Archive for August 2010

Kennicott Off-Pitch on Auto-Tune; or, Oh, The T-Pain of It All

August 31, 2010

Philip Kennicott, former classical critic for the Washington Post and current overall culture ponderer, knows a lot more about opera than I do, and he’s a wonderful writer; I don’t always agree with his pieces, but they’re normally thought-provoking. But (and you knew a “but” was coming) his article in yesterday’s Post about the intersection of operatic ideals and Auto-Tuned reality contained so many inaccuracies and misconceptions that it nearly ruined my breakfast. (Fortunately, Frosted Mini-Wheats are ultimately indomitable.) Here are the most problematic parts and my objections thereto:

[Auto-Tune] can also be used to turn spoken speech into sung melody, although the results usually have a rather robotic or metallic sound that is familiar in hip-hop recordings, especially those of T-Pain, a rapper and songwriter who uses the technology so extensively that it has become something of a joke in the industry.

T-Pain is not a rapper; he’s a singer who uses AutoTune to give his melodic lines the “robotic or metallic” tang to which Kennicott refers. The title of T-Pain’s first album is, in fact, “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” which (if you can sound it out) should have been a clue.

I also dispute the proposition that T-Pain’s extensive use of AutoTune is something of a joke in the industry. Rather, the discussion I’ve read lauds T-Pain as a pioneering virtuoso in the expressive use of AutoTune, with his followers lamented for their derivativeness. The most prominent rappers to make extensive use of AutoTune are Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West, and both have cited T-Pain as an exemplar. If, by “the industry,” Kennicott means some group of people outside hip-hop and R&B, maybe what he’s saying is true — I really don’t know.

Kennicott may have been confused by the fact that Weezy and Kanye both became famous as rappers, but both sing (just like T-Pain) in order to get melodic effects in AutoTune. Their endeavors thus differ from those of the Gregory Brothers, who do actually create song from speech.

This is not how the game is played on YouTube. The medium is fundamentally hungry for content, and Auto-Tune is the perfect technology to supply it. Based on the vocoder, a machine that was used to disguise radio transmissions during World War II, Auto-Tune can process speech into music quickly and without need for an actual singer. This has made it controversial: Some pop artists have vociferously protested its overuse.

When I first read this paragraph, I thought Kennicott had forgotten to insert the modifier “competent” before “singer,” because the chief way in which Auto-Tune plagues pop music is not by processing speech into song but allowing people who can’t stay on pitch to sound tolerable on records (see Ke$ha, for one of a million examples). In my readings, it’s this use that “pop artists” protest, not the use of Auto-Tune by folks screwing around on YouTube. (In the case of “The Bed Intruder Song,” no less than Paramore’s Hayley Williams has participated in a cover, one datum countering Kennicott’s assertion.)

This paragraph also reveals a more fundamental problem with Kennicott’s article: He writes like Auto-Tune itself roams the land looking to transform people’s speech into marketable song.  Auto-Tune is a tool, like a potato masher. You can use a potato masher to do great things, like make mashed potatoes, and you can use it to do terrible things, like overmash potatoes into an inedible gluey paste. (Incidentally, it might have been nice for Kennicott to further distinguish between the vocoder, a piece of hardware, and Auto-Tune, which is phase vocoder software sold by Antares Audio Technologies.)  Kennicott further misidentifies the problem in the conclusion of the article:

With Auto-Tune, “first the words, then the music” seems like a joke — the technological realization of an old operatic dream, but at the loss of something elemental, the actual human sympathy that makes us care about what people are singing.

Human beings (in this case, the Gregory Brothers, although they have many followers) are using Auto-Tune to realize that old operatic dream. Kennicott’s article leaves wide open the possibility that someone (apparently not the Gregory Brothers) could take speech and transform it into emotionally complex, affecting music. The right Auto-Tune enthusiast simply hasn’t come along yet. What Kennicott meant to write is something like “With songs like ‘Bed Intruder’…” That he didn’t seems to betray a lack of understanding or engagement, either of which are enough to make this article less that it could have been. Which is too bad, because its central point (as I understand it, “Bed Intruder” = prima le parole) is something I genuinely had not considered before.

In my readerly experience, there is a blithe assurance about much classical-critic writing about pop, seeming to come from the idea that this pop stuff can’t be that complicated. And others are complicit; the Post advertised Kennicott’s piece to me on my Facebook feed as “the most intelligent piece you’re ever likely to read about auto-tuning the news,” which I hope is not true, for reasons discussed above. (And although the Post’s Facebook minder mistakenly lowercased “Auto-Tune,” at least the article bothered to spell “T-Pain” correctly, which not all classical blogs do.)

One of the lines I’m proudest of on this blog is here: “In their recordings, the ladies of Trio Mediaeval sing with an almost eerie precision and purity, like some kind of divine rebuke to the use of AutoTune” [lack of hyphen sic]. That line uses common cultural currency to show how adept the Mediaeval ladies are at a specific type of vocal virtuosity: Anyone who knows pop can understand one reason to listen to these performers. People who know anything about Auto-Tune and read Kennicott’s article, by contrast, probably will be put off by the basic lack of understanding therein. (Reader comments on the article, entirely negative as of this writing, express frustration with Kennicott’s disapproval of the “Bed Intruder Song,” but it’s not hard to imagine that he might have been taken more seriously if he’d shaped up his Auto-Tune discussion, perhaps running it by Chris Richards first.) If we classical music enthusiasts are going to get people fired up to learn more about this music we enjoy so much, we’re first going to have to stop misunderstanding the music they like. (Not to mention that we’ll need to stop deriding it, but I already covered that.

Also, I saw the Janacek reference coming a mile away.


It’s Getting Hot in Here, But Please Don’t Mention It—We’re Classical Music Fans

August 19, 2010

On Tuesday I heard the best concert that’s graced my ears this year, and it wasn’t even in the DMV. Summer travel brought me to Santa Fe, and as part of that town’s chamber music festival, Yuja Wang gave a dazzling hourlong lunchtime recital of works by Robert Schumann (in his 200th birthday year), Alexander Scriabin, and Sergei Prokofiev.

In Schumann’s Op. 111 “Drei Fantasiestücke” (Three Fantasy Pieces), she brought a lightness to Schumann’s thickets of notes that one rarely hears, thanks to fingers that seem able to supply the most difficult runs and combos without any trouble. (I heard this capacity firsthand in music not nearly as fetching when she premiered Jennifer Higdon’s piano concerto with the NSO last fall.) Wang made all those note-thickets sway beguilingly with the melody, as in a breeze, where other pianists seem audibly to be picking their way through the tangles, trying not to tear their clothes on brambles (to abuse a metaphor). Wang assembled a selection of three preludes, an étude, and a poème from various Scriabin opuses, effectively contrasting light and dark colors and quiet and stormy moods while teasing out the shapes of Scriabin’s sometimes-elusive pieces.

And her performance of Prokofiev’s sixth sonata was the stuff of fantasies, aflame throughout with color and rhythm yet keenly controlled. She created an incredible variety of steely tones in the stentorian first movement, larked effortlessly in the second with just that hint of sarcasm that we all love in Prokofiev, ruminated in magnetic quiet tones during the slow movement, and played a blistering finale that launched me out of my seat to cheer. Various social engagements have prevented me from attending Wang’s DMV recitals in the past; the Prokofiev, in particular, convinced me that it’s worthwhile to dis people in order to hear Wang play. (And to think I could have heard it before, at Sixth and I!)

The Yuja Wang concert experience is not all about hearing her play, though; in addition to being a wonderful pianist, she is hot. On Tuesday, she wore a vivid purple dress that had the twin advantages, from the interested viewer’s perspective, of being strapless and short; when she sat to play, she showed a lot of well-toned leg, to which my eyes occasionally wandered throughout the concert. She’s got a pretty face, too, with an adorable toothy smile and a nice contemplative closed-mouthed look. Her record label, Deutsche Grammophon, featured the latter on the cover of her latest CD, along with a decorous dollop of cleavage.

I can’t imagine she’s looked less hot in any of her other recitals, but I didn’t see in a recent bout of Web-wandering for reviews and interviews (Joe Banno came closest). The people, however, have discussed Wang’s attractiveness in many comment sections, often in the kind of juvenile terms I employ in casual conversation but eschew when writing for this highly respectable blog. (Wait, what?) And, in an ironic twist, ever since I mentioned the phrase’s prominence in Google AutoSuggest in that NSO review, the most popular search phrase to reach this blog has been “yuja wang boyfriend.”

The lack of “official” discussion does not surprise me. Using my amazing powers to blindly attribute motives, I have determined that classical folk don’t like to discuss whether performers are hot for the following reasons:

  1. A widespread belief that people who are not as attractive as Wang should be able to have successful solo careers if they can play like Wang. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, but one must also acknowledge that attractive people have had an easier time than less attractive people throughout human history.
  2. Discomfort with the thought that we might focus on the performer, when the important thing is the music being performed and how the performer serves it. You can read more about this here if you are interested. As an audience member, I believe it is possible to appreciate both at once. Really. Our brains are that big.
  3. Unawareness, or unwillingness to acknowledge, that visual presentation affects how we hear music. This baffles me, and I will take it up in more detail later.
  4. Classical music’s incredible discomfort with the body, as opposed to the mind. To some extent, the institutional classical-music dichotomy between pop and classical is the same as the false dichotomy between the body and the mind, as you can see by the fact that pop opponents always choose dance music as the target for their ire (the current fave is Lady Gaga). The idea, as best I can tell, is that the mind is better than the body and thus should be used exclusively to comprehend classical music and its performances. The problem is that it is very difficult to actually enforce such judgments, because we need the body to do stuff for us, like eat and breathe. (The body has also been shown to be a superior dancer.) And if it also likes to throw in a little lust, what’s the harm? The mind is there to stop the body from doing anything stupid like deciding that a gorgeous pianist nailed that scherzo when he or she actually didn’t, right?

So classical music reviews should start decorously mentioning it when the performers are attractive, as I’ve been doing since I started this blog. (Maybe I should start mentioning it indecorously, just to drag the debate forward.) Obviously, when a performer is less attractive, we don’t need to mention that, because when in human discourse is it polite to mention that? But giving the body just a little more of a toehold in our discourse might make our discussions feel more real and immediate in other ways, too. And at the very least, those of us (like me) who have both superficial and profound interests in classical music performers would be getting the info they need.

Swagger-Jacking the Great Composers

August 7, 2010

From a Vibe interview with Dr. Dre (via Rap Radar):

You mentioned a hip-hop album without rapping. Will we ever hear a Dr. Dre instrumental album?
Oh yeah, that’s in the works. An instrumental album is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I have the ideas for it. I want to call it The Planets. I don’t even know if I should be saying this, but fuck it. [Laughs.] It’s just my interpretation of what each planet sounds like. I’m gonna go off on that. Just all instrumental. I’ve been studying the planets and learning the personalities of each planet. I’ve been doing this for about two years now just in my spare time so to speak. I wanna do it in surround sound. It’ll have to be in surround sound for Saturn to work.


  1. Who’s going to tell him?
  2. When Gustav Holst got this idea, and talked about it with his friends, did he admonish himself by saying, “I don’t even know if I should be saying this, but fuck it”? (This site doesn’t say.)
  3. How will Dre’s conception of the personalities differ from Holst’s? How will they be similar? I am genuinely extremely curious about this.
  4. After Dre’s planets enter our orbit, which orchestra will realize the dream of me sprinting to be first in line at their box office window by programming a DJ spinning Dre and a symphony playing Holst back-to-back? (“Gadzooks! Using interest in popular music to shine a new light on a past materpiece? We simply can’t have it! Give ’em the Figaro overture, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and Beethoven 7 again!”)
  5. Will any rappers attempt to sample Dre and end up sampling Holst when the realize the copyright has expired on the latter music of the spheres?

(definition of swagger jacking in case you didn’t know)