Feb 12

Pixels Equals Profit: Tune-Yards and the Demystification of Graphical User Interfaces

FT5 comments • 751 views

It’s been a long while since I last picked up my guitar, but every so often I’ll go to a gig that makes me consider making music again. This can be for a number of reasons:

1) The music is SO BAD I think to myself ‘I can do way better than this’ (aka the ‘Free Trade Hall‘ rule).
2) The dudes on stage look like they’re having fun, which temporarily blots out the memories of driving a hire van 800 miles in three days and not being able to find .012 gauge strings ANYWHERE in Nottingham on a Sunday morning.
3) The musicians are making excellent music in an achievable (for me) fashion, e.g. pressing buttons on a laptop, playing rudimentary chords or basslines, saying words in a monotonous voice (aka the Elastica rule).

I don’t get the same trigger when seeing an elaborate guitar solo — I know I’m never going to be able to do that! I will never be able to do a backflip like Britney does at the end of the ‘Baby One More Time’ video and I will never be able to belt out a power anthem like Kelly Clarkson. It is highly unlikely I will learn to beatmatch as well as Magda or Jeff Mills as my key 10,000 hours were wasted learning Red Dwarf scripts off by heart.

There’s often a big jump between learning the rudiments of a subject and becoming an expert (see all X Factor series ever). Most dudes who enjoy listening to music know how to hum a tune or can play a few notes on an instrument. How do you go from that to producing a complex pop song like “Single Ladies”? Somewhere in the middle there’s a big box with “???” written on it before you can get to the “profit” stage. Perhaps it involves… mastering?

Analogy time! Most of you reading this will know the basics of a computer desktop, moving things from one window to another with a mouse, using software like Word or Firefox or whatever. You probably also know that all computery things are made up of zeroes and ones. How do you get from one to the other?

While studying Computer Science at A-level, I was genuinely excited to learn how those zeroes and ones were turned into an extremely basic programming language. Once you have that basic programming language, you can use it to create a complicated programming language and thus write a text adventure where the evil wizard has the same name as your Pure Maths teacher. Great! 10,000 hours and several ??? boxes later, I am writing my own web applications for a living, with little shopping basket buttons and everything. There’s still many parts of the process I don’t understand (such as why there are 5 different iexplore.exe processes in my Task Manager when I’m not even running Internet Explorer) but at last I have a good handle on what goes where, and thus I can make a professional end product.

Anyway my point here is that I thoroughly enjoy gigs by brilliant performers, but usually I am too fully aware of my own limitations to be immediately inspired to emulate them. Discovering the contents of the musical ??? box requires either unlearnable talent or immense amounts of hard work (and petrol). Now I’m content just to listen and dance and program instead.

…And then I saw Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards play the Scala in 2010. She was slightly older than me, and was wearing no makeup except for an Adam Ant stripe across her face. She carefully built up drum and vocal loops piece by piece: each part sounded off-beat or off-key on its own, but eventually they came together to make a full drum break or a burble of backing vocals.

It reminded me of Mum’s barbershop learning tapes, which would have the same song on both sides, the A side with just her baritone part (i.e. the harmony) and the B side with the other three parts turned up (with the baritone still high in the mix). The baritone part on its own never failed to sound like a dying cat, but mixed in with the bass, lead and tenor it made sense and gave it a distinctive sound.

Over the top of her loops, Merrill played an amped-up ukelele and sang very complex melody lines over a huge range, clicking the loop pedals on and off as desired. Her only other assistance was from a bassist and a couple of dudes alternating between horns and percussion, taking their cues from her nods and smiles. Tune-Yards obviously aren’t the first or last people to make music in this fashion, but prior to that Scala gig I had never seen it executed so well (in particular I have a dreadful memory of some dude looping improvised sitar riffs for half an hour – not my cup of tea).

The amount of organisation going on in Merrill’s head was a talent all on its own, clearly awesome and something I’d never be able to manage (I can’t even sing and play the guitar at the same time). But there was a key difference to this performance: each step was difficult, but seeing her demonstrate how they fitted together showed that at least it was possible without magic. The contents of the ??? box were revealed. PING! A little voice popped up at the back of my head saying “Why don’t you do this? She’s your age. Maybe you do still have a shot at being a rockstar?” I was just about to leave my job for a few months of ‘creative pursuits’ and this was excellent motivation, though as you can probably infer I did not subsequently become a rockstar or amazing bedroom producer (my fault, not Merrill’s).

When the W H O K I L L album came out in 2011 I felt rather underwhelmed. I remembered the songs I’d heard a few months before and enjoyed hearing them again, but it was too late: I had seen behind the curtain. I knew exactly how those loops and layers had been built up. Except now I couldn’t see it happening right in front of me! An unexpected downside to the demystification process.

Fast-forward to last Wednesday, when I was watching Tune-Yards at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Well, I say watching, the gig was a sell-out and I was crammed in to one side, behind all the people in the venue over 6ft tall. If I shifted my weight to one leg I could just about make out Merrill’s face, framed like a postage stamp between the hairstyles of hipsters in fake glasses. I couldn’t see her ukelele, let alone her drums or pedals. I was tired after a long day at work and my bag seemed very heavy.

From my admittedly poor viewpoint and unenthusiastic state of mind, it seemed Merrill was concentrating too hard to have fun (she later relaxed and allowed herself a few moments to breathe and dance while her saxophone backup took over). I couldn’t see the machinations behind the songs and once again, I felt disappointed. It wasn’t Merrill’s fault of course, but I was getting no more joy out of it than I was of the CD. My mind started wandering and I started to question whether I actually liked any of the songs unless I could see them being made in front of me! Just two days into my thirties, I felt like an old woman among all those cool kids. I certainly had no thoughts of creating my own indie/techno opus.

Thankfully things eased up after The Hit Single was played and a bunch of said cool kids buggered off home. Merrill held up her ukelele to the mic where I could see it, and started hitting it with her drumstick until it distorted like the Rank dude banging his gong. I started to think about how awesome it was during the last module of my degree in which I finally learned the theory behind creating a graphical user interface for a desktop. We’d already learned how to talk to hardware (like disk drives and keyboards), how write our own simple operating system to manage multiple programs at once, as well as writing software to write the programs themselves.

All this had been done through a black and white terminal screen – now came the final piece of the puzzle. Each pixel on a display screen continually refreshes, and I learned how to tell the computer which window should be on the top of the pile in each of those split seconds, or whether it didn’t actually need to refresh at all. It felt like I was finally getting to the true nuts and bolts of how a proper modern computer worked, and it was (almost) as simple as drawing a line with a blue felt tip pen for 400 pixels, then swapping to a white felt tip for another 100px before going back to blue again. AT NEARLY THE SPEED OF LIGHT HURRAH.

That kind of put things in perspective a little and I finally started to enjoy myself. Although I know the theory behind all (OK, most of) the parts of a computer system, it’s not practical to make all of those pieces by myself. Sometimes knowing how to use a piece of software properly is more useful and more enjoyable than being able to create it. Tune-yards need an audience just as much as they need Merrill’s operating system brain, but it’s more fun when you can see how everything fits together.


  1. 1
    katstevens on 20 Feb 2012 #

    I should probably point out that ‘nearly the speed of light’ assumes a Toblerone-width computer screen and a 1GHz processor speed :)

  2. 2
    Pete on 21 Feb 2012 #

    Its funny how live music can give you these kind of epiphanies. I also got one watching – if I recall – Hurricane #1 around 1997. It was not a very good gig, can you believe dear reader, but it suddenly struck me that the quality of the gig had relatively little to do with the quality of the music. The variables were the crowd, the venue, how I felt and – this was the kicker – what I was comparing it to. And then I briefly caught the gaze of an enraptured 18 year old near the front and realised that I was almost certainly never going to feel that way again at a gig. I know the best gig I ever saw (Thousand Yard Stare at the Oxford Venue), and deconstructing it yet again it turns out to be relatively little to do with the quality of the music, but instead a magical vector of gig size, how much I liked the band, what kind of mood I was in and yet again, how many gigs I had seen. Upt he then it was about fifteen gigs, many great, but most with someone else. I chose the TYS gig, I was starting to get some sort of agency with regards to my musical taste at college and was completely rapt with being engaged with the music. But the most important thing was probably someone asking me about a month later: “you’ve been to a lot of gigs (for an 18 year old), what’s your favourite”. The act of qualifying it, then repeating it, set it in stone and all other gigs were going to fade in comparison.

    I have seen good live performances since, but I also started to recognise the poor, the lacklustre, the gig for gig sake. Perhaps this is why I like cinema much more than live music. The film can let you down, but it will let you down consistently. Everything else, I control.

  3. 3
    weej on 21 Feb 2012 #

    Re #2 – is a film different? When you’re a pre-teen every cinema experience is amazing. I remember vividly the first time I had a bad time at the cinema, it was The Flintstones Movie, and as I left the auditorium two kids of about 6 or 7 were telling each-other it was the best thing they’d ever seen. Later my BA in Film Studies, along with Messrs’ Lacan and Mulvey would manage to ruin all films for me. Thankfully the effects turned out to be temporary. What I learned from the experience is that (as everyone has to learn at some point) taking apart something you love can destroy it. Worse, you can start to hate yourself for being manipulated so easily – that’s the death of a passion, right there. There can be a joy in the taking apart, it can be useful and informative, sure, but is it really worth it?
    I’m glad that in the last few years, partially by hanging around comment threads like this one, I’ve begun to find a way to explore ideas about art without killing my interest in it.
    By the way, I have a couple of friends who came back from a Hurricane #1 gig in about 97 saying it was “mindblowing” and “the future of music”. They thought this was very funny indeed when I reminded them of it a couple of years ago. Might have even been that 18-year-old.

  4. 4
    Pete on 21 Feb 2012 #

    No you are probably right. I am trying to think what the first film I remember disliking was (Police Academy 4? I walked out of Paul Hogan’s Almost An Angel at 17). But I guess I trust myself more in a cinema than at a live gig, the expectations are different, and perhaps the reproducibility of the art (if not the experience) means there is more of a level playing fields to talk about them with other people.

    Actually, who am I kidding, I’m short and hate standing up, let alone “behind all the people in the venue over 6ft tall”. And the fat bloke slam dancing me into the barriers.

    (I did my MA with Mssrs Mulvey, and she disagrees with pretty much everything she wrote in the seventies – which therefore irritates hr when her courses are half full of people who think her seventies writings are the nazz!)

  5. 5
    Erithian on 21 Feb 2012 #

    There’s another variable – the significance the event takes on afterwards. A couple of years ago, hearing Clarence Clemons’ soaring sax solo in “Jungleland” as the sun set over the Emirates was the peak moment of the fourth Springsteen gig I’d seen, and I heard other people afterwards saying it was the best rendition of the song they’d heard in 30-odd Springsteen gigs. And now we’ve lost Clarence it’s not going to happen again anywhere, and that becomes a moment that can’t be topped.

    Oh and Kat, happy belated birthday last Monday if I’ve followed your post correctly!

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