Lost Depeche Mode Documentary Is Now Online: Watch Our Hobby is Depeche Mode

Like budding ten-year-old paleontologists with their dinosaur guides, music nerds who came of age in the 80s and 90s might spend whole days reading about obscure one-off bands and indie, punk, and alternative giants from all over the English-speaking world in Ira Robbins’ encyclopedic Trouser Press Record Guide reference books. Their critical entries were notable especially for what they were not: fan tributes.

Just the other day, for example, I was browsing through the Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock and was startled to read that Depeche Mode’s 101, a live album I listened to repeatedly in my moody middle school years, offered “permanent evidence of the band’s—a pitch-impaired singer crucified on racks of keyboards—concert inadequacy.”

This, I protested, is too much.

But, I admit, that album, played at full volume in headphones, once carried me as an adolescent through a grim three-day trek across the country, in a van with my fractious family, driving the entire length of Arkansas in sub-zero late December and spending New Years’ Eve in a motel room in a desolate nowheresville outside Pine Bluff, AR.

My sense that there might be a romantically gloomy, weirdly seductive world beyond the frosted windows of our shabby Ford Club Wagon is what I will always associate with the album, its musical merits aside. (That and a serious crush on someone who really loved Depeche Mode.) I can’t remember if I’ve listened to it since.

It’s true Depeche Mode got a lot of mileage out of a limited range of skills and musical ideas, but that seems to be no valid criticism in pop music. The best pop songs are those people experience as operatic statements of their own emotional lives. As we see in the opening scenes of the Depeche Mode documentary above, Our Hobby is Depeche Mode, their most fervent English fans believe that they too might be Depeche Mode.

U.S., Mexican, and Russian fans romanticizing Basildon, Depeche Mode’s hometown, as a placid English village say more about their own longings than about the band’s sound. Depeche Mode may have looked like a New Wave boy band in the 80s, but that was also the decade in which they were at their noisiest and most experimental, “seamlessly blending concrète sounds—factory din, clanking chains and so forth—into the music,” writes Trouser Press.

The sound—says one English fan of “Depeche” from its beginnings—“came from the bricks” of Basildon, a gritty place with frequent fighting in the streets. The bulk of the densely crowded town’s concrete blocks, and factories sprang up after WWII, a working-class community created to house the London population displaced by the bombings. What set Depeche Mode apart from their synthpop peers and inspirations (aside from Siouxsie Sioux and Damned-inspired fetish cosplay) was the industrial noise that populated their saccharine off-key ballads and naughty S&M tracks.

The sound of working-class streets embedded in their music drew fans from Moscow—where singer Dave Gahan’s birthday has become an unofficial holiday. Their music is “technology, the sounds of life, of reality,” says one Muscovite fan above. Depeche Mode bootlegs, which spread over the Soviet world, get partial credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fans in Tehran risk severe punishment from the Islamic authorities for listening to illicit copies of their albums.

They became gloomier, more navel-gazing and “dismal,” our Trouser Press critic writes, and the quirky sounds of Basildon seemed to fade away, replaced by the cavernous reverb and goth-blues guitar riffs of their 90s apotheosis. Their appeal to sensitive and troubled kids everywhere remained as powerful, if not more so. Our Hobby is Depeche Mode documents the band’s spread around the world in dedicated fan communities. Made in 2007, the film mysteriously disappeared and has only just resurfaced recently, as Dangerous Minds reports. “No one’s quite sure what happened there.”

It will be interesting to compare this rediscovered document with a new Depeche Mode movie, Spirits in the Forest, getting a theatrical release November 21st. Shot by Anton Corbijn, the film, as you can see from trailer (above), also keeps its focus on the fans, mixing six stories, writes Rolling Stone, “shot in each of their hometowns, with footage of the concert” in Berlin promoting the band’s newest album Spirit.

They may never have been the greatest live band or most accomplished of musicians, but Depeche Mode has always known how to work a crowd, and how to speak to the private longings of every individual fan. What more can one ask of international pop stars? Gahan says in a statement about the new concert film, a tradition that reached its apex with the 101 documentary companion to the album, “It’s amazing to see the very real ways that music has impacted the lives of our fans." He's talking about an evident connection that spans generations and crosses many unlikely cultural, linguistic, and national boundaries.

Our Hobby is Depeche Mode will be added to our collection of Free Documentaries.

The film by  Jeremy Deller & Nicholas Abrahams is hosted on Abrahams' Vimeo channel.

via The Quietus

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

See Why Ginger Baker (RIP) Was One of the Greatest Drummers in Rock & World Music

When talk of classic rock drummers turns to Keith Moon and John Bonham, I smile and nod. What’s the point in arguing? They were both, in their distinctive ways, incredible—and in their early deaths, immortal legends. Who knows what their careers would have looked like had either lived past 32? But truly, for the all-around breadth of his influence, for the amount of respect he gained in musical circles around the world, no greater classic rock drummer ever lived, in my opinion, than Ginger Baker, may he finally rest in peace.

The famously restless, violently cantankerous drummer died yesterday at age 80, outliving most of his peers, despite living twice as hard for well over twice as long as many of them—a feat of strength we might impute to his athletic physical stamina and frightening will.

Like Moon and Bonham, he combined raw power with serious jazz chops. (Baker insisted he never played rock drums at all.) After his polyrhythmic pummeling defined the sound of supergroups Cream and Blind Faith, he burned out and moved to Africa to find sobriety and new sounds.

Baker traveled the continent with Fela Kuti to learn its rhythms, recording live with Kuti's band in '71. Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen remarked that he understood “the African beat more than any other Westerner.” (See him jamming in Lagos further down.) Baker’s discography includes classic records with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Kuti, Hawkwind, and other legends. He traveled the world playing drums for over fifty years. Why, then, did he have such a low profile for much of his later life? A 2012 documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker, based on a 2009 Rolling Stone article, offers some answers.

Baker’s serious drug addiction and terrifying personality alienated nearly everyone around him. The documentary opens with an endorsement from another prickly and unlikable red-haired character, John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten), whose Public Image Limited is yet another project Baker elevated with his playing. “He helped me rise,” says Lydon, and Baker would no doubt agree. He was not a modest man. He was, by most accounts, a right bastard, through and through, all of his life.

But he was too contrarian to be dismissed as a mere narcissist. As a musician, for example, he always thought of himself as a supporting player. “I never had a style,” he said in 2013. “I play to what I hear, so whoever I’m playing with, what they play has a great influence on what I play, because I listen to what people are playing.” His skill at destroying personal relationships was matched by his ability for forming deep, awe-inspiring, if short-lived, musical connections. It’s a dichotomy many drummers inspired by him have struggled to reconcile—taking lessons from Baker the drummer but not from Baker the man.

How do we separate the man from his art? Why try? His mad pirate life makes for an epic saga, and Baker is a wildly exciting main character. He had early ambitions of becoming a professional cyclist. Though they didn’t pan out, he always retained the characteristics: he was both fiercely competitive and fiercely collaborative. Later he picked up an even more rarified team sport—polo—keeping a stable of horses on his gated South African ranch, where he lived in his old age like a colonial ex-baron in a Nadine Gordimer novel. (He eventually had to sell the spread and move back to London.)

Baker was never one to make apologies, so his fans need not make any on his behalf. See him in some classic performances above—at the top, soloing after an interview, at Cream’s Royal Albert Hall farewell concert; then playing a solo in a Cream reunion in that same venue almost forty years later. After footage of him jamming in Lagos in 1971, we see what the internet calls the “BEST DRUM SOLO EVER,” further up. Just above, meet the man himself, in all his unrepentant glory, and hear from those who knew him best, in the full documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker.

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

Watch Animated Scores of Beethoven’s 16 String Quartets: An Early Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of His Birth

Two years ago we posted about a music lover’s life’s work--Stephen Malinowski aka smalin on YouTube--and how he has produced animated, side-scrolling scores to classical music. Older folks will liken them to neon piano rolls. Youngun’s will see a bit of Guitar Hero or Rock Band game design in their march of colorful shapes dancing to everything from Bach to Debussy.

Malinowski let us know that he just recently completed a major work: adapting all of Beethoven’s String Quartets into his particular, always evolving style. And for this he turned to San Francisco’s Alexander String Quartet for their recordings. Says the animator:

I made my first graphical scores in the 1970s, my first animated graphical score in 1985, and the first of these for a movement of a Beethoven string quartet in 2010. In 2014 I began collaborating with the Alexander String Quartet on selected movements of Beethoven string quartets, and in the early months of 2019 we decided to honor the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth by extending our collaboration to the full set. [Note: that anniversary will officially take place next year.]

One important point: Malinowski does not choose colors randomly or because they are pretty. Instead, he uses “Harmonic Coloring”:

I've assigned blue to be the "home pitch" (the tonic, notataed Roman numeral "I") because that seemed the most "settled," and chosen the blue-toward-red direction as the I-toward-V direction because motion toward the dominant ("V") seems more "active" compared with motion toward the subdominant ("IV").

This might not make sense just by reading it, but head to this page to see how the color wheel looks. There you can see how classical music has evolved from the Renaissance (mostly staying with the seven pitches in an octave) to the radical changes of Brahms and then through Debussy to Stravinsky, where it is a riot of color.

Beethoven wrote 16 string quartets between 1798 and 1826, as well as a Große Fuge included here that only had one movement, and gained a notoriety in its day as being a chaotic, inaccessible mess. (They were wrong). The last five, known at the Late Quartets, were written in the last three years of his life. He was completely deaf by this time, suffering from all sorts of medical issues, recovering from brushes with death, and yet... the Late Quartets are considered by many to be his masterpieces, even more notable given that he had come to the quartet form later than other composers and wracked with doubt about his talents.

The final movement of his final string quartet (No. 16) was the last complete work Beethoven would ever write. At the top of the score he wrote “Must it be? It must be!” Death was at the door.

For those ready to learn or ready to revisit these challenging works, Malinowski has made it a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. See the complete playlist of animated string quartets here. Or stream them all, from start to finish, below:

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Patti Smith Sings “People Have the Power” with a Choir of 250 Fellow Singers

…people have the power

To redeem the work of fools

—Patti Smith

As protest songs go, "People Have the Power" by Godmother of Punk Patti Smith and her late husband Fred Sonic Smith is a true upper.

The goal was to recapture some of the energy they’d felt as youth activists, coming together to protest the Vietnam War. As Patti declared in an NME Song Stories segment:

… what we wanted to do was remind the listener of their individual power but also of the collective power of the people, how we can do anything. That’s why at the end it goes, "I believe everything we dream can come to pass, through our union we can turn the world around, we can turn the earth’s revolution." We wrote it consciously together to inspire people, to inspire people to come together.

Sadly, Fred Smith, who died in 1994, never saw it performed live. But his widow has carried it around the world, and witnessed its joyful transformative power.

Witness the glowing faces of 250 volunteer singers who gathered in New York City’s Public Theater lobby to perform the song as part of the Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy Is Coming last spring.

The event was staged by Choir! Choir! Choir!, a Canadian organization whose commitment to community building vis-à-vis weekly drop-in singing sessions at a Toronto tavern has grown to include some starry names and world-renowned venues, raising major charitable funds along the way.

As per Choir! Choir! Choir!’s operating instructions, there were no auditions. The singers didn’t need to know how to read music, or even sing particularly well, as participant Elyse Orecchio described in a blog post:

The man behind me exuberantly delivered his off-pitch notes loudly into my ear. But to whine about that sort of thing goes against the spirit of the night. This was a democracy: the people’s chorus.

Director Sarah Hughes had been having “one of those theater nerd Saturdays,” and was grabbing a post-Public-matinee salad prior to an evening show uptown, when she bumped into friends who asked if she wanted to sing with Patti Smith and a community choir:

I'm working on playwright Chana Porter and composer Deepali Gupta’s Dearly Beloved, a meditation on productive despair for community choir, and have been having beautiful, enlightening experiences making music with large groups of non-singers, so I was curious about what this might be like. 

And it was lovely. Just singing at all is always very great, even though I am not "good at it.” Singing along with all the other people in the room felt especially good. 

The Choir! Choir! Choir! leaders were generous, had a sense of humor, and weren't afraid to tell us when we sounded terrible, which was refreshing. 

We learned our parts and then I ate my salad standing in the Public lobby while we waited for Patti. She took a longer time to arrive than they'd planned for, I think, but it was because she was at a climate crisis rally so we weren't mad. And she was just very fully herself. 

I'm not like a die-hard Patti Smith fan, but I sort of fell in love with her after reading her beautiful recounting of messing up while singing "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" at Dylan's Nobel Prize ceremony. This experience made me appreciate her even more—her humanity, her vulnerability, the strangeness of being famous or recognized or heroic to many many people. And she really did lead us, in this very special, simple, real way. It reminded me of how little we really need in the way of money or production values or even talent for a performance or public event to feel worth our time.

The film reflects that sense of the extraordinary co-existing gloriously with the ordinary:

An unimpressed little girl eats a peach.

Two young staffers in Public Theater t-shirts seem both sheepish and thrilled when the film crew zeroes in on them singing along.

Guitarist and Choir! Choir! Choir! co-founder Daveed Goldman nearly bonks Patti in the head with the neck of his instrument.

Also? That’s the Police’s Stewart Copeland playing the frying pan.

Next up on Choir! Choir! Choir!’s agenda is an October 13th concert at California’s Boarder Field State Park, with some 300 people on the Tijuana side and 500 on the San Diego side raising their voices together on Lennon and McCartney’s "With a Little Help from My Friends." More information on that, and other stops on their fall tour, here.

Sign up to be notified next time Choir! Choir! Choir! is looking for singers in your area here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 7 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Queen Rehearse & Meticulously Prepare for Their Legendary 1985 Live Aid Performance

It seems no small irony that lean, late-seventies and eighties New Wave bands like U2, Depeche Mode, and the Cure, who made legacy stadium rock acts like Queen seem outmoded, went on to become massive-selling stadium legacy acts themselves. The musical critique of 70’s rock excesses found its most popular expression in bands that took a lot from Freddie Mercury and company: flamboyant sexual fluidity, spectacular light shows, raw emotional confessionalism, stridently sentimental, fist-pumping anthems...

Yet in the eighties, a “wide-sweeping change in musical tastes” displaced Queen’s reign on the charts, writes Lesley-Ann Jones in Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury. They were “confoundingly on the wane” and “were beginning to feel that they’d had their day. A permanent split was in the cards. They’d talked about it.” But it was not to be, thanks to Live Aid, the near-mythological July 13, 1985 performance at Wembley Stadium. After that gig, remembers Queen keyboardist Spike Edney, “Queen found that their whole world had changed.”

Suddenly, after their short, 20-minute daylight set (see the video at the bottom), they were again the biggest band on the planet. “Queen smoked ‘em,” as Dave Grohl puts it. “They walked away being the greatest band you’d ever seen in your life, and it was unbelievable.” The sentiment was universally echoed by everyone from Elton John to Bowie to Bono to Paul McCartney, all of them upstaged that day. “It has been repeated ad nauseam,” writes Jones, “that Queen’s performance was the most thrilling, the most moving, the most memorable, the most enduring—surpassing as it did the efforts of their greatest rivals.”

The band, however, was “surprised that everyone was surprised,” says Edney. “They were veterans at stadium gigs… this was their natural habitat.” Queen “could practically do this stuff in their sleep.” Mixing his metaphors, Edney also reveals just how hard the band worked to remain the consummate professionals they were: “to them, it was another day at the office.” As such, they put in their time to make absolutely certain that they would be in top form. “They booked out the 400-seat Shaw Theatre, near King’s Cross train station in London,” notes Martin Chilton at Udiscovermusic, “and spent a week honing their five-song set," planning every single part of it to perfection.

Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof had asked bands not to debut new material but play fan favorites. Edney was “stunned to hear certain artists belting out their latest single.” But Queen took Geldof’s “message to heart,” putting together a carefully curated medley of their biggest hits. In the video at the top of the post, see the band discuss this behind-the-scenes process with an interviewer before going onstage in front of a crowd of “the 72,000 fans who would be at Wembley—and the estimated 1.9 billion people watching on television from 130 countries around the world.”

In answer to a question about going onstage without their usual spectacular stage and light show, or even time for a sound check before their set, Brian May replies, “it all comes down to whether you can play or not, really, which is nice, in a way, because I think there’s probably an element who think that groups like us can’t do it without the extravagant backdrop.” Whoever he might have been referring to, his “We’ll see” sounds supremely confident.

The band was meticulously prepared. After the interview, we see rehearsal footage of nearly their full set, beginning with “Radio Ga Ga,” a song whose chorus during the live event produced what was described as “the note heard around the world.” (See it above.) After their incredible performance May sounded much more modest, even self-effacing. “The rest of us played OK, but Freddie went out there and took it to another level. It wasn’t just Queen fans. He connected with everyone. I’d never seen anything like that in my life.”

The performance is all the more remarkable for the fact that Queen had been shunned just the previous year for breaking the boycott and playing in South Africa, for noble but misunderstood reasons at the time. They were considering calling it quiets, but the pressures they were under seemed only to galvanize them into what everyone remembers as their greatest show ever—”Queen’s ultimate moment,” writes Jones, “towards which they had been building their entire career.”

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

Robert Johnson Finally Gets an Obituary in The New York Times 81 Years After His Death

Whether you see it as a good faith effort to correct past mistakes or a bid to distract from more recent fumbles—the New York Times'Overlooked” obituary series has done its readers a service by recovering the bios of “remarkable people whose deaths… went unreported in The Times.” Most of the profiles are of people who were public figures at the time of their death. Some had achieved international recognition, like Alan Turing, and others were royalty, like Rani, queen of the kingdom of Jhansi in Northern India and one of the leaders of a revolt against the British in 1857.

The latest “Overlooked” is an oddity. Its subject may be the most famous person of all to get the belated Times obit since the series began. Robert Johnson’s alleged deal with the devil at the crossroads has become as foundational to U.S. mythology as John Henry’s hammer or George Washington’s cherry tree.

At the very same time, Johnson may be the most obscure figure to appear in “Overlooked.” And the person about whom the least is known. “What is known” about him, writes the Times, “can be summarized on a postcard.”

He is thought to have been born out of wedlock in May 1911 in Mississippi and raised there. School and census records indicated he lived for stretches in Tennessee and Arkansas. He took up guitar at a young age and became a traveling musician, eventually glimpsing the bustle of New York City. But he died in Mississippi [in 1938], with just over two dozen little-noticed recorded songs to his name.

There's more to the story, but it gets hard to tell where the historical record ends and the mythology begins. Still, the paper of record can be forgiven for overlooking Johnson the first time around. Aside from a small number of Delta blues fans, most of whom actually lived in the Delta, hardly anyone knew who Robert Johnson was in life. By the time news of his mojo started to spread outside Mississippi, it was too late. John Hammond sought to bring him Carnegie Hall in 1938, the year of his death. Alan Lomax looked to record him 1941, only to find out he was gone.

His fame spread in the 1960s when British Blues invasionists picked up on his genius, cited him as a primarily influence, and covered and adapted his songs. Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One that “hundreds of lines” of his derive from Johnson’s influence. The "advent of rock 'n' roll would turn Johnson into a figure of legend," among blues and rock and roll fans in the know. The legend, and recognition of Johnson's greatness, exploded in subsequent decades.

Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first ceremony in 1986. His posthumous Complete Recordings netted a Grammy in 1991. Many more honors followed, including a Grammy lifetime achievement award. By 2003, Rolling Stone could call Johnson "the undisputed king of the Mississippi Delta blues" and place him at #5 on their list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time. How is it possible that an obscurely minor figure in blues history became a founding grandfather of rock and roll?

"The chasm between the man Johnson was and the myth he became," the Times admits "has marooned historians and conscientious listeners for more than a half-century." Johnson's story "is no more or less than the handiwork of the country in which it was written; a country where the legacy of African-Americans has often been shaped by others." But those others have had good reason for appropriating Johnson's infernal story and unique musical signatures.

A new Netflix documentary ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads (see the trailer above) explores in interviews with rock and blues greats how Johnson became forever linked to a myth that stood in for the real circumstances of his short, difficult life. (He can be thought of as the founding member of rock's tragically elite "27 club.") Actual deal with the devil or no, "there was certainly a lot of daredevilry in his flouting of standard tempos and harmonics," writes Rolling Stone. "His records are breathtaking displays of melodic development and acute brawn."

While the Times, and most everyone else, passed over him in life, in death, he has more than received his due from musicians and fans. Johnson has not been overlooked so much as maybe overrepresented in the history of the blues. Find out why in his belated Times obituary, in the hundreds of tributes to him written and recorded since his death 81 years ago, and by immersing yourself in his own haunting recordings.

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

Watch Composer Wendy Carlos Demo an Original Moog Synthesizer (1989)

She’s worked with Stanley Kubrick *and* “Weird Al” Yankovic, and helped Robert Moog in the development of his eponymous synthesizer. Wendy Carlos is also one of the first high profile transgender artists--credited as Walter Carlos for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange but having transitioned to Wendy by the time of The Shining, in which only a few of her pieces were used.

In this brief clip from a 1989 BBC episode of Horizon, Carlos, accompanied by her two cats, explains how she uses analog synths to create electronic facsimiles of real instruments--in this case creating an approximation of a xylophone, sculpting a sine wave until it sounds like a mallet on wood.

The segment also shows Carlos operating one of the original Moog synths, about the size of a fridge and looking like an old telephone switchboard with a keyboard attached. By plugging and unplugging a series of cables, she demonstrates, the sine wave is deconstructed from its original “pure” but harsh sound. Later analog synths were additive, not subtractive, she explains. (It’s one of the few times I’ve seen old tech explained so well and so quickly.)

Along with working with Bob Moog, Carlos studied at Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center alongside two pioneers of early electronic music: Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, both of whom would make very challenging compositions and musique concrete.

But Wendy chose both the classical and popular path, creating the Switched on Bach series that featured 18th century music played on the Moog synth and others. It would lead her to Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange’s idiosyncratic score and even more success. Apart from her score for Disney’s Tron, now very much beloved by fans, Carlos turned to more personal, soundscape work later. And in 2005, if you can find a copy, she put out a multiple-CD set of all her soundtrack work that Kubrick never used for The Shining and others.

The description of the entire Horizon episode has a technofear theme: “In Paris, Xavier Rodet has taught a computer to sing Mozart; in Greenwich Village, Wendy Carlos synthesises a classical concerto from electronic tones...In Australia, Manfred Clynes reckons he has discovered a universal human language of emotion. To prove it he creates feelings on tape. What's left for human performers to contribute?”

This program was at least a decade after the first sampling keyboard, so the anxiety is either late or overhyped. But it also sounds familiar to our current concerns over AI (as seen in these very web pages!). Synths never replaced human instruments, but it did create more synth players. AI won’t replace human decision making (probably), but it will certainly create more AI programmers.

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Hear Glenn Gould Sing the Praise of the Moog Synthesizer and Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, the “Record of the Decade” (1968)

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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