Sunday, November 20, 2022

air breaks

I was thinking about the ways in which music seems to irresistibly provoke a mimetic physical response. 

Well, for some of us. 

Air guitar, air bass, air drumming - these are the big ones. But there's also air piano, air sax, air  trumpet, air trombone even... 

Certain kinds of music are particularly triggering. 

For me,  it's certain kinds of rock (not indie!), Certain kinds of jazz - fusion, jazz-rock, as opposed to Blue Note.  Music where there's a bit of a swagger, a performative flourish. But also where the music is hard-hitting, has a physicality to the impact as well as the playing.

Now this effect on listeners must surely have died out as music has become more digital - less about manually played instruments and more about click-and-drag, shunting information about on a screen.

There's no such thing as an "air" response to hip hop, is there? The mimetic response would be rapping along, which you'll see-hear in the street when someone is listening to rap or grime on headphones. I suppose one could imagine a mimetic impulse to trap drum patterns. But in practice, I think not - somehow the body knows that it's not a human hitting those drums. The physicality of impact, the pull on the body, is not paralleled by a physicality of execution. 

What got me thinking on this topic in the first place was playing some jungle and succumbing to the urge to mime out drum patterns - to do "air breakbeats".

Resulting, of course, in an absurd parody of actual drumming, based on things I've seen on TV - wrist-flexing, rimshot cracks, ride cymbal flutters...

That made me wonder if jungle really is unique among the digital-era musics in that it still has that capacity.

For instance, I can't imagine the mimetic impulse being triggered when listening to house or techno - anything propelled by a 909. 

Jungle - being based on samples of breaks, of hand-played drum patterns -  retains a musicality and humanity that can still pull at your limbs in this way. 

But with jungle, the mimesis is a bizarre distorted form of mirroring. You're responding to the human player still audible within the barrage of chopped-up, resequenced drum breaks - the ghost in the machine. But these are accelerated and hyper-syncopated beyond what the original player would be capable of, let alone flailing failing you.  So the element of wish-fulfilment is doubled. Two ghosts inhabit your flesh and take possession: the manual, near-automatized movements of the sampled drummer, and then the producer's edits, treatments and other decisions, which override and re-imprint the original performance. You feel the twin pull of funk and of superhumanization, and fall even further short than with regular "air drumming". 

postscript 11.25/2022

The unfinished thought here - the idea on the tip of my brain...

air guitar, air drums, air breaks, air whatever.... are they actually forms of dancing? 

Nerd dancing -  for those too physically awkward to get down.... but  who can model, or self-project, into the role of the one who makes others get down. 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

postscript 11/22/2022 

Andrew Parker notes that "Maybe air-playing instruments is favoured by those who have no proficiency - their imaginings are unencumbered by technical knowledge." Although proficient in guitar and piano, he never air plays, precisely because  "When I listen to a fast passage.... I'm mindful of the technical demands and what they would require to be developed."  Good point: ignorance is prequisite for air anything! 

He also sends through a video of a drummer doing an authentically hectic and hyper-syncopated simulation of jungle breakbeats, showing that an exceptional human player can equal the "superhumanization" effect of breakbeat science 


If listening blind to this I would probably think it was a jungle track, except 1/ the rhythm switches up too often and 2/ I'd be wondering when the bass was going to make its entrance. After all, it's called drum and bass, not drum and drum...

2 comments:

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

A mate of mine Peter Shapiro did a piece for Spin where he went to the Air Guitar World Championship - I think he might have even entered as a contestant!

Air deejaying! Amazing.

I could imagine air scratching - in fact I believe I might have done that myself a few times, not listening to hip hop but to some scratchadelic hardcore by the likes of DJ Hype and Sonz of A Loop da Loop Era and 2 Bad Mice.

Perhaps it's because the turntable, being a clunky electrical contraption with solid moving parts, still belongs to the Analogue Realm. But with completely digital music, most people don't know and can't see the corresponding physical movements, and they're not very impressive to look at, they're not effortful.

I remember seeing Chemical Brothers, who did put on a good show, really giving it some behind their gear, as if they were putting their whole body weight behind each movement - but you kind of knew they were just making miniscule adjustments with knobs and little sliders.

That said, a lot of the performance showboating side of guitar playing is unnecessary to make the noises, though - like you could make the same sounds sitting in a chair and barely moving your body. There seems to be a stance required with electric guitar playing on stage, this sort of taut legged, pelvis forward posture.

Drumming is honestly effortful and athletic sweaty business, isn't it. Then again, jazz drummers tend to be cool and elegant behind their kit. Perhaps it's just not as pounding a style as rock drumming.

Matt M said...

Definitely done some air scratching to Hype - and also Terminator X.

The "showboating" elements of an instrument are probably important to both the performer and the audience. Yes, in theory, you could play your guitar seated and immobile. But if you want to rock out then moving is probably good. We often underestimate how much we actually think with our bodies. The work of researchers like Antonio Damasio on emboddied cognition, etc.

And it gives something for the audience to respond to. Musicians are role models in a very immediate way. Their behaviour sets the tone for the event. Are you in a church service or an orgy?