Tag Archives: musical rhetoric

Thinking about the Rhetoric of Bonus Tracks

Tape in a window

What if a mixtape just grew from the dirt, unauthored?

So I’ve been playing a game lately when I’m driving long distances alone:

  1. Before leaving, fill mp3 player with only the tracks I’ve given 4 or 5 stars in Winamp. (Yes, Winamp.)
  2. In the car, listen to everything on shuffle.
  3. Pretend I’m listening to a carefully curated 10-song mixtape, 5 songs on each imaginary side, listening for subtle connections between tracks and an interesting difference between Sides A & B.
  4. Drop my jaw in amazement at the subtle connections that surface, on their own, born of the crafty agency of the machinery.

This isn’t totally my idea; Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape gave me the idea long ago (“I can load up my iPod with weeks’ worth of music and set it on shuffle to play a different mix every time”), but I bet thousands of people have played the game, pretending there was a an author behind an authorless shuffle.

It’s an attractive idea in part because it’s the opposite of my recent obsession with the different ways we can create meaning by purposefully curating tracks. This takes the curator out of the mix.

But that’s not what I’m here to think about. I’m really here because of Step 5 of the game: 

5. Imagine that the 11th track in the random mix is a bonus track on the mixtape, explicitly labeled as such by the imaginary tape-maker.

While playing the game, this somehow never fails to work. The 11th track somehow feels, well, bonus-y. There’s something quirky or unusual or off-putting about it that seems to say, “Dude, you had to hear this, but it just didn’t fit with the rest of the tape. You understand why, right?”

Well, yes. I understand. But do I?

*

A moment of clarification: I’m not sure what the difference is between a bonus track and a hidden track in my mind. (If I already knew what I wanted to say, why would I write about it?)

I know my first hidden track: that lovely, meandering instrumental groove at the end of Pearl Jam’s Ten

I might be remembering this wrong, but I don’t think this was included on the cassette release. And my first copy of Ten was dubbed from a friend’s tape, so I didn’t hear this extended hidden track until I bought the CD from a friend’s older brother a few years later.

Then there was “I’m going crazy” stuff at the end of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish:

Eventually, looking for a hidden track was one of the first things I would do when getting a new CD in middle school and high school: I’d listen to the first 10 seconds or so of every track and then check the length of the final track, looking for signs that something was hidden in there, like a digital cavern, its walls darkly painted with ones and zeros that no one else knew about.

And there’s something in a hidden track that’s akin to what I’m thinking about here. The Pearl Jam example seems to say, “We had this sweet sound we played around with in the studio, but we didn’t quite know how to get it to you except on some B-side that no one would hear, so we put it at the end of the album instead.” And the Smashing Pumpkins example says, “Hey, we don’t always take ourselves so seriously. You know that, right? I mean, this is a serious album, as you can tell, but here at the end we want you to put your feet up for a spell.”

So what if both of these tracks had been numbered, included on the list of official tracks, but explicitly called “bonus tracks”? It would afford the tracks a visibility, a legitimacy that the bands want them to dodge when they hide them, either because it’s not their best work or because it’s more fun to hide.

Either way, hiding it or bonus-ing it, it’s a rhetorical move. That is to say that it’s a decision made by a composer who wants its explicit placement in that way to communicate something, to be given a sort of metadata about how it’s to be heard, understood, considered.

Which is to say that it’s a move I can make when I’m composing in some other medium, too.

Which is to say that it’s fun.

*

When I search for the word bonus in Spotify and sort the results by popularity, I see bonus tracks from Mumford & Sons, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar & Dr. Dre, Skrillex, Mac Miller, City and Colour, Flo Rida, SOJA, Blake Shelton, Christina Perri feat. Jason Mraz, and of course, tons more. 

I’m not familiar with a lot of those artists, but I can’t help but wonder: if you know some of those artists’ albums and I mention bonus tracks, does the bonus track come immediately to mind? Is it part of your experience of the album? Is it marked as unalterably bonus-y in your mind? 

And is it different if you listen to the album on CD, mp3, vinyl, tape, whatever?

*

As I write this, I’m listening for the second time to Balance and Ruin, a four-disc album of music from the OverClocked ReMix community inspired by Final Fantasy VI, the Super Nintendo game that kept everyone my age from wanting to do any extra-curricular activities at all because it was that stinking good, and because its music melted our ears with awesomeness.

Wait, did I say four-disc? I mean five-disc. Even though the official cover art for this remix album only lists four discs, walking listeners through sweet new versions of the tracks from the original game with no repeats, there’s a fifth disc that feels very bonus-y to me. It offers arrangements of some tracks that were already featured in discs one to four, and it starts with a hard-to-describe, four-movement, forty-minute, guitar-shredding odyssey through only two tracks from the game. So it’s different. But it’s included. It’s a bonus.

In a Reddit discussion, album director Andrew “Zircon” Aversa defends the music on disc five as important, integral, and hella-good:

To be clear, the tracks on disc 5 definitely made our cut. We had multiple takes for a variety of reasons. In some cases, someone started a remix and said they couldn’t finish, so we found another musician to fill their spot. Then, the original arranger finished their track after all. We also ran two contests which produced tons of great material, in some cases multiple takes on the same tune. In any case, anything on ANY disc of the album is absolutely stamped with our seal of quality. Deciding which take to put on which disc was just a matter of subjective preference for which version fit the main track flow the best.

Aversa is onto something here in my thinking about bonus vs. hidden here. A hidden track might not be said by a band/musician/album director to be “absolutely stamped with our seal of quality.” (Five Iron Frenzy’s hidden track “Kingdom of the Dinosaurs” even includes apologies to people still listening to the weird sounds they’re making.)

But a bonus can still be good. Really good. It just feels different. 

But what I can’t get over is this: does it feel different because I was told to think it was different? Is it the label, the context that makes it feel bonus-y? Or is it inherent in the music itself? After all, any track that comes up as track 11 during my imaginary mixtape game could come up as track 1 on my next drive. But when it’s track 11, I convince myself that it’s different.

And if I played you a disc-5 rearrangement of Terra’s Theme from the FFVI rearrangement album, would you know it from the disc-2 version? Could you tell that it was a bonus?

*

Lucky me: there’s a Wikipedia page called “Bonus track.” (It’s headed by a warning from August 2007 that it doesn’t cite any sources, and it still doesn’t. By now, is that warning kind of like a textual bonus track to be experienced separately from the main article?)

It’s an interesting stub, with some points about the relationship of bonus tracks to major labels’ distribution deals with Japan and some thoughts on the relationship of purchasing habits on iTunes to the bonus track. But my favorite part is this paragraph:

A song by MC Lars featuring Ashley Jade entitled “The Bonus Track for Japan” pokes fun at the Japan-specific instance of this phenomenon, with Lars singing a series of facts about Japan. It was actually used as the “Japanese bonus track” for Lars’ album The Graduate. It has, more recently, been remixed and put on the MC Lars album 21 Concepts (But a Hit Ain’t One).

It’s the last sentence that intrigues me the most: a remix of a bonus seems to give a new legitimacy to the bonus track that it couldn’t originally have had. (Imagine a remix of the Pearl Jam or Pumpkins tracks above. Doesn’t feel worth it.)

The talk page extends the conversation in two more delicious ways: 

  1. A list of 163 albums with bonus tracks was deleted from the page but copied onto the talk page because “Unwieldy, useless lists do not aid understanding.”
  2. A few clever folks are discussing the possibility of adding some points about the history of the bonus track, but they don’t have any references, just their own memories. (“So the first bonnus track is a real mystery. But it would be good to find out.”) 
    • Corollary: This suggests that memory itself is a bonus track to our lived experiences.

*

That talk page also includes this line, under the heading “mistaken identity”:

i have this twin thet i have never met befor and i whant to kowe who she or he is if i can find them she has been wandiring if —Preceding unsigned comment added by 208.181.90.67 (talk) 21:45, 9 February 2008 (UTC)

It’s not part of the topic of the page or related to any other conversation on the talk page. It’s just a bonus.

*

Image: Personal remix of linda yvonne, “Once upon a time…..” and Nils Geylen, “365-164 MAR 31

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Computers and Writing and Memory and Meaning

I’d like to write a post summarizing the Computers and Writing conference. But right now, I’d rather live in the world of memory than summary. I want to think through the threads of uncertainty, time, and music that the conference brought to mind, which are so wrapped up in my ideas about memory.

*

14th Street Bridge

Yoichi R. Okamoto, “THE TWO 14TH STREET BRIDGES, LOOKING NORTH FROM VIRGINIA TO THE DISTRICT”

I’m Washington, DC right now, even though I just left a conference in Raleigh and live in Orlando. Yesterday, a friend picked me up in Raleigh and I drove her to DC, where she’s moving.

Both of us used to live in DC, and it’s our favorite city. As the sun set, we crossed the 14th Street bridge and gawked and gaped and said things like, “Hello, crazy drivers zooming around me! Hello tourists with fanny packs! Hello unnecessary circle of flags around the Washington Monument!”

Now, I’m in the old terminal at Reagan National Airport, waiting to fly home. I’ve lived in this space before. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce sitting in the same collection of seats, even though that was six years ago.

I’ve only been in this city for seventeen hours, yet there is a pit of sadness in my belly over leaving.

*

For my musical presentation at the conference, I played a video with my voice talking over some images (and occasional black screens), while I played records live as a musical accompaniment. My motif was the musical prank, the moment where an audience’s expectation for how music will sound is thwarted, complicating the idea that we identify with music and make meaning from it based on how our expectations are met or not met.

To mess around with expectations in the audience, I changed the speed of the records, played them backwards, and played them along with video footage that they were never meant to accompany.

But my expectations weren’t met, either. A piece of fuzz in my needle kept the records from sounding the way I expected. The weight balance of the needle arm was probably misbalanced, leading to more skips than I expected. My arm was shaking more than I expected, so I missed a couple of precise arm placements thad had worked fine when practicing at home.

And just as when an audience is surprised, and thus is led to make meaning from the surprising sounds, I was surprised by what sounded, and I made my own meanings as well.

*

I asked my friend to drive me by my old neighborhood in Washington, DC, the Columbia Heights / Petworth area. Even when I left five years ago I knew the area was gentrifying, that the pedestrians were getting whiter and the stores were getting sleeker, bigger, more national.

But I didn’t expect the difference in the feel of a space that is surrounded by new, tall condos instead of three-story townhouses. What used to be on that corner, I kept asking myself, where that tall, metal building is now? I’ve walked by that spot hundreds of times–how could I have forgotten?

*

Anne Wysocki gave a keynote address introducing her long-term project on the rhetorical canon of memory. She’s designing a beautiful interactive web space that allows users to simulate a walk through the different ways people have engaged with memory over the last 2,500 years. It was lovely and important enough that I thought, I want to be involved in this project. I want to engage with memories from now on. I don’t want to forget.

David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body

David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body

Much of Wysocki’s talk reminded me of a book by musicologist David Burrows called Time and the Warm Body. (At rhetoric/composition conferences of late, I find myself mentioning Burrows once a day, and twice on days I present.) I tweeted the book title to Wysocki as she spoke, just in case she hadn’t come across it. It’s Burrows’s consideration first of how our bodies experience time and the “now,” an experience of time that he situates as the epistemological nature of how we experience music, given our nature as embodied, time-based creatures. Language draws our minds to other spaces and other times, but music draws us to the now.

Wysocki tweeted back, later, an earnestly cheerful reply that she didn’t know the book and was excited to look it up. It made me feel good, and it made me think about all the books the people in the room had read individually and all the books we had read collectively, as a massive library of memory that could never be perfectly tapped.

*

Drinking with Trauman the next day, he mentioned that I have an earnestness about me.

On the drive to DC, I told my friend that I always think of my wife as the earnest one, but that I liked the idea being earnest myself, too.

I want to be earnest. I want to construct things, and engage with memories through my earnestness.

*

At one point during the conference, I jokingly tweeted that the theme of Computers and Writing 2014 should be The Goonies.

Scott Reed rewteeted it with an earnest “THIS –>” preeding my tweet.

I could look up these tweets to make sure I’m quoting them correctly, relying on the exactness of a computer’s memory. But my memory is just fine, in this case, even if it’s not always accurate.

*

I remember where I was when I read another David Burrows book, Sound, Speech, and Music: the waiting room of the Tire Kingdom near my house in Orlando. The coffee was bad, and the 24-hour news network on the loud TV was worse.

I don’t remember what my car was in for that day. But I remember being surprised by Burrows’s prose, his theories of music and speech that included lines about psuedopods of meaning reaching between humans engaging and identifying with each other. And in my surprise, I found meaning. And in my meaning, I created memory.

*

DC's Union Station

Gryffindor, “Main hall of Union Station in Washington D.C.”

Before taking the Metro to the airport this morning, I met an old DC friend in Union Station. At first, I felt turned around: there is construction that blocked off the path I expected to take inside the building. And maybe it shouldn’t matter, but a net a few feet above my head blocked bits of my sight as I glanced up at the pounds and pounds of air between me and the distant windows near the ceiling. Even though I wasn’t walking vertically, the net made me feel even more disoriented.

But the Corner Bakery was still there, and so was the bookstore (though it’s a Barnes and Noble now), and so was the line of people outside waiting for taxis, and so was the neverending construction outside the station.

I’m not sure how I felt so comforted and discomforted at the same time, helped along by the con/destruction around me, and my confirmed and demolished memories.

*

Jody Shipka presented on the process of archiving and remediating found texts as a way to remember and honor the people who created them. She has amassed an astounding collection of old photos, home movies, and slides from various yard sales and such.

The clips she showed were comforting and discomforting, constructing and destructing (as some of the film she showed literally burned to pieces just after she digitized it). I tried to tweet during the talk but eventually had to stop, pulled to the now that Shipka drew to my attention with a beauty I didn’t expect. It was one of those wonderful presentations with ultra-small audiences that makes me feel I witnessed something rare.

During the question and answer period, we talked about what it means when bodies encounter retro, analog media. Keith Dorwick (whose presentation just before Shipka’s was also evocative and tremendous) said, “And I hope Kyle doesn’t mind my saying this, but it was a powerful moment during the question and answer of his presentation when he told us that his hand was shaking while he cued the records. There’s an inevitable indeterminacy that comes from the interaction between any physical media and a human body.”

I responded that there was something lovely and important–and indeed, unexpected–in the physicality of the analog, the touch of a record.

I also said, “Yesterday, I apologized to a friend about how many pops and crackles there were in the records, but so many people have told me how much they loved hearing those pops.”

Shipka replied earnestly. “Why did you apologize?”

I thought for a moment, said, “I think it’s because of this: I love vinyl, but I know there are people who love vinyl with a seriousness that I don’t have. They know how to wash it, and they have all the right brushes, and they hold it right, and all that. For me, it’s a much simpler preoccupation. Like, I like to buy ninety-nine cents records from the thrift store, to listen to them, not to preserve them or be an audiophile or something. I love them, but as an enthusiast, not a collector.”

Dorwick said, “There are people who say that listening to CDs is too sterile an environment. There are people who say that when you listen to a recording that is too perfect, you’re not hearing it right. We need the pops and crackle to hear it as a lived experience, as something that’s really there.”

*

The quotations above aren’t exact. I remembered them that way.

*

While waiting in the airport terminal a few minutes ago, a demolition project began outside. I watched out the window as a small, golf-cart-ish thing rammed into the concrete exterior wall of the terminal and shook with anger as it (I assume?) drilled cracks into the area marked for destruction. It looked like a small animal who was positive that it could knock over a skyscraper, if only it rammed and shook it hard enough.

But the quality of the sound had none of the cute, unassuming nature of the vehicle’s appearance. It was like a giant with metal teeth was chewing concrete for breakfast, like a jackhammer underground was coming at a square of sidewalk from below and I happened to be standing on it, like a memory being forcibly removed from my head instead of being allowed to fade into smells and images and sounds in the gentle way they’re supposed to go.

I moved to the other side of the circular terminal, but even there, it seemed just as loud. I couldn’t escape from it, regardless of how hard I tried, unless I wanted to leave security and come back in later. I looked up at the circular, 60s-ish ceiling of the old terminal and tried to focus on what I was seeing instead of what I was hearing.

*

David Burrows, in Sound, Space, and Music, writes, “Noise is a concept rooted in the domain of sound rather than sight, because the promiscuity with which sound addresses itself to appropriate and inappropriate receptors alike means that we must so often hear things we do not want to hear, whereas we can look the other way, or close our eyes, when we see something unpleasant or superfluous. Our auditory defenselessness casts us often in the role of victim, our privacy invaded by someone else’s stereo or car horn” (24-25).

*

I’m on the plane now, finishing this post in the loud, fuel-tinged air of the next-to-last seat in the cabin, so unlike the space in Union Station I wandered through so recently.

I’m hoping for a good glimpse of the National Mall as I leave, even as I know I can hardly bear it. It’s that pain you get when you have braces and you bite down on your aching teeth, and it’s good and hard at the same time.

Leaving the conference was cleaner, if more awkward. There were so many people I wanted to properly say goodbye to, who have begun to matter to both my professional and personal lives. But instead, I waved at the people I saw, hugged a couple, and slipped out the back door of the Syme Hall basement.

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Musical Spaces, Patterns, and SoundClouds

Cover of Lingua Fracta

How could I turn away from a blue cover? Ah, blue.

I’ve been thinking through Colin Gifford Brooke’s excellent book Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media lately, especially as I’ve been considering how the canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery) apply to musical composition. Two pages from the book are especially sticking to my mind right now, so I’m using this space to explore them, all first-drafty-like. Followers, beware.

Brooke’s chapter on arrangement refashions the canon of arrangement as pattern, a middle ground he describes as between texts that are “painstakingly ordered” (91) or just tossed out there without any ordering. By thinking of “arrangement as pattern,” he avoids the linear world of “arrangement as sequence” (92) that doesn’t adequately allow for the kinds of movement folks do in hyperlinked, new media spaces. It’s a nice reframing of how texts are arranged, given how much bopping around readers do, especially (but not only) online.

I’m reminded of the glimpse into the word-processor-using writer’s mind that Cory Doctorow gives us in “You DO Like Reading Off a Computer Screen,” one of the essays in Content: “I understand perfectly — in the ten minutes since I typed the first word in the paragraph above, I’ve checked my mail, deleted two spams, checked an image-sharing community I like, downloaded a YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert complaining about the iPhone (pausing my MP3 player first), cleared out my RSS reader, and then returned to write this paragraph.” With that kind of readerly and writerly world online, content-creators still organize material, but into patterns can be experienced in multiple ways, not as linearly experienced sequences through time.

Here’s what I was thinking, though: music does move linearly through time. We hear it in a sequence. Yes, like hyperlinked text, there are examples of interactive pieces that change depending on the “listener”‘s behavior (Biophilia, anyone?), but I’m talking in general here. Usually, we experience the arrangement of a piece sequentially, not as a pattern. Different classical forms of musical arrangement (sonata, rondo, theme and variation) are inherently sequential, designed (in part) to reiterate musical statements in time recursively so we hear when those statements are adjusted, played with, developed. So I read this chapter thinking, “This is great and all, but it’s not what I was hoping when I saw pattern was coming up. I wanted to think about patterns cognitively (if that’s the right word, self)—as gestalts that listeners create when they perceive patterns in sequentially arranged music.”

But despite that part of my mind that turned off, I kept hitting roadblocks to that assumption; I kept finding fruitful ways that music (both classical and new media versions? Not sure…) intersected Brooke’s thinking about arrangement. For example:

Brooke spends a bit of time discussing databases, with del.icio.us as his particular example: how information can be arranged in a database that is arranged, patterned, yet still allowing ever-changing narratives as users move through the linked, annotated, rich material. Again, here I felt this discussion was awesome, but not applicable to music. But then Brooke makes a brilliant move toward comparing del.icio.us with Benjamin’s concept of collections, which are essentially databases with personal stories attached to them. “Once a collection loses the intimacy felt for it by its owner,” writes Brooke, “we might argue that it has drifted back toward the database end of things” (109).

And wow, what’s more “collectable” than music? What’s more amenable to the associations we load onto music, High Fidelity-style, as what the music means shifts along with our personal experiences when we encountered the music? Two more questions, from the cover flap of Geoffrey O’Brien’s Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life (which I serendipitously snagged at a thrift store two days ago): “How does music infiltrate your life and shape the way you remember it? What do you really hear when you listen, for perhaps the thousandth time, to a well-loved song, a song inextricably tied to who you are and where you’ve been?”

Of course, part of me isn’t sure why I’m bringing up this thought; just because I/we treat music objects collectably, as a database of meaning, that doesn’t say anything about how those musical objects themselves are arranged. In other words, what I do with my music doesn’t say whether it’s arranged sequentially or in line with Brooke’s “pattern.” I know that. I’m brainstorming, remember?

But the musical thoughts kept coming as the chapter continued, ending as it did with a discussion of tag clouds. My thinking went kind of like this: “A tag cloud provides an alternative navigation through a series of texts. You can hop from place to place in direct ways that aren’t possible in analog texts. What would that look like for music–i.e., a way to hop around a sequentially organized musical text in an ordered way?”

And the closest thing that came to mind: comments on SoundCloud files. It’s easier to show than describe (which is itself relevant whenever we’re talking about audio and visual texts):

Underneath the waveform, see all those colorful little icons? Hover over them, and you’ll see the comments that listeners have left on this track–not on the track as a whole, but on specific moments in the sequence where they wanted to comment. I’m not sure if it happens in this embedded version, but on SoundCloud’s site, if you’re watching the music move through time, these comments pop up automatically at the correct time, as if you’re hearing/reading the voice of commenter in real time–but that act of archived notes is replayable whenever the listener wants. And the whole track, linear as it is, is remarkably easy to hop around in, especially when the visual representation of the sounds is marked in key spots by the comments of listeners (or composers). The interface affects the arrangement of the sounds as we experience them. Which is just what Brooke is talking about in his book. Good stuff.

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Instrumental Music

I just finished reading Mark Evan Bonds’ Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration (1991). He gives us a delicious 1799 quote from a fellow named Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, who apparently is one of the founders of German romanticism. (Who knew?)

The context of the discussion: Bonds is describing people who would retroactively write programs for instrumental music. That is, they would listen to a Mozart quartet, ask themselves what it reminded them of–Lush, rolling hillsides! Deep, powerful oceans!–and then write essays telling people that these are the meanings of the works. This, says Bonds, “represents the antithesis of all the German Romantics stood for,” since they valued individual genius and indefinable, untranslatable beauty.

On that, here’s Wackenroder:

What do they want, these timorous and doubting sophists, who ask to have hundreds and hundreds of musical works elucidated in words and yet who cannot acknowledge that not every one of these works has a nameable meaning like a painting? Do they strive to measure the richer language by means of the weaker and solve with words that which disdains words? Or have they never felt without words? Have they stuffed their hollow hearts with only descriptions of emotions? Have they never perceived in their souls the mute singing, the mummer’s dance of unseen spirits? or do they not believe in fairy-tales?

Ouch! I think Herr Wackenroder is taking things too far, but his heart is in the right place: it seems important to me to embrace the undefinable as something worthwhile, though ineffable, transient, and so on.

But I still feel perfectly fine “programming” music in my own mind, imagining stories and settings that it could be representing, like scoring a film in reverse, where the score already exists but I need to invent the story. This is one reason why Explosions in the Sky is one of my favorite bands, and why this is my favorite song. We only get into trouble when we start claiming that our individual interpretation is the interpretation, right?

Side note: this book was due yesterday via interlibrary loan, so there were no renewals, so I spent much of yesterday rapidly typing my notes into Evernote so I could return the book. And then today I paste in this quote, which I think Bonds translated himself, and all I recorded was that it was from Wackenroder in 1799. Normally Google Books or Amazon previews would save the day: I could look up the book online and find the page and grab the exact citation that I stupidly didn’t record yesterday. But nope: even though this 1991 book is long out of print, Google Books only gives snippet view, and the page I need isn’t available at all. And by now, my ILL copy is being trucked back to wherever it came from. Bleah.

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