Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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On a world of distributed Medicis

November 26, 2012

Parlour Trick

In the 1970s, everyone was pretty sure what it meant to be successful as a musician. The requirements of scale for physical distribution meant that you were pretty much either filling stadia or you were in a weekend band. But with the rise of digital distribution of music, there are endless discussions by artists on what’s happening to the music industry, and how to make it as an artist, and just what it means to ‘make it’ anyway.

But I’m not an artist. I’m a music fan. And what I want as a music fan is pretty simple: I want there to be an endlessly renewing supply of music that I like.

With the rise of affordable professional-quality tools the barrier for entry to music production is lower than it’s ever been. And with digital music formats, the incremental cost of distribution is no longer related to economies of scale. And with the rise of one-to-one or many-to-many networks (instead of the the one-to-many of broadcast), there’s a way for artists to find an audience–not just an audience, but their unique tribe. All this means that the ‘music industry’, for lack of a better phrase, now has the potential to support a musical middle class.

I want this to happen, and here’s why. It’s far more valuable to me for there to be twenty artists who each make fifty thousand dollars a year than for there to be one who makes a million dollars annually, because I’m likely to like at least a few of the twenty and I may or may not like the millionaire. This isn’t anti-populist snobbery. Music is so deeply personal:  it’s about what resonates with your psyche, not just what’s critically-acclaimed or popular. The more productive artists there are out there, the more likely there will be music that speaks to each of us personally. And yes, I know that music isn’t alienated labour, and that musicians will always do their best to write and play music. But they still have to pay the bills, and the biggest threat to there being music I like is still that artists have to go get a job at Jiffy Lube in Boise, Idaho.

Even better than there being lots of musicians whose work I like is the possibility of actively contributing to the creation of the music that I want to hear. Until recently, this ability has been the privilege of princes and popes, or at least the fairly rich. But the rise of mechanisms like Kickstarter means that anyone can be a patron of the arts (well, a micropatron at least).

One of the drawbacks of the Kickstarter model is that it’s deliberately focused on ‘projects’, which means that often making the music itself (from buying groceries to paying for studio time) is mostly taken care of, and you’re essentially prepaying for the physical distribution. As well, Kickstarter’s emphasis on rewards you can hold in your hand doesn’t work as well for people who want just the music, not the merch. Singer-songwriter Jamie Kent has created another model that he’s calling The Collective. Like Kickstarter, it has tiers of backers with appropriate rewards, but unlike Kickstarter, it’s explicitly about backing his career, rather than a specific project. I’m curious (and not sanguine) about how well it worked though, given that the date on that page is 2009.   [see 'EDIT', below]

One of the side effects of supporting musicians with a world of distributed Medicis is that relationships matter. Cory Doctorow called this one back in 2006 in the context of writing, but it’s equally applicable to music:

But what kind of artist thrives on the Internet? Those who can establish a personal relationship with their readers…[who have] the ability to conduct their online selves as part of a friendly salon that establishes a non-substitutable relationship with their audiences. You might find a film, a game, and a book to be equally useful diversions on a slow afternoon, but if the novel’s author is a pal of yours, that’s the one you’ll pick. It’s a competitive advantage that can’t be beat.

That photo above is from the Kickstarter for Meredith Yayanos‘s musical project The Parlour Trick, which I backed. I would never would have heard her music but for her work on Coilhouse and her presence on Twitter, and knowing her on Twitter was a big factor in backing her. That’s true for most Kickstarter projects: having a relationship with a community is key to successful funding (just ask Amanda Palmer). And the Kickstarter format itself, with videos and updates, is really about building and sustaining this relationship with backers, sometimes through a rocky fulfillment process.

This does make me a tiny bit sad as a fan, though. I hear about and can support lots of great music, but somewhere there’s an introverted teenager who’s making the most amazing electronica in her bedroom, and I want to hear (and support) that too.

EDIT: I am completely remiss for forgetting about Kristin Hersh‘s sustained crowdfunding initiative to support her music production, Strange Angels, which leverages the CASH Music set of open-source tools for musicians. Thanks to @jimmynohands for the reminder.

Thanks to Maia for pointing me to Jamie Kent’s project. The image at the top is for the first album by Meredith Yayanos’s band The Parlour Trick; go back it on Kickstarter.

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Tangible user interfaces for home audio

June 25, 2012

Last week, I was invited to the Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design to see student projects created during a four-week module on Tangible User Interfaces for home audio. I talked to one of the lead faculty, Vinay Venkatraman, and he said the theme was inspired by a recent trip to China coupled with his knowledge of Danish audio companies: while there was a lot of emphasis on the technical aspects of audio, companies weren’t giving much thought to the interaction design elements.

It was a fruitful area for the six student teams to explore. The projects mostly focused on two spaces: interfaces for home environments (especially the kitchen), and music discovery, especially within the users’ own collections. One piece for the kitchen was designed for the refrigerator door: it consisted of fist-sized ‘building blocks’ that connected together audio controls (volume, shuffle, source, skip). The students had set it up on an actual refrigerator door, which led to a moment of cross-cultural confusion. One of its creators said, “But this is a prototype–of course, the real thing would be smaller,” and I responded by saying, no, you’d want it to be nice and chunky so you could hit the controls with your wrist or arm if your hands were dirty from food prep. It took me a moment to realize that I was thinking of US-sized refrigerators (a little to a lot bigger than her demo door) and she was thinking of standard European refrigerators (a lot smaller!).

But my favourite piece, pictured above, was called Past.fm. Designed by Razan Sadeq, Hideaki Matsui, and Zubin Pastakia, it was rooted in how people associate particular songs with specific time periods, and vice versa. The little ball at the left is a token, which links to a particular Last.fm user. The slider then maps onto a date range, say April 2005 to June 2012. At each point, it plays your most-played song that month, and displays the title and artist in the display. The use of tokens means that you can listen to other users’ music history, or even things like ‘the most-played hip-hop of the last ten years.’ As someone with a carful of mix CDs with labels like “May 2008″, I really loved this idea of having a temporal jukebox.

As of this writing, they’re not up, but full details of all the student projects should be here shortly.

Thanks to Mayo Nissen for the intro, and Alie Rose for the invitation to visit CIID.

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Media technologies are additive

October 11, 2011

I’ve been watching the debate over Amazon’s e-book rental service, announced a few weeks ago. I can’t help but notice how it recapitulates the debate over streaming music.

Here’s a pretty normal day for me and music: I’ll listen to the radio in my car en route to work. I take my iPod, loaded with MP3s, to the gym. At my desk, I stream music via Spotify, or Last.fm, or by using ex.fm for MP3 links, or Hype Machine, or more. Or I stream more radio. On the way home, I listen to CDs (my car is too old to have an auxiliary input). I might stream Spotify to my phone as I walk out to meet friends for dinner. And I’ll put a vinyl record on when I come home.

Similarly, my office is full of text. Textbooks. Large-format coffee-table style books. My Kindle. Hand-bound copies of all of my theses. PDF e-books on my computer. Printouts of manuscripts to review. Bookmarks to online texts in my browser. Novels: hardbound, trade and pocket paperback. On my phone, Kindle and Instapaper.  Workbooks.

I recently downloaded a number of illustrations from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 book, Kunstformen der Natur, from the Wikimedia Commons. They first existed as sketches, then engravings, then the lithographs that went into the book. Someone scanned the pages and uploaded them as high-resolution images, which I downloaded, opened in image-editing software, converted to greyscale and resized, and then downloaded to serve as the screensavers on my Kindle.

It’s a fallacy to think that the existence of one technology supplants another. Sure, technologies become obsolete. But as a user and a lover of the content (the text, or the music, or the images), I’m not interested in hurrying up the process. Different technologies have different affordances, and my primary interest is in being able to reach for the most appropriate one for my purpose.

[photo: lost box of tapes! by Flickr user wayneandwax, used here under its Creative Commons license]

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Death and the Powers: a critique

April 6, 2011

This is a guest post by Irene Ros. Read more about Death and the Powers, the “robot opera,” here.

A few weeks ago, I attended one of the few Boston performances of Tod Machover’s opera, Death and the Powers. Needless to say, to me, any opera that manages to weave terms like “simulation’” “system” and “cables” into its narrative sounds like an exciting (and nerdy) experience. Enthralled by the display arrays and semi-autonomous robots, I was ready for an evening of fine music and a story that I can identify with. Sadly, I left the show far more disappointed than I thought one could be, given the subject matter.

In the opera, the main character, Simon, is a successful businessman who basks in the glory of the capitalism that made him who he is. But he’s also terminally ill, and he decides to use his hoards of money to migrate his being into the System, an infallible “place.” (Any resemblance of the System to the Singularity is, well, probably not coincidental.) As as I chuckled at Simon singing about his ‘big bucks,’ I started to feel some pangs of missed opportunity clawing at mind. Why pick (another) rich white guy as the protagonist?

Shortly after Simon’s transition to the System, we watched the two female characters in the opera compete for who could appear weaker. His wife Evvy literally loses her voice after Simon’s departure; her subsequent appearances on stage show her as practically unhinged, wandering around the stage wearing headphones to hear the voice of her sublimed husband: after his disappearance, she apparently has no reason to remain a human being with a personality of her own. While Nicholas, Simon’s son, immediately follows him into the System, his daughter Miranda is the only character in the opera who expresses unease. But Miranda’s anxiety is largely presented as how much she misses her father. Her reasoning is so well hidden behind a wall of fragile loneliness that the viewer can’t possibly focus on the legitimate questions she was (almost) asking.

In leaving reality for the System, and taking his wealth with him, Simon somehow crashed the world’s economy (sound familiar?). He resists the entreaties of earthbound organizations to do something to repair it, and the needs of the sick, poor and children then receive their 15 minutes of fame: I was left speechless as a band of what appeared to be zombies walked on stage and attacked Miranda. Why would the needy look like zombies? And were they planning on dancing to “Thriller? Portraying capitalism in such a glorified way, as the destroyer and savior all at once, is nothing short of shameful in my mind. I couldn’t imagine how the opera could get any farther from actually shedding light on our society.

There were so many opportunities missed in this opera to discuss not just the technology question, but also to comment on our social structure through the eyes of the future. While I am certain some would argue that it’s just an opera, and not necessarily the place and time to discuss the impact of capitalism, it would be hard to argue that the storyline didn’t glorify it, at the cost of devaluing anyone who isn’t rich (or male, or white).

Machover heads the Opera of the Future group at MIT’s Media Lab, and it’s past time for us technologists to stop separating our technology from its social context and its impact on society. Perhaps the opera is most successful at showing how technology, thoughtlessly applied, will only recapitulate the existing social and power structures. Where the digital and human merge, the ethical questions and possibilities for change extend far beyond the limited ones presented in Death and the Powers.

Irene Ros is an artist, musician and visualization research developer at the Visual Communication Lab of IBM Research, in Cambridge, MA. Learn more about her and her work at ireneros.com.

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So, why is indie music so white?

January 20, 2011

This is a response to Wendy Fonarow’s column for the Guardian Music Blog, “Ask The Indie Professor: Why Are There So Many White Indie Bands?” Briefly, in the article, Dr. Fonarow posits that indie bands reflect the makeup of their audience, which is predominantly white (which, while it’s true for the UK as a whole, is probably not true for many urban areas). She then goes on to argue that non-white people are not drawn to the aesthetics of indie music. You can read the full article here.

I’ve been a devoted indie music fan my entire life. I am the daughter of South Asian immigrants. And while I might not be an anthropologist, I am a professor of engineering and a researcher of the engineering student experience, particularly around gender and ethnicity. And much of what I’ve studied about engineering students, particularly woman and minorities, is also applicable to the issue of non-whites and indie music.

At its core, Fonarow’s argument is that there are few non-white people in indie music because they don’t want to be there. But any argument for underrepresentation of this form is suspect, because it fails to consider the effect of the environment on the individual. At a Belle and Sebastian show in Boston a few months ago, there were so few non-white faces in the large theatre that my companion and I played ‘spot the person of colour!’ At smaller venues, I’m quite often the only non-white person at the gig—and bear in mind that Boston is a fairly multicultural city, with a large student population. So while it’s possible that Belle and Sebastian and other indie bands have nothing to say to people who are not of Northern European descent, which is essentially what Fonarow is arguing, it’s far more likely that non-white music fans receive subtle but unmistakable messages of non-belonging. In my own field, women engineering students face a very different academic experience than their male counterparts in a host of ways, many of them subtle, but with a profound cumulative impact. There’s a large body of literature in psychology and educational research that addresses the effect of the cultural environment, and it’s just as applicable to clubs as classrooms.

Second, Fonarow argues that as “being part of a music community is sharing similar sentiments, it should be no surprise that people raised in the same culture would have a similar ethos…”. She also states that “this may not be appealing to immigrant or marginalised groups who have already experienced poverty and experience genuine outsiderness as a social class.” Whoa, seriously? It’s astonishing that Fonarow lumps together all non-whites, whether in the US, the UK, or elsewhere, in this way. To pick just a few examples, this suggests that a Somali refugee, the middle-class, university-bound children of educated immigrants (which is what I was—hardly an experience of poverty or ‘genuine outsiderness’), a fourth-generation Japanese-American, and the child of Latino migrant workers are all one category. Never mind the fact that the children of non-white immigrants, especially in wildly diverse cities like London or New York City, are being ‘raised in the same culture’ (note to Fonarow: it’s actually quite offensive to be told that your skin colour trumps your upbringing). And this cultural-essentialist approach does just as much of a disservice to white people; it fails to explain, as a friend of mine points out, why one of her children is into indie pop and another loves death metal, despite their identical cultural backgrounds.

As an indie music fan, I read and appreciated Fonarow’s book, Empire of Dirt, largely because of how deeply rooted it is in careful observational research. So why is indie music so white? I don’t know the whole answer, but rather than just cavalierly saying, “So indie bands are generally white in the US or UK, but so what?”, I would really have preferred Fonarow to use her ethnographic skills to talk with the people who care about these questions, not just blithely talking about them.

Image: Atari Teenage Riot @ the Sonar…, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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Best of 2010: debcha’s tops in [Boston music] tech

December 23, 2010

 

Cross-posted from Boston’s best local music blog, Boston Band Crush.

 

Boston is a music town. And Boston is a tech town. So it’s hardly surprising that Boston and Camberville produce an enormous amount of interesting stuff at the intersection of music and technology. Here are five of my favorite examples from this year:

1. Mashup Breakdown

Benjamin Rahn, of Cambridge, created an addictive site that visualizes the use of samples in songs, and launched it with (of course) Girl Talk’s new album, All Day. As you play tracks from the album, each of the samples used is highlighted and identified. The best part? It’s an ongoing project. So if there’s a song that you’ve always been curious about, go to the site and find out how you can participate.

2. The Swinger

It’s been a great year for Somerville’s The Echo Nest, a music intelligence company. They closed on a major round of funding, and provided the brainpower behind a host of great projects, like MTV’s phenomenal Music Meter site (yes, I know you’re thinking “MTV? Doing something worthwhile with music. Really?” Yes, really. Check it out.) And they had a viral hit on their hands with The Swinger, a bit of computer code that can make any song swing by automagically time-stretching the first half of each beat and shortening the second. Check out some examples here.

3. The Toscanini Gestural Interface

Boston hackers Lindsey Mysse and Robby Grodin showed off the Toscanini Gestural Interface (named after the conductor, not the ice cream) at the most recent Boston Music Hack Day. It’s a watch that turns movement into music (via Max/MSP commands). See it in action in the video here.

4. Dance Central and Rock Band 3

Across from the Middle East, an unremarkable office building houses the giant of music games, Harmonix. While they face an uncertain future, they released not one, but two incredible games this year. You’re probably already spending your evenings rocking out or getting down in your living room.

5. Another Green World (33 1/3 Books)

What possible relationship can a book about a 35-year-old Brian Eno album have with the Boston music/tech scene? Geeta Dayal, a Boston-based arts critic and MIT grad, wrote a short but brilliant book that investigates Eno’s 1975 album, which is deeply rooted in technology and technical concepts, especially in the field of cybernetics (defined and named by MIT professor Norbert Weiner in 1948). Even if you’re not a techie, it’s worth a read for how it illuminates one artist’s creative process.

 

 

Deb Chachra (debcha) writes zed equals zee, a Cambridge-based blog about music and technology, and curates the associated Tumblr. You can catch up with her at shows around the city, or you can just follow her on Twitter.
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Wanted: a way to aggregate streaming tracks

December 3, 2010

I’ve decided that I really want a mashup of exfmShuffler.fm and delicious, with a dash of smart playlisting thrown in.

Here’s the problem: Every day I find cool streaming music in lots of different places. Soundcloud. YouTube. Tumblr. (that’s a piece of my Tumblr dashboard, above). But for most of it, I listen to it once. At most. Because listening to streaming music in an atomized form is a pain. Having to choose and click on a new song every three minutes might be fine for an ADD teenager, but I don’t want my music listening to be completely interrupt-driven. I just want a continuous stream of music I like (and judging by the continuing popularity of online and terrestrial radio, and the love for Shuffler, I’m not alone).

In an MP3-centric world, I’ve dealt with the increasingly decentralized creation and distribution of music by, in essence, centralizing it: by downloading MP3s into my library, and using that as an aggregator. And exfm, which I just started using, is pretty good at getting around the downloading issue. But as more and more music is straight-up streaming, how do we make those tracks into part of our ‘virtual library,’ so that we can find them, embed them into playlists, and otherwise listen at will?

What I really want to be able to do is this: Every time I find a streaming track I’m interested in (whether in Tumblr, YouTube, SoundCloud or anywhere else), I flag it as part of my ‘library’, like delicious does for bookmarks or exfm does for MP3s. Note that, unlike delicious, I don’t want to manually tag it. Because, well, I’m lazy. But also because I either know the song, and I can classify it ways I can’t easily articulate into a folksonomy, or I don’t know it, and can’t classify it at all. So I’d really like some tools to automagically organize it into playlists in a range of ways. And then I’d like to just be able to listen to a Shuffler-like continuous stream that pulls together my flagged streaming tracks, my own MP3s, tracks from streaming services like last.fm, and more.

Oh, and I’d also like a pony. Or maybe a unicorn.

What do you think?

This post is the result of a conversation this morning with Jason Herskowitz, prompted by a question from Mark Mulligan.

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Music hacks and research questions

October 16, 2010

I’m spending part of this weekend at the Boston Music Hack Day in Cambridge, MA. Like lots of people, my ideas far outstrip my abilities and (especially!) the amount of time I have, so I thought I’d put some of them up here, in the hope that they may spark some ideas in other people.

Hacks:

Neophile: how musically alive are you? After the nth disappointment with online music licensing, and realizing that their power of the legacy record labels lies in their back catalog, I started to wonder what proportion of music that people listen to is old and how much is new. It occurred to me that you could plot a histogram of ‘number of listens’ against release date, and different people would have different distributions. For example, some people might have a peak centred around the music that came out when they were 21, whereas people who seek out new music might have a curve that’s flat or increasing with time (Paul Lamere dubbed these people ‘musically dead’ and ‘musically alive,’ respectively). The Musicbrainz database includes release years for a number of songs; with that and Last.fm scrobble data, it’s feasible to build this. I’d love to see it.

Ransom Note: I really want a ‘musical ransom note’, where you can piece together the lyrics of a song using cut-up bits of other songs. While the MusiXmatch lyrics API now provides half of that equation. I’m not sure that you can parse songs by lyrics quite yet, so this one might have to wait a bit.

Research questions:

Whose Telephone Is It? I was listening to “Teenage Kicks” (1978) by The Undertones recently, and I was struck that Feargal Sharkey sings about “the telephone” because Lady Gaga, for example, sings about “my telephone.” Somewhere in the last decade or so, telephones went from being communal property to being individual property, and this is reflected in lyrics. So I idly wondered about using the MusiXmatch lyrics API to search for instances of the word “telephone,” and to plot the frequency of the preceding article (‘the,’ ‘my,’ ‘your’) over time. This is kind of a silly example, but there is real, interesting research to be done in analysing the corpus of music lyrics using digital methodologies, for example to track social change (my friend Jo Guldi, a historian at the University of Chicago and Harvard University, does this kind of work with historical documents).

My projects:

I’ve just started re-learning how to code after many years of being strictly an experimentalist, so I have some bite-sized projects of my own that I’m working on. If you’re at the Hack Day and you’re interested in helping a Python n00b figure stuff out (like how to install matplotlib when I have Python 2.7, not 2.6) please feel free to find me.

What Makes a Music Geek? The distribution of musical knowledge. Paul Lamere of The Echo Nest created Namedropper, an online ‘game with a purpose’ that let people test their musical knowledge via their familiarity with artists across a range of genres. I have a hypothesis (half in jest, I admit) that there a very few people who know an enormous amount about music and lots of people who just know a little: in other words, that the musical knowledge in a population isn’t a normal distribution about a mean, but rather a Pareto distribution (shown above). Paul was kind enough to send me his dataset from running Namedropper, and I’m planning to plot a histogram of the scores to test this hypothesis (and yes, I know that it has pretty significant methodological limitations!)

Pandora’s Redemption: A friend of mine recently tweeted, “Pandora just put John Mayer‘s “Daughters” on my 90s grrl rock station. There is no “thumbs down” button large or ironic enough.” So I’m pretty sure my first ‘real’ music hack will be to use the Echo Nest Remix APIs to try to recreate John Mayer songs out of 90s riot grrl bands like Bikini Kill and L7.

Screaming Death Metal: My technical background is in materials science, not music, and it was suggested to me that I could try to merge the two (thanks, Brian). I’ve done a lot of work with the mechanical properties of materials: putting samples of different substances (like metals, ceramics, glass and, in my case, human bone) into a machine that pulls or pushes on them and measures the amount of force required to deform and eventually break the sample, to create a stress-strain curve. The shape of the curve is characteristic of the material, and it should be possible to create an audibilization of the data that captures some of the features that are interesting to a materials scientist in a way that is discernible to the ear: in other words, creating the scream that a material makes when it’s stressed to failure.

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Why “music isn’t as good as it used to be” is a fallacy

October 10, 2010

Every once in a while, I hear someone argue that music isn’t as good as it used to be — that at some point in the past, usually the 1960s or 70s, music was better. If you’re one of these people, I submit three reasons why that’s unlikely to be the case.

Time is the mother of all selection biases.

Go look at charts for different years – we only remember the gold, and we forget the dross. Time is a fantastic filter for the good stuff.

You are not the same person you were (10, 20, whatever) years ago.

Your relationship to music has changed. I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but it’s said that the magic age is 21: that you imprint on what you listen to then (hence the existence of oldies stations).

People have been saying that the older music was better for as long as popular music has existed.

Elvis? What are kids listening to these days?

Beatles? What are kids listening to these days?

Punk? What are kids listening to these days?

Rap? What are kids listening to these days?

Lady Gaga? What are kids listening to these days?

Get the picture? Do you really think that you’re different and special, and somehow the music from when you were a teenager actually was better?

It’s not that a case can’t be made for the superiority of music from one decade or another. It’s just that it’s really hard to convincingly make the case based on your personal experience of music, because you are not a disinterested, dispassionate observer.

I propose a new rule: that you’re only allowed to make sweeping generalizations comparing music from different time periods if they are at least a generation older than you. “The 1880s! That was a terrible decade for music. No soul, man – not like the ’70s!”

I look around, and I think that we may very well be living through the Cambrian Explosion of music. Music has never been easier to create or to distribute. There’s no reason to believe that the amount of good music hasn’t increased too.

Image: Mayan Calendar by Flickr user NCReedplayer, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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Engineering and music at the Frontiers of Engineering

October 4, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend the National Academy of Engineering’s Frontiers of Engineering symposium on behalf of my day job. One of the sessions focused on Engineering and Music, organized by Daniel Ellis of Columbia University and Youngmoo Kim of Drexel University, and some of my notes are below. (Links in the titles go to PDFs of short papers by each speaker.)

Brian Whitman, The Echo Nest: Very Large-Scale Music Understanding

What does it mean to “teach computers to listen to music“? Whitman, co-founder and CTO of The Echo Nest, talked about the path to founding the company as well as some of its guiding principles. Whitman discussed the company’s approach to learning about music, which mixes acoustic analysis of the music itself with information gleaned by applying natural language processing techniques to what people are writing on the Internet about the songs, artists or albums. He shared their three precepts: “Know everything about music and listeners. Give (and sell) great data to everyone. Do it automatically, with no bias, on everything.” Finally, he ended on a carefully optimistic note: “Be cautious what you believe a computer can do…but data is the future of music.” Earlier this year, Whitman gave a related but longer talk at the Music and Bits conference, which you can watch here. [A disclosure: Regular readers of z=z will be aware that The Echo Nest is a friend of the blog.]

Douglas Repetto, Columbia University: Doing It Wrong

I felt a little for Repetto, who presented a short primer on experimental music for an audience of not-very-sympathetic engineers. He started with Alvin Lucier‘s well-known piece, “I am sitting in a room” and then played a homage made by one of his students, Stina Hasse. In Lucier’s original, he iteratively re-records himself speaking, until eventually the resonance takes over and only the rhythms of his speech are discernible (more info). For Hasse’s take, she did the re-recording in an anechoic chamber; the absence of echo damped her voice and her words evolved into staticky sibilant chirps, probably as a result of the digital recording technology. Repetto presented several other works of music, making the case to the audience that there was a commonality of experimental mindset: for both the artists whose work he was presenting and the researchers in the room, the basic strategy was to interrogate the world and see what you find out. Creativity, he argued, stems from a “let’s see what happens” attitude: “creative acts require deviations from the norm, and that creative progress is born not of optimization, but of variance.”

Daniel Trueman, Princeton University: Digital Instrument Building and the Laptop Orchestra

Trueman, a professor of music, started off by talking about traditional acoustic instruments and the ‘fetishism’ of mechanics. Instruments are not, he stressed, neutral tools for expression: the physical constraints and connections of instruments shapes how musicians think, the kind of music they play, and how they express themselves (for example, since many artists compose on the piano, the peculiarities of the instrument colour the music they create). But in digital instruments, there is nothing connecting the body to the sound; as Trueman put it, “It has to be invented. This is both terrifying and exhilarating.” Typically, the user performs some actions, which are transduced by sensors of some sort, and then converted into sound. But the mapping between the sensor inputs and the resultant audible output is pretty much under the control of the creator. Trueman presented some examples of novel instruments and techniques for this mapping, as well as some challenges and opportunities: for example, the physical interfaces of digital instruments tend to be a little ‘impoverished’ (consider how responsive an electric guitar is, for example), but these instruments can also communicate wirelessly with each other, for which there is no acoustic analog.

Elaine Chew, University of Southern California: Demystifying Music and its Performance

Chew, with a background in both music and operations research, presented a number of her projects which use visualization and interaction to engage non-musicians with music. The MuSA.RT project visualizes music in real-time on a spiral model of tonality (see image above), and she demonstrated it for us by playing a piece by the spoof composer PDQ Bach on a keyboard and showing us how its musical humour derived in part from ‘unexpected’ jumps in the notes, which were clearly visible. She also showed us her Expression Synthesis Project, which uses an interactive driving metaphor to demonstrate musical expressiveness. The participant sits at what looks like a driving video game, with an accelerator, brake, steering wheel and a first-person view of the road. The twist is that the speed of the car controls the tempo of the music: straightaways encourage higher speed and therefore a faster tempo, and tight curves slow the driver down. As well as giving non-musicians a chance to ‘play’ music expressively, the road map is itself an interesting visualization of the different tempi in a piece.

Some quotes from the panel discussion:

Repetto on trying to build physicality/viscerality into digital instruments: “Animals understand that when you hit something harder, it’s louder. But when you hit your computer harder, it stops working.”

Trueman on muscle memory: “You can build a typing instrument that leverages your typing skills to make meaningful music.”

Chew on Rock Band and other music games: “It’s not very expressive: the timing is fixed, with no room for expression. You have to hit the target—you don’t get to manipulate the music.” More generally, the panelists agreed that the democratization of the music experience and communal music experiences were a social good, regardless of the means.

Things I never expected to write on this blog: I am grateful to the National Academy of Engineering, IBM, and Olin College for sponsoring this post, however inadvertently.

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z=z at Tourfilter Night, Thurs Sept 16

September 15, 2010

Cambridge! Somerville! Boston! Allston Rock City! Late notice, but I’m guest DJing at Tourfilter‘s monthly residency at River Gods, just outside Central Square, Cambridge this week: Thursday, September 16th, and the festivities start at 9 pm. Same drill as last time: my playlist is composed entirely of songs from artists with shows lined up for the Boston area in the next month or so. And the fall concert calendar looks fantastic.

UPDATED: (Friday, September 17th) Here’s the full playlist:

01     Guided By Voices, “I Am A Scientist”    Friday, November 5th at Paradise Rock Club

02      The Motion Sick, “Winged Bicycle”     Saturday, September 18th at TT the Bear’s

03     Great Big Sea, “When I’m Up (I Can’t Get Down)”     Friday, September 17th at Orpheum Boston

04     Screaming Females, “I Don’t Mind It”      Tuesday, September 28 TT the Bear’s Place

05     Me First and the Gimme-Gimmes, “The Rainbow Connection (Muppets cover)”    Thursday, October 21st at Paradise Rock Club

06     Superchunk, “Hyper Enough”     Tuesday, September 21st at Royale Boston

07     James, “Laid”     Saturday, September 25th at Paradise Rock Club

08     Belle and Sebastian, “Judy and the Dream of Horses”     Friday, October 15th at Wang Theatre

09     Frightened Rabbit, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”     Friday, October 29th at Paradise Rock Club

10     Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, “First We Take Manhattan” (Leonard Cohen cover)     Friday, September 24th at Church

11     Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”     Wednesday, November 10th at Orpheum Theatre

12     Born Ruffians, “What to Say”     Wednesday, September 29th at The Middle East

13     Teenage Fanclub, “Your Love is the Place Where I Come From”     Saturday, September 25th at Royale Boston

14     Swans, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Joy Division cover)     Thursday, September 30th at Middle East Downstairs

15     Stars, “This Charming Man” (Smiths cover)     Thursday, September 23rd at House of Blues Boston

16     Mates of State, “Get Better”     Sunday, September 26th at Paradise Rock Club

17     Sea Wolf, “You’re a Wolf”     Tuesday, September 21st at Middle East Upstairs

18     Cake, “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”     Saturday, September 18th at Orpheum Theatre

19     Oranjuly, “I Could Break Your Heart”     Thursday, September 16th at Great Scott

20     Pavement, “Stereo”     Saturday, September 18th at Agannis Arena

21     Of Montreal, “Coquet Coquette”     Thursday, September 16th at House of Blues Boston

22     Broken Social Scene, “Texico Bitches”     Friday, September 17th at House of Blues Boston

23     Built to Spill, “You Were Right”     Friday, October 1st at Paradise Rock Club

24     Sleigh Bells, “Tell ‘Em”     Tuesday, September 28th at Orpheum Theatre

25     The Xx, “VCR (Matthew Dear remix)”     Sunday, October 3rd at Orpheum Theatre

26     Holy Fuck, “Lovely Allen”     Sunday, September 19th at Paradise Rock Club

27     Gary Numan, “Cars”     Thursday, October 22nd at Paradise Rock Club

28     Caribou, “Odessa”     Sunday, September 19th at Paradise Rock Club

29     Ratatat, “Drugs”     Wednesday, September 29th at Paradise Rock Club

30    LCD Soundsystem, “Dance Yrself Clean”     Tuesday, September 28th at Orpheum Theatre


Image: River Gods by brixton, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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The remix nation needs legislation

May 28, 2010

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of something called “The Swinger.” It’s a piece of Python code that debuted at the San Francisco Music Hack Day a few weeks ago, which uses The Echo Nest‘s remix software to automagically stretch and shorten beats in a song to give it that swing. It went massively viral—over the last few days, somewhere north of a million people listened to these “swing” versions.

Naturally, I decided to get in on the fun – you can hear my contribution to the meme, a swing version of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” below. I uploaded it to SoundCloud, which asks you what kind of licensing you want to use – all rights reserved, a Creative Commons license, or no rights reserved – and it stopped me cold.

The legal status of remixes and sampling is grey, to say the least, with differing rulings on whether it constitutes, for example, transformative use. One solution would be compulsory licensing for remixing and sampling, similar to what currently exists for covers (this is why the Sex Pistols were Sid Vicious was able to cover “My Way” – unhappy though he was, Paul Anka had no legal recourse).

Calls to address this aren’t new, of course (Lawrence Lessig is the most vocal advocate). But what really struck me over the last few days is how urgent the need for legislation is getting, given the rapid rise of tools that let even musical and programming ignoramuses like me create remixes. The next iTunes is probably going to look a lot more like Google Picasa, since the tools that are the musical equivalent of crop, resize, or ‘remove redeye’ are pretty much on our doorstep—simple, painless and requiring no special skills or expensive software. It’s past time for the laws to catch up.

EDIT: Sid Vicious, not the Sex Pistols. Thanks to Martin Packer for the correction.

Thanks to Quinn Norton and Ethan Hein for excellent discussions on the legal issues surrounding remixing. And a very mild disclaimer of a collaborative relationship with the fine folks at The Echo Nest.

Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows” (The Swing Version) by debcha

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zed equals zee happy hour in Brooklyn!

May 9, 2010

New Yorkers! Feeling left out because the previous two zed equals zee happy hours were in Cambridge? It’s your turn! Join me and host of like-minded people to talk music, technology and culture. We’re meeting on Sunday, May 23rd at Radegast Hall in Williamsburg, from 4-6 pm. Feel free to RSVP in the comments or via e-mail so we know to expect you, but just showing up is fine too. Hope to see you there!

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve gotten a bunch of RSVPs via e-mail, and it’s shaping up to be a fun conversation with cool people!

Image: NYC – Brooklyn – Williamsburg: Radegast Hall & Biergarten by Flickr user wallyg, used here under its Creative Commons license.

NYC – Brooklyn – Williamsburg: Radegast Hall & Biergarten

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Power, communication, and files

May 2, 2010

Processor power increases exponentially. Hard drive storage increases exponentially. And the energy density in batteries? Decidedly not exponential. Lithium ion batteries are thought to be nearing their technical limits, and alternatives are still probably a few years away.

I thought about this the other day when I was working at my local coffee shop. On the table in front of me I had both my fancy smartphone and my ancient MP3 player, which is what I was listening to. Because, frankly, I don’t trust my phone to have enough juice to make it through the day if I use it for frivolous things like playing Plants vs Zombies. Or listening to music.

Streaming music over the 3G network, is incredibly energy-intensive – like talking on the phone constantly. Rhapsody and Spotify have figured this out, unsurprisingly, and their iPhone apps enable you to download playlists of music to your phone over WiFi. (With an average speed of 22 Mbit/s for an 802.11g network, you can download a 5 min song at a bitrate of 128 kbit/s in just a couple of seconds, so you don’t need to spend long in a hotspot.) But having a bunch of playlists on tap is still pretty far from true streaming music.

Given a constant energy density, of course, one option is just to make the battery bigger. And my coder friends tell me that clever programming can help a lot with battery life. But for smartphones, we really just need much better power sources before the promise of whatever you want to listen to, whenever you want it, wherever you are, can become a reality. Dear materials scientists and electrical engineers, please get right on that, will you?

Thanks to Mark Chang for some technical background to this post; any misapprehensions are entirely my fault, not his.

Image: New Battery Generations, from the Argonne National Laboratory, posted here under its Creative Commons license. How freaking cool is that?

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In praise of our musical mentors

April 26, 2010

My very first musical mentor was my sister, V, and she’s probably the person who bears the most responsibility for my taste in music. When we were both barely teenagers, she turned me away from the dark side that was Top 40 radio, and set me on the path that I’ve followed for the rest of my life.

V’s only a year older than me, but she was infinitely cooler. When we were in middle school, I wore nondescript black clothes. She got in trouble for wearing a hot-pink minidress she designed and sewed herself. She talked to boys; I didn’t talk to anyone. She performed in the school musical; I was a library helper.

Both of us spent our childhood watching Casey Kasem and waiting eagerly for the Top 40 countdown on our local radio station so we could tape our favourite songs. Then, her musical tastes evolved. I remember her staying up late to listen to Brave New Waves, the CBC‘s groundbreaking indie/alternative music show, while I was still listening to Def Leppard. She was probably the first person in her school to become a Smiths fan. To this day, “How Soon Is Now?”  is like Proust’s proverbial madeleines—when I hear it, I’m instantly transported back to the streets around the house we lived in where we were kids, where V and I shared a paper route. She started listening to David Bowie when Let’s Dance came out and, because she was older and cooler, so did I, thus beginning a relationship with an artist that’s endured my entire life. We discovered that the Toronto Public Library had a fantastic collection of records and started working our way through his entire discography. And, most importantly, she started listening to our local alternative radio station, in lieu of Top 40 radio—and so, of course, did I.

If you’re reading this, you probably have one or more people who introduced you to the wider world of music, either as a kid or an adult. Today’s a good day to thank them.

Thanks, V.

MP3: The Smiths – How Soon Is Now? [buy]

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What’s your theme song, and why?

April 23, 2010

What happens when music fans go to the ballpark? Well, if you’re me, you get instantly distracted by the ‘rally songs’ that come over the PA as players run onto the field (and by how weirdly inappropriate they are) and start thinking about what your own personal theme song would be. I asked this question on Twitter yesterday, and received answers ranging from the Imperial March from Star Wars through Sheryl Crow’s “Every Day is a Winding Road” through MOP’s “Ante Up.”

Me? I have two candidates. On good days, Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket.” And on most days, “Girl Anachronism” by the Dresden Dolls. What’s yours, and why?

MP3: Cake – Short Skirt/Long Jacket [buy]

MP3: The Dresden Dolls – Girl Anachronism [buy]

Image: Fenway Park (on top of the Green Monster) by (Alex), used here under its Creative Commons license.

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Watch: Music docs at IFF Boston, Apr 23-25

April 19, 2010

Boston indie music and movie lovers, rejoice! There is a hat trick of music-related documentaries next weekend as part of Independent Film Festival Boston. All three screenings are at the Somerville Theatre at 7:30 pm. The italicized excerpts are from the IFF Boston site, and you can get more info and buy tickets there.

Searching for Elliott Smith:

Friday Monday, April 23rd 26th, 7:30 pm, Somerville Theatre

An icon defined by his music’s emotional accessibility and the detached enigma of his public persona, Smith is as quietly compelling in the accounts of his friends and fans as his life and lyrics were….Balancing his darkest depressions and greatest achievements, SEARCHING FOR ELLIOTT SMITH reveals its subject’s kindness, subtle humor, and reserved brilliance, as well as the perfect imperfections of his prolific output—and it testifies to the overwhelming effect his visceral truths had on his closest friends and anonymous admirers alike. [D. Barnum-Swett]

Do It Again

Saturday, April 24th, 8:00 pm, Somerville Theatre

Every real music fan has a favorite band—but it’s a very rare fan who single-handedly attempts to reunite them years after they’ve packed it in. In director Robert Patton Spruill’s DO IT AGAIN, that rare fan is Geoff Edgers, a Boston Globe staff writer and dedicated follower of the Kinks. Edgers was driven to embark on a risky and time-consuming quest to get the Davies brothers and their old bandmates back in the same room to play some songs…. [B. Searles]

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Sunday, April 25th, 7:30 pm, Brattle Theatre

…Directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara provide us with comfortable, homey access to Merritt and the most important, grounding influence in his life: his decades-long friendship with his chipper musical collaborator Claudia Gonson. On his home turf, in the apartment that has doubled as the studio for the lion’s share of his recordings, Merritt is anything but prickly or uncooperative. He is a reflective, passionate, and even playful artist who is producing many of the great songs of his generation. [SL Frey/K Aikens]

EDIT: Factcheck fail. Dates, times, and venues have been corrected. Thanks to Brad for the heads-up!

MP3: Elliott Smith – Waterloo Sunset (Kinks cover) [via Rawkblog]


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Welcome to zed equals zee!

April 16, 2010

zed equals zee focuses on the intersection of music, technology and culture. It’s updated regularly but not on a fixed schedule, so why not subscribe using RSS? Want some quick hits? Check out the companion Tumblr. You can also follow debcha on Twitter.

Some posts to get you started: How artists hide from Google. Streaming music needs better batteries. Payola and self-fulfilling prophecies. Thinking about playlists.

Thanks for stopping by!

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Tourfilter Night playlist (April 15)

April 16, 2010

As promised, here’s a full playlist from last night’s set for Tourfilter Night at River Gods, in Cambridge, MA. Unsurprisingly, local and Canadian bands are overrepresented – I’ve flagged the local bands with a red asterisk, but you’re on your own for spotting the Canucks. Hyperlinked song titles takes you to free MP3 downloads. I had a fantastic time assembling and sharing this playlist – thanks to Chris Marstall for inviting me to guest-DJ, the wonderfully friendly and welcoming staff at River Gods, and everyone who came out.

01    Holy Fuck – “Lovely Allen”    May 29th @ Middle East Downstairs.

02    The New Pornographers - “Letter From An Occupant” June 18th @ House of Blues.

03    Echo and the Bunnymen – “Stormy Weather” April 26th @ Paradise Rock Club.

04    The National – “Brainy” June 2nd and 3rd @ House of Blues.

05    Stars - “Your Ex-Lover is Dead”    June 1st @ Paradise Rock Club.

06    Pavement – “Cut Your Hair”    September 18th @ Agannis Arena.

07    Visqueen – “Crush on Radio”    May 19th @ The Middle East Downstairs.

08   *The Motion Sick – “Winged Bicycle”    May 19th @ Middle East Downstairs.

09    Caribou – “Melody Day”    May 6th @ Middle East Downstairs.

10    The Besnard Lakes – “Devastation”    May 30th @ TT the Bear’s.

11     *The Lights Out – “Miss Fortune”    April 30th @ TT the Bear’s.

12    Yeasayer – “Sunrise”    May 3rd @ Paradise Rock Club.

13    Sea Wolf – “You’re a Wolf”    April 30th @ Paradise Rock Club.

14    The Church – “Under the Milky Way”    April 21st at Arts at the Armory.

15    *Dear Leader – “Barbarians”    April 23rd @ Paradise Rock Club.

16    Cowboy Junkies – “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park”    April 18th at the Somerville Theatre.

17    *Electric Laser People – “I’m a Doer”    May 15th @ The Middle East

18    The Psychedelic Furs – “President Gas”    June 5th @ House of Blues.

19    Quasi – “Alice the Goon”    April 20th @ Middle East Downstairs.

20    *Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling – “First We Take Manhattan” (Leonard Cohen cover)    April 29th @ Great Scott.

21    The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”    June 2nd and 3rd @ House of Blues.

22    *Gene Dante and the Future Starlets – “A Madness to His Method”    May 1st at TT the Bear’s Place.

23    The Tallest Man on Earth – “King of Spain”    April 21st @ The Middle East Downstairs.

24    *Clatter Clatter – “Downpour”    April 27th @ Middle East Upstairs.

25    Kate Nash – “Do Wah Do”    April 28th @ Great Scott.

26    Born Ruffians – “Hummingbird”    June 20th @ Great Scott.

27    Elvis Costello – “Radio, Radio”    April 20th @ Orpheum Theatre.

28    Tegan and Sara – “Back in Your Head”    I kind of lied. They are touring with Paramore, but will not be at the Boston show. Sorry.

29    Los Campesinos! – “Please Don’t Tell Me to Do the Maths”. April 24th @ Paradise Rock Club.

30    Frightened Rabbit – “The Twist (*DJ Die Young Dub Edit)”    Frightened Rabbit @ Paradise Rock Club on April 29th. DJ Die Young @ Middlesex Lounge on Thursday nights.

31    Revival Revival vs Lady Gaga vs David Bowie – “Let’s Just Dance”    Lady Gaga @ TD Garden, July 1st and 2nd. Sadly, no David Bowie tour planned.

32    Quintron and Miss Pussycat – “Witch in the Club”    June 16th @ Great Scott.

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