PopMAC day 2: System vs. Self. Jim Dickinson #popmac


FountainSystem vs. Self. Jim Dickinson (Senior Lecturer. Bathspa University)

Stockhausen once described the Beatles as ‘Do Re Mi with Electricity’. This simplification of the standard western 12 tone approach, misses another fundamental component of popular music performance and composition, that of context. This paper will seek to expose the hidden complexities that exist between the notes of a given scale, by looking at harmonic, temporal and cultural difference as a compositional tool. In addition it will explore the juxtaposition of sonic material plundered from multiple sources. This approach has become the norm for a new generation of composers and in this post post-modern free-for-all of cut up audio and sampling, it would be easy to assume that all the creative possibilities of these techniques had been exhausted. This paper will challenge that assumption, by suggesting a more systematic approach to analysing and exploring the creative potential of harmonic, cultural and temporal dissonance, both in the traditional organisation of pitch and rhythm and in the use of plundered audio. Using musical examples taken from released records and pedagogical practice this paper will suggest that these techniques offer an alternative view of the perceived sonic, harmonic and temporal perfection of much of popular music’s current output.

Jim Dickinson is a senior lecturer in Commercial Music at Bath Spa University. As a recording artist he had numerous hit singles and albums, including a U.K number 1, as well as composing for television and computer games. Recent performances include Download festival 2012 and The Isle of Wight festival, main stage, June 2013. His main research interest is visual music, with a focus on the influence of the painter Paul Klee on the work of specific composers.

Jim’s first slide is of a Paul Klee painting, representing his research interest in ‘visual music’. He discusses (from PopMAC day 1) commonalities between papers, and cites the apparent paradox of popular music’s surface musical simplicity and how difficult it is to achieve excellence within it. He notes, citing Anne Danielsen’s keynote on microrhythm, that as popular musicologists we speak not of the ‘grid’ but of the ‘bits in between’. He notes Klee’s work as being musician-like, given that the picture on display is a single gesture (a one-line drawing of a human face).

He discusses Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968) and its relationship to the ‘method of the pattern’, asserting that popular music works with patterns and cannot ever be fully chaotic. Simon Reynolds (in ‘Generation Ecstasy’) suggests that samplists can take work from anywhere and this work risks losing its original meaning.

There is now a discussion of Temporal Dissonance (including examples by Steve Reich) but Jim deliberately deals with these quickly, noting that others at the conference are covering this idea thoroughly. Instead he focuses on ‘relativity’ – one musical object existing contextually next to another. As an example he provides a chromatic pitch wheel and discusses the relationship (NOT synaesthesia) between colour and intervals. Roger Kamien’s work on Harmonic Dissonance is cited.

Audio  – we hear Max Romeo and the Upsetters (‘Out Of Space’), compared with The Prodigy, noting the collision of, effectively, marijuana and MDMA. He notes that technical techniques facilitate such juxtaposition easily, and then plays Soulwax’s mashup of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head and New Order’s Blue Monday, where, Jim says, many of the audience were not aware that it was a mashup due to the seamlessness of the edit. The next example is Jay-Z’s use of Charles Strouse’s ‘Hard Luck Life’, citing Black Empire, White Desires (Davarian, 1999). The final audio example is Camille Yarbrough’s ‘The Iron Pot Cooker’, as used by Fatboy Slim in Praise You. Jim plays the first ‘verse’ of the FBS version, and then notes the specific point (the word ‘should’) where he asserts ‘control’ over the recording, deliberately making the listener aware of the difference between the source and the plunderer.

Jim ends by bringing us up to date with the Daft Punk/Nile Rodgers recording Get Lucky, and he contends that perhaps to Daft Punk fans, the idea of 70s funksters playing live instruments might be an unfamiliar cultural idea in itself. The collaboration is compared to Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). He believes that ‘pop will regurgitate itself’. He is not intending to make a defined grid showing the (culturally) intervallic distance between sources, because these distances are constantly shifting.

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