on headphones I | This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin

The opening sentences of Daniel Levitin’s book This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession.

In the summer of 1969, when I was eleven, I bought a stereo system at the local hi-fi shop. It cost all of the hundred dollars I had earned weeding neighbors’ gardens that spring at seventy-five cents an hour. I spent long afternoons in my room, listening to records: Cream, the Rolling Stones, Chicago, Simon and Garfunkel, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, George Shearing, and the saxophonist Boots Randolph. I didn’t listen particularly loud, at least not compared to my college days when I actually set my loudspeakers on fire by cranking up the volume too high, but the noise was evidently too much for my parents. My mother is a novelist; she wrote every day in the den just down the hall and played the piano for an hour every night before dinner. My father was a businessman; he worked eighty-hour weeks, forty of those hours in his office at home on evenings and weekends. Being the businessman that he was, my father made me a proposition: He would buy me a pair of headphones if I would promise to use them when he was home. Those headphones forever changed the way I listened to music.

The new artists that I was listening to were all exploring stereo mixing for the first time. Because the speakers that came with my hundreddollar all-in-one stereo system weren’t very good, I had never before heard the depth that I could hear in the headphones—the placement of instruments both in the left-right field and in the front-back (reverberant) space. To me, records were no longer just about the songs anymore, but about the sound. Headphones opened up a world of sonic colors, a palette of nuances and details that went far beyond the chords and melody, the lyrics, or a particular singer’s voice. The swampy Deep South ambience of “Green River” by Creedence, or the pastoral, open-space beauty of the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son”; the oboes in Beethoven’s Sixth (conducted by Karajan), faint and drenched in the atmosphere of a large wood-and-stone church; the sound was an enveloping experience. Headphones also made the music more personal for me; it was suddenly coming from inside my head, not out there in the world. This personal connection is ultimately what drove me to become a recording engineer and producer.

Many years later, Paul Simon told me that the sound is always what he was after too. “The way that I listen to my own records is for the sound of them; not the chords or the lyrics—my first impression is of the overall sound.”

Music: A Subversive History, Ted Gioia | quote from the epilogue

I hadn’t read books specifically on music before, maybe one or two loosely-knit ones. Lately I got interested in and affected by music. One day I found myself searching for music books with an introduction-level history. I thought of listening to an audiobook so that I can daydream while walking outside and listening to it. This eliminated many primary books which didn’t have an audiobook version. In the Audible search, I encountered this book with an intriguing title: Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia. Can I understand the subversiveness without knowing the mainstream theory and history about it? At least, a subversive history might refer to the dominant one.

The following quote is from the Epilogue of the book, almost all of it. Gioia starts with how he doesn’t like the manifestoes and attempts to write one. The bullet points by themselves may not be that interesting but I wanted to copy them here to recall the sections of the book that elaborate on these hypotheses. I wasn’t that interested in his claims while listening to the book, but the events, the waves, the disruptors were the interesting parts for me since I never thought about the history of music as a separate topic or a focus. It was the first time that I read a scholar criticising Bourdieu’s taste concept from the depths of the cultural analysis, I liked that part. I also read some heavy criticisms about the book on Goodreads but I couldn’t understand them because they were depending on an existing body of knowledge. Nevertheless, I’ll copy one of the most upvoted (also by me) ones, by Kendra: “Gioia notes early in this book that he’s been writing it for 25 years. That shows: his conception of how music history is taught and written about and discussed is about 25 years out-of-date, and his work in this book suffers badly from it. The book would have been a powerful call to action and change two decades ago, but today, with hundreds of fantastic, progressive, new, and radically different approaches to music historiography in practice, both for “art” and “pop” musics, Gioia’s work is out of touch, and the book’s claims come far too late for it to be relevant or useful”.

1. Music is a change agent in human life, a force of transformation and enchantment.

2. Music is universal to the same extent that people have comparable needs, aspirations, biological imperatives, and evolutionary demands on their behavior. Refusing to acknowledge the universal qualities in a community’s music is akin to denying it membership in the broader human community.

3. Songs served as the origin for what we now call psychology—in other words, as a way of celebrating personal emotions and attitudes long before the inner life was deemed worthy of respect in other spheres of society.

4. Over the centuries, freedom of song has been just as important as freedom of speech, and often far more controversial—feared because of music’s inherent power of persuasion. Songs frequently embody dangerous new ideas long before any politician is willing to speak them.

5. Charts of best-selling songs can be read as an index of leading social indicators. What happens in society tomorrow can be heard on the radio today.

6. For communities that don’t have semiconductors and spaceships, music is their technology. For example, songs served as the ‘cloud storage’ for all early cultures, preserving communal history, traditions, and survival skills. Songs can also function as weapons, medicine, tools, or in other capacities that channel their inherent potency.

7. Each major shift in technology changes the way people sing.

8. Musical innovations almost always come from outsiders—slaves, bohemians, rebels, and others excluded from positions of power—because they have the least allegiance to the prevailing manners and attitudes of the societies in which they live. This inevitably results in new modes of musical expression.

9. Diversity contributes to musical innovation because it brings the outsider into the music ecosystem. Consider how port cities and multicultural communities, from Lesbos to Liverpool, have played such a key role in the history of song.

10. Musical innovation spreads like a virus, and usually by the same means—through close contact between groups from different places. The concept of a song going viral is more than just a poetic metaphor. New approaches to music often arise in unhealthy cities (Deir el-Medina, New Orleans, etc.).

11. If authorities do not intervene, music tends to expand personal autonomy and human freedom.

12. Authorities usually intervene.

13. Over the short term, rulers and institutions are more powerful than musicians. In the long term, songs tend to prevail over even the most authoritarian leaders.

14. Kings and other members of the ruling class are rarely responsible for breakthroughs in music. When such innovations are attributed to a powerful leader—as with the Song of Songs, the Shijing, Gregorian chant, troubadour lyrics, and so on—this is usually a sign that something important has been hidden from our view.

15. We still need to study these powerful figures in music history, not for what they did, but for what they hid.

16. The unwritten (or erased or distorted) history is a measure of their successful intervention. Gaps in the documented history are often demonstrations of power. This is why stray and isolated facts that run counter to the sanctioned narrative deserve our closest attention.

17. Whenever possible, try to go back to original or early sources. If someone insists that you can safely ignore a primary source or traditional lore, that’s probably a sign you should take it seriously.

18. Nothing is more unstable in music history than a period of stability. The signal for new disruption in performance styles is usually that things are going smoothly.

19. Around the time of Pythagoras and Confucius, an epistemological rupture took place that attempted to remove magic and trance from the sphere of acceptable music practices. This agenda is always doomed to failure—you can’t reduce music to purely rational rules (or algorithms, as they are usually called nowadays)—but its advocates never give up trying. We are still living with the after-effects of the Pythagorean rupture today.

20. The battle continues to rage over two incompatible views: whether music is constructed from notes or from sounds. The arguments over analog versus digital music are just the latest manifestation of this conflict. It can also be described as an opposition between European and African traditions, and in many other ways. To some degree, this is the fundamental tension in all musicology.

21. Music is always more than notes. It is made out of sounds. Confusing these two is not a small matter.

22. Musical sounds existed in the natural world as creative or destructive forces (sometimes latent, other times already actualized) long before human societies put their power to use. As such, the pentatonic scale, circle of fifths, functional harmony, etc. were not invented by musicians, but discovered by them—much like calculus was discovered.

23. The recurring structures and patterns in compositions invite analysis, yet music cannot be reduced to a pure science or a type of applied mathematics. Powerful aspects of emotion, personality, and deliberate subversion resist this kind of codification. Even in the most restrictive and controlling environments, these elements persist—and, if given the chance, will dominate.

24. We can learn about music from neuroscience, but music does not happen in the brain. Music takes place in the world.

25. Historical accounts often tell us more about the process of legitimization and mainstreaming than about the actual sources and origins of musical innovation.

26. Insiders try to rewrite history to obscure the importance of outsiders—or to redefine the outsider as an insider.

27. The very process of legitimization requires distortion— obscuring origins and repurposing music to meet the needs of those in positions of power.

28. Legitimization is ongoing and cumulative. In other words, music history is no different from other types of history: each generation rewrites it to match its own priorities, of which truth-telling often ranks low on the list.

29. The process of legitimization typically transpires over a period of between twenty-five and fifty years—or what we might call a generation. Attempts to accelerate the mainstreaming of radical music at a faster pace (e.g., in order to make money from it) will bring irresolvable tensions to the surface. Sometimes people will die as a result.

30. Music has always been linked to sex and violence. The first instruments were dripping in blood. The first songs promoted fertility, hunting, warfare, and the like. Most of music history serves to obscure these connections and to suppress elements judged shameful or undignified by posterity.

31. The ‘shameful’ elements in music history—sex, superstition, bloody conflicts, altered mind states, etc.—are usually closely linked to the process of innovation itself. When we cleanse them from the historical record, we guarantee our ignorance of how new ways of music-making arise.

32. Even love songs are political songs, because new ways of singing about love tend to threaten the status quo. All authority figures, from parents to monarchs, grasp this threat implicitly, even if they can’t express it clearly in words.

33. Institutions and businesses do not create musical innovations; they just recognize them after the fact.

34. They usually strive to hide this—with the goal of exaggerating their own importance—and sometimes succeed.

35. If you really want to understand music in the present day, turn away from the stage and study the audience.

36. Music was once embedded in a person’s life; now it projects a person’s lifestyle. That may seem like a small difference, but the distance between the two can be as large as the gap between reality and fantasy.

37. Music entertains, but it can never be reduced to mere entertainment.

38. The audience is never passive, and it always puts music to use.

39. Songs still possess magic, even for those who have forgotten how to tap into it.

40. Those who devote themselves to music as a vocation—whether as performer, teacher, scholar, or in some other capacity—can ignore this magic, or they can play a part in restoring its potency. In other words: with music, we can all be wizards.

Gioia, T. (2019). Music: a subversive history (First edition). Basic Books.

Books on Electronic Music I

I watched Sisters with Transistors (2020) again and thought of gathering some books related to the history of the electronic music from different perspectives.

Sicko, D. (2010). Techno rebels: the renegades of electronic funk (2nd ed.). Wayne State University Press.

“When it was originally published in 1999, Techno Rebels became the definitive text on a hard-to-define but vital genre of music. Author Dan Sicko demystified techno’s characteristics, influences, and origins and argued that although techno enjoyed its most widespread popularity in Europe, its birthplace and most important incubator was Detroit. In this revised and updated edition, Sicko expands on Detroit’s role in the birth of techno and takes readers on an insider’s tour of techno’s past, present, and future in an enjoyable account filled with firsthand anecdotes, interviews, and artist profiles.

Techno Rebels begins by examining the underground 1980s party scene in Detroit, where DJs and producers like the Electrifying Mojo, Ken Collier, The Wizard, and Richard Davis were experimenting with music that was a world apart from anything happening in New York or Los Angeles. He details the early days of the “Belleville Three”—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson—who created the Detroit techno sound and became famous abroad as the sound spread to the UK and Europe. In this revised edition, Sicko delves deeper into the Detroit story, detailing the evolution of the artists and scene into the mid-1990s, and looks to nearby Ann Arbor to consider topics like the Electrifying Mojo’s beginnings, the role of radio station WCBN, and the emergence of record label Ghostly International. Sicko concludes by investigating how Detroit techno functions today after the contrived electronica boom of the late 1990s, through the original artists, new sounds, and Detroit’s annual electronic music festival.

Ultimately, Sicko argues that techno is rooted in the “collective dreaming” of the city of Detroit—as if its originators wanted to preserve what was great about the city—its machines and its deep soul roots. Techno Rebels gives a thorough picture of the music itself and the trailblazing musicians behind it and is a must-read for all fans of techno, popular music, and contemporary culture.” — Wayne State University Press

Broughton, F. (2022). Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. Orion Publishing Group.

“When someone says, ‘You have to know your history…’ this is it. This classic book is the whole unruly story of dance music in one volume. It recreates the dancefloors that made history, conjuring their atmosphere with loving detail and bringing you the voices of the DJs and clubbers at their heart – from grime, garage, house, hip hop and disco, to techno, soul, reggae, rock’n’roll, and EDM. Whether musical outlaw, obsessive crate-digger or overpaid superstar, the DJ has been at the spinning centre of nightlife for a century, making parties wilder, pushing clubbers harder, and driving music into completely new shapes and styles. In 1999 this was the first book to do justice to the DJ’s rollercoaster ride. Twenty years later, it’s fully refreshed, carefully updated and filled with even more stories, including two brand new chapters. This edition comes with a new foreword by James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem).” — Zabriskie

Saunders, J., & Cummins, J. (2007). House music… The real story. Publish America.

“Jesse Saunders’ story is one of the most important in the history of popular culture. From his hometown of Chicago, Jesse created the first original House music record and launched the House music movement across the land. Eventually, his style of music would come to sell millions of records and CDs, take over the popular consciousness of millions of kids across the earth and cement the electronic revolution in music. Written with author James Cummins, this autobiography tells the story of how it all happened. From the streets of Chicago to the biggest music labels in Los Angeles, California, it follows Jesse Saunders as he recreates the musical landscape of America. Touching on the celebrity culture of the 1980s and a90s and into the twenty-first century, you will read many shocking things about some of your favorite artists. Jesse Saunders is an artist whose influence on modern music will never be forgotten.” — Abebooks

Freke, O. (2020). Synthesizer evolution: from analogue to digital (and back). Velocity Press.

“From acid house to prog-rock, there is no form of modern popular music that hasn’t been propelled forward by the synthesizer. As a result, they have long been objects of fascination, desire and reverence for keyboard players, music producers and fans of electronic music alike. Whether looking at an imposing modular system or posing with a DX7 on Top of the Pops, the synth has also always had an undeniable physical presence.

Synthesizer Evolution: From Analogue to Digital (and Back) celebrates their impact on music and culture by providing a comprehensive and meticulously researched directory of every major synthesizer, drum machine and sampler made between 1963 and 1995. Each featured instrument is illustrated by hand and shown alongside its vital statistics and some fascinatingly quirky facts.

From its invention in the early 1960s to the digital revolution of the 1980s right up until the point that analogue circuits could be modelled using software in the mid-1990s, this book tells the story of synthesizers from analogue to digital – and back again.

Tracing that history and showing off their visual beauty with art-book quality illustrations, Synthesizer Evolution is a must for any self-respecting synth fan. The book has 128 pages, is 23cm x 17.4cm in size and printed on heavyweight 130gsm matt art paper.

Author Oli Freke says: “This book has grown out of a life-long obsession with synthesizers and electronic music, and it’s fantastic to be able to share this with my fellow synth obsessives and music fans who celebrate the synth’s role in modern music. I’m eternally grateful to Velocity Press for going with me on this journey and supporting the project so keenly.”” — Velocity Press

Pinch, T. J., & Trocco, F. (2004). Analog days: the invention and impact of the Moog synthesizer. Harvard University Press.

“Though ubiquitous today, available as a single microchip and found in any electronic device requiring sound, the synthesizer when it first appeared was truly revolutionary. Something radically new—an extraordinary rarity in musical culture—it was an instrument that used a genuinely new source of sound: electronics. How this came to be—how an engineering student at Cornell and an avant-garde musician working out of a storefront in California set this revolution in motion—is the story told for the first time in Analog Days, a book that explores the invention of the synthesizer and its impact on popular culture.

The authors take us back to the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the technology was analog, the synthesizer was an experimental instrument, and synthesizer concerts could and did turn into happenings. Interviews with the pioneers who determined what the synthesizer would be and how it would be used—from inventors Robert Moog and Don Buchla to musicians like Brian Eno, Pete Townshend, and Keith Emerson—recapture their visions of the future of electronic music and a new world of sound.

Tracing the development of the Moog synthesizer from its initial conception to its ascension to stardom in Switched-On Bach, from its contribution to the San Francisco psychedelic sound, to its wholesale adoption by the worlds of film and advertising, Analog Days conveys the excitement, uncertainties, and unexpected consequences of a new technology that would provide the soundtrack for a critical chapter of our cultural history.” — Harvard University Press

live and direct

Sorah, DJ O., Georg von Rauch-House, (Apr 12, 2024)

Meute, Columbiahalle (Mar 14, 2024)

Clark, Andrea Botez, Biskuwi, Ritter Butzke (Mar 9, 2024)

Noname, Festsaal Kreuzberg (Jan 27, 2023)

Brass Riot, Halfsilks, Sonic Pairings #1 @ HAU – Hebbel am Ufer (Dec 15, 2023)

Oliver Koletzki, Huxley’s Neue Welt (Dec 1, 2023)

Explosions in the Sky, Astra (Nov 14, 2023)

Rival Consoles, Gretchen (Nov 13, 2023)

Amewu, Festsaal Kreuzberg (Nov 10, 2023)

This Will Destroy You, The Ocean, Astra (Oct 22, 2023)

Various Rappers @ StreetBeat Showcase, Agatha Hopfen (Oct 21, 2023)

The National, Max-Schmeling-Halle (Sep 30, 2023)

Xir, Çağrı Sinci, Cashflow, Sansar Salvo, Muşta, Extreme Rap Party @ Blind İstanbul (Sep 17, 2023)

Banu Çiçek Tülü, Edna Martinez, KGB-SOUNDS @ Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien (Sep 1, 2023)

Adden, Brudi030, AOB, Luvre47, 447 Open Air @ Rap in der Gropiusstadt (Aug 16, 2023)

Alice Dee, Lena Stoehrfaktor und das Rattenkabinett — RTKB, Audio88 & Yassin, Resist to Exist @ Marzahn (Aug 8, 2023)

Gotopo, Combo Chimbitam, Humboldt Forum (Jul 29, 2023)

The Dharma Chain, Chillera, Love’n’Joy, Kantine am Berghain (Jul 27, 2023)

Balmorhea, silent green Kulturquartier (Jul 12, 2023)

Sorah, Görli-Jam Fest @ Görlitzer Park (Jul 8, 2023)

NASHI44, Kultursommerfestival @ Dong Xuan Center (Jul 5, 2023)

Dub with Anaconda Soundsystem, Fête de la Musique @ Kastanienplatz (Jun 21, 2023)

Palmiyeler, İÇ İÇE Festival @ Festsaal Kreuzberg (June 10, 2023)

Christian Löffler, Huxley’s Neue Welt (May 26, 2023)

Adamlar, SO36 (May 4, 2023)

Acht Eimer Hühnerherzen, SO36 (Apr 21, 2023)

Mal Élevé & Sorah, SO36 (Apr 19, 2023)

LINES, Refugio Café (Apr 18, 2023)

BRKN, Festsaal Kreuzberg (Apr 6, 2023)

The Blaze, Velodrom (Mar 31, 2023)

Weval, Haus Zenner (Mar 30, 2023)

ZSK, Astra Kulturhaus (Feb 24, 2023)

Ahmet Aslan, Passionskirche (Feb 17, 2023)

Thylacine, Watergate (Nov 20, 2022)

Milky Chance, Columbiahalle (Nov 16, 2022)

Monolink, Velodrom (Nov 10, 2022)

Cass McCombs, Frannz Club (Oct 22, 2022)

Kendrick Lamar, Mercedes-Benz Arena (Oct 11, 2022)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Astra Kulturhaus (Sep 28, 2022)

Bandista, SO36 (May 29, 2022)

Khruangbin, Columbiahalle (Apr 7, 2022)