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:

tao

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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3 Responses to The New Logic, Objectification, & Bob Dylan

  1. Nick Fryer says:

    Dan-

    Great read! Not only, really loved what you did with Logic ( I would love to learn how to use that program someday, not even sure what kind of hardware I would need to get started?) but also the insight that you offered up on the Dylan tune and bringing it back full circle to the track you made was super great. I love that record. “Freewheelin” is another all time favorite. You should do a whole Dylan series and put out a record!

    -Nick Fryer

    • dantepfer says:

      Ha! Great idea re. Dylan record. I had so much fun making this one I might very well get back in there! Thanks for checking out the post, Nick.

  2. Dani says:

    Dan,

    This post really keeps me coming back to re-read and re-listen. So fascinated with the music, always wondering about how did you get that (pardon my use of personal terms some might not understand) “appropriately-perfect” sound with such a simple device on your disposal. I have to follow suit with Nick’s comment about doing another thing like this, and it might be fun as well to hear you reconstruct another singer-songwriter tunes into this trying-out-LogicX style, which I found surprisingly very enjoyable. Thank you so much for this inspiring post, cheers!

    Dani

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