Technology

Can Jazz Survive . . .

Bad, hectoring, scolding writing?

Seriously, this kind of article is invariably a mistake, a set of generational assertions that rely on nothing more than personal anecdote and prejudice. Are we still in awe of the supposed ‘multitasking skills’ of all generations that succeed ours? There’s no thinking, just complaining.

Jazz will survive many generations, as will classical and other non-commodified musical forms. They’ll survive better than they did before iTunes. Music is a vast storehouse of aesthetic, cultural and historical knowledge, it tells us how people think, feel and imagine. A piece of music is full of information. With iTunes, music collecting has been transferred to a database for everyone, not just for obsessive discographers. And that database is flat, it makes no hierarchical distinctions between styles, which means that classical and jazz are not better than rock or hip-hip, but also that classical and jazz are as immediately available as hip-hop. Which means that they are right there to listen to. I’m puzzled over whether Myers actually knows what iTunes is, as his assertion that it is primarily desktop and work oriented is demolished by each and every iPod and iPhone that Apple has sold. How many millions is that now?

As for how a certain generation listens, Myers should sit down and catch his breath. Yes, jazz rewards attentive listening, so does Mahler. I listen to both. I also listen to both in the background without paying them constant, direct attention. So, what generation do I belong to? Well, I belong to the generation of music lovers, which is every generation. We who care about jazz should be glad that “Generation F” find it streaming through their ear buds (h/t Patrick Jarenwattananon).

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Home Computer

One of the emblematic objects of the last century is the AK-47. Mass produced, reliable and easy to use, it toppled governments in the cause of utopian and dystopian ideals. It was a true weapon of mass destruction.

Another emblematic object is the personal computer. It’s generally been used for more peaceful, constructive purposes than an assault rifle, but not everyone would agree, especially executives in the offices of EMI, Sony and UMG. For those companies, the computer has destroyed a lot of their artificially created and jealously guarded value, while becoming especially over the last ten years, a mass produced, reliable and easy to use means for creating music. There’s an entire generation of musicians using laptops and other electronic boxes (it’s easy and not misleading to refer to them generally as “laptop musicians”), to produce sound and bring it to their audiences’ ears and laptops.

The third night of the Wordless Music at Miller Theater Festival was a triple-bill of laptop musicians, Juliana Barwick, Grouper (Liz Harris) and Tim Hecker. They produced an evening of mesmerizing, satisfying music. Although the concert lasted two and a half hours, the performances were so involving that they seemed to stop the sensation of the passing of time.

All three musicians work with pure sound along the generously lengthy spectrum of what could be called ambient music, and all get to the sound they seek through electronic means. Barwick starts with her pure-toned soprano voice, singing and recording short improvised phrases which she then loops into choirs that have an ethereal quality to their sonic sheen. The sound is also harmonically rich and full, and Barwick uses the choral sound as accompaniment to her more melodic improvisations or for the singing of epigrammatic songs. She does this with great skill, singing while seamlessly looping her wordless phrases. The results are lovely and entrancing and as simple as can be – she’s only working with one instrument and using technology to perform one of its most basic tasks, copying information. She found her way to her art by working in her bedroom, and her appealingly modest, gawky stage manner bespeaks a private, individual musician for whom music making is some sort of ritual, and indeed her method of building through repetition is a ritual, and her use of multiples of her own voice and the sheer beauty made her performance a kind of ecstatic, secular liturgy.

Grouper also sings and accompanies herself on guitar and with a solid wash of white noise and reverb. A lot of records have been made using reverb as a kind of pancake makeup, but Grouper uses it to place her voice in a very stimulating ambient environment. It makes the juxtaposition of the immediacy of the voice and the almost over-stimulating bed of noise work. Her use of reverb and other processing creates a sound with space that extends through all three dimensions, and the sensation of width and depth focus the attention on her calm, gentle voice which seems placed at the eye of a hurricane of chaotic sound. It’s a striking effect, and adds a sense of powerful meaning to the simplest phrase. Hearing her live is very different than listening to her recordings, like last year’s breakthrough “Dragging a Dead Dear Up a Hill.” Recordings flatten out the music and bring the songs and the singing into focus, while the live performance opens up the sound and makes everything abstract, purely musical; she is still singing, but the diction and articulation are lost in the mix. This is not a complaint, as her sound is spellbinding and mysterious. Her set of old and new material seemed to take place out of time, in the space between breaths and the audience was in no rush to take the next one.

To close the program, Tim Hecker came down from Montreal with a laptop – the only one of the evening – a mixer and a keyboard. He also brought his familiar stunning, massive slabs of sound. Hecker is one of the most unique electronic musicians in a scene where commercial music and the avant-garde collide. He played a mix of music from his tremendous “Harmony in Ultraviolet” record as well as this year’s “An Imaginary Country.” The songs’ titles don’t matter, as there is no important differentiation between his pieces. His body of work is really about pure sound, and the sounds he makes are almost geologic in nature; huge, shifting expanses of crunching, crackling, rich noise, noise made up of pitches but so full of so many pitches that the output is a kind of comforting, enveloping, warm chaos, full of fascinating interference patterns and sonic phantoms. His new music displays elements of an expanded pallet, including some chiming tones and an actual minor key chord cadence. An accordion seems to appear, perhaps a broadcast caught between notches on the radio dial and heard from another room, then it disappears. But he eschews a beat, rhythm, harmony and melody, adjusts the mix on the fly – that’s his performance – and dazzles with a physical sensation of sound that is simultaneously atavistic and profoundly, abstractly advanced. You can’t sing to it, you can’t dance to it, but you do surrender to its power.

There is something oddly consistent about how these three laptop musicians perform, and it seems to be a generational marker. Technology allows so many people to make complex music both on the cheap and literally in the privacy of their own homes. This is a mixed blessing, but on the good side a lot of good, unexpected music is being made. The process of working so privately and mastering a tool that is essentially a means to take sound directly out of the imagination and put it through speakers, with no mediation of notation, interpretation of even idiomatic convention, means that at its best what we are hearing is the unadulterated inner life of these musicians. There is artifice in finding the means to make that electronic sound, but once made there is no artificial process by which the concrete idea is transformed into a subtle gesture. This is a profound possibility. These three performers all appear as deeply private people standing on stage. While Barwick offered thanks at the end of her set and took a bow, the others simply turned off the juice and walked off into the darkness, while each on began their set by simply walking on-stage and starting, without any fuss or affect. The stage manner is that of someone deeply shy who is embarrassed to be there when they are not making sounds, yet willing to offer their most personal sounds to us. This is digital technology put towards an achingly human purpose and makes concerts like this one quietly yet intensely human.

Wordless Music at Miller Theater concludes Saturday night, with the JACK Quartet and others, and tickets are still available.

Not a Record, but Record

Record Interface

[Updated with graphic content courtesy of Propellerhead] Record companies love to mewl about listeners downloading and sharing digital music, and that has presented them with a challenge to their thinking and way of doing business that they deeply deserve. It’s an important topic for a later post, but what I see as the fundamental issue is that the large entertainment conglomerates have confused the medium with the message; they thought that they have been selling music, when what they have actually been trying to sell is CDs. Their business model has been based around a massive hit single, perhaps two, so a disc would have those few tracks which were competent from conception to execution and the musical equivalent of excelsior to fill out a running time of sufficient length for the company to justify charging $20. Listeners, interested in the music more than the package, were champing at the bit to be able to isolate the few songs they did want to hear from the insulting crap that they had been compelled to buy. If the record companies had been more interested in the music rather than the units, perhaps they would have been in position to reap the economic benefits of file sharing and iTunes. It still seems they’ll never figure it out – but again, much more on this to come in later posts.
Another aspect of the development of affordable digital technology which has wreaked perhaps as much havoc with the companies, but with a stiletto rather than a sledgehammer, has been the spread of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) technology. With a sufficiently powerful computer – a laptop nowadays – an interface that connects audio microphones to the computer and a software package, any musician can make a recording pretty much anywhere and do so with as professional a set of production values as the finest and most expensive studios. The most well-known of these packages is Pro Tools, and it’s accomplished competitors are Ableton Live, Apple’s Logic and Propellerhead Reason, and with them musicians have been able to liberate themselves from the record companies while consumers have simultaneously been liberating the music. The neo-sharecropper system of advancing a band cash against which to mark the entire cost of record production, especially studio time, has been effectively demolished. But it’s an ‘inside’ aspect of the business of making and selling music, so there’s been no popular coverage, and since it’s also a story of professionals taking possession of the fruits of their own skills and labor, it’s a change that the spreadsheet jockeys at the corporations have been helpless to even comprehend.

The power of these application is immense, and while there is overlap between them, each has characteristic architecture which sets it apart from the others. Pro Tools is perhaps the recording and record making application of choice for bands, but it until recently was limited by a proprietary structure that isolated its output from other platforms and uses, as well as a weak set of electronic instruments. Ableton has a loop-based structure which makes it ideal for experimentation and performance, but it does require some rethinking to make pop music with and also has a mixed bag of instruments. Logic, especially in the tremendous Studio package, is a do everything workhorse that comes closest to turning the computer into a top-of-the-line recording studio, but it doesn’t have the same creative flexibility as Live and is more difficult to master. Reason is a bit of a brilliant odd-ball, one that specifically limits itself to computer-based music production without any ability to record audio – which is what is done in a recording studio and which other DAWs support – and with a structural conception rooted in the seemingly ancient world of analog production. Reason’s interface is not only stunning and fascinating, it is the guiding principal behind how the application works. To make music, one selects devices such as synthesizers and signal processors and puts them into an image of the type of metal rack in which those magic boxes would installed in a recording studio. Flip around the rack, and the patch-cord connection between the devices is revealed and available for alteration. This analog approach flows through the devices, which emulate proven and wonderful studio instruments such as the Oberheim Matrix synthesizer (Reason’s incredible Thor instrument, arguably the finest software synthesizer available), vocoders, voltage control arpeggiators and distortion boxes. Reason looks great and sounds better. To further its idiosyncratic conception, Reason lacks support for plug-ins (third party sound producing or signal processing applications). Reason makes music its own, powerful way, but only its own, self-contained way.

Now, Propellerhead have produced a companion application dedicated to audio recording, and simply called Record (available as of September 9). Just as Reason is entirely dedicated to electronic music production, Record is dedicated to audio recording. For the musician, Record is designed to enable them to record and produce music, and for Propellerhead, it’s designed to sell competitively against other DAWs. These boil down to the same question, should musicians buy it?

For musicians who already use Reason and have been making do with porting their Reason production into another platform in which they can record audio, the answer is an immediate yes. The gain in workflow efficiency itself is reason enough, but what Record does that makes it especially essential for Reason users is integrate completely and seamlessly into Reason. If the applications are installed on the same computer they cannot be open simultaneously, but if Record ‘sees’ Reason once the former is launched, or if it is pointed to Reason at setup, every device, feature and command in Reason is available in Record (as a stand-alone, Record has Reason’s effects devices, but none of the synthesizers, replacing them with the ID8 sound module which is useful for sketching music and create place-holding parts but inadequate for any kind of finished recording). The package has a different name and icon, but working with Record is identical to working with Reason, except the user can record audio tracks as well. This also means that Reason users will be able to start using Record almost immediately, which is also a testament to how well-designed the package is.

For the rest who may want to produce music and who do not use Reason (and who may or may not use another DAW), the question of whether this is something worth buying is more complex. Record, like Reason, is a specifically dedicated application which plays with others through the protocol ReWire but which is designed as if it not only had no peers but also as if digital processing had never been invented. This is actually one of its great strengths. Propellerhead produces software based in the ways people have been making music for decades, so the interface is the best of any software product in existence – rather than reverse-engineering from an engineers code to a (barely) functional interface, the user sees transport controls similar to those of a multi-track analog tape recording, a rack very much like one they may have installed themselves, and a mixing board with controls and signal routing options that will be immediately identifiable to anyone who has ever used a multi-channel mixer. Getting started is as easy as plugging in a mic or a guitar, setting the time signature and tempo in the transport controls (odd numbered meters are supported, but there is no ability to tap a tempo and have the application ‘read’ the input), pressing record and playing. For simply getting tracks onto a hard drive out of the box, Record is unsurpassed. Musicians can also record multiple takes, or ‘lanes’, in the same instrumental track and edit them later into one master track.

Record Rack

Record Rack Backside

Editing audio recordings, what the application calls ‘clips,’ is a necessity in any recording environment, and Record’s editing features deserve special attention. There is an edit mode for clips (MIDI as well as audio), and simple, functional ways to perform basic edits like fading a clip in and out, shortening a clip, selecting a portion of it, moving it back and forth on the time line, etc. What’s vital for the recording studio emulation is the ability to produce that one master track from edits. Record lays out multiple takes in a set of rows, and supports cross-fading from one row to another. There are standard editing tools for listening, selecting, moving, cutting segments, copying, pasting, adding silence, adjusting levels and spacing. This is the digital equivalent of splicing magnetic tape with a razor blade, and is up to snuff as in other applications. Serious, creative and/or experimental audio editing is not effectively supported by any DAW and is best done in dedicated applications likes Amadeus Pro. What DAWs do make possible that tape could never handle is stretching the time of an audio recording; running the clip at faster or slower speeds with no alteration in pitch or timbre. Record handles this easily as well, if not better, than any other DAW, although the actual recorded events on a clip may produce digital artifacts, for instance a clip that has been slowed may reveal a glitch that would have been hidden at its original tempo.

Record Sequencer

Where Record really shines is in its mixer, modeled after classic SSL models. The number of tracks supported is limited only by processing power, and there are ways to mix down multiple tracks to spare both power and hard drive space. Most important is the intuitive ease of use here, and anyone who has ever twirled knobs and pushed faders on a hardware mixing will need no instruction. The signal path on each channel is clear, and each channel features effective dynamics, EQ and compressor/limiter processing, sparing, if desired, use of those same devices as effects. Loading insert effects onto the channel is identical to opening a file in almost every other contemporary application, and pointing channel signals to effects that have been mounted in the application’s rack is just as simple. Whether recording live audio in real time or mixing previously recorded tracks, this is the easiest mixer in any DAW.

Record Mixing Console

The strengths of the application seem to flow directly from the design concept, where everything appears to the eye in a way that indicates what it does and how it’s used, and for getting music down and together Record is productive at a very high level right out of the box. It’s easier to use than even Garageband, and is far more powerful and it performs its goals superbly. Sound quality is flawless, ergonomic operation is sure and the beta-testing package was more stable than most retail releases; it crashed once and exhibited a few minor flows, nothing more. Record does not have the features of Logic or Live, but it’s output can be routed to those applications via ReWire for further processing. Of course, it’s not free, and value is an important consideration along with capability. For Reason users, this is a $149 cross-grade and is self-recommending at that price. Without the companion software, Record has a $299 price-tag, neither cheap nor expensive. For musicians with home recording studios and venues making live recordings, the application is ideal and well worth the price; the power and ease mean that no recording engineer is needed to make excellent recordings. But those who need more electronic processing, or who are mainly producing electronic music and have only a small need for audio will probably not find value in Record (limited versions of other DAWs, which combine recording and electronics, include Logic Express for $199, Ableton Live LE at $119 downloaded, and Pro Tools LE for $149). For those who are new to both and want a Reason/Record bundle, Propellerhead is offering that for $629, a 22% discount. That’s a decision which requires a musician to have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish and what tools they will need, as the Reason package is so unique; if the most important thing is recording audio, Record is superior to any other DAW, but if one would like a mix of audio and electronic production, the choice is more complex and is determined by the goal; if the main use is for performance, Ableton is preferable, Logic is ideal for large-scale, commercial production, a band wanting to make and record music should take a long look at Record and Reason. For anyone interested, the applications can be downloaded and run on a demo basis, although caution may be in order, as they are both a joy to use, with Record being a special ease, and may be totally addicting.

Improvisation, Idiom and Neuroscience

This recent article picks up things I had recently discussed and is welcome to me especially as it indicates more classical performers are (slowly) returning to the use of improvisation in performance. This is not classical music as free jazz, but a sense of both embellishment (adding ornaments and transitional phrases to a sparely written melody in the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto, for example), and creating original material (a cadenza) which comments on the style and language of the composition and is in that style and language, which is a rough way of describing what I mean by idiomatic.

This study mentioned at The Daily Dish misses one critical aspect for me, which is the study of the brain as the musician listens to himself improvise. A jazz musician may suppress inhibition in order to solo, but that musician (and any other idiomatic improviser), is not suppressing taste and judgement they are listening to themselves and tossing aside what doesn’t work while finding things that do and developing them. Good improvisation has a structure that is defined by the improvisation itself, not unlike a worked-out cadenza, and this is true even for free jazz (and also one of the reasons why free jazz is so hard to do really well – playing free isn’t the same as playing well). The classic study piece is Sonny Rollins blowing on “Blue Seven,” but the recorded literatures spans Armstrong’s “West End Blues” to Jarrett’s “The Koln Concert,” before and beyond. What would their brains look like, in neuroscience terms, during this self-listening, after they have taken the step to improvise and while they are making it work? I think that is the essential question.

Anyone interested in improvisation as a practice, and each and every musician who improvises, should read this book, again and again. Beyond essential.

The Eagle Is Landing

Apollo 11 Houston you are breaking up badly over.

As I write this, the Apollo 11 mission is on time and target to land men on the moon. I’ve been listening to the open channel transmission broadcast for much of today, catching conversation and comments as they interrupt a surprisingly engrossing stream of background static and space noise. This is courtesy of the superb We Choose The Moon site, which is streaming, in real time, the entire digitized archive of the transmission of the Apollo 11 communications and maintaining a moon landing countdown clock. They are replaying the past,

Houston Apollo. How do you read on the high gain over?

I was five years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and at the time I loved everything about space and wanted to be an astronaut. My parents indulged my taste for Tang, and we all sat in front of the TV – I was on the floor – as Walter Cronkite narrated the broadcast on CBS. I think I remember correctly that he was excited and thrilled and tried not to let it show. What I couldn’t consider at the time is how profound an accomplishment it was, in the span of a single lifetime, man went from the first artificial flight to travelling a quarter million miles across space, landing on another planetary object, and returning safely.

Hearing this way is incredibly vivid, I imagine so for those who are too young to have seen or remembered it. Hearing history makes it immediate and alive, that’s the great power of radio – the voice reaching out to you from the aether. And on the audio side, the web is like radio, transmitting signal and noise from all parts of the world and now from the past. The web is a gateway to accumulated human knowledge, which is an accumulation of history. While the written history is static, and with less density of information and resolution than the printed page, the video and audio history are gripping. Sample anything out of this archive, especially old sound recordings, and you are listening to a physical artifact of the past made, literally, active. Sound is vibration, a physical quality, and the development of ways to capture sound meant a way to capture the physical motion of the past. When the sound is replayed, its physical motion makes its way to our ears and the past literally touches us. This is profoundly exciting, moving and humane, that the past can touch us. And while this entire Apollo archive will be made available for user time listening one the mission anniversary has passed, I recommend tuning into the audio stream if you’re going to be at a computer for a period of time, it’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever heard.

Roger Eagle you are five five this S-10 voice is really beautiful, over.

What Do We Make?

What do we make in America? It’s rather an urgent question, and maybe better is to ask what do we sell in America? Beyond the making and selling of cars and houses – not doing all that well right now – we make and sell culture. And I do mean make and sell, as in manufacturing. What America made and sold from 1942 to 1989 almost literally conquered the globe. It was arguably the “Deuce-and-a-half” truck, more than any other single thing, that won Word War II, and the Cold War was won by Levis, Coca-Cola and Michael Jackson – maybe you see what I’m getting at.

What we make now and can’t sell, what we are choking on to some extent, are things that cost too much and do too much, and are worthless in their overwhelming abundance. We didn’t really need them, but we could have them, so why not? And now we can’t get rid of them. Not unlike our relationship to China – on the one hand, the Chinese own much of our present and future, on the other, there’s a group of well-known ignorant crazies who want to have a war with them. That’s some kind of recession in political and strategic thinking.

This all comes together with “Chinese Democracy,” and no, I’m not just being glib. To get the music out of the way – since I’m not writing about notes and sounds just now – I will express no opinion on the record. I’m not a fan of Guns n’ Roses. They do what they do well, and it doesn’t interest me, in part because the commerce can’t be separated from the music. Guns n’ Roses is a band making hard rock music, and they are selling the commodity of rebellion and anti-social swagger, while their product is produced and distributed by a conglomerate that, ultimately, owns the recordings – record companies have been using a modern plantation system for decades, which makes the amazing variety of American musical culture that’s been preserved a mind-boggling and bittersweet ray of light in an otherwise slowly unfolding tragedy. It’s not American unless it can be bought and sold, and if it couldn’t be bought and sold, we would not have it.

And so “Chinese Democracy” is a package of some 77 minutes of recorded music. It’s also seemingly an exceedingly small, modest result of an investment of almost 20 years and perhaps $13 million – the astonishing figure I see quoted most frequently. The package itself – a disc, booklet and case – is available only at Best Buy, for $11.99, which means it will take 1,100,000 units sold to recoup that cost. It’s an odd concept – something that Rose and Geffen hope will be massively popular available at only one outlet. It has to be massively popular as well, there’s too much money at stake. How is it that an album can cost so much? With every Mac OS loaded with Garageband, and with wonderful and popular music essentially being made at home, it points to an archaic method of thinking and working. Music is made with sound, with the voice and instruments, and can be preserved and spread through the ear or with paper and pencil. It’s hard to conceive that a musician would absolutely require that many years, those many millions, and a dozen recording studios and associated engineers and producers to make a record, because those appurtenances have nothing to do with music. But for someone with a very limited imagination, someone who sees everything as a product to be put in a package, someone who’s idea of innovation is bigger, bigger, always bigger, well, I can see how someone like that would think that’s what it takes to manufacture a big name record – to the CEO of a record company, the package itself is the product, and music has noting to do with it. Just as the car is something that more and more products are put into. And so we choke on their products, and they inevitably choke as well.

No one needs to choke, because “Chinese Democracy” is also available at iTunes, which is essentially a music store that resides in the home, and also a distributor for anyone who makes music in their home, without the producers and engineers and studios and millions of dollars in costs. Geffen and Axl Rose seem to be backhandedly accepting the obvious, which is that digital media is not only the future of commercial music but a great business benefit as well. It’s a different business though, and if you lack imagination, you can’t possibly see that something that is different than what is in your mind can be of any benefit, if you can see it at all. It’s like color blindness – manufacturing and selling CDs in cases is green, digital media is blue, but it doesn’t have any color at all if you can’t see it, which you can’t. The intriguing and unsettling part of digital music is that is has no physical content; the player exists but the music is just information. It has taken us technology to get us to realize what music has always been, just ephemeral information. This is a good thing even if it takes some getting used to. Some companies are seeing it already, though. It’s interesting that the same week “Chinese Democracy” is finally released brings news that one of the world’s largest record companies is now selling more music digitally than physically. That’s a color that’s difficult not to see, if you have any interest in knowing other colors exist.

One fruit of digital culture, I hope, will be that imagination will force itself onto American commerce, will abrade the dullness and opacity of thought and imagination. A great number of us are suffering the result of this lack of imagination, the inability to conceive that oil may be a limited resources, that housing prices may drop, that risk still exists, that success has many, many handmaidens. The gap between how things could be and how they are is measured by the idea that things can only be how they’ve always been; American society has been run by Abe Simpsons for quite awhile. That has now changed in one huge and painless way, which bodes well for the future. The rest of that change, though, the change in just what we make and what we sell, and how we do it, is going to happen, but it’s going to be a lot more painful, at least until Abe Simpson stops running it. Or ruining it.

The Music of the Spheres

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I collect sound files for digital music, and lately that has meant a lot of sounds of satellites, rockets, ‘sferics for an electronic music project. So this, courtesy of an EMF email, is very exciting to me. It’s not the sound of the atmosphere, but of space, the seismology of stars translated into sound! It’s courtesy of the Corot Space Telescope. Go here for more astronomy and sound, and listen to a sample.