Archive for the 'Music' Category
March 7th, 2014 by Wil
I’ve talked a bit about the work of computer scientist David Cope who has developed several software tools that compose music. The exact methodology he uses is complex (he’s written several books about it) but his programs have ably output hours of music in the style of various classical masters.
In one of his books, Cope comments that he has not used his software to write pop music. This is partly because he isn’t interested in pop music and partly because he concedes pop music is about a lot more that just the notes on a page (which is what his software is fundamentally creating.) Pop is also about the tone of instruments, their hip factor, and a lot of contextual baggage the performing artists bring to the song (their personal history, persona etc.)
Nonetheless, I think it’s inescapable that computers will be composing pop song in the future. Or more likely, computers will be helping humans compose pops songs.
But, then what? Cope’s software can generate thousands of variations on a basic tune. Say someone does the same with a pop song. You have 10,000 versions of a certain melody in A minor. Obviously nobody wants to listen to all of them to find the “best one.”
But what if you could look through a data pool of what listeners were listening to and spot upcoming trends? For example, two years ago you could have noted, “Gee, it looks like people are really digging music with these wonky low end gurgles… I bet dub-step will be popular.” Basically, you would note what properties of music seemed to be getting popular and aim the computer composed music towards those styles.
But where would you get this data? This recent NY Times piece, noting that music analysis company Echo Nest has been bought by Spotify, may offer clues.
The Echo Nest is one of a handful of companies specializing in the arcane but valuable science of music data, examining what songs are being listened to by whom, and how. It makes this information available to its clients, including major media companies like Sirius XM, Clear Channel and Univision, which use the data primarily for music-related apps.
“Analyzing music preferences is something we’ve been doing for a long time,” Jim Lucchese, chief executive of the Echo Nest, said in a joint interview with Mr. Ek. “But being directly wired in, and sitting alongside the Spotify team, will give us the ability to push products a lot faster and learn a lot faster than we could before.”
I suspect Echo Nest is, right now, just analyzing “big picture” music trends, like “people are digging hip-hop country songs.” I think eventually they could move towards more granular observations like “major scale melodies that climb high over three bars and then fall down in a giant octave leap in the fourth bar are getting popular,” or “Synth timbres that sound like a theremin and glockenspiel are getting big.” That data could then be used to power the computer aided composition of pop music.
I’m not saying this is a good thing; it worries me. It could certainly lead to an arms race of musical ideas that would result in fads burning out faster and faster. But I think it’s the future.
February 26th, 2014 by Wil
One of the pleasures of having your own blog (aside from the numerous endorsement deals and come-ons from famous movie starlets) is that you can stay on a subject as long as you like. Though I just posted on the topic, I want to link to this informative and rather touching tribute Devo’s Gerry Casale offers to his recently deceased brother Bob. It’s worth reading if you want a nice look at Devo history.
These ‘graphs caught me eye.
Mark Mothersbaugh had a five-chord progression on a clavinet that became “Gut Feeling,” but Bob Casale came up with the arpeggiated, revolving, tingling guitar line that sounds like a twisted, devolved Byrds riff.
Of course, Mark and I wrote all the songs, but without Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale those songs would have never been fleshed out into full Devo expressions.
I presume Gerry means that he and Mark wrote the songs in the legal sense (e.g. the chords, lyrics and melodies) but it sounds like that in a practical sense Bob Casale actually did contribute to the writing; as Gerry says, he wrote a specific guitar line. Why doesn’t that count? Music lawyers could probably spout off some answers but this practice seems unfair. Sometimes the reason a song becomes popular is the great guitar solo or interesting chord pattern that isn’t considered a part of the song (as a legal concept.)
That “Gut Feeling” riff is great by the way. Check it out.
February 22nd, 2014 by Wil
In a recent acid logic article I claimed that authorship is dead. By this I meant that the notion of one person being responsible for a piece of art, writing, film etc. was faulty. I’m thinking this might point towards some interesting new ways of creating art.
Let’s consider rock music. The conventional approach is that there’s a band and usually within that band there’s one or two people who do the bulk of the writing. For example, on my two recent albums I am the sole credited writer. But, of course, I am not 100% responsible for every note you hear. There are many improvised solos and parts that I had little to do with (though I do tend to be a “guiding force” when people are laying down their tracks; I approve and reject ideas.)
Now, there’s a lot going for this auteur approach. One person can have a grand vision and make sure the final work matches that vision. But why not have all band members contribute ideas? Why not have dozens if not hundreds of people contribute ideas? (Thus really eliminating the idea of “a band.”)
But how would this work? Let’s say one person presented a template for a piece of music. Something like, “The song will start out slow and sad, then move into an uptempo happy section, then a driving but angry section, then back to an uptempo section then end with a variation of the slow and sad intro.” Perhaps people could contribute submissions for each of these “song parts” and then vote on how they go together. Or maybe they submit contributions to an authoritarian fascist leader (e.g. me) who decides how they go together.
The result may be that no one is completely happy with the work. But that’s kind of my point. The piece is satisfying a different kind of entity, a different kind of intelligence… a sort of “group intelligence.” The group would have to have a certain faith that the results are worthwhile and will bring to light interesting musical aspects that are not be available in more conventional “auteur style” writing.
Obviously this idea could be applied to other forms of art – film, visual arts, fiction etc.
Strangely, I’m reminded a bit of the Agetha Christie story where the killer turns out to be a group of people, each who stabbed (I think) the victim once. If one considers murder an art (and I see no reason why one shouldn’t) this may be the first conception of what I’m talking about.
I should also be clear that what I’m describing is probably what a lot of existing art collectives around the world are already doing. But I think I might be shading it a little differently and uniquely.
Finally, I should concede that why this is an interesting idea, it may not be something I would excel at. I am still rather ego driven and seem to be moving towards wanting more control over every aspect of what I create, not less. But maybe I’ll give this a shot.
February 18th, 2014 by Wil
Sad news that Bob Casale, founding member of Devo (my favorite band), has died. The CNN article on his death includes this interesting nugget.
“He was excited about the possibility of Mark Mothersbaugh allowing Devo to play shows again,” Gerald Casale wrote in his brother’s death announcement. “His sudden death from conditions that led to heart failure came as a total shock to us all.”
There’s always been a bit of a Mick/Keith vibe to Gerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh’s relationship. This public jibe that Mothersbaugh controls whether or not Devo plays shows seems an example of that. Who know what the truth is?
I interviewed Gerry Casale years ago.
February 18th, 2014 by Wil
A lot of people, myself included, complain about the music of Mozart. It often seems long winded and verbose, weighed down with endless scale passages and ornamental frills.
I think, by the standards of modern music, these complaints are valid. But I’m starting to “get” an aspect of Mozart’s music that I find quite interesting. Mozart’s music is really about conversation—it’s about the different “voices” (e.g. instruments or melodic characters) talking to each other. And the voices all have different personalities and “say” different things. In this sense his pieces are really like ensemble character dramas. Of course it’s not only Mozart who composed this way; many, perhaps all classical composers did. But I think the trait is especially pronounced in his music.
This is, in many ways, at odds with modern pop music. With pop music there is one voice, one point of view (usually the singer) and they are supported by the backing instruments. The singer says “I state this observation…” and the instruments say, “we agree and support you.” What doesn’t happen (for the most part) is a conflict between the singer and the instruments. You wouldn’t, for example, have a singer singing about tender love while a thrash guitar plays distorted chords in the background.
In this sense, I think modern music is more individualistic and ego driven. It’s about my opinions (me being the singer) and my emotional pain and nobody else’s. Music from the classical era is more communitarian—it’s about the group and how they interact. Something can be said for both styles, but as someone who has written modern, individualistic music for most of my life, I find a challenge in the more conversational style. And Mozart, despite his verbosity, is a good model.
January 23rd, 2014 by Wil
Slate asks the question, “Is Classical Music Dead?” The answer? Pretty much. Sales are down, symphonies are closing, and younger generations have little interest in the music.
To some degree I think this is a problem of classical music’s own making. At some point the culture of classical music aligned itself with the wealthy elites – rich, stuffy, mostly white people. The fact that that demographic is fading has been obvious for years. It’s also true that cuts to art education haven’t helped. And the lack of support for new classical music is an issue.
But I think there’s another reason, one I’ve talked about before. I think our attention spans and ability to focus are getting weaker, primarily because of this culture of interruption we live in. It’s one thing to take three minutes to follow a pop song as it plays of the radio. It’s something else to follow the development of a set of themes in a sonata, or listen for the voices of particular instruments as they weave in and out of a symphony. And it’s shame were losing this ability because that kind of active, focused listening can be a great source of pleaure.
I predict that within 20 years the only way to capture people’s attention will be to lock them in a room full of televisions showing snuff films and bestiality porn while the sound of industrial machinery blasts over a stereo. Even that will barely generate a yawn.
January 19th, 2014 by Wil
Lately I’ve been working on a very interesting music project. What’s that? You say you’d like me to tell you about it? Well, I wasn’t planning on it, but sure. I can never say no to you.
I started with the goal of composing a “conversational” piece of music. The different instruments would represent different characters and they would converse with each other. This sort of thing is hardly unheard of in the history of music, but it was a new approach for me (though as I’ve proceeded I’ve come to realize that I’ve taken this tact unconsciously with much of my music for years.)
Before I started writing I came up with several imaginary characters whose personalities would be conveyed through the music. One is a flighty nag, another a slow moving but well intentioned sort (think Pooh Bear) and several others. I also thought up a kind of story to follow as I wrote the music.
This idea seems to be a great mental trick for writing. I find myself visualizing various scenes when writing and mapping the music to that. I’m far from done but have written about 3 minutes of fairly dense music in a fairly short period (say 6 hours or so which might sound like a lot but is faster than usual for me.)
Ultimately this speaks to a broader process for creativity, one that could be applied to all sorts of endeavors – novel writing, painting, poetry etc. Basically, you have to set limits around what you are doing. If you approach a creative project with everything on the table, it’s impossible to choose from the limitless options. But if I say, as I am saying here, that I have creation musical characters that must be matched, then I know when I on track and when I’m going astray.
This actually reminds me a bit of something I discussed earlier: Earl Gardner’s Plot Wheel. This was a device the author of the Perry Mason mysteries would use to somewhat randomly assemble the elements for a story. One he had them he could knock out the tale rather quickly.
I’m glad you asked me to explain this. I think this discussion was fruitful.
January 1st, 2014 by Wil
I’ve mentioned my conflicted feelings about the strange Bob Brozman situation. Brozman was a great acoustic guitar player who killed himself this past year. Laudatory eulogies came flowing forth from the web until allegations that Brozman was a child molester came out.
Last night I was listening to a Brozman track called “Short’s Man Vindication” in which he bemoaned his small stature. I couldn’t help but be reminded on a L.A. Times article on pedophilia I commented on.
Researchers have also determined that pedophiles are nearly an inch shorter on average than non-pedophiles and lag behind the average IQ by 10 points — discoveries that are consistent with developmental problems, whether before birth or in childhood.
Am I implying that all short people are pedophiles? Hardly (I would guess the number is more like 50%.) But I can’t help wonder if maybe Randy Newman was on to something.
December 30th, 2013 by Wil
We are all familiar with the idea that there is a definitive version of some song. There have been various versions of “Hotel California” for example, but we would all agree that the definitive version is the original by the Eagles. Is the definitive version always the original? I would say usually this is the case but not always. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a great song but it might have been surpassed by Jeff Buckley’s version. Or let’s consider “Layla.” I would argue the classic Derek and the Dominoes version (Featuring Eric Clapton) is the definitive version but I would be open to argument that Clapton’s later acoustic version is a contender. Obviously this is all rather subjective.
Here’s some interesting observations. In the realm of rock and pop, the definitive version is almost always the original (or at least the most successful) version. But not so much with jazz or blues. What’s the definitive version of “Misty” or “Ain’t Misbehavin’” or “Sweet Home Chicago”? We all might have our favorites but we probably wouldn’t argue that our fave is the definitive one. This is even more true with classical music. Most of those songs were performed thousands of times before we even had recording technology. Who is to say that the definitive version of Bach’s first invention wasn’t performed in a Polish salon in 1854?
In a sense, recording has enabled us to capture elements of definitiveness that were not possible in earlier days. You could, for example, play “Hotel California” on a piano or accordion, but it is much more definitive to play it as it is on the album, on acoustic guitar, specifically a 12 string acoustic. The exact instrumentation is important. On the flip side, a version of “Misty” on piano seems no less definitive that one on guitar.
When I think of my experience as a musician I note that there are certain songs that everyone feels you need to play a certain way to really capture the essence of the tune. It’s felt that you need to play the riff exactly as it is on the album or make sure a particular vocal harmony is in there. This would be true with prog rock, new wave, certain kinds of pop. It’s much less true with jazz, blues and “looser” music genres.
I’m not sure what this all means but it’s interesting to think about.
December 22nd, 2013 by Wil
As a society, or species, (or whatever we are), we tend to laud forward thinking creative geniuses. When we find one, we hoist them onto a pedestal and treat them as an (to quote this article) “Übermensch [who] stands apart from the masses, pulling them forcibly into a future that they can neither understand nor appreciate.” This is true across all disciplines. Think of Einstein, Beethoven, Picasso, on and on.
So how does one become a genius? Clearly you have to innovate, to do something no one else has done. But there’s a catch here. You can’t be too innovative. You can’t be so ahead of the curve that nobody can really grasp what you’re saying or doing.
Let me propose a thought experiment. Jimi Hendrix travels to Vienna around 1750 and plays his music. Would he be lauded as a genius? Would his guitar playing be heard as the obvious evolution of current trends in music? No, he’d probably be regarded as an idiot making hideous noise and he might be burned at the stake.
But, let music evolve for around 220 years and yes, Jimi is rightfully regarded as a genius. His sound was made palatable by those who came before him, mainly electric blues guitar players of the 50s and 60s. (Obviously there are a lot of other factors (like race and class and sex) relevant to whom gets crowned a genius but I’m painting in broad strokes here.)
So the trick to being a genius is to be ahead of your time but not too ahead. The world of science and medicine is filled with examples. Gregor Mendel famously discovered that physical traits could be passed from one generation of life to another. In what was a major breakthrough in our understanding of biology, he theorized what we came to call genes. He published his results and was met with pretty much total indifference. It wasn’t until his work was rediscovered decades later that we applied them. Mendel was too ahead of his time.
The book “The Mind’s I” notes the mathematician Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri who contributed to the discovery of non-Euclidian geometry. His ideas were so controversial that even Saccheri himself rejected them! (At least he did according to the book; there seems some debate on this. See the last graph on the Saccheri wiki page.) Talk about being too ahead of your time.
But perhaps the best example of this sort of thing is Ignaz Semmelweis. The Hungarian physician…
…discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics.
That’s right, he basically came up with the crazy idea that doctors should wash their hands after touching sick people. Unfortunately…
Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.
Oh well. Semmelweis probably still had a great career and life right?
In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 after being beaten by the guards, only 14 days after he was committed.
Don’t be too ahead of the curve folks.