How NPR’s Tiny Desk Gives Modern Music Life

How NPR’s Tiny Desk Gives Modern Music Life

By Keegan Priest

In a world filled with trap high hats, 808s, and computer-generated pianos, modern music of all genres has seemed to fall into the trend of ‘artificial’ music. As much as one can appreciate the complexities and emotion constructed by many modern producers, not very many can play a real instrument. With a laptop and a DAW, anyone can create professional sounding music. And although this opportunity has provided music with beautiful art that might not have been created otherwise, this has also led to a lack of realness and emotional authenticity in music. NPR Music Tiny Desk Series puts some of that feeling back into the music, one 15 minute concert at a time.

The basis of the series is simple. NPR invites artists of both mass appeal and of their editors’ taste and gives them 10 square feet to set their instruments up. No matter how many people are in the band, they all seem to squish shoulder to shoulder behind a desk in the NPR offices. The band will choose only the essential: both in the setlist and the instruments they use. Because of their limited size and the simple aesthetic of the series, artists are forced to make arrangements that will only include instruments that will fit and function in the space that’s given.

When it’s an artist like Julie Byrne whose instrumentation is simplistic and minimal, with a guitar, a harp, a violin, and a piano, the show functions as more of a personal performance that allows the artist to give more of a raw performance without a large-scale live audience. Byrne plays this set like any other concert or even her recordings. In her festival shows, such as the one at Pitchfork Chicago this summer, the sets match almost identically. But what makes her Tiny Desk performance a more thorough experience is the rawness and personability you feel within her performance. On stage, with 20,000 people watching her, Byrne had a very timid performance, rarely engaging the crowd. But on her Tiny Desk, with a crowd of no more than a dozen NPR Music employees, Julie Byrne seems comfortable. Her dialogue with the crowd seems significantly more natural, and the feeling of the show becomes a personal experience. It’s easy to feel like you’re in the room, watching the performance. The tone of her voice gives the viewer a feeling that this concert was played for them in their own living room, just for them.

Although the raw, personal condition of the Tiny Desk performances make the series partly what it is, what is more innovative about it is how it spawns new, never before seen instrumentation that adds a unique element to the performance. This is especially true for the more hip-hop and pop-based groups that usually rely on computer-generated instruments for their music. With the tradition of having only the simplest instruments, computer synths and trap drums are forced to adapt their sound into rhodes and a drum set. With acts like hip-hop artists Saba and Noname, each song becomes beautifully reconstructed into an arrangement with a jazz combo and no speakers. Saba, for example, produces most of his music with synth-heavy jazz and more modern style trap drums, but when asked to perform for Tiny Desk, Saba simplified the drum patterns for a classically trained jazz drummer and wrote grand piano parts to replace all of the synthesizers. Not only did the arrangement include a change in already existing instruments, but new parts for vocals and trumpets were written to sonically fill the missing gaps. This performance was extremely different than any of his concerts, which were just him and instrumental tracks. The fact that real musicians played along with how fast Saba was rapping, shows the genuine musicianship that the program inspired into the concert.

The blend between the rawness of the performance and the simplicity and uniqueness of arrangement that Tiny Desk provides has made the series a cult-favorite and has inspired many to participate in the program. Many independent musicians now use as an indicator of success in the music industry because of the love that music listeners as a whole have given the series. But rightfully so, for Tiny Desk has shown the genuineness within many modern artists and provides a unique, personal performance that any fan would appreciate. Things like Tiny Desk reassure that great music is still being made, even if they only have 10 feet to prove it.

Image courtesy of NPR Tiny Desk’s YouTube Channel

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