The art of “less is more” in music: Tiny Desk Concerts reveal how pure musicianship looks like
The concept of “less is more” is usually used for design, but it can be applied to any form of art. It becomes especially powerful in music, because it is a performance art for which our own body is the medium for expression: in the form of ultimate essentials, music becomes just musicians and the instruments. All elements are human, which means that there are no irrelevant/unrelatable elements nor distraction between you, as a listener, and the musician(s). The explosion of creativity from musicians directly penetrates and sinks into your body, dissolving into your feelings to become something special no one else can feel.
One of such extraordinary music discoveries is the Tiny Desk Concert series produced by NPR, which is video performances recorded at the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. You can think of it as an upgraded (or radically downsized) version of the MTV unplugged back in days, since the concerts happen in a very small area behind Boilen’s fondly messy office desk. Maybe because the physical limitation of the place, the Tiny Desk series impose many “less is more” rules on musicians. According to Josh Rogosin, Audio Engineer of the Tiny Desk Concerts (who does an amazing job delivering sounds without losing any subtle elements that makes music so beautiful):
We ask a lot of the artists who come to play at the Tiny Desk — they aren’t allowed monitors, or lights (well, except that one time), or a PA system. Gone are performance riders demanding no brown M&Ms or a huge support crew. They simply play, with the general rule to do so quietly enough for an audience to hear singing, unamplified, over the instruments. Because of this, musicians have to strip songs down to their essence — the music should sound like it did when it was created, before producers and computers put their grubby hands all over it. (Just kidding! There is, of course, lots of room for creatively produced studio albums too.) The best Tiny Desk Concerts exist on their own terms and with their own rules — and often can reveal the raw talent of those who perform here. They are only trying to be exactly what they are.
The outcome is unbelievable. The Tiny Desk is probably the only place where you can experience the raw musicianship in such an intimate/personal way: it doesn’t matter if you are thousands miles away, only connected to the musicians via the Internet. Leveraging “less is more” format of the program, those special/genuine musicians dare to strip everything they have, go musically naked and share what they are. Pure musicianship, pure blessings.
Viewed by more than 43.5M people, this is definitely one of the most astonishing Tiny Desk concert. There are so many great parts in this four-songs performance, but from “less is more” perspective, it’s worth mentioning that it provided a rare occasion to enjoy Paak’s enticing tight drumming super up-close, especially the neat hi-hat play. As you can see, he used a minimum set – a bass drum, one snare drum (which he muted with a T-shirts on it, and often used the rim to keep the beat going) and one hi-hat. You can observe exactly how he played each unit, and while bass and snare were marvelous, it’s eye-opening to realize how good his hi-hat sounds. I saw Paak at a large venue, but it was almost impossible to feel the way his hi-hat sounded in this performance. It’s something you could keep listening all day because it’s literally “music to your ears.”
2. Mac Miller
Hindsight is 20/20. Mac Miller’s Tiny Desk concert, which unexpectedly became one of his last live performances, has a lot of similarities with Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, which became their last recording before the front-man Kurt Cobain’s tragic death, and Prince’s “Piano and microphone” concerts, during which tour Prince abruptly left our world. (I saw him at Oracle Arena, Oakland, CA only one month before his death)
People say that they were gone too early, but I cannot stop feeling that the intensity of their creativity might have been too much for their body to support it. I mean, what if their creativity was limitless whereas their body had physical limits? Mac Miller in his Tiny Desk concert was, just like how Kurt Cobain and Prince were in their past performances, looked already half in the Promised Land of music. He existed there as a real human, but at the same time he looked transcendental – kind of transparent – as if his body already decided against keeping going because his artistic creativity already overwhelmed it.
Was it a coincidence that Mac Miller “chose” Tiny Desk as one of his last performances, which was very similar to the MTV Unplugged and the Piano and microphone, which only featured musicians and their raw talent? Was it that they could only accept minimum essentials around him when their creative explosion was about cross the threshold?
3. Tash Sultana
Speaking of blazing, intense creative talent that overwhelms your body, Tasha Sultana is mesmerizingly intense and almost painful to watch.
Everyone knows that Prince was a music genius. He was demanding to himself, but was also demanding to supporting musicians, engineers, dancers – everyone who were around him, and he would tour and record with them. But then, with “Piano & microphone,” his last production, he decided to leave them behind altogether. He went on stage to take on tens of thousands of audience ALL BY HIMSELF, with one piano. And he produced something as rich and funky as one could imagine. He was just transcendental.
And here comes Tasha Sultana, who is determined to take on the whole world all by herself with her explosive intensity, just like how Prince had to take on his last burst of creativity all by himself. At the end of the day, she is not even a musician – she IS music.
4. Robert Glasper Experiment
Jazz/hip-hop/R&B pianist/producer Robert Glasper chose only a drummer and bassist to accompany him in his Tiny Desk concert, and played his electric piano with very subdued sound. But it didsn’t make the production subdued at all – on the contrary, the trio sounded very spatially expansive and cosmic. This is the power of “less is more” – reducing the elements to its ultimate essential often condenses and crystallizes artistic nucleus to a transcendent level. Also, notice that the drummer brought in only a snare and a bass drum (and something that looks like a thick cymbal). No hi-hat. Instead he placed a sleigh bell on a snare and used its different parts to make cool sounds. It is such a joy to see talented musicians let beautiful music emerge from nowhere. Robert Glasper Experiment is nothing but sheer musicianship.
If you watched Mac Miller’s Tiny Desk, you know who Thundercat is, because his bass in “What’s the use?” was in another world. He played his own live, in which you can appreciate up-close how he played a 6-string bass (he even plays chords on it!) He doesn’t even use a guitar, so his base is both base and guitar at the same time. (Listen to his solo!) How can it be possible?
This is yet another super minimal band that consists only with guitar, base and drums. And though they play in a very subdued way, their sound is so intoxicating. It’s like they are doing Quentin Tarantiono movie only with three people and three instruments. I love the comment left on their clip on Youtube; “Heard a rumor that the drummer is the new metronome designed by Tesla.” Well said!
Even if you are like me who are not catching up with the rap music today, at least you can try SABA. His Tiny Desk reminds how our voices have always been the most relatable instrument to us, and are capable of producing rhythms, melodies, stories and harmonies that feel most pleasant and fitting to our ears. It’s amazing how easily his music sinks in your body. Also, with this setting, you can appreciate how subtle the harmony created by the backing vocals (one of whom is SABA’s father!) are, and how cool the trumpet sounds.
8. Lianne LaHavas
Speaking of the power of our voices, here’s Lianne LaHavas. It’s a great reminder that you don’t need to sing with at the top of one’s lungs to “impress” people. Beautiful singing is more than that.
Okay this was mind-boggling. On our website, we talk a lot about Japanese culture, but hey, how do we make sense of this band? Superorganism is a band led by the lead singer (rapper?) Orono Noguchi, a small-framed, self-described “average 17-year old Japanese girl living in Maine.” She has rather a flat, monotonous and feeble voice (very Japanese!) that you would think is not suitable for singing (how many Asian singers do you know, who were successful in the US?).
I don’t know if this girl ever lived in Japan (probably not, from listening how she speaks/sings), but she definitely brings in musical inspiration that is anti-American music industry, in which you need to be powerful, ostentatious, and can express yourself top of your lungs in order to be successful. She is everything that today’s music industry is not, and as a matte of fact, Japanese have tendencies to appreciate things that that look to be made with lots of idle rooms. As they look amateurish or made casually, they are actually solid pieces of art designed to offer alternative ways to discover new perspectives.
As the group does everything that mainstream musicians would NOT do – all kinds of hand-made sound effects such as the sound straws make when blown in the water, used toy cars, radios and lots of “let’s-take-it-easy” sounding handclaps, their production is actually tight and accurate in details. Secretly dreaming to see them on “SNL.”