All Songs Considered
Thu October 18, 2012
The Drop: A Kaarvai Moment With Michael Mayer
The best gateway into electronic music might be the human voice. There's something about our vocal cords in a dance song that, well, speaks to us. We don't even need to know what the words mean — heck, we don't even need words — to trigger an emotional connection and turn music designed for the brain or the feet into something with which our hearts can get down.
One of my favorite production techniques when it comes to incorporating voices into dance music is what I'll call the kaarvai technique, wherein a singer's voice is basically frozen in real time and held longer than (almost) humanly possible. Kaarvai refers to the practice of holding notes (swaras) in Indian classical music, especially ragas, which can go on for hours. My favorite example of this trick came a few years ago, in a track by the British duo Dusk + Blackdown called "Kuri Pataka," in which an ecstatic Indian voice hits a high note and stays there for 47 seconds, while tribal percussion and alien elephants swarm around it.
Another nice kaarvai moment popped up this week: Michael Mayer's "Roses." Mayer is, from a historical perspective, one of the MVPs of electronic music: He co-founded Germany's Kompakt Records, which played a major role in the ascent of minimal techno. Mayer is about to release the second LP of his 15-year career — the awkwardly titled Mantasy, due out Oct. 22 on Kompakt — and "Roses" is my favorite song on the record. Like "Kuri Pataka," it features a beautiful human voice/drone in the form of a woman who delicately sings, "Roses, they were all so red." But she never gets a chance to enunciate the "d," because Mayer pauses her mid-word and uses the gorgeous tone as the backbone for the rest of this wonderfully off-kilter track.