on form and prodigy

i decided to begin this friday's workshop at st. andrew with a brief lesson on form. i asked the girls to name the different parts of a song. they threw out a taxonomy: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, break, end. to illustrate some of these concepts in fruityloops, i then set up a basic dancehall pattern, with kick drums and a snare providing the distinctive 3+3+2 rhythm (count the boxes between each hit) and a hi-hat subdividing each beat. we will call this "pattern 1":

we discussed the concept of a turnaround, which is a common musical device in dancehall riddims. we might define a turnaround as a figure that answers or rounds out an initial pattern by providing a sense of departure and return, elongating the phrase as a whole. one common turnaround figure in dancehall simply changes the kick-drum rhythm towards the end of the pattern:

thus, for example, a song might be based on a one-bar pattern that proceeds for three bars before being "answered" on the fourth bar with a turnaround like "pattern 2" above. fruityloops makes it easy to arrange patterns in time using the playlist. here's how a basic turnaround rhythm might look in a playlist:

a typical verse-section of a song might continue like this for some time. sixteen bars is a common length for a verse. when it is time for a chorus, something else needs to happen musically to set it off. sometimes more voices come in, or a recognizable melody returns, but usually there is some signal in the underlying patterns that create the excitement or release of a chorus. at any rate, the pattern will typically change for eight bars or so during the chorus section. a verse/chorus based song will thus proceed like so:

of course, these are just some basic guidelines that i have learned in my own experience listening to and producing dancehall rhythms. often times producers will depart from such conventions, but the conventions are a big part of what makes a song recognizable as familiar. individual creators will have decide for themselves how much to break the "rules." i simply provide these guidelines as a way to get people making music they like in a short period of time.

i am working on a kind of curriculum for digital music making. there is definitely a method to the way i show people how to use programs like fruityloops, and i would like to make it more widely accessible. in the coming weeks, i will begin posting a series of "lessons" that attempt to capture my method. i thought i would begin by sharing what i did at st. andrew's on friday. this is, of course, lesson two. look for lesson one soon.

to illustrate another approach to form, let's look at an actual track created this week at st. andrew high school. catherine, who's "rock rhythm" (a delightful little techno romp) you may have heard in last week's blog, decided to continue with her interest in techno rhythms this week, despite my lesson on dancehall form and despite her peers' general interest in the more familar sounds of reggae and rap. techno is, of course, not unheard in jamaica. flip around the radio on any given day and you'll hear some. mtv provides another outlet. then there is the internet. in short, i am rarely surprised anymore by listening practices that, before spending some time in jamaica, i would not have imagined existed here. i encouraged catherine, of course, to make the music she wants to make. i'm no cultural determinist. what's more, the varied soundworld of contemporary jamaica challenges any simple notion about how jamaican musical "culture" should be bounded. but back to catherine's "techno mix," as she labeled it. here's the track, which i would suggest listening to before, or during, my discussion of form. see if you can sense or visualize or intuit the track's formal structure just by listening.

now let's take a closer look at some patterns:

here we have an example of two different patterns that catherine created. as one can see, catherine found quite a few sounds that she wanted to use in her track, 19 in all. [for those who may be wondering, "we do acid..." is a fruityloops-named soundclip that may raise eyebrows, but it simply refers to a particular synthesizer, the roland 303, i believe, which people began to associate with "acid" because of its psychedlic sound.] the pattern on the left has a strong rhythmic character to it, while the one on the right is a bit more loose, ambiguous, funky (however you want to call it). it appears, just by glancing at it, that catherine used some visual symmetry to construct the pattern on the right--a tempting approach for many young beginners, but one that does not always yield the most head-boppin' results. when i consulted with catherine about her rhythm, it was clear that she had created a number of cool-sounding patterns: some, like the one on the left, more rhythmically straightforward; others, like the one on the right, more "out-there." it seemed to me that using the "out-there" patterns as turnarounds would be one great way to organize, at the level of a song, all these wonderful patterns she had come up with. here's the playlist-arrangement i suggested:

by alternating between patterns 1 and 3, which have strong, pulse-like rhythms, and using 2 and 4 as turnaround patterns, or breaks, catherine's patterns coalesced into a dance-track with some nice ebb and flow. still, for it to really have some techno punch, i suggested layering a basic techno-beat (kick drum on all four beats, snare on beats 2 and 4, hi-hat on the off-beat of each beat) underneath these rhythms:

to provide a bit of variety, and create more form, i suggested, as is common practice in techno music, to add the techno-beat (which we put in pattern 7) every other time through, like so:

listen to the end-result again, and see if you can follow the form (each bar is four-beats--try to count along). i think it's a pretty cool little jam. i really like the piano and the strange synth-noises. i especially like the cowbell part in pattern 3. nice job, catherine!

in the process of working together on her track, i asked catherine a bit more about why she chose to compose in a techno style, especially since all her peers seemed to be into building dancehall and hip-hop rhythms. she asked me if i had ever heard of prodigy, a british techno group that was strongly promoted by mtv in 1995-6 when "electronica" was hailed as the next big thing. their big video hit was a song called "firestarter." yes, i had heard of them, but was a bit surprised that a jamaican high school student was into them almost a decade later, since, far as i know, they haven't released much new material. turns out that catherine heard of them through her older sister, and something about the music really resonates with her. it's good teenage music: hard and noisy, a bit angry in tone, and different than what one's parents listen to. although i have rountinely had my expectations challenged in terms of what people are listening to here, this was yet another good one for my notebook.

when i met last week with hopeton dunn, a UWI professor of communications, he expressed interest in my project and agreed that a radio outlet would be a good way to share the music from the workshops i am conducting in jamaica. he did note, however, that people would expect this music to reflect their culture, their roots, their history. yes, of course, i said. i do expect that people would have such expectations. and, by and large, i believe that people would be satisfied with the music they hear. i expect that the ubiquitous 3+3+2 beat of dancehall, for example (a rhythm people trace to all kinds of things jamaican, from the folk-style of mento to the cult-drumming of kumina and pocomania), will turn up in many of the songs. at the same time, i see that many young people want to make hip-hop/rap, r&b, techno, and various other genres out of bounds and in between. the big question is, to what extent do these musical choices actually reflect the "real" culture of jamaica? who is to say what is authentic expression for a high schooler who hears rap on the radio, dancehall in the streets, and techno at home? with so many musical and cultural flows converging in kingston, mixing around, and being sent back out around the world, how does one define jamaican culture these days? what are the implications of a 14-year-old's imagination being captivated by 7-year-old british techno and not 37-year-old ska? isn't ska just as messy a mix? does this moment represent crisis or continuity? i expect the answer depends on the answerer. surely, if i ever get some of these rhythms on the radio, i'll get nuff answers thrown at me. i'm looking forward to it.