmates make, and that I respond to; I’m also talking about subtle things like the sound of the room we’re playing in, what we’ve eaten that day, how we’ve slept, and what the weather is like outside. In improvisation, we have the opportunity to take all this into account at an intuitive level. It’s exactly like having a conversation with a group of people: depending on how noisy the room is, how well you know the people, the general vibe, you’ll participate in a unique way — if you’re really listening, that is (we all know people who seem oblivious to context, interrupting and forcing their point across). So I see the challenge of improvisation as listening to the current context in as sensitive and authentic a way as possible, and letting myself respond. The other side of this challenge is to be able to find yourself in that context: not to give in to it completely but to find the balance between it and who you are.

Brad: Your compositions are very lyrical, but they have a theoretical underpinning. What is your process behind composing?

Dan: It really depends. I’ve written tunes by coming up with a theoretical idea and more or less filling in the blanks; I’ve written tunes that came to me in a dream; I’ve written tunes that seemed like a joke at the time but that I came to like later. What’s interesting to me is that no matter what my approach is, they always seem to have a common vibe of some sort. I wrote a piano concerto in early 2010, and I didn’t feel like writing much else for the rest of the year. When I started writing tunes again, I was surprised by what came out — a lot of what I was writing didn’t seem to fit the mold of what I thought I should be writing. It took me a little while to realize that I had evolved as a composer, and that my previous ideas about what a tune should be didn’t apply anymore. The fact that one can surprise oneself as a composer is what’s fascinating to me: you are, in a way, divided in two when you write, and one part of you can sneak up on the other without it knowing it. Those kinds of moments remind me that our creativity essentially comes from the same place as our dreams — a place we just don’t control. Or, if we do control it, it goes stale, fast.

Brad: Can you describe your approach to reharmonizing or recreating harmony when improvising?

Dan: I think improvisation gets deep when, instead of being merely a rendition of a tune, it’s a commentary on it: instead of a reading of the text, it’s the artist telling you how he or she feels about the text. Then the music starts to get layered and multidimensional — there’s a frame and freedom inside the frame. Like hearing a story second hand from a particularly inventive storyteller. That informs my approach to reharmonization: I see the tune going from chord A to chord B, and I think, well, the composer liked to go from A to B this way, but how do I feel about that? Well, I like to go there this way! So in the end, there’s a distillation of the will of the composer, since I’m still following the broad strokes of his or her roadmap, and there’s also my own personal taste running havoc inside the map. My commentary on the original, in other words. Thinking about it this way, I think the harmonic possibilities are endless. I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years training my ear to hear new harmonies, and that really helps widen the field for me. There aren’t too many combinations of notes out there that don’t have a harmonic identity, however dense and impenetrable they may sound at first.

Brad: Your piano playing often breaks from the standard texture of “comping”. Can you talk about how you conceive of different textures when you are playing?

Dan: I remember being explained, in my teens, that Bach wrote music based on the popular dance forms of his time. Right away, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to write a series of extended pieces for piano based on the popular dance forms of my time? One for rap, another for drum n’ bass, another for rock, techno, funk, hip hop… I never got around to really carrying that out — although I still might someday — but in the mean time, I’ve used this idea in my playing a lot. One of the trio tunes on my latest record, Peal Repeal, is a transcription of a drum n’ bass groove for piano, with dark harmony. Another, All I Heard Was Nothing, is based on the texture of early Steve Reich-esque minimalist music. So I get a lot of mileage out of checking textures out that are outside of the jazz world and seeing if I can find a place for them in my music.

Brad: You’ve played in the DC area often in the past few years, most recently at the Kennedy Center with Allison Miller. Do you have any thoughts on the DC Jazz Scene? Is there something that attracts you to the District?

Dan: Well, I have some very good friends there, so I love visiting them, and there are also some great local musicians that I enjoy playing with. This may just be an outsider’s impression, but it feels like there’s a lot of jazz going on in DC these days, with new venues opening up right and left. It’s great to come play in a city where there’s excitement for what you’re doing.

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Konitz Playlist

A few months ago, JazzTimes asked me to choose ten tracks from Lee Konitz’ recorded work that stand out to me in his career. Here’s what I came up with.

Lee Konitz Playlist – Dan Tepfer

Lee Konitz started recording in 1945, and he’s still going strong today. He appears on hundreds of records, with an incredibly wide array of musical associates. Lee was unique from the get-go: his tone and phrasing are as instantly recognizable on his recordings from the forties as they are now. I’m fortunate that I’ve gotten to play regularly with Lee over the past four years; here are some tracks of his that have struck me along the way.

Subconscious-Lee (Prestige) 1949
A classic cut of Lee and Warne Marsh tearing up a lightning-fast written line in close harmony, something they did peerlessly. This is Lee’s first session as a leader; he’s barely 21, and he plays a super-tight, blistering solo.

Conception (Prestige) 1951
I like this track because it shows Lee completely at ease in the modernist classically-influenced style that was coming into vogue at the time, two years after the Birth of the Cool sessions. The composition is by George Russell, and the interplay between Lee and Miles Davis is mysterious and fascinating.

All of Me
Motion (Verve) 1961
When people talk about “the long Tristano line”, this is what they’re referring to. With Elvin Jones providing the rhythmic backbone, Lee spins out line after line, each longer and more intricate than the last. He sounds like he could go on forever. It’s some of the most expressive bebop playing I know, and a model of relaxation under pressure.

The Lee Konitz Duets (Milestone) 1967
Not everybody realizes that Lee, best known for playing consonant music, is a devoted free improviser, starting with the famous Lennie Tristano cut “Intuition”, from 1949. Here he is in a deeply contemplative mood, playing a spectral duet with Jim Hall.

Duet for Saxophone and Drums and Piano
European Episode (CAM) 1968
Some of the wildest playing from Lee that I’ve heard — totally dissonant and free, and he plays through an octave harmonizer for part of the take, no less! This is exciting stuff; it still sounds fresh forty years later. With Martial Solal and Daniel Humair.

The Song is You
Lone-Lee (SteepleChase) 1974
Which other saxophonist has an unaccompanied track of himself playing over a standard for 38 minutes? Lyrical, freewheeling, mischievous, operatic, irreverent, resolutely uncommercial, this bold stand sums up a lot about Lee, especially when you put it alongside his totally-inside, virtuosic recordings.

Just Friends
Star Eyes (HatOLOGY) 1983
This album holds special significance for me: it was my introduction to hearing Lee with a pianist in a duo setting. And Martial isn’t just any pianist: he’s as pianistic as a pianist can be — a constant stream of fireworks. Yet Lee isn’t thrown for a second; he plays with power and conviction. This track is a model, to me, of how two very different musicians can create something exciting out of the tension between them.

Three Guys
(Enja) 1999
A prime example of Lee delivering a ballad, one that happens to be outside of the American songbook tunes that he most often plays. Lee can take a melody and infuse it with profound humanity. He does that and more here, with Steve Swallow and Paul Motian.

Another Shade of Blue
Another Shade of Blue (Blue Note) 1999
I know a number of musicians of my generation who got into Lee’s music through this album. I’ve heard Lee say that he can’t stand blues licks; here’s a great example of how he plays the blues without employing any. It’s still very much the blues, though. With Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden.

Elande No. 1 (F#)
Duos with Lee (Sunnyside) 2009
With apologies for picking a track that I play on, I wanted to include this because it shows a side of Lee that you don’t hear very often: his ability to generate perfectly balanced melodies in a freely improvised, but tonal context. There was no planning at all for this cut aside from a loose tonal center, yet Lee weaves through my improvised harmonies with total fluidity and a lightning-quick ear for tension and release.

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All Kinds of Music-Making

The composer Anna Clyne and I got together yesterday evening to catch up, and since we were at my place, and there were microphones lying around, we decided to make a track. I met Anna at the University of Edinburgh when I was 19 or so, when she got me to sing on one of her first compositions, a knotty choral thing where the time signature changed every bar (and they were short bars, too). She’s now the composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony, and has been making some awesome music.

Here’s what we came up with — it ended up sounding like some kind of post-modern tribal thing, with Moby Dick and Beckett thrown in. We used whatever was close at hand.

It’s always so interesting to me to see what direction different collaborations lead you in. Gary Peacock asked me last year to make a duo record with him, and we’re going into the studio tomorrow. That music will be totally different from the above, for sure, and yet I like to think that there’s a common thread, that the difference just reflects the fact that my voice would have a slightly different tone in a conversation with Gary than it would in a conversation with Anna, and that we’d most likely be talking about different things in the first place. And even if we were to talk about exactly the same thing, the rhythm of the conversation, and the language used, would be different, simply because Gary and Anna are two different people and they each bring out different aspects of myself.

Selfishly speaking, I sometimes think of friends as variously tinted mirrors: they each reflect a unique image of myself. That’s why solitary confinement is the most extreme form of torture there is: without these external mirrors that are other people, a person loses all sense of self (Atul Gawande wrote about this at length in the New Yorker a couple years ago; it’s worth reading). We see ourselves through other people, and we can sometimes hear ourselves through our collaborators, too.

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Groucho Marx vs. Irving Berlin

Everyone needs to have a copy of The Groucho Letters. Groucho Marx, aside from being very funny, was a great letter writer: he corresponded with many of the memorable people of his day, including (incredibly) T.S. Eliot. This collection is on my shelf next to Mozart’s letters. And when I say shelf, I really mean bathroom.

My fave so far is Groucho’s exchange with Irving Berlin, in 1956:

Dear Irving:
I have taken to singing songs on my show; cute or funny ones, preferably. A few weeks ago I did “I Love a Piano” with Liberace, and last week I did “Cuba.”
I know that you have many songs of this type and if, one of these days, you could stray far enough from your money to peruse your catalogue, perhaps you could instruct one of your hirelings to send me a few of them. They don’t seem to be available in the music shops. I did get “I Want To Be Lazy” — but that’s about all I could find.

Dear Groucho:
Your letter was read to me over the telephone in Florida.
My office has chosen some songs and are sending them to you but I also instructed them to send you a catalogue so you can roll your own. If there’s anything you want that we haven’t got in stock, I will have it made up for you.
Outside of “The Cocoanuts,” I’m still grateful to you for doing “Simple Melody” with Bing Crosby which ended up in its revival.
I see your show often and you remind me very much of the fellow who came to Atlantic City and heard George Kaufman read the first draft of “The Cocoanuts.” I’m delighted with your success. 
As always,

Dear Irving:
First of all, thanks for the parcel of songs, plus the catalogue and your invitation to “roll my own.” Little did you know! While perusing it, I found some fifty-odd pieces (list attached) that I’d like to add to my repertoire.
Next time let me have your address so that my thanks can reach you directly, rather than be strained through a telephone wire from New York.
Warmest regards,

Dear Groucho:
Frankly, there are some songs I would be tempted to pay you not to do. For instance, “Cohen Owes Me $97″ would not be taken in the same spirit it was when I wrote it for Belle Baker when she opened at the Palace many, many years ago. “The Friars Parade” is a bad special song I wrote for the Friars Club and you certainly would never have occasion to use that.
But why mention individual titles? Let me tell you of my favorite Groucho Marx story the way I tell it: “There’s a song I wrote during the First World War called ‘Stay Down Here Where You Belong’ of which Groucho knows all the lyrics. Any time he sees me, when I am trying to pose as a pretty good songwriter, he squares off and sings it. I’ve asked him how much money he will take not to do this but so far he will not be bribed.”

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