Dec 312009

1. Bad Veins, “Gold and Warm”
2. Them Crooked Vultures, “Caligulove”
3. The Avett Brothers, “Kick Drum Heart”
4. A.A. Bondy, “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing”
5. Monsters Of Folk, “The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me”
6. Silversun Pickups, “Catch & Release”
7. Morrissey, “Something Is Squeezing My Skull”
8. Franz Ferdinand, “Ulysses”
9. Wilco, “Country Disappeared”
10. A.A. Bondy, “Oh the Vampyre”
11. Third Eye Blind, “Bonfire”
12. Jarvis Cocker, “I Never Said I Was Deep”
13. Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You”
14. Silversun Pickups, “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone”
15. The Dead Weather, “Hang You From The Heavens”
16. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, “Air Mattress”
17. Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”
18. Neko Case, “Magpie To The Morning”
19. Molly Lewis, “Poker Face (Lady GaGa cover)”

This was an incredibly hard year to narrow down to just one album. Also, this was the first year that I have had more than one artist with more than one track on my “Best Of” mix. (I’ve been doing these since 2005 so they predate the blog by a few years.)

Any songs not on my mix that are on your person Best Of list? Any songs I included that should be relegated without comment to the dustbin of musical history? As always, commentary and recrimination can be directed through the comments section.

Dec 282009

A Short, Belated Review

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So the new Third Eye Blind album, Ursa Major, is alright.  I’ve tried hard to love it unreservedly, but I just can’t.  There are times where it tries too hard to be experimental.  Others where it tries too hard to be current and “relevant”.  All in all, the album feels like a band worried they’re losing their edge.

Exceptions to prove the rule are those few songs where the band lets its guard down.  “Bonfire” has an incredibly infectious guitar hook supporting classic Third Eye Blind power pop.  “Dao of St. Paul” is pretty good, if a little hokey and U2-ish.  And really, the only bad thing I can say about “Carnival Barker”, the instrumental closing track, is that it’s way too damn short.

This really makes the album a frustrating one.  There are moments of unmitigated awesome, but they’re diluted with that grinding sounds of a band trying too hard and sacrificing their music on the altar of being “current”.

Dec 242009

We’ll Meet Again…Shortly.

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Hey folks.  Updating to the latest WordPress version.  It should be trouble free, but if you notice any blog irregularities, please let me know in comments.  In the meantime, here’s Johnny Cash covering “We’ll Meet Again” by Dame Vera Lynn.

Dec 222009

Computer Composers and the Art Apocalypse

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This is the followup rant to my last post.  If you didn’t look at some of the resources I linked to, this rant may not make a whole lot of sense.  Now, this is a bit different that what I normally post on this blog, but given the lack of content that this blog usually contains, I imagine that might be a welcome change.

Let me say right from the off that I think Douglas Hofstadter is completely off the mark.  His essay is a slow, elegant march towards a conclusion that is so wrong that I have a hard time believing that someone as undeniably smart and well-informed as Hofstadter entertained the notion.  Now it could well be that he intended his conclusion to be irrational and purely emotive, but he seems to seriously suggest that the advent of well-composed computer music means one of three things:

(1) Chopin (for example) is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(2) Music is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(3) The human soul/mind is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.

Hofstadter’s basic argument, then, that a thing can be artistically meaningful only if it comes from human beings.  In fact, a piece that was written in the style of and to the same level of genius as Bach or Chopin, is rendered valueless if it comes from a computer.  So committed is Hofstadter to this argument that the only other option in his mind is not that art can be meaningful regardless of its origin, but that the art itself must be devalued.  If a computer can create music, then Hofstadter believes that music must be shallower than he thought.

In other words, Hofstadter is so committed to his horror of computerized art, that he instantly deems anything made by a computer to not be art.  This makes his article an essay-length exercise in begging the question.  What Hofstadter is saying is that computers can’t create real art, because if a computer creates it, it’s not real art.  Hofstadter hates the idea of computerized music so much that he’s willing to dismiss not only logic and music itself, just preserve his disbelief of computers generating artistic meaning.

To put it another way, by being presented with computerized music, Hofstadter was being presented with a logical and aesthetic choice.  On the one hand he could discard his belief that computers can’t create art.  On other hand he could discard the belief that music is a form of art.  Given that choice, Hofstadter bids music a nostalgic farewell and throws it out the window.  He does this despite his professed belief that music is “the ultimate inner sanctum of the human spirit.”

But Hofstadter’s logical and musical perfidy doesn’t end there.  You see, Hofstadter only gets to his three possible conclusions after a path that takes him past a variety of wells, all of which he stops to poison.  Now he’s a subtle man, so not all of his rhetorical cyanide-dumping is obvious.  To highlight it, let me riff on an experiment he references in the piece.  Here are two word lists:

List the first:

  • Ditty
  • Threaten
  • Grotesque
  • Shameful

List the second:

  • Sacred
  • Cherished
  • Genuine
  • Sophisticated

Which of these is a list of terms that Hofstadter uses to describe computer-composed music?  Which of these lists is used to describe human-composed music?  Hofstadter’s moral disgust at the notion of computer-created art runs so deep that he can’t even bring himself to talk about it fairly.  The two lists above are used to describe two different sorts of music that are so similar that, by Hofstadters own admission, trained professionals have a hard time telling them apart.  And yet that produced by the computer is “grotesque” and that produced by the human is “sacred.”

So can computers create art?  My initial instinct is to fall back on Samuel Johnson and simply say: “I refute it thus!”  Of course instead of kicking a stone, I’ll offer up some computerized art.  At the moment, I’m listening to some haunting, meandering ambient music that was composed by a machine.  What’s more, the program used to create the ambient music can be run on any modern computer.  And it can create novel ambient music, non-stop, forever.

Now lest this be open to special pleading arguments about ambient not being “real” music, refer to the demo given at the beginning of the video I linked to in my last post.  Bowkett, in demonstrating his software, shows that it’s capable of generating interesting techno, and a solid groundwork hip-hop.  Furthermore, as demonstrated by one of the articles I linked to, computerized compositional methods are now being used by actual musicians such as Brian Eno to create music.

Music, like all art, is a form of emotive communication.  Musicians are good at music when they communicate powerfully, accurately, and richly.  That is to say they evoke strongly the emotions they intend to and do so in deep and intricate ways.  If a piece of software could be written that could reliably do exactly that, then that software would be an effective musician.  The value of music has always been in the content.  Not the source.  We listen to musicians not because they’re great people and we want to support them, but because their music says something important to us.  The truth of that emotional message, then, is not in the artist, but in the music itself.  And that truth remains the same whether the message came from a person or a computer.

So what is the role of a musician in a world where computers are increasingly capable of conveying these emotional messages?  These messages, for one thing, still have to be discovered or conceived.  Craftsmanship (including composition and performance), after all, has only ever been half of a musician’s job.  Bob Dylan, for instance, has always been a middling craftsman.  But his ability to conceive of and articulate emotional ideas is almost without equal.  This is the main reason why so many of Dylans work so much beter when they’re performed by other artists.  The messages Dylan creates are powerful, and when conveyed by superior craftsman, the effect can be positively electrifying.

In other words, it’s not by accident that the current forms of software that are being used to compose music are composing it in genres that are already well-established.  We’re at a place right now where computers can convey meaning and messages of a sort that have already been conveyed.  An analogy might be taking all the love letters ever written, feeding them into a machine, and having it write out a new love letter, the exact text of which had never been produced.  Sure, it’s reworking what has been done by other people, but that doesn’t mean that its letter doesn’t mean anything or that it wouldn’t flatter someone to receive it.

To continue the analogy, we may some day reach a day when computers can compose their own letters.  Absent the influences of human artistic input.  If that’s the case it won’t mean (as Hofstadter might suggest) that love letters are shallow.  Rather it will just mean that the world itself is richer for having more loving beings in it.

The same is true of music.  We may some day live in a world in which there are new entities that can not only relay emotional messages and mimic the emotions of others, but can themselves think and feel and love.  If they can then take those emotions and convey them to us, then it will not be, as Hofstadter wants to claim, a poorer world.  It will be a much, much richer one.

Dec 192009

A Little Bit of Homework

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Okay, so I’m writing up a bit of a rant on computer-generated music.  In preparation, here’s some background reading and listening that might make the rant more interesting.

Okay, so first, go listen to this fuzzy little Drum & Bass track.  This track was created by Giles Bowkett with the help of an application which he built called Archeopteryx.  Bowkett describes Archeopteryx as “a system for auto-generating, self-modifying music.”

Next, try to guess who composed this delightful little piano study.  If you guessed Bach, you’d be wrong, but understandably so.  That was composed by software written and maintained by David Cope from the University of California at Santa Cruz.  The software was trying to imitate Bach’s compositional style, and nails it pretty damned well.

Now, on to the reading portion of today’s assignment.  Go read this essay by Douglas Hofstadter on computer-generated music.  Then check out this brief blurb about how Brian Eno helped create a recombinant, procedurally-based music generating algorithm for the game Spore.  That blurb links to a much longer article about Eno.  The money quote from that longer article is:

“[Eno] went on to demonstrate a simple software called “The Shuffler” which he uses to create fragments for the soundtrack of Spore and which even with a simple combination of samples possibly would never create the same composition twice within a lifetime.”

Next, if you have a desire for the broader view of the history of computerized music, read this history of the subject.  If you don’t want to read through the whole history, at least take not of the following: “Lejaren Hillier was one of the first to use a computer in music, and is generally credited with the earliest published work, Illiac suite from 1958. This was composed by computer, but is performed by musicians.”

Finally, if you want to get your geek on, check out the above-mentioned Giles Bowkett doing his presentation on Archeopteryx at the RubyFringe conference in 2008.  The presentation itself spends a lot of time not talking about coding and software, but definitely check out the live demo he does at the beginning (ending about 4:30 into the video).

The rant will be probably be up either tomorrow or Monday.

Dec 142009

“Sleep inside your own terrarium”

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Okay, go here and listen to the song “Terrarium”.  (You’ll have to scroll down a little bit to see the media player.)  The chorus of that tune (especially the transition into it) is one of the most captivating snippets of music I’ve ever and I really have no idea why…

Dec 132009

Magnificat anima mea Dominum

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Dec 092009

Hey, at least it’s not a cover? Or something?

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It’s an Elvis Costello kind of night.  But New-Wave-y Costello, so it’s all good.

“Radio, Radio” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Dec 082009

QotD: “Geeze, Mom, You Made Ben Gibbard Cry!” Edition

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On the phone with my mother.

Mom: So what are you up to?

Me: Oh, just walking home from work.

Mom: So what’s the music I hear in the background?

Me: That’s not music, that’s a car alarm.

Mom: Oh, it sounded like one of those indie bands . . .

Dec 072009

“You float like a feather”

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So lately this has basically turned into a covers blog.  I say “turned into”, it’s always been sort of cover-heavy.  Still, the potent combination of my obsession with covers and my hellish work schedule means that I haven’t had time to really listen to or review new music or to write anything new or interesting.

So in the spirit of trying my lovely readers patience a little longer, here’s another one for the “awesome covers” file.  This is Amanda Palmer performing Radiohead’s “Creep”: