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Visualizing Sound

Willa:  This week Joie and I are thrilled to be joined by Lisha McDuff, a classically trained, full-time, career musician with over 25 years of working experience – though actually, Lisha has been joining us for quite a while now. Many of you know her already as Ultravioletrae.

Lisha, we’re so excited to have you join us and share your insights about Michael Jackson’s work as one professional musician listening to another. I’ve been so intrigued by your comments in the past – especially how you’re able to share what you’re hearing and make it accessible to those of us without formal training in music. It’s like it allows me to peek into a world I don’t know how to enter on my own. So thank you very much for joining us!

In one of your comments, you mentioned that you weren’t really a Michael Jackson fan until you saw This Is It, but then you were so blown away by what you saw that you became an ardent supporter and began studying his work. So I’m curious: what exactly did you see that impressed you so much?

Lisha:  I don’t know that I’ll ever stop talking about the day I decided to see This Is It. It just totally captured me the way great art has the ability to do. From Michael’s first appearance in the film through the ending credits, I was caught in the moment, totally fixed on what I was seeing and hearing. I didn’t care about anything I had ever done, or what I needed to do in the future. It took my breath away. For me, that’s what great art does. It allows you to enter a timeless realm, where your mind has to stop its incessant activity and you can do nothing else but contemplate the beauty of what’s in front of you. I think that is what Michael meant when he said he wanted to create “escapism.” It’s that magic moment, when a great painting, literature, film, whatever it is, stops you dead in your tracks, takes you out of your ordinary perception, and arrests your mind with something beautiful and fascinating.

Willa:  What a wonderful image! And a great description of that special feeling when art completely enraptures you. So “that magic moment,” as you call it, happens when you’re completely mesmerized and absorbed in the present moment. I love that.

Lisha:  I can remember the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas talking about this when he described how he distinguishes a truly great musical performance from an ordinary one. He said that listening to music gives the mind a chance to daydream and wander, but a great musician will never allow this to happen. A truly great musician will command your full and undivided attention, and your mind will not stray even for a second. You must hear every note. This Is It was seeing a master at work. It was riveting.

Joie:  I have heard from so many people – most of them not fans in the traditional sense before viewing the film – who expressed similar reactions after watching him in action in This Is It.

Lisha:  It’s surprising how many of us new fans are out there. Why weren’t we paying attention sooner? Imagine not knowing much about Michael Jackson and then plopping yourself down in a movie theater and getting hit with it all at once. It’s pretty overwhelming.

Initially, I was so struck by how creative and free everything I saw and heard was. Some of the first images in the film are things like Michael in the orange jeans and the shiny jacket doing the sideways Moonwalk across the stage, singing “you’re a vegetable” while grasping in the air with his hands, and turning into a robot. He was like an endless fountain of creativity, taking inspiration from such a vast range of influences, from 70’s dance music to Marcel Marceau. It was like nothing I usually think of as pop, rock, soul, or even song and dance for that matter. I mean, what other musician would even dream of using a mime as inspiration for their work? A mime is totally silent!

You just couldn’t tell what was coming next from Michael. He might decide to do a dance using nothing but his back and shoulders, or he might drop to the floor and wiggle his feet in the air. He might use an achingly beautiful flute solo, or the voice of Dr. King, or he might use a car horn – you just didn’t know. He sang soft, gentle melodies a capella and then did some serious rock n roll. Whatever came next, it was always a complete surprise, nothing you could have predicted or expected. And it was always just the exact right thing for that musical moment.

Watching him interact with his musicians was a jaw dropping experience, like hearing him sing a line he wanted brought out while beat boxing the accompanying rhythm! I love this clip from the film:

His comments were so astute I knew Alex Al wasn’t exaggerating when he said you can’t fool Michael – you’d better come in knowing your part. I’d be willing to bet every musician there had the feeling that Michael was listening only to them. Ears like that are rare, the musicianship even rarer.

Willa:  So what does that mean exactly?

Lisha:  I mean that there aren’t a lot of people on the planet who can come into a rehearsal and really hear everything that’s going on all at once, identify where the problems are, and know exactly how to fix it. That’s what I mean about having great ears.

Joie:  And when you think about the fact that he hadn’t prepared for the stage in over twelve years, that ability to hear everything all at once really is amazing. You would expect him to be sorely out of practice or something but, that clearly wasn’t the case.

Lisha:  But Michael wasn’t simply cleaning things up, he was shaping things, adding musical tension and interest to everything he did. In that first instruction where he beat boxed the rhythm and the guitar line, he was balancing and blending the sound. He knew that line needed to come out and knew it was so crucial to the overall musical feel. A small detail like that can make a huge difference in how effective a performance is. It was so impressive how he listened and responded to what he heard. He was addressing the kinds of details that most composers and performers leave up to the arrangers, the music director and the musicians. I was really surprised at the level of interaction – he was taking what his musicians could do to a whole new level, and they knew it. Here’s another revealing clip that just popped up on YouTube:

Willa:  That’s a wonderful clip, Lisha, and it really shows just how involved he was with the background vocalists, the musicians, the music director.

Lisha:  Astonishingly, Michael also seemed to have that hyper-awareness with other aspects of the show: the dancing, the lighting, the filmmaking, the special effects, etc. Who can forget the moment he took over the bulldozer scene in “Earth Song,” directing the use of silence as the bulldozer closed its jaws? You could feel your heart cracking open with the timing of the next cue for the piano solo. Extraordinary. Michael Bearden, the music director, said on his fan page something like a jolt of electricity passed through him at that moment.

Willa:  I can believe it! I love that scene, and it’s another moment where you really see his influence. The musicians are playing as the bulldozer closes, following the director’s – Kenny Ortega’s – direction. But Michael Jackson is waving him and them down. He wants the music to stop before then, while the bulldozer’s jaws are still open. As he explains to them, “The value would be greater if you let it rumble – let it stay open – let it close in silence.”

Joie:  I agree, that is a powerful scene. And I also love the scene where they’re rehearsing Smooth Criminal and after the film portion, Michael turns around and stands motionless for a moment, and Kenny Ortega thinks they’ve gotten their wires crossed and misunderstood when the music is supposed to kick in. But Michael is “sizzling” and waiting for just the right dramatic moment to give the cue to his drummer. Kenny then points out that Michael won’t be able to see the screen behind him change from the marquee to a shot of the city if he does it this way, and Michael says simply, “I gotta feel that. I’ll feel it on the screen behind me.” I love that! He won’t see the screen change behind him, but he’ll feel it! It’s as if every fiber of his being is completely in tune with every aspect of “the performance.” He’ll be able to feel when the screen changes just like he’ll be able to feel the exact right moment to cue the drums. Amazing!

Lisha:  I was amazed by that moment in Smooth Criminal too. And how poetic of Michael to describe himself as “sizzling!” Bearden was funny, sort of imitating Michael by telling Ortega that the band didn’t miss their cue, they were waiting because “he’s sizzling.” I got the feeling that everything Michael did or said had artistic flair – it’s just the way his mind worked.

Of all the things I saw that day, the thing that really left me down for the count was what I felt he was doing with music conceptually. I still don’t think I’ve got my head around it. It’s the way he merges multiple styles of music/dance/art with his own multiple intelligences: composing, performing, producing, directing, choreographing, filmmaking, staging, imagineering, his emotional depth, compassion, universal spirituality. He is approaching music from so many disciplines, and with so much depth, history, social and psychological insight. All of it collides with these giant mythic concepts, like the infinite 4D army in They Don’t Care About Us, suggesting the epic battle between good and evil. I gasped at this, recalling the iconic pictures of his military style wardrobe, realizing he has been exploring the powerful role music plays in swaying the hearts and minds of people for years. He’s used this image and concept in many different ways.

I felt he was even exploring the boundaries of space and time with his 4D concept and time bending. He jumps out of the 3D films and onto the stage. He takes you into the future with Light Man, then he jumps back in time into the old classic movies.

Willa:  Oh, Light Man is such an interesting image, especially in terms of “time bending.” He looks futuristic, but important scenes from our political and cultural history are playing across the surface of his body and the sphere he’s holding. So we are witnessing history on this shiny futuristic surface – it’s superimposing collective memories of our past onto this vision of the future.

Kenny Ortega said that Michael Jackson connected Light Man gazing at that sphere with Hamlet gazing at the skull during his “Alas, poor Yorick” speech. I love that, and it adds yet another layer of meaning to that image. And then Light Man opens and Michael Jackson jumps out onto the stage.

And then he extends his reach beyond the stage as well. He planned to break down the “fourth wall” between the performers and the audience with the huge puppets moving among the audience during the “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened” segment. I was also really struck by how the bullets in the Smooth Criminal 3D film fly out at the audience. He frequently tried to lead us as an audience to sympathize with those who are vulnerable, and in this case he positions us so the bullets are flying right at us as well as him so we really experience what a vulnerable position he’s in, and feel the threat against him.

Lisha:  I love your take on Light Man, Willa, and yes, I also felt he was using space in such an incredibly meaningful way. This is something I am totally fascinated by. Have you ever noticed this happens in his recorded music? Not long after I saw the film I read Bruce Swedien’s book In The Studio with Michael Jackson. Swedien talks about music as sonic sculpture, how he likes to make the soundfield multi-dimensional. For Swedien to be satisfied with sound, it must have the proportions of left, center, right, and depth. This was a real eye opener to me when I started paying attention to the way the sounds are localized in Michael’s recordings.

For example, when you listen to the intro to “Thriller,” the footsteps will walk right out of your right speaker, across the room or your desk, and right back into your left speaker. They don’t just pan right and left. They walk. If you’re wearing headphones, they will walk right through your head!

Joie:  Oh, my God! I cannot tell you how many times I have marveled at how those footsteps seem to walk through my head when I listen to “Thriller” with my headphones on! That is simply amazing and I always wonder, how did they do that?! Because you’re right, the sound doesn’t just pan from the right speaker to the left – it literally walks across the room!

Lisha:  I love to listen to “Thriller” in my car because of the clever way the sound gets sent around the space. Like in the Vincent Price rap section, Michael ad libs between the rap verses, singing “I’m gonna thrill her tonight,” which I hear in the front of my car. But from a distance as if in the back seat I hear “hee hee hee…” and “thriller, thriller baby…” like it is coming from behind me! It sounds like Michael Jackson is in the back seat of my car doing his ad libs!

Willa:  That’s funny!

Lisha:  What a hilarious musical joke when you consider the horror film genre he is spoofing.

Willa:  Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. So you don’t just have Michael Jackson in the backseat – you actually have a monster back there … right … behind … you. That is funny!

Lisha:  Are you scared yet? I feel like I’ve entered the Michael Jackson dream world, symbolized by the first sound you hear, the squeaky door opening, and the last sound, the door closing shut. You’re being taken into a space in your imagination that exists just for that song. You can see how the talent and imagination of the composer, performer, engineer and producer have to work together to create an effect like that.

Joie:  Lisha, I could not agree with you more about the sonic sculpture thing. And as I think about each album, there are just so many examples of “sonic sculptures” throughout his work. The ones that immediately jump to mind for me are, “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Dangerous,” “History,” “Ghosts,” and “Heartbreaker.” And that’s just picking one song from each album but honestly, every single song on each album can be described this way. As a sonic sculpture – a three-dimensional work of art that will live on forever.

Lisha:  They truly are works of art and I love every one of your examples, Joie. I even love this game music he created – and don’t forget to listen with headphones:

Joie:  The game music is incredible.

Willa:  It definitely shows a different side of him, doesn’t it? Though it’s not what I would have expected you to pick, Lisha, as a classically trained musician.

Joie:  Willa, it’s interesting you would say that because, when I listen to that game music, I can’t help but wonder about the classical album he was working on when he died. I would give just about anything to hear that music. Talk about sonic sculpture! Can you imagine what that music must sound like?

Willa:  Oh, I know! I really hope the Estate releases it sometime in some form or other because I’d love to hear it. And this idea of sonic sculpture is fascinating, especially the way it merges the senses – almost like a type of synesthesia. It’s like visualizing sound.

Joie:  I love the way you put that, Willa. “Visualizing sound.” That’s very poetic.

Willa:  It’s a fascinating idea, isn’t it? And this idea of sonic sculpture kind of captures something I’ve felt in his music for a long time but didn’t know how to express. For me, his music has always been very visual, but I just assumed that was because of his videos, and the imagery of his lyrics. To me, his videos seem so integral to his artistic vision. As he says in Moonwalk,

The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.

So the videos weren’t just something he tacked on later as a marketing tool. From the very beginning, he planned to incorporate film as part of how we experienced that album, “to present this music … visually.” And those visual elements are integral to how we experience Thriller, I think. I can’t think of any of those three songs without imagining the videos as well.

But this concept of “sonic sculpture” adds a whole other way of thinking about this. It’s like his music itself is visual in some ways – it’s three dimensional and occupies three-dimensional space, and I don’t usually think of sound doing that.

Lisha:  I had never thought of music as three dimensional in quite this way before either. I still find it mind blowing. Classical music explores the spatialization of sound – other music and popular recordings do as well – but this seems different to me somehow. I’m not sure I even know how to quantify it. In the ancient architecture of South India, known as Vaastu, architecture is defined as “frozen music.” One of the concepts of Vaastu is “rhythm-bound space.” The way Michael conceives of music as architecture reminds me of these concepts in Vaastu. He merges visuals/movement/space with music in a way that leaves one indistinguishable from the other. It’s not music with dance and visuals – it’s somehow structured as one single thing. I can’t hear the music without associating it with the sensation of movement and the visual, artistic, spatial concepts. I think this is really critical to understanding Michael as a composer and as a musician.

Willa:  That’s just fascinating, Lisha, and it really expands not only how I think about Michael Jackson’s music, but music in general. Wow, I’m really going to have to ponder this for a while!

And I wonder how this idea of music as spatial and visual ties back in with his videos. I visualize his videos every time I listen to his songs – the songs and videos are so interconnected for me, and there’s a lot of emotional slippage between them. I don’t know if that makes sense but, for example, for a long time I didn’t like the You Rock My World video. In fact, it made me really uncomfortable. It’s pretty angry and I didn’t understand where that anger was coming from or who it was directed against, and it always left me feeling so frustrated and unsettled that I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like all those uncomfortable emotions it aroused in me. And I didn’t like the song either because of that – because all those unsettled emotions spilled over from the video. But after Joie and I talked about You Rock My World last fall and really explored everything that was going on in that video, I came to appreciate it so much more and now I like it a lot. And I like the song much more now also. That’s what I meant by “emotional slippage” between his songs and videos – the emotions of one color the other.

But even in the songs without videos, he paints such vivid pictures sometimes that I actually visualize the woman sitting at the kitchen table in “Much Too Soon,” or the patient lying on the examining table in “Morphine,” listening to the doctor explain what’s going to happen as the drug flows into his veins.

Joie:  I know exactly what you mean, Willa; I do that too. In fact, for some of his songs that don’t have an accompanying video, I have actually conjured up an entire short film in my head. And every time I hear the songs – “Money,” “Unbreakable,” and “2000 Watts,” for example – those images that my imagination created play in my mind, simply because he has painted such a vivid picture with his words.

Willa:  Now I want to see your mental movies, Joie! That’s so interesting. Another good one is “Human Nature” – his voice is so expressive you can really picture the main character, feeling restless and intensely alive and full of energy, just longing to be out in the night air, walking the city streets.

Lisha:  Yes, I’ve made a lot of short films in my mind too! Like “Human Nature,” which I shot looking into a high-rise apartment window, but then you turn and look outside and see the fire escape and street scenes of New York.

Willa:  That’s wonderful! What a cinemagraphic way of visualizing it. I can really picture that.

Lisha:  “Human Nature” was another remarkable scene in This Is It. I couldn’t believe that rehearsal, how he created so much musical tension just with his voice and his movement, no accompaniment at all, totally solo. It made a strong impression on me visually as well because I remember looking at his body and fashion sense and I thought to myself, wow, this man gave everything he had to his art, even his own body was used. He held nothing back, including every cell of his body – he gave it all. This struck me as astonishing new territory, that an artist would use their own body to make art. He was like a living, breathing piece of sculpture. I’ve seen people customize their bodies with tattoos or piercings, but never anything like this. I was fascinated by his physical beauty and what it said to me, combined with my own memory of him as a child star, a teenager, the Thriller icon, and the many images I had seen in the media over the years.

Willa:  I know what you mean, Lisha. Even the color of his skin was part of his art, and it feels to me like an entirely new kind of art, a new genre of art – it creates meaning in a way that’s very different from a piercing or tattoo, I think, though there are connections. They are all “rewriting” the body to some extent, but Michael Jackson is also rewriting the cultural narratives that have been inscribed on his body in a way I’ve never seen before. So the way he’s rewriting his body carries enormous cultural implications for how we read and interpret signifiers of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ultimately identity.

Lisha:  I believe Michael Jackson does mark an entirely new chapter in music and art.  Think how powerful all of this is when you consider how it is being aimed at the masses, the entire globe, the inclusion of everyone, even the planet itself. I remember seeing the intro to “Earth Song” for the first time in This Is It, realizing he had been playing with his audience all along as he revealed the true meaning of his show. This Is It isn’t “the final curtain call” or the “it” place to be.  This Is It is our marching orders:  time is running out to avoid a global catastrophe. He was using his musical artistic ability to reach the masses and heal the world.  I thought, what event in all of art even comes close to this?

Joie:  Lisha, I love what you just said about Michael’s music being aimed at the entire globe. It made me remember something that Akon once said about him in an interview. He said,

“He’s incredible. He’s a genius. Just to be in the same room [with him], I felt everything I wanted to accomplish in life has been achieved….That aura … that’s how incredible that aura is….The way he thinks … some artists think regional, some think national, I was thinking international. He thinks planets! It’s on another level!”

I always find it fascinating to learn that his music industry peers, and the younger generation of music artists who are influenced by him, find him just as mind-blowing as the fans do. And I love this quote from Akon because it illustrates so well what you were just saying about appealing to the masses. It also highlights another point you just made when you said “what event in art even comes close to this?” As Akon said, Michael didn’t think small. “He thinks planets!”

Lisha:  Isn’t it true? I think Akon was right. There is something so expansive about the way Michael thinks and conceives of art. I’m also trying to think of someone else who has had that kind of reach, and I’m stumped. Is there another historical figure who has reached around the globe the way Michael Jackson has? I’m no historian, but I really can’t think of one.

Joie:  I can’t think of one either, Lisha, and I’ve tried for many years.

Willa:  He did have a very different way of conceptualizing art, didn’t he? Not just the global reach of his art, but the way he envisions art. I honestly believe he was creating a new poetics, an entirely new philosophy of art.

So I wanted to circle back to his musicianship for just a moment, if we could. When Joie and I talked with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson a few weeks ago about Michael Jackson as a songwriter, we talked quite a bit about the many collaborators he worked with in the studio, and how they deserve at least some of the credit for what we hear when we listen to one of his albums. But we disagreed about what that means in terms of his musicianship and his songwriting. For example, Charles felt he had far less autonomy as a songwriter because he brought other musicians into the studio, while Joie and I tended to think he was still the composer of his songs and the guiding vision for his albums, and still had a lot of control over what happened in the studio. So as a professional musician who’s worked collaboratively with other musicians, what are your thoughts about this?

Lisha:  Well, from my viewpoint, I think there is a paradigm shift going on that makes this difficult to see. Because great music will always reflect the reality of the time and place it was created, whether it intends to or not. For example, Michael Jackson lived in a country that values technology, material prosperity, and global commerce. So it’s no accident that his music strongly reflects these values. It is technologically advanced, lavishly produced, and commercially successful on a global scale.

Willa:  Wow, I’d never thought about that before.

Lisha:  He also lived in a time and place where it was becoming clear that human beings must develop the capacity to value each other’s perspectives and work together effectively. This was critically important as we moved into a global economy and began working to save the planet’s resources and viability. And that is exactly how I would sum up Michael’s creative process – as the ability to value multiple perspectives, working to fuse them together seamlessly in a way that benefits and enhances every part of the whole. I don’t think for a second that it diminishes his musicianship. On the contrary, I think it is his genius.

Another way to look at this is through The Beatles. I am religiously in love with their work, and I especially admire Paul McCartney. I get a kick out of reading the liner notes on his solo albums and seeing him credited as the bass player, the drummer, the lead guitar player, the keyboard player, the lead vocalist, and the background vocalists as well. Pretty amazing, DIY records! What can’t this man do? I love his solo albums. But at the end of the day, I have to admit, none of the work that The Beatles did as solo artists comes close to what they produced synergistically as The Beatles. You can really hear and understand the value of their working together – the proof is in the pudding as they say. I think it’s clear that musical synergy was a part of their genius.

Willa:  What a great analogy! And I certainly don’t think that working together as The Beatles diminished the musical accomplishments of any of them:  Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, or Starr.

Lisha:  Not at all, it brought out their best work. That is how Kenny Ortega summed up Michael’s philosophy for This Is It – he wanted to gather the best people he could find and challenge them to work together to go beyond anything they had done before.

So I’ve asked myself the question, What work done by Michael’s collaborators on their own can hold up next to a Michael Jackson album? Even the Michael album, which contains a great deal of Michael’s work, cannot stand the test of a Michael Jackson album! Only the man himself could pull that off. Without Michael Jackson guiding the vision and polishing every last detail to perfection, I’m afraid there are no more Michael Jackson albums.

Joie:  So does that mean you agree then with Will.i.am, who is very much against posthumous albums of previously unreleased music?

Lisha:  Not at all. Will.i.am scared the living daylights out of me when he said he considered destroying some of the tracks he and Michael were working on! I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to preserve and archive everything EXACTLY as Michael left it, including things that were meant for the trash can. Future musicologists will need to have access to all of this. As long as that is done first, I hope the Estate releases everything that has any commercial value at all. It won’t be the exquisitely crafted works of art that Michael created no matter who does the final production work, but it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius and his creative process. I would love to be able to hear every last bit of it, even whole albums of snippets and unfinished songs. I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!