Previous month:
March 2015
Next month:
May 2015

The Maximum Impact of Minimalism

In this epic episode, we examine how the avant-garde movement of musical minimalism was translated into the popular music sphere surprisingly quickly, and how it came to be significantly influential throughout musical culture over the past half century. Short version: it's EVERYWHERE. Long version: podcast episode full of fantastic examples that illustrate this remarkable story.


(Playlist after the jump....)

Continue reading "The Maximum Impact of Minimalism" »

DarwinTunes, collaborative musical evolution

DarwinTunes started with randomly generated sounds from a computer and then allows short loops to be chosen by anyone who participates. This 'hive mind,' internet-based method of musical selection has proven to mirror organic evolutionary processes. From the abstract of their PNAS paper:

Music evolves as composers, performers, and consumers favor some musical variants over others. To investigate the role of consumer selection, we constructed a Darwinian music engine consisting of a population of short audio loops that sexually reproduce and mutate. This population evolved for 2,513 generations under the selective influence of 6,931 consumers who rated the loops’ aesthetic qualities. We found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms.

Here is a short explanation with examples of the process unfolding interspersed:

It's really pretty cool. I went to the game and played for a bit, creating some 'children.' Here are my three favorites I parented:

Loop 1

Loop 2

Loop 3

 And of course I had to make a short mix of all three:

Darwin Loops Mix

Check it out.

Some context for today: you're going to die

Not to be morbid, but I watch this video at least once per year, if not more often. It reminds me of the unavoidable, inevitable context of my life: that it is temporary, that I am a phenomenon and not a thing, and that one day I will experience the end of myself. 

I find the poem, and the gravelly, matter-of-fact delivery of the narrator, to be immensely comforting. It helps me to spend my time and energy wisely, and to remember what truly matters in life.

The poem is by Timothy Furstnau, the film directed by Dennis Palazzolo and narrated by Vito Acconci:

If you prefer your unflinching life perspective with a little more Shatner, try this.

Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards

THIS. One of the clear weaknesses of contemporary music education in the U.S. at all levels, up through graduate school, is that it does not typically proceed from existing musical interests or contemporary cultural contexts into more detailed and less familiar territory. (There are notable exceptions.) This principle seems essential to me in music education, or any areas of study and work that are strongly connected to cultural practice.

Geoffrey Himes illustrates one way this principle can be applied in his delightful article "Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards." Seriously, this article makes me want to start writing a reverse music history curriculum that would start with contemporary music surveys (popular, concert, movie and game scores, all of it) and work backwards in time, which I think could be fascinating. Call it the "Where Did This Come From?" approach.

(I do realize that this would require a fundamental shift of values in the musical world on all sides, from ones that originate from judgments about means and modes of musical creation to values that emerge from engagement with contemporary cultural practices as they are found. I'm also aware that such a paradigm shift would take over a generation. But, you know, the second best time to plant a tree is now.)

Jonathan Newman talks about his symphony

This episode is a conversation with composer Jonathan Newman, about his Symphony No. 1 "My Hands Are A City."  We also discuss his inspiration from Beat culture, composing symphonies in general, and more. It's an interesting peek into a brilliant piece of music from a keen creative mind.

If you enjoy the episode, you can listen to the recording of the symphony we made while Jonathan was visiting a few years ago, and watch videos of that performance as well as some fun outreach we added to the mix. (Teaser: some very conservative listeners were enthusiastically in love with JN and his symphony by the time we were done.) 

Funklet: learn great drumming by visualizing the greats

Somehow I stumbled on Funklet, this great site for teaching drum set by analyzing and playing along with the very best drummers, and also by rendering what they do as dynamic patterns. The patterns also allow you to select which aspects of each drum track you want to hear.

The site is curated by Jack Stratton and features some really terrific selections, even if you are not a drummer and don't need to practice. The visualized, interactive pattern format allows you to hear some of the great drum tracks with some detail. Personal favorites include Stevie Wonder, ?uestlove, Clyde Stubblefield, and Bernard Purdie. I've especially enjoyed picking apart some of these drum set parts and then listening to the original full recordings they're from, to hear them in context. Makes for much more vivid listening.

Visualizing the expressive impact of harmonic function

A great animation showing expressive reaction to harmonic progressions in Mozart's "Lacrymosa," from the Requiem (K. 626). (N.B.: the animator of the video for some reason doesn't believe in lower case Roman numerals for minor chords--I know, right?--and also mis-identifies just a few harmonies, but it's nevertheless delightful to watch.)


You'll find links to more, similar videos here.

Seminal writings about music, pt. 1: Reich, Music as a Gradual Process

Writing about music is hard. It is, as someone famously said, like dancing about architecture, or, as the New Republic published in 1918:

Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.

If words could produce the effect that music does, if we could express what music allows us to express using text or speech or image instead, we probably would. Music is difficult and complex and abstract and temporal so you have to really pay attention and listen actively and lots of stuff that it's frankly easier to get people to do using words or images but those things can't do what music does, so we music instead despite those rather distinct properties.

Continue reading "Seminal writings about music, pt. 1: Reich, Music as a Gradual Process" »

The anatomy of the internet

For something that pervades our lives like the internet does, I find that I'm not really aware of how it works, in a literal sense, and how it developed. Vox offers 40 maps that explain the internet, and I found it very enlightening and informative.

As issues about the internet become more politically prominent and important (e.g., net neutrality, privacy), understanding what the internet is, how it came to be, and how it works in a basic sense is increasingly essential knowledge for any informed citizen.

Music in the Middle

In this episode, we take a look at music in the middle, that is, music that authentically and substantially bridges disparate musical styles, or combines unrelated sound worlds, or borrows ideas from one mode of musical creation and applies them to another. Examples are many and varied, and I have a strong suspicion lots of listeners will find something new and interesting to listen to.

Examples for this episode, with links to acquire them should your interest be piqued (and it should be, because these were some fun examples):

In Praise of Idleness

Jordan Bates, over at his consistently interesting site Refine the Mind, takes a close look at one of the great thinker Bertrand Russell's more provocative essays: In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell on the virtues of leisure.

As Russell asserts in his essay, leisure time is often tremendously productive, because our work is toward our own ends and interests. Unfortunately, we are convinced to work for others primarily by the construct of duty:

The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.

Bates summarizes Russell's thinking nicely, and asserts that his message is more timely than ever--especially considering the post-scarcity world we rapidly find ourselves moving into.

I find these kinds of arguments particularly compelling because I'm a musician, and making music is arguably one of the least useful and most important activities of human culture.

Continue reading "In Praise of Idleness" »

Simon Rattle: among the very best we have

A long-time musical hero of mine is Simon Rattle, an extraordinary conductor, musician, communicator, and human being. A recent BBC documentary about his working life is now available on YouTube, and is quite enjoyable. If you have the time to spare, I think you'll find an hour listening to and watching Sir Simon work is time well spent. (A little bonus reading: Working with Simon Rattle has been the best music education of my life.)

Simon Rattle: the Making of a Maestro:


But don't take my word for it--a few samples of his wonderful work are after the jump...

Continue reading "Simon Rattle: among the very best we have" »

Examining the subjectivity of time in musical experiences

Composer Jonathan Berger recently penned How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time, a delightful examination of temporal perception in music, the ways that music can suspend and dilate a moment in time and make it seem to last forever, or compress time in a way that hurtles our consciousness along with it. 

As Berger notes, 

The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals, is fundamental to human survival. It allows us to find our place in, and navigate, our physical world. But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective—and an integral part of our lives.

In the article, he deconstructs and examines several passages from Schubert's String Quartet in C Major to consider how, exactly, a master composer--that is, one who shapes a listener's conscious experience through the temporal manipulation of pressure waves--uses music to influence our perception of time, and what expressive effect that can have.

It's a terrific, thoughtful piece with some excellent examples. Please enjoy here.


Cultural history and preservation by recording

As is much discussed on this site, one of the most interesting aspects of music and musical culture is that it is temporal and incorporeal; it is one of music's greatest and worst qualities. So much can be lost when sounds are passed from generation to generation, and only in the tiniest recent sliver of human history have we been able to capture those sounds and preserve them, in direct and (if desired) unmediated ways through sound recording.

Early in the history of recording technology, a few pioneers realized the technology's importance for documenting and preserving musical and aural culture. Foremost among these early musicologists is Alan Lomax (also a field collector, folklorist, archivist, filmmaker, scholar, etc.), who recognized not just the immense value of folk music but of recording it, and began traveling to do so in the early 1930s. His contributions to our cultural history and preservation are enormous.

Amazingly, his entire archive is available online, free of charge. It is huge and amazing, and features recordings of concerts, social gatherings, worship services, street criers, interviews, and more. I had a hard time choosing even just a few samples to incite your curiosity.

This NPR piece is a great place to begin acquainting yourself with this veritable trove of music and people and the many delightful ways we use sound expressively.

Alan Watts: the guru you didn't know you needed

No, seriously: reading and listening to Alan Watts might just change your life. Well...not your life, per se, but it could definitely change you in some important and fundamental ways, and that would lead to changes in your life.

I could proselytize about this remarkable and wise thinker at length, but instead I'll let him speak for himself and just share a few short samples of his thinking (animated by Trey Parker & Matt Stone; reading recommendations below).

Life and Music:


I (the illusion of ego):


Continue reading "Alan Watts: the guru you didn't know you needed" »

More posts coming your way....

As our regular visitors know, this site has two main areas of content: the podcast and the blog. The podcast is, of course, episodic audio content, and since the beginning of this year, most of my energy has been focused on rebooting the podcast and getting a weekly (or near-weekly) production schedule up and running.

We're getting closer with that (seriously, check out the great new episodes), but while that work has been happening, I've neglected the blog side of the site. That part of the site is just posts like this, found either on the home page or in the site archives. The posts vary widely in content: often they're just links to interesting, thought-provoking, funny, or otherwise notable content I've found online and want to share with you; sometimes, these posts are essays, listening comparisons, and other original commentary and content by me or one of my very thoughtful and talented collaborators. Mostly they're about music, but not always.

So if you're new or if you've fallen out of the habit of checking the site regularly, please check back more often and you'll be rewarded. You can subscribe to the blog here and to the podcast via iTunes or Soundcloud. Thanks for your continued support!

Exploring Timbre

We cover a lot of ground in this episode about timbre, the character or quality of musical sound and the human voice: what it is, how it's produced and manipulated, and what effect that has on us human beings--in short, what it means

The conversation starts with a general discussion and then focuses on the human voice and electronic synthesis, each of which demonstrates basic and essential aspects of timbre. It's a fascinating look at something we are all geniuses at using, understanding, and responding to, but don't often consider closely or carefully. 

We use some really cool musical excerpts as interstitials, each of which illustrates some aspect of the discussion and are listed below. And don't forget, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud.


The music excerpts--which were all awesome, right?--and links to acquire them:

Inspire, Imitate, Steal: the spectrum of musical copying

In this episode we talk about musical inspiration, imitation, and theft: what's the difference? how does it happen and what does it sound like? is it good, bad, or both?

Using the "Blurred Lines" controversy as a starting point, we listen to a wide range of examples that show some of the differences among inspiration, imitation, and copying, and discuss how all three are often integral in a culturally collaborative creative medium like music.

(As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud!)