17 September 2014

UK Arts: Will they get off “Scot free”? Yes and no.

Scotland & UK: Time for a discussion small and large arts identity?
Online Image, AllThatsLeft.com 16 September 2014
< http://www.allthatsleft.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/image1.jpg >

Yes, yes, the phrase “Get off Scot free” has nothing to do with Scotland or its residents. Yet who could resist the perfect word play? Regardless of the outcome to the (still currently) northern UK nation's vote for or against independence from the whole of Great Britain (formally referred to as the “Scottish independence referendum,”) slated to take place this Thursday, 18 September, the notion of Scot free will be applicable no matter what. The only point of contingency is going to be exactly what kind of Scot free with which Britain ends up after everything is said and done.

There has already been an avalanche-sized slew of news coverage, debate points and ominous rants of disbelief on both sides of this decision but rather than focus in on just the state of Scotland v. the UK specifically, there's something to be said for prudent consideration of the consequences attached to any new geo-political establishment, as far as the arts for the nation of the moment are concerned.

ArtsJournal.com highlighted two separate articles (here and here) in their mailer for yesterday, 16 September, and both raise thoughts on the potential future of Scotland's artistic content, as well as its financial stability moving forward, should the country separate from the UK. This seed of contemplation put forth by The Stage, is of particular intrigue:

But in Scotland as much as anywhere else, culture is being identified as a useful economic driver and there’s a new enthusiasm for Gaelic and traditional practices that help to make a graphic of Scots’ cultural identity as not only the kind of thing tourists come to see but that the indigenous can feel is essentially them. (I’ll leave aside that the sporran-swinging, battered-Mars-bar scoffing, Irn-bru slugging profile has largely been a 20th century English invention.) 

But that’s no more than branding. Cultural Trends finds Scots who consider themselves to be artists living in the land of their birth, are increasingly uneasy about the instrumentalism of all this [potential for independence and] how the arts are fine as long as they earn, and as long as it’s seen as definitively Scottish.

Now, other (very important) aspects of the independence debate notwithstanding, what's Britain and Scotland to do with a conundrum like this? There's certainly nothing so odd about the idea that the distinct nations, or even simply distinct regions, of a place like the UK, (e.g. Wales) concentrate on and work to nurture art that holds a spotlight over any respective cultures or traditions of a more localized scope. Still, at least for the arts element in play, these two entities seem to be caught between a rather unpleasant rock and a hard place. 

If Scotland feels the very character of its national identity is an asset, not only for basic geo-branding but also for a freshening transformation to their local artistic existence and the artists within it, how can they negotiate that desire with the second desire of the overall UK arts sector, for the creation and sensory consumption of more internationally connective and flexible material?

On the one hand, the idea that the UK's pooled arts funding will pull away if Scotland does gain independence, because it already has other arts organizations and performance entities under a good amount of duress, means a blow to Scotland's current arts funding expectations, amidst all of the other national restructuring that's bound to occur following a “Yes” vote on Thursday. Conversely, staying put could mean, while not necessarily a complete inability, at least somewhat of a larger challenge, in Scotland's objective for more “definitively Scottish” projects and artistic initiatives.

* * * * * *

This brings the general question to the table of how to balance something like local and national programming. It's one thing to have a season or a temporary block of time devoted to emphasizing a specific style of art, genre of music, individual composer, etc. but with a longer term and more nebulously open ended vision of narrowed creativity, is that a wise decision for retaining and or drawing in the actual artists themselves?

The thing is, it is not as though smaller nations, states or even cities with reputable and acclaimed arts scenes don't exist and attract patrons with passion for whatever work they are going to see. However, with Scotland not being a new nation born from the pages of a yet-unwritten European history book, (because it is 2014 and not sometime in the ninth century or earlier,) the transition from “culturally distinguishable populous within a larger, artistically rich body” to simply, “cultural individual minus the established blend of equally mature western European heritages,” would not be likely to go over as fluidly as say, taking a quick extra spin in a revolving door. 

In theory, if the content and the drive to make future content are both there, an independent Scottish arts identity would dig its heels in, gain some traction and thrive. The reality of such musings though, as opposed to their mentally abstract counterparts, often leaves more loose ends than initially anticipated and thus usually translates more toward a “perfect on paper pipe dream.” than a plan poised for perfect execution.

It will all depend on the referendum's vote tomorrow...

Keep up with referendum news live, through BBC News, here.

Is Scotland setting itself up for a dilemma from a severe desire for  cultural distinction?

05 September 2014

Grab a pint and cue up Pint Size Hero's "Like a Hurricane"

Loud, rocking things come in small packages...
"Like a Hurricane" cover art, Online Image, 5 September 2014, Reverbnation.com
< http://gp1.wac.edgecastcdn.net
/802892/production_public/Artist/748123/image/small/1304878064_psh-logo2.jpg >

The power of the internet means different things to many people: Ability to connect with distant family as though they are part of your everyday life, ability to look up knowledge in the blink of an eye, ability to watch events with crystal clear clarity even with an ocean in the way...

Still, probably one of the most influential things internet interconnectivity has brought forth in droves over the years, is access to music outside one's own borders. Countless music videos, live streamed concerts and even regionally specific apps (e.g. Anghami, highlighting artists of the Middle East) have made the music of the world feel far less segmented and unknown. This closeness is not just amazing for fans and consumers but for artists as well; with established acts in one country taking on established acts from another, or, even working with rising groups and then seeing the latter skyrocket in recognition — sometimes outside their initial geo-demographic!


A perfect example of the above scenario is what you'll get when you start digging into the history and music of Brighton based band, Pint Size Hero. The UK rockers are ready to drop their sophomore album, “Like a Hurricane” (out everywhere 8 September, available for pre-order now) and the name is only so ideal because rather than fall into the sophomore slump, this record has only served to show a growth in band popularity, production and musical power that rocks very much like a storm.

Since the band's debut release, “Get Your Kicks” dropped in 2011, Pint Size Hero has simply fallen into a stride that's provided smooth, natural evolution for their sound – both in their own work and in the eyes of their musical peers. (Milestones like being asked to tour with US-based Southern blues rockers, Rival Sons, for example, feel like a pre-destined concert match made in heaven.)

A group that sits quite nicely in the rock vein, without an unnecessary amount of sub-genre bleed over, it's no surprise that Pint Size Hero feel like a breath of sonically confident fresh air, amidst occasionally misguided cross-genre panning and artist aspiration for flexibility. Not that fusion of style and production techniques is a bad thing but, as the saying goes, “Sometimes less is more.” That said, the sound of Pint Size Hero is nothing lesser and certainly nothing pint sized. Hurricane is a solidly built collection of tracks that wastes no time giving listeners an aggressive downbeat to grab a hold of and air drum or guitar along to — not letting go for the majority of the 10 track record.

Like a Hurricane – Track listing
1. Get What You Take
2. Hunger
3. In You
4. Soul Train
5. No Love In The Fire
6. Save Me
7. Discover
8. Burn Away
9. Nineteen
10. Spin The Wheel

Right from the first three, full band-backed power chords of opening track, “Get What You Take,” Pint Size Hero lets listeners know what they're in for; both with Hurricane as a single album, and for new fans just coming on board, what to expect from the group on the whole: Grounded rock and realistic recording. The three English gents (Chris Howley-Lead Guitar/Vox, Jamie Whitburn-Drums/Backing Vox and Carl Bartlett-Bass Guitar/Backing Vox) demonstrate their embrace of 'the real' with their shared vocal duties and the fact that each of such is placed in the mix just so, that you can hear all parts independently and slightly ajar from the others. It feels human and acceptably imperfect – in the way that great rock bands of pre-digital dissection times always did.

As the record plays through, each introduction sets a different tone that calls to mind different, subtle touches and styles of established rock acts. (e.g. AC/DC, Foo Fighters, Black Crowes) Nevertheless, the album stays unified enough and infused with enough arrangement original to Pint Size Hero, that it doesn't, conversely, feel like a mismatched or copycat assembly of songs. Each of the instruments gets a nice chance to sit at the forefront on various tracks, never making the band feel rigidly fixed or stuck on some kind of arrangement hierarchy.

All the songs do stand well enough on their own though, as is evident by the strong sense of rhythmic consistency established for the individual tracks, once you start tapping your foot, headbanging or getting into a mosh mindset for one song, you don't have to think twice about ever losing that groove until the next track is cued up. Hurricane has a lot going for it in that regard. Listeners can equally appreciate the album piecemeal or in a non-stop playback.


Tracks like “Soul Train” highlight the tightening of production that comes with post-debut territory, as the careful addition of things like moderate distortion on Howley's vocals and the aptly described fuzz-driven sound on guitar, signals Pint Size Hero are comfortable enough with their base sound that they were able to get more artistic and play with some effects to create that classic arena rock performance vibe. However, they do so with a restraint that stops them from going from “enhancing artistry” to “overly sanitized.”

From an engineer's standpoint, Hurricane is really pleasantly mixed. Throw on a headset and you'll get to hear parts very intimately; interestingly placed in either the left or right like a varying but sensible mosaic. In a more general sense, the mix also allows more supportive parts like the occasional piano and organ, enough room to breathe, making sure that extra layer of melodic complexity isn't lost on listeners who might otherwise think Pint Size Hero is just another standard outfit.

The second half of the record reigns things in, displaying a slower, but by no means less well-crafted, side of the band. “Discover” and album closer, “Spin the Wheel” each play with more acoustic and melodically exposed motifs but the creative arrangement and slight sonic grit remain. It's a smartly placed lineup, providing a gradual descent akin to a good roller coaster ride.

A group already featured by NME.com and praised by Classic Rock Magazine as one of the “15 Hottest new bands in Britain,” Pint Size Hero seem poised for even more great things and an album release sure to bring in fan approval of heroic proportions.

Below is the official video for the album's first single, "Hunger."

Like a Hurricane” is set for global release, on Monday, 8 September. Pre-orders are available through iTunes, as well as through the band's official website for physical copies that come as a signed, deluxe CD pack (with free delivery inside the UK).

You can keep up with, and listen to, Pint Size Hero through the following outlets:

28 August 2014

After listening so long, all I hear is, "Love is blind."

Maybe we should gig deeper consideration to the affects of things like radio overkill?
"Hcb Hand Ear", Online Image, Optimize Your Hearing Aid Experience, 22 August 2014
< http://hearingcareblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/hcb-hand-ear.jpg >

Less is more.”

I already know what you're going to say.”

You don't have to say anything.”

It's the thought that counts.”

Contrary to what this handful of commonly heard 'little nothings' might imply, the topic at hand is not one intent on being about relationships, deciding on presents for a crush or agonizing over how to drop the “L word.”

...at least not where human to human connection is concerned.

The reason for these opening lines and the mention of love is to direct a thread that connects the phrases together and rather than everything being centered around the love between people, the mindset implied can easily be carried over to our love of songs.


Not more than a couple of weeks back, at the last moments of what was a long afternoon, evening and then late-night-into-the-next-morning of live music, I overheard another person in attendance at said live show, declare something about their own evolving relationship with the music of one of the bands that had just played.


It's crazy how you guys [as a band], don't even have [the album] out yet, I know the words to [that one song]...well, at least the refrain, because I've seen you guys play it so many times. It's so good man and everyone loves that one.”

At first recitation of this short anecdote, the question of “Why the love of this song?” might feel painfully unsurprising, as a very plausible explanation exists right in the quote itself, with the admission of this person having had many, many prior exposures. Despite this presumption of predictability, the scenario prompts a different question for consideration: How much, based solely on the element of our own mental banks of context, are we influenced by and come to like a specific song or particular artist?


Approximately a week and a half ago, WIRED published a piece exploring the question of why writers often miss their own errors, even after many rounds of review and intense scrutinizing. Reaching the crux of the article, author Nick Stockton illuminates the meat of the reasoning behind this source of typical writer frustration:

When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

This can be something as trivial as transposing the letters in “the” to “hte,” or something as significant as omitting the core explanation of your article...

...Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend’s house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.”


Returning to the band and song scenario from above, consider these conditions:

1. The song performed is played live and contains the basic rock band formula, a full body of lyrics, and is built on a commonplace verse, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure. 

2. Resulting from a combination of environmental volume, band style and song tempo, lyrics are not always delivered with enough steady articulation for someone who may not necessarily be specifically focused on them, to hear, understand and process the lyrics as a whole. In fact, many words may get lost entirely. 

3. Beyond the quoted listener above, many others have never heard this specific song in a recorded framework, and thus have always experienced the song in a less consistent live setting.

Could it be possible that the mental junctures and associative concepts applicable to human (lack of ) recognition for written typos are similarly applicable to human recognition for melodic compositions? In the case of this one song performed live, it is indicated that people have taken a liking to the composition but, they are clearly not experiencing the song in the setting of an ideally balanced environment or playback (i.e. a studio recording or tamed acoustic performance).

On the one hand, if we are to say that these neurological concepts could be mutually applied, then the conclusive points drawn lead to an even more intriguing conflict of neurological interest:

...we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads...”

Listening to a band play a song in front of you live, obviously removes the relevance of a screen to be read or viewed. However, take the second portion of the principle in bold and place it by the next part of Stockon's conclusion and somewhat of a conflict in determination of preference seems to arise.

...We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.

Perhaps on the first (few) listens, audience members would have an easier time defining whether they have a “positive versus negative” aural experience with a song that can leave words or parts unheard. All the same, if we are to stick with the idea that they have come to know a song due mostly to repeated exposure, is their liking thereof the result of a bias produced by a tag-team combination of mental self-adjustment (version in their heads) and familiarity-fueled expectation (already knowing the song's “destination”)? If a musical performance contains errors, like a paper contains typos, one would be likely to dismiss it but perhaps, there comes a threshold where even the minds of those outside a work will take on a level of generalization comparable to that of content creators themselves.

That is to say: is the paring of frequent listens, alongside the human mind's capacity for structural auto-fill, directly affecting their perception of something as either being good, bad or feeling incomplete? (e.g. getting hooked on a song no matter what and not feeling negative emotions because some lyrics are less comprehensible played live, even though you can draw the conclusion that lyrics should be heard.)

Is this premise why we can get positively hooked on a song; even if every time we've heard it, we've never been in a situation where we can fully absorb the finished product? 


25 August 2014

Just a hop skip and a jump (across the pond) to Music Tech Fest: London 2014

Gatherings that involve amassing lots of creative energy often lead to new discoveries, new efforts or new relationships that may not have formed otherwise. This is why conferences and meet ups are so popular among the music industry.

One such gathering is just about to arrive on the calendar and its spontaneous collaboration is not to be missed! 

Music Tech Fest, which you can read previous coverage on here, is putting together the last round of their preparations before kicking off the third installment of its flagship event, hosted at the place of its founding, London. Themes challenging hackers, musicians, artists and creatives of all types who present and attend, incorporate a unique frame for thought each year and this year is no exception. Three days of presentations and their 24 hour hackathon bring in three fresh and contrasting themes for exploration, all of which are bound to prompt intrigue. Getting underway on Friday, September 5 and running through the weekend until Sunday, September 7, the festival's chosen location is of extra special significance to the area, being held at the LSO Saint Luke's home to the London Symphony Orchestra.

If the trip isn't a long plane ride away, do consider getting one of the very limited tickets available to the general public for attendance at the festival, on sale now through the LSO's official website! If the UK is a trip too far away, don't despair, as every minute of the inspiring and surprising will be filmed and streamed live for viewing across the world. Pair that with the instantaneous power of Twitter and it can feel like you are right there with everyone so there's nothing to lose!


Here's the breakdown of Music Tech Fest: London for 2014 and information on the tickets:

Friday, Saturday and Sunday tickets are each available for £20, or if you buy all three days, it's just £50 for the whole weekend.

We have a world first presentation of wearable performance technologies, a computer that composes classical music, a quartet making music directly from human brainwaves, a gunk band you can join and play music using old game controllers, and so much more.

The industry will be there. The hackers will be there. The artists will be there. The inventors will be there. The future of music will be there. We'd love you to be there too!

Themes and schedule for 2014

Friday: 6pm - 10pm - Occupy Music
Join us as we take over the music industry and invent it again from scratch with new technologies, new ideas and new economics. From an exclusive sneak preview of a documentary film about the social technologies of independent music collectives in Brazil to the introduction of brand new music formats, new wearable performance technologies and the reinvention of merchandise, a specially commissioned wearable tech performance with Jason Singh, new ways of being a band, brand new apps - and radical digital innovation from a bunch of people who are several steps ahead in their thinking about the music business.

Saturday: 1pm - 10pm - Gunk and HMI
On Saturday, we're going Gunk - geek punk. Forget three chords - here's a Raspberry Pi, an accelerometer and the Soundcloud API. Go form a band. Have a battle of the apps. We're pitching Coldcut with Ninja Jamm against Yellofier. Improvise with gaming controllers and enrol in Fakebit Polytechnic. Rough and ready innovation at the cutting edge of music and tech. We'll also be getting into HMI - Human Music Interaction - music and the brain, music and emotion, music and visuals, new works at the intersection of contemporary music and data and live performances by a brainwave quartet - as well as a new classical work entirely composed by a computer.

Sunday: 1pm - 10pm - Get Your Ears Dirty
Roll up your sleeves and get your ears dirty. Music is for playing. Technology is for making. We're getting out the components, breaking open the software. Anything that can make noise will make noise. Bring your inner child - and your outer one. Here's your chance to get involved and help invent the future of music - or simply watch it being invented before your eyes with lots of hands-on experimentation, hacks by both pros and kids, bucketloads of improvisation and unlikely collaborations, Shlomo getting his ears dirty with you - and great figureheads from the worlds of beatboxing, hip hop and jazz chipping in.


As quickly as Music Tech Fest London is approaching, Music Tech Fest may also be coming to a city near you, so take note of the "tour" dates below! In addition, Music Tech Fest is already planning into 2015 with ten global festival events lined up, including large Music Tech Fest events in the Netherlands, Scandinavia and at Midem in Cannes in June.

Music Tech Fest 2014 dates:

• London 5-7 September at the LSO St Lukes (the home of the London Symphony


• Berlin 24-26 October in association with Fraunhofer, Berklee College of Music & Factory Berlin;

• Paris 21-23 November alongside Ircam Forum and Berklee's Rethink Music

Venture Day at IRCAM in the Pompidou Centre;

• New York 10-12 December in partnership with NYU.


Andrew Dubber, Director

Music Tech Fest


Email: dubber@musictechfest.org

Twitter: @dubber / @musictechfest

Phone: +44 7446 886566

Skype: adubber

13 August 2014

Sensible or not: Scrutinizing the subtleties of sound

Thus far, our senses have led to some pretty solid sounding instruments.
How much should we or shouldn't we abandon relying on them?

"Sound waves", Online Image, Wikimedia Commons, 12 August 2014
< http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V13_D058_Sound_waves_1.jpg >

Busting out the microscope, testing protocols and then turning massively specific — these choices that revolve around pursuing absolute certainty don't necessarily align right away with the very free flowing, interpretive, abstract nature of artistic performance. True, when a person reaches for their instrument in preparation to play, tuning often involves steady listening and exact precision in order to settle on the proper micro tone and set oneself up with proper intonation. Meticulous behavior and meticulous standards have a place amidst music but perhaps only when it comes to all the stages prior to playing.

After all, if we started to makes things too precise and memorize them too intimately without room for variation, that would result in overly sanitized sounds wouldn't it? 

Oh, wait, we might be a little late on that one... *cough* digital manipulation *cough*

The construction of virtually any instrument, many steps prior to it ever reaching a musician's hands for play, involves an exactness, much like that of any architect. It is intriguing to note the inherently opposing approaches to understanding and navigating an instrument's assembly when looking at modern, machine aided evaluation and the reliability of tried and true human experience over many years of training and formation of individual intuition. The sheer variety of instruments there are in the world, deciding to do such a compare and contrast for any single one would be daunting. The choice to study the piano in this more intimate way, one of the most stylistically multi-faceted and physically complex instruments out there, only seems like the most maddening of options to pick.

Yet this is exactly what some professors from around the country and have set out to do, one step, or one note rather, at a time. According to a recent podcast with Science Friday, Agnieszka Roginska, a professor of NYU's music technology department and Alex Case, an associate professor of music with the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, are working together to create a sonic map of piano note radiation in relation to each key's frequency. Repeated, identical strikes of piano keys (for the time being, middle C,) using an electronic Disklavier player piano for play consistency, and ever increasing microphone placement along the length of the piano, presented them with a rough sonic image of the radiation pattern for that particular note on the piano. 


Prior to doing anything, simply walk into a room with a piano and one is faced with an intricate device of many delicately interconnected parts — the hammers, strings, and sound board to name a few — each capable of many different kinds of manipulation that all affect how well or poorly the pieces work together to do their jobs and then collectively how well the instrument itself sounds at the time of play. Most of our senses can even be trained to observe an instrument like a piano in such a close way: through sound, feel of string vibrations and even merely by sight, with enough experience.

On the one hand, knowing how many minute differences there can be in each and every piano that's made (because humanity and artificially forced copying just don't match up 100%), and given the piano's inherent mechanical complexity, understanding its inner workings in a more straightforward and measurable way could certainly paint a better picture of what specifically makes every new piano sound the way it does. This elucidation would then conceivably make it easier for pianists to choose a piano with a sound even more tightly catered to their individually preferred timbre. Think, ultimate level of customization! 

Still, is it a good and or necessary advancement that people want to further strip down something self-taught and apprenticed masters have been capable of building with refinement since long before mass production lines were even a thought?

In the context of some very isolated purposes, dissecting a piano note down to its many, often unnoticed, harmonics and overtones leaves less room for gross misuse or excessive application. Discovering more about the very origins and behavior of timbre for example, (e.g. the pluck of a guitar string vs. the pluck of a piano string.) would simply be an expanding of comprehension about sound as an entity. The idea that we might have a better sonic visualization of piano tone resonance against its soundboard and be capable of applying that to studio micing that will give a piano player stronger recorded input, long before any plug-ins or EQ are used, such an application feels much like a maximizing of pre-existent potential. If a soundboard in a piano is what is it and we just have a clearer picture of what it does with the notes people play, there's nothing forcibly excessive about that either. Again, thumbs up to technology and advancement here.


Going back to the first mention of ultimate customization though...does gaining the ability to create the "perfect blues piano" or "perfect symphonic piano," by way of (eventual) zoning in on the ideal combination of harmonics, feel like sliding too far outside the area of balance between having/utilizing science and technology's capabilities and retaining some area of gray obscurity necessary to keep music's human character? It's not just about human character in playing the music but in what is used to play the music as well.

There's the argument that electric instruments have already somewhat answered the question of this dilemma but the fact of the matter is that they are separate from their acoustic counterparts. If you want a specific sound, you reach for an electric guitar and trick it out using technology to give you the sound you want, but, we don't technologically manipulate the construction of a guitar that is meant to exist acoustically, in order to give it some level of digitally acquired specificity. 

Doing so might just change how we view the meaning behind a "truly acoustic" instrument or a "truly digital instrument" and may just create a new category of hybrid between the two. Will that be the first move toward a type of natural sonic predictability? An auto-tune even outside of auto-tune? Or is this just another flow of evolution in music making akin to the when electric instruments came on the scene in the first place?

As with any new developments that result from scholarly research, it will come down to what we desire out of the music we go forth to make and where we place the lines of application and musical differentiation amidst new information. 

Bob Berger, Steinway's director of customer satisfaction put it perfectly for Science Friday, and it's people like him, especially given in the position he's in with Steinway, that makes his objective view toward this kind of potential change, so valuable:

"And you know the idea of having sophisticated equipment to measure acoustic performance is wonderful to have, but never discount the ability of your hearing to be able to discern very subtle changes in many different aspects of tone and sound.” 

01 August 2014

And now for something completely different...

Perfect scenario: unorthodox bits of sky-inspired audio played back
on Richard Clarkson's interactive lamp and speaker, also called The Cloud!
"The Cloud", Online Image,  1 August 2014, Cloud + R.C.
< http://static.squarespace.com/static/
51b52c1ee4b0f0ee887cd1e8/t/5307897be4b05512e6e91a6f/1393002885630/4.jpg?format=1000w >

Happy August!

Today's title is inspired by Chris Thile's use of this recognized Monty Python quote, as Thile said it during a live performance, right before playing a cover the "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" by the White Stripes — been stuck in my head since coming across it last week. 

Personal ear worms aside, the transitional sounding title is indeed pertinent and all-to-fitting, for what is here today: A pair of fascinating works that both interpret something from a non-auditory experience into audible and sonically varying results. 

Let's start with these two questions to get things rolling:

If clouds made music as they moved, 
what would their melodies sound like?

If space weren't devoid of air and incapable of sustaining sound waves, what would the activity happening around the planets in our solar system sound like?

The answer to these contemplations reside in one audio visual robotic build and one round of NASA probe transmissions, titled the Cloud Piano and NASA Space Sounds, respectively. 

The Cloud Piano, created by kinetic, robotic and sculptural designer David Bowen, seems to embody each of the three character qualifiers of Bowen's sculptural scope. Working primarily with real time, visual programming engine, Max/MSP, Bowen's installation joins together video input with an everyday piano and a few robot appendages in-between, to make the visual-to-auditory conversion come to life. The work is described as such on his official website:

"[Cloud Piano] plays the keys of a piano based on the movements and shapes of the clouds. A camera pointed at the sky captures video of the clouds. Custom software uses the video of the clouds in real-time to articulate a robotic device that presses the corresponding keys on the piano. The system is set in motion to function as if the clouds are pressing the keys on the piano as they move across the sky and change shape. The resulting sound is generated from the unique key patterns created by ethereal forms that build, sweep, fluctuate and dissipate in the sky."

NASA's Space Sounds, on the other hand, utilize no conventional instruments for a trickle-down musical representation. Rather, the the various probes responsible for recording and converting electromagnetic waves in space, around planets and so on, over to frequencies audible to humans, conveys a much more literal and direct display of what a non-sonic occurrence leaves in human ears if it becomes discernible within 20Hz-20kHz. The coincidentally ethereal and tonically-uneasy results of these wave conversions almost makes it feel as though a cosmic joke is being played on the human race. Perhaps these clips could become the standard for background sound in space exploration films, much akin to the Wilhelm Scream continuously applied to films since 1951 but with far more realism, given their actually real interpretation.

While the answer to each question, provided in the form of these clips, might seem like a frivolous, non-necessity to functional living, seeing more and more exploration into the understanding, conversion and (occasional) artistic programming of these types of unconventional auditory avenues via non-music related projects, ushers in new, much needed, room for musical evolution. It's no secret that every note has been played. Every lick, riff and hook has been done. Avant-garde is even getting to be a difficult label to genuinely take on, as the absence of more and more expected approaches to music leaves only the uncommon to expose, and, eventually, there will only be less first-time newness to that sector as well.

NASA might not take up music in-between working to expand space exploration technologies but what these two endeavors have in common is a new, yet straightforward, look at two sources for musical inspiration, from things we have long had around us but have maybe taken for granted, in lieu of trying to intensely and or consciously to "do or  be different" only in ways we perceive to be relevant for music.

Maybe the next new movement in music is going to come from not working with an objective for new at all. 
Maybe we have to truly look at everything we already have around us and see (and hear) what untapped vantage points have been thus far left unnoticed because they have existed, up to now, in a non-musical context.

25 July 2014

Players, perfection and paranoia of a different color

In this case, should the sign actually say, "Population: Everyone. Now what?"
"Population1", Online Image, Linked to Business 25 July 2014
< http://linkedintobusiness.com/content/uploads/perfection1.jpg >

Stage fright, performance anxiety, plain nerves...whichever label one prefers to reference, the general experience associated with these terms tends to be one that nobody wishes on themselves or anyone else –and not just because sweaty palms are unpleasant.

The idea of losing focus and becoming negatively, hyper aware of everyone watching an unfolding performance is certainly no fun. Nonetheless, despite burying oneself in an avalanche of books on preparation, the occasional shaky set of legs is virtually inevitable among anybody putting themselves out there for evaluation. I have touched on this topic in a previous piece, as it was a part of a discussion I had with one of the members of the October Project, back in 2012. The occurrence of anxiety around musical performance is nothing unique to one type of musician or one type of situation. Simultaneously, for an occurrence so commonplace, one would imagine that additional, as well as more effective mechanisms for coping with and overcoming the problem would be hanging around in abundance for analysis and personal execution.

Why is this reality important and worth re-visiting?

This piece, from the LA Times, posted a little over a week ago on July 15, ventures into the fearful waters from a slightly different angle and prompts a reconsideration of the lines that separate the reasons for fear in artistic study, among other things elaborated on later: stage terror manifesting not from fear of inadequate musicianship or technical skill, but rather, fear of one's performance not being the choice of another, that makes the cut for a job spot among others equally as skilled. Auditions, by the nature of their underlying competitive purposes, are associated with wanting perfection and possibly fearing providing less than that and subsequently forming serious anxiety over that. However, when a player is in a room with comparable colleagues, what exactly constitutes less than perfection is not nearly as blatant; with the margins of good versus less good existing so close together, no light can peer through the space between them. Jumping right to the blunt cut of the conversation, take a look at some of these sentiments on the current state of professional level auditions and accompanying anxiety:

Today, perfection is a requirement...You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine,

are the words of David Taylor, assistant concertmaster with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The article then paints and even more overarching picture of what auditions can be like for the modern high level musician:

Now auditions take place behind screens to ensure anonymity. For a while, tapes were sent along with résumés — before it was realized that...the result might be a record spliced together from several takes. The point of it all is to make the process as fair and democratic as possible, even though subjectivity remains key.”

Carrie Dennis, principal violist of the L.A. Philharmonic described the intense level of anonymity striven for by authorities for her audition as being akin to animal herding:

[The Philadelphia Orchestra has] carpets so the committee can't even hear the sound of the auditioners' shoes. You pick a number, you get called and herded in. It's like a cattle call."

Such statements and enforced policies are not freshly conceived, nor are they even especially bolstered thanks to the attention of any particular scandal, however, they have definitely been given even more mental priority and decision-impactive emphasis among some orchestras as the years have progressed, held back partially thanks to the varying approaches to audition and interpretation of perfection among varying cultures as also alluded to by Dennis. A lack of objective, tonal or technique based imperfection leaves seasoned musicians with stage anxiety sourced from a completely separate place –one that holds itself up against unattainable qualifiers, described as such due to the plain fact that no one is a machine.

Moreover, there is something to be said about the elimination and disallowing of any variable in execution because machine-like proficiency is the antithesis of artistic singularity. The inclusion of some humanity –potential for mistakes and all– into ones playing can mean technical pitfalls, or, it can be absent these and simply lead to the inclusion of additional, intangible emotional conveyance, which is as much of an enhancement element as is hitting all the right tones and dynamic markings. It is a wonder performance majors across the country have not already all had severe nervous breakdowns with expectations like these.

Consider this:

Classical music might not use Auto-Tune to excess in the way many contemporary, mainstream musicians do. Still, with the bars for the former group of artists currently set so dramatically high –not to mention functionally impossible– the classical vein is actually mirroring a move toward, and apparent desire for, sonic sterilization in much the same fashion. It just has not realized and or won't admit it (yet). The sterilization of the latter might not be intended to correct unattainable notes but instead would be akin to a removal of every professional's own recognizable tone color, as they steadily and forcibly need to adapt to some committee's nebulous rubric of expectations. Combine those two descriptors together with a pool of people competing for rare orchestral openings and it is difficult to conjure up a list of who wouldn't be full of terror and eventually develop some degree of an inadequacy complex.


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