Hear the First Recording of Computer Music: Researchers Restore Three Melodies Programmed on Alan Turing’s Computer (1951)

in Computer Science, Music, Technology | September 28th, 2016


However you feel about electronic music, you’ll still find yourself listening to it most places you go. For better or worse, it has become mood music, soothing the jangled nerves of customers in coffee shops and lulling boutique shoppers into a pleasant sense of hip. Some computer music pioneers have moved on from composing their own music to making computers do it for them. It’s precisely the kind of thing I imagine Alan Turing might have pursued had the computer science giant also been a musician.

In fact, Turing did inadvertently create a computer that could play music when he input a sequence of instructions into it, which relayed sound to a loudspeaker Turing called “the hooter.” By varying the “hoot” commands, Turing found that he could make the hooter produce different notes, but he was “not very interested in programming the computer to play conventional pieces of music,” note Jack Copeland and Jason Long at the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog. Turing “used the different notes” as a rudimentary notification system, “to indicate what was going on in the computer.”

Instead, the task fell to schoolteacher, pianist, and future computer scientist Christopher Strachey to create the first computer-generated music, using Turing’s gigantic Mark II, its programming manual, and “the longest computer program ever to be attempted.” After an all-night session, Strachey had taught the computer to hoot out “God Save the Queen.” Upon hearing the composition the next morning, Turing exclaimed, “good show,” and Strachey received a job offer just a few weeks later.

Once the BBC heard of the achievement, they visited Turing’s Computing Machine Laboratory and made the recordings above in 1951, which include a version of Strachey’s “God Save the Queen” program and renditions of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” The “original 12-inch disc the melodies were recorded on,” writes The Verge, “has been known about for a while, but when Copeland (a professor) and Long (a composer) listened to it, they found the audio was not accurate.” The two describe in their blog post how they went about restoring the audio and how it came to exist in the first place.

While the music Turing’s computer produced sounds painfully primitive, it would be several more years before composers began to really experiment with computer-generated music beyond the rudimentary first steps, and well over a decade before the design of systems that could operate in real time.

Now, although they still require human input (“the singularity isn’t upon us,” writes Spin)computers have begun to compose their own music, like “Daddy’s Car,” a Beatles-esque song generated by a SONY CSL Research Laboratory AI called Flow Machine. Here, a composer mixes and matches different elements, a style, melody, lyrics, etc. from various databases. The machine produces the sounds. SONY labs have been generating computer-made jazz and classical music for some time now—some of which we may have already heard as background music.

As Spin points out, already a new startup called Jukedeck promises to “generate a song in the genre and mood of your choosing…” perhaps as “background music for advertisements or YouTube vlogs.” True to the spirit of the man who inadvertently invented computer music, and who theorized how a computer might demonstrate consciousness, the software will ask you to confirm that you are not a robot.

via The Verge

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Played on a 1929 Theremin

in Music | September 27th, 2016

Here in America, we’re living in some anxious times. And frankly my nerves are a little torn and frayed–especially after the run-up to last night’s debate. Maybe some of you feel the same. Maybe you could stand to relax a bit. Maybe this will do the trick.

Above, watch Peter Pringle perform on the theremin “Over the Rainbow,” the song originally written for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. And it’s not just any theremin. It’s the 1929 RCA theremin that belonged to the Hollywood thereminist, Dr. Samuel Hoffman. In fact, it’s the very same one that Hoffman played on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1956, below.

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U2 Takes Down Trump in a Las Vegas Concert; In Other News, Springsteen Calls Him a “Moron”

in Music, Politics | September 25th, 2016

Give it up for U2. Playing in Las Vegas, America’s gambling capital, Bono turned a performance of “Desire” into a bit of Orwellian theater.

Bono: “Las Vegas, are you ready to gamble?”

Cut to Donald on the big screen: “What do you have to lose?”

Bono: “Are you ready to gamble your car?”

The birther-in-chief on the big screen: “What do you have to lose?”

Bono: “Are you ready to gamble your house? Are you ready to gamble the American Dream?”

Trump: “The American Dream is dead!”

Bono: “The American Dream is alive! No, you can’t deny her, D-e-s-i-r-e!”

Meanwhile, in other news, Bruce Springsteen made his own case against Donald. Asked by Rolling Stone what he thought of the the Trump phenomenon, he offered this:

Well, you know, the republic is under siege by a moron, basically. The whole thing is tragic. Without overstating it, it’s a tragedy for our democracy. When you start talking about elections being rigged, you’re pushing people beyond democratic governance. And it’s a very, very dangerous thing to do. Once you let those genies out of the bottle, they don’t go back in so easy, if they go back in at all. The ideas he’s moving to the mainstream are all very dangerous ideas – white nationalism and the alt-right movement. The outrageous things that he’s done – not immediately disavowing David Duke? These are things that are obviously beyond the pale for any previous political candidate. It would sink your candidacy immediately.

I believe that there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution. And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. Fallacious answers to very complex problems. And that can be very appealing.

You can read the rest of the interview here. It’s also worth reading the Hillary endorsement from the Cincinnati Enquirer, an Ohio paper, which–until now–has endorsed GOP candidates for the better part of a century.

via Rolling Stone

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Bruce Springsteen Lists 20 of His Favorite Books: The Books That Have Inspired the Songwriter & Now Memoirist

in Books, Music | September 23rd, 2016


Image by Michele Lucon, via Wikimedia Commons

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 today. And next week his long-awaited memoir, Born to Run, will finally get into readers’ hands. In advance of that literary event, we’re looking back at a 2014 interview with The New York Times, printed shortly before Springsteen published his children’s book, Outlaw Pete

The interview takes you inside Springsteen’s literary world, revealing what books he reads, which books he loves, and what authors have shaped his songwriting (and likely his own literary style): The Times asks: “Who is your favorite novelist of all time, and your favorite novelist writing today?;” “Who are your favorite New Jersey writers?;” “What’s your favorite memoir by a musician?;” “What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a songwriter and musician or contributed to your artistic development?” The books he namechecks along the way include the following:

You can read the interview in its entirety here, and find some of the classic books he mentions in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices. His memoir, Born to Run, will be officially released on September 27th. The companion album, Chapter and Verse, is out today.

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Ukulele Orchestra Performs Ennio Morricone’s Iconic Western Theme Song, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” And It’s Pretty Brilliant.

in Film, Music | September 21st, 2016

Last week, Josh Jones highlighted for you a free five-hour playlist featuring Ennio Morricone’s Scores for Classic Western Films. Even if you’re not deeply familiar with Morricone’s body of work, you’ve almost certainly heard the theme to The Good, the Bad & the Ugly–the iconic 1966 Spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone. Opening with the immediately recognizable two-note melody that sounds like “the howl of a coyote,” the theme was originally recorded with the help of the Unione Musicisti di Roma orchestra.

Above, you can watch another orchestra, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, pay homage to Morricone’s classic theme. Described by The Guardian as “a cultish British institution” known for its expertly played covers of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the Ukulele Orchestra group scored its biggest hit with this performance. It’s an outtake from the DVD Anarchy in the Ukulele, which you can purchase through The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s website. Enjoy.

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Watch Jimmy Page Rock the Theremin, the Early Soviet Electronic Instrument, in Some Hypnotic Live Performances

in Music | September 20th, 2016

It can be frustrating for Led Zeppelin fans to hear the band reduced to plagiarism lawsuits or the quintessence of sexually-aggressive rock-star entitlement (though much of that is deserved). For one thing, Zeppelin’s occult songwriting tendencies, courtesy of both Page and Plant, play just as prominent a role as their blues-rock come-ons (as several generations of fantasy metal bands can attest). For another, their studio productions and live shows are renowned for pioneering mash-ups of modern rock, folk, and classical instrumentation, courtesy of both Page and Jones. And finally, the band’s recording techniques were—for the time—demonstrations of technical wizardry.

Thus it should come as no surprise that technical wizard Jimmy Page would play the Theremin, though he does play on it the kind of screaming, feedback-laden bends he unleashed from his Les Paul. Introduced to the world by Soviet inventor Leon Theremin in 1919, the early electronic instrument emits high-pitched singing when a player’s hands come within range of its invisible electrical fields. “It hasn’t got six strings,” Page says in his demonstration at the top of the post, from 2009 film It Might Get Loud, “but it’s a lot of fun.”

Page used a Sonic Wave Theremin in his Zeppelin days in a very guitar-like way—running it through a Maestro Echoplex and Orange amps and cabinets. (Watch him revive the technique in a 1995 French TV broadcast above.) For several months in 1971, writes fansite Achilles Last Stand, Page “used a double-stacked Theremin” for twice the sonic assault.

Though he seems to have gone back to just the one Theremin in the solo above, the effect is no less electrifying, if you’ll excuse the pun, as he sends echoes of ray-gun noise cascading around the theater. Well over five minutes into the hypnotic affair, Page takes to his Les Paul, creating more ragged patterns with violin bow and Echoplex. Even if you aren’t in a dazed and confused state, you’ll feel like you are if you give yourself over to this piece of performance art. Heroics? Yes, and indeed the bowed guitar act has its phallic overtones. But it begins and ends with long stretches of the kind of droning experimental noise one would expect to find onstage at an early Kraftwerk show.

Those in the know will know that Page put the theremin to use on one of the band’s most technically experimental recordings (though it also happens to be an appropriated blues stomper), “Whole Lotta Love” from 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. “I always envisioned the middle to be quite avant-garde,” Page recently told Guitar World, “The Theremin generates most of the higher pitches and my Les Paul makes the lower sounds.” Watch him rip out a theremin-and-guitar solo above in the live performance above from 1973, beginning at 1:45. Taken with the psychedelic video effects, the performance reaches mystical planes of rhythmic abstraction. 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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Hear 5 Hours of Ennio Morricone’s Scores for Classic Western Films: From Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

in Film, Music | September 14th, 2016

What goes into the making of a great film score? And how does a director/composer team like David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, or Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, form such a perfect partnership? Several days ago, we brought you video of Badalementi in a spirited, detailed recreation of how he and Lynch composed the unforgettable Twin Peaks’ themes, without which, I’d argue, there may have been no Twin Peaks.

Likewise, without the music of Morricone behind them, Leone’s spare, stylish, hard-boiled-yet-comic westerns may never have spearheaded the almost classical genre of the “Spaghetti Western,” known just as often for its music as for its visual language.

What does Morricone have to say about this? Precious little. Or so discovered Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen when he interviewed Morricone for Premiere magazine in August of 1989. Fagen is well known for his obsessive knowledge of culture high and low and his hip, theoretical bent. Morricone, we learn, works more intuitively. But the results are the same. We may equally find ourselves humming the refrain to “Peg” as the theme to The Good, the Bad & the Ugly.

And we may find ourselves pleasurably analyzing “Peg”’s ironic redeployment of soft rock tropes, just as we may approach Morricone’s inimitable style as critical theorists, as Fagen does when he asks the question below. Likely the most leading question in all of music journalism (with the exception of this Brian Eno interview):

But isn’t it true that the Leone films, with their elevation of mythic structures, their comic book visual style and extreme irony, are now perceived as signaling an aesthetic transmutation by a generation of artists and filmmakers? And isn’t it also true that your music for those films reflected and abetted Leone’s vision by drawing on the same eerie catalog of genres – Hollywood western, Japanese samurai, American pop, and Italian Opera? That your scores functioned both “inside” the film as a narrative voice and “outside” the film as the commentary of a winking jester? Put it all together and doesn’t it spell “postmodern,” in the sense that there has been a grotesque encroachment of the devices of art and, in fact, an establishment of a new narrative plane founded on the devices themselves? Isn’t that what’s attracting lower Manhattan?

Morricone: [shrugs]

Fagen quickly adapts, switches to rapid-fire questions to which Morricone gives a breezy one-word answer. “Bellissimo!” He’s a very busy man. He doesn’t live in the same world as those La Dolce Vita people, a “small group of people who got up at 11 P.M. and lived at night.” He wakes up at 5 in the morning. Morricone needn’t indulge us with stories or bore us with theoretical poses. His last words to Fagen, “I have always wanted to compose,” tell us what we need to know about him. Everything else is in the music.

Hear that music above in a five-hour playlist of some of Morricone best-known scores from his storied past—The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, and non-Leone western, The Mercenary.

And Morricone’s still speaking through his western scores, as he did just recently in the work of another chatty, obsessive, heavily referential admirer—Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, also in the playlist above. Bellissimo! 

If you need Spotify’s free software, download it here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Why Marvel and Other Hollywood Films Have Such Bland Music: Every Frame a Painting Explains the Perils of the “Temp Score”

in Film, Music | September 14th, 2016

Major motion pictures almost always have music, and that music usually comes composed especially for the movie. Every moviegoer knows this, of course, and most of them will by now be humming their favorite film-score music to themselves: themes from Star WarsJawsThe Godfather, the Indiana Jones or James Bond movies, and so on. But what about the music from more recent cinematic franchises? What about the music from the still-coming-out Marvel Comics movies, the most successful such franchise of all time? Why no memorable themes come to mind, much less hummable ones, constitutes the central question of the new video essay from Every Frame a Painting.

Its argument points to several different factors, including Marvel and other modern movies’ predictable use and overuse of music, as well as their tendency to put distracting layers of noise and dialogue on top of it. But the deeper problem, which has become systemic in the world of film scoring, has to do with something called “temp music,” which is what it sounds like: music temporarily used in a movie during editing before its real score gets composed. That sounds innocuous enough, but this video features a clip in which no less a prolific and respected composer than Danny Elfman describes temp music as “the bane of my existence,” and after watching it you’ll surely see — or rather, hear — why.

Temp music usually comes from the scores of other movies. With modern nonlinear editing technology, the director or editor can pick out tracks that approximate the envisioned tone of the work in progress and simply insert them into their scenes. But after hundreds upon hundreds of hours of watching the project scored with the temp music, the temp music starts to sound like the one true score, especially if the editor has cut tightly to it. “Make it sound like the temp music,” insist the orders too often given to the composer working on an “original” score for the film, which soon winds up as temp music itself on the next blockbuster-to-be in the editing room.

This musical ouroboros, which Every Frame a Painting demonstrates by playing a variety of scenes first with their temp music and then with their final score (with more such comparisons to watch in the supplementary video just above), has robbed even Hollywood’s highest-profile pictures — especially Hollywood’s highest-profile pictures — of an essential tool of evocation and emotion. But only a truly risk-taking filmmaker could break this cycle of blandness: a filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick who, working on 2001: A Space Odyssey, refused to use its commissioned score that (in Roger Ebert’s words) “like all scores, attempts to underline the action — to give us emotional cues.” Instead, he decided to score the movie with the likes of György Ligeti, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian and (speaking of memorable themes) Richard Strauss — all of which he had, of course, used as temp music.

via Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Frank Zappa Explains the Decline of the Music Business (1987)

in Music | September 13th, 2016

“Remember the 60s?” says Frank Zappa in the interview above, “that era that a lot of people have these glorious memories of?… they really weren’t that great, those years.” Ever the grumpy uncle. But Zappa does get nostalgic for one thing, and it’s an unexpected one: the music business. “One thing that did happen in the 60s,” he says, “was some music of an unusual and experimental nature did get recorded, did get released.” The executives of the day were “cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product and said, ‘I don’t know. Who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out. If it sells, alright!’”

“We were better off with those guys,” says Zappa, “than we are with the hip, young executives,” making decisions about what people should hear. The hippies are more conservative than the conservative “old guys” ever were. This Zappa of 1987 recommends getting back to the “who knows?” approach, “that entrepreneurial spirit” of the grand old industry barons of the 60s. One can almost imagine Zappa—in the 60s—pining for the days of Edison, who refused to give up on the wax cylinder but would also record virtually anything. If both the time of Edison and the time of Zappa were bonanzas for makers of novelty records, so much the better. Zappa was novel. 

Still it seems like a funny sentiment coming from a guy who built most of his career in opposition to the record industry. But it was in the period of alleged decay that Zappa broke with Warner Bros. and founded his own label in 1977, making a deal with Phonogram to distribute his releases in the U.S. When Phonogram refused to release his 1981 single “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted,” Zappa created another label, Barking Pumpkin Records, making sure he got to make and sell the music he wanted to.

In many ways people like Zappa—or later Kate Bush or Prince—anticipated our current music industry, in which we have artists starting labels left and right, controlling their own production and output. But those artists are mostly a tiny handful of hugely successful stars with mogul-sized ambitions. Does this help or harm the music economy as a whole? Independent musicians very rarely get the smallest window on how things work at the level of Beyonce, Jay-Z, or Taylor Swift (who “is the industry,” Bloomberg once breathlessly proclaimed). But as Zappa notes, “the person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste for the entire population.” Even if those executives are themselves artists, we may greatly benefit from a wider range of “unusual and experimental” sounds in popular culture. Zappa suggests the way to do that is to get the “cigar-chomping old guys” (and they were all guys) back in charge. 

The rest of Zappa’s interview concerns the bogeyman of 80s and 90s music, the PMRC, and his very strong feelings about censorship, social control, and sex. It’s classic Zappa and won’t raise any eyebrows now, but it is interesting to hear his take on the decline of the music business since the 60s. We use different criteria to measure the apex of the industry—often depending on whether the labels or the artists made more money. Whichever period we lionize, for whatever reason, within a hundred-year window a tiny handful of musicians and record executives made enormous, dynasty-making fortunes. It just so happens that these days it’s an even tinier handful of musicians and executives at the top, making even huger fortunes. And there’s a lot more synergy between them. 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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French Filmmaker Michel Gondry Creates a Steamy New Music Video for The White Stripes

in Music | September 13th, 2016

Talk about prolific. French filmmaker Michel Gondry has just released his 85th music video–this one for The White Stripes’ new song “City Lights.” 

Last year, Ted Mills took a look at Gondry’s music videos for Björk, Radiohead and The Chemical Brothers, showing us why Gondry, who first began experimenting with the format in 1988, was “one of the last great music video directors”–someone who created “mini-epics just before the music industry collapsed, and budgets disappeared.” 

Most know Gondry for his 2004 feature film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or perhaps you saw his animated 2013 documentary on Noam Chomsky, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? If you did, you’ll recognize the aesthetic used in the new White Stripes video above. As Rolling Stone describes it, the video is just “a single shot of the exterior of a shower, with [a] bather visually drawing out the song’s lyrics in the steam and condensation on the shower door. With each line, the steam slowly erases the previous drawing, and a new image is sketched on the door.” You can try it at home.

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