’99 Problems’ but Danger Mouse IS one’: The evolution of the producer Brian Burton

Shara Rambarran, BISC, Queen’s University, Canada

Abstract: Ten years ago, I presented a paper at the first ARP conference in London on Danger Mouse’s mash up, The Grey Album (2004). The presentation resulted in a heated discussion between the panel, audience and myself. Today, the virtual album is still championed by academics, musicians and fans. While Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) will always be associated with the cultural shift in ‘disrupting’ the practices in popular music creativity and digital technology, this paper will explore the aftermath of The Grey Album event.

The paper will argue that since the event, there have been digital developments that have concerned the musicians/producers, industry and consumers. Music consumption, distribution, copyright, streaming, remixing, production etc. are on­going themes at ARP conferences, and these topics still involve Burton. Since the paper presentation in 2005, Burton has become a successful producer working with the likes of Damon Albarn, Cee­Lo Green, and Jack White. Despite the success, there have been events that have (un)intentionally involved Burton. An overview of such events will be examined such as Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ (another leaked project on the Internet); Sparklehorse’s blank CDR release (Burton’s protest to EMI); and more recently, the U2 album that was pre­loaded on iPhones. Whether these episodes are either a coincidence or not, the paper will examine on how Burton’s music production has resulted in such events. I will consider Burton an auteur: despite his hip­hop background, he has produced a genre­blended catalogue that carries his own musical ingredients in record production. While his projects have contributed in the way music is produced, consumed and distributed in the digital age, the paper will argue on why it is likely that his works will still be discussed at future ARP conferences: is Burton a secret musical activist, or an ultramodernist in record production?

ARP Intuition and Collaboration in Popular Music Production #arp2015

Philip Chambon.

ABSTRACT:

Collaboration in a creative partnership is often an intuitive process in which separate artists interweave their experience and skills to inform an amalgamated product.

The process in popular music production from the initial inspiration for a track, through to the song writing, rehearsing, arranging, programming, performing, recording, mixing and mastering inevitably involves collaboration at some, if not all stages of this process. Music production has become “…a collective project between recording artists, musicians, producers and recording engineers” (Watson, 2014).

Even when one artist in the home digital studio performs these multiple roles, there is collaboration between the self, the subconscious and the imagined audience for the work (Harvey, 1999).

Intuition is a fundamental element in these collaborative processes, and is particularly relevant in the field of popular music creation and production. It can inform decision­making. It can discover problems that need solutions. It can find solutions in a flash ‘peak experience’ moment arising from apparently little pre­conscious thought. (Boyd, 2011: Csikszentmihalyi, 2013: Dewey, 2005: Harvey,1999).

This paper will explore how the role of intuition can underpin creative partnerships, and how this can contribute to innovation in the field and the dissemination of knowledge across both the academic and practice­based creative industries.

As well as providing an academic research context, the paper will draw on the author’s background as a practitioner in the areas of songwriting, performing, bands, sound engineering, production, and composing for contemporary dance and ballet, and film and TV.

Boyd, J. (2013) It’s not only rock ‘n’ roll. London: John Blake Publishing. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins. Dewey, J. (2005). Art as experience. New York: Perigee. Harvey, J. (1999) Music and inspiration. London: Faber and Faber. Watson, A. (2014) Cultural production in and beyond the recording studio. New York: Routledge.

Did Sam Smith copy ‘Earth Song’ in ‘Writing’s On The Wall’?

Sam SmithI was interviewed this week by the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper about the alleged similarities between Sam Smith’s new James Bond movie theme song ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ and Michael Jackson’s Earth Song. This blog post is a more detailed version of that analysis.

[If you’re wondering why The Carpenters appear in the above playlist, all will be explained shortly].

Lots of people around the web have been pointing out that the end of WOTW’s verse makes them want to go straight into the chorus of MJ’s ‘Earth Song’, and on listening to the tracks it’s easy to hear what they mean. It’s interesting, though, that although the ‘feeling’ of the end of WOTW’s verse is reminiscent of Earth Song for some listeners, there are only actually three notes that have the exact same pitch – and these notes are not placed at the same point in the bar.

The songs are in different keys – Earth Song is in Ab minor and WOTW is in F minor. When comparing melodies, it’s helpful to ‘normalise’ this difference by notating both songs in the same key, so that any similarities or differences are more visually apparent. Here’s the comparative/normalised transcription.

Earth Song (top) vs Writing's On The Wall (bottom), normalised to Ab minor for comparison purposes. No two notes line up perfectly, and yet the similarity is apparent to many people.
Earth Song (top) vs Writing’s On The Wall (bottom), normalised to Ab minor for comparison purposes. No two notes line up perfectly, and yet the similarity is apparent to many people (click image for a larger version).

So, if there are no notes that are exactly the same (in terms of pitch, rhythmic placement and harmonic context), why are so many listeners crying foul?

There are two areas of apparent similarity. The phrases in the penultimate bar of each song’s verse, highlighted in the red rectangle above, both have 8 syllables and have similar rhythmic scansion (and there’s no more use in runnin’ / did you ever stop to notice). But the section that everyone is talking about is the rising phrase ending on a B flat note (this is something I gotta face / this crying Earth this weeping shore?). These respective phrases, although they have only three pitches in common (with different rhythmic placement), give an impression of similarity because of the way the phrase ascends to the strong Bb note, with the same underlying dominant chord (in the normalised key of Abm, Eb major).

The songs also feature what we might call ‘surface similarities’ – that is, aspects of the arrangement or performance that appear in many other songs, but are combined in each work in the same way. They are both sung in the higher register of the male voice; they are performed at a similar tempo (Earth Song is around 6BPM and Writing’s On The Wall is around 65BPM). They are also both have a sweeping, epic quality and a lyric where the protagonist expresses some form of regret. There are of course many songs that feature these elements, but in combination they contribute to a subjective impression of similarity.

There is one other fragment of similarity, and interestingly listeners don’t seem to have picked this up to the same extent, despite the notes lining up exactly. WOTW’s chorus drops down dynamically at [01:28] and at this point the phrase ‘how do I breathe’ has the equivalent notes, syllable count and rhythmic scansion as bar 2 of Earth Song’s verse ‘what about rain’ [0:51 in the full length version]. The rhythms for this four-note section are identical, with identical pitches of Eb, Db, Cb and Db. The underlying chord on beat 3 is different, but the melodic similarity, for a brief moment, may be apparent to the listener. Here’s the relevant section, key-normalised as before.

Earth Song (excerpt from verse 1 at [0:51] shares a four-note melodic phrase with Writing's On The Wall (chorus 1, from [01:28]), albeit with different harmonic context on the half-bar.
Earth Song (excerpt from verse 1 at [0:51] shares a four-note melodic phrase with Writing’s On The Wall (chorus 1, from [01:28]), albeit with different harmonic context on the half-bar.
But methodology is all in comparative music analysis, and it can be abused. If you look hard enough, and work with small enough fragments, you can find similarity everywhere. In the Spotify playlist above, listen to the strings intro in WOTW followed by the first verse of Superstar by the Carpenters. Three notes of G, F and C below, in an F minor tonality. Coincidence? Er, yes.

Music analysis can only highlight the similarities and differences; it’s impossible to see inside the mind of a songwriter, and any accusation of melodic plagiarism usually has to demonstrate quite a high level of similarity between the works. There are melody similarities between WoTW and ES but there are also many differences; these melodic fragments and production/arrangement choices will certainly have appeared in other songs. Which leads us to the really interesting question – if no musical elements are identical, but the combinations of elements are similar enough to invoke allusion to an earlier work, might we describe the act of combining those elements as creative? Can composing consist simply of bringing together pre-existing ideas? Might we characterise all creativity in this way? (Arthur Koestler thought so).

Were Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes influenced by Michael Jackson? Quite probably – many great pop songwriters are. Would they have been familiar with Earth Song? Almost certainly – it was a worldwide hit and remains a classic. But is this an example of deliberate plagiarism? I’m not so sure. It depends on what you mean by ‘original’.

And what you mean by ‘composing’.

And what you mean by ‘copying’.


Copyright note for transcription excerpts: I claim fair dealing exceptions for the purposes of research, criticism, review and news reporting. 

A day in the life of music listening

Boston skyline
Boston: view of the Charles River and city skyline

I was recently invited to write a blog piece for ‘Harkive‘, a music/sociology data collection project run by Craig Hamilton at City University Birmingham. He conducts a survey for one day per year, collecting qualitative data about music listeners’ habits. The aim of Harkive is for people to “share the story of how, where and why they listen to music”. The blog entries are an attempt to add colour to the data, detailing the real-world situations in which we experience music. Here are some examples of previous entries. My contribution is a single ‘day in the life’ of music listening – in this case, my activities on 14th July 2015. I found the act of reflecting on a whole day’s listening (including inadvertent listening) to be a surprising experience – there’s a lot more music around us than I had ever really considered. If you’re interested in contributing to the project here’s the link.