kottke.org posts about music
In a series of pieces written for King Frederick II of Prussia in 1747 called The Musical Offering, Johann Sebastian Bach included a canon that is popularly referred to as the Crab Canon. The piece is a puzzle to be worked out by the reader/player.
You may notice that the Crab Canon is performed by two instruments, but only one line is notated. What’s the deal?
Bach published the canons in the Musical Offering as puzzles, giving the reader the minimum amount of information with which they can figure out the piece as long as they understand its structure. To “solve” a puzzle canon is to give it a structure that makes it fit together in pleasing harmony.
The solution to the Crab Canon is that it can be played forwards or backwards or forwards and backwards together in accompaniment. It’s a musical palindrome of sorts. (via open culture)
Radiohead is data scientist Charlie Thompson’s favorite band and he recently employed his professional skills to determine Radiohead’s most depressing songs and albums. Using data from Spotify and Genius, he analyzed and weighted how sad each song sounded musically and the sadness of the lyrics.
While valence serves as an out-of-the box measure of musical sentiment, the emotions behind song lyrics are much more elusive. To find the most depressing song, I used sentiment analysis to pick out words associated with sadness. Specifically, I used tidytext and the NRC lexicon, based on a crowd-sourced project by the National Research Council Canada. This lexicon contains an array of emotions (sadness, joy, anger, surprise, etc.) and the words determined to most likely elicit them.
Unsurprisingly, True Love Waits is Radiohead’s saddest song and Moon Shaped Pool its saddest album. You can play with this interactive chart to see all of the results. I thought Videotape would score lower on the Gloom Index…along with True Love Waits, it’s my go-to Radiohead song for wallowing in the darkness of my life. (via @RichardWestenra)
Some genius took footage from The Americans and cut it into an alternative music video for The Beastie Boys Sabotage. Compare with the real thing:
Pretty good! Plus it’s always great to hear that song. (thx, steve)
In 1960, saxophonist Steve Lacy wrote down a list of advice from jazz pianist Thelonious Monk on how to play music. Among the items on the list:
Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.
Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!
Always leave them wanting more.
What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!
Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along & do it. A genius is the one most like himself.
As is the case with most thoughtful advice, many of Monk’s points apply to things other than music. (via swiss miss)
Aaron McAvoy’s washing machine makes a banging noise while washing clothes so he played The Devil Went Down to Georgia in time with the banging. This is the most perfect little internet entertainment…I actually started crying I was laughing so hard. A much needed respite from the world. See also the washing machine edition of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and a tribute to George Michael. (via @aaroncoleman0)
Steve Hackman, aka Stereo Hideout, composes, arranges, and conducts mashups of orchestral music and pop music. Not just mixes on Soundcloud, mind you, but entirely new compositions that are played by actual orchestras. The video embedded above is Brahms Symphony No. 1 mixed with Radiohead’s OK Computer but he’s also done a few others that are available on YouTube: Copland vs Bon Iver, Beethoven vs Coldplay, and Bartok vs Bjork. Hackman’s next project in this vein? Tchaikovsky vs Drake, which he’s premiering with the Pittsburgh Symphony in March. (thx, spencer)
You never really need a good reason to listen to Stevie Wonder. But his peak run of albums in the 1970s are particularly welcome today. The songs are beautiful, they’re familiar, and they’re varied. They engage melancholy without being defeated by sadness; they engage anger without being defeated by despair. Stevie Wonder is invincible.
He’s also probably underrecognized as a political songwriter. Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sly Stone, or even George Clinton are probably much better known for their politics and political anthems. Stevie, the balladeer, is just as fierce, but sly, emotional, and psychologically devastating.
Here are three songs, from three albums recorded in three consecutive years, all from the Nixon era. Each year, the lyrics get more pointed, more obvious in their contempt. But it’s a contempt mingled with understanding, and grounded in a deep, deep love for the people most affected by political failure.
On August 7, 1974, Stevie released “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” as a single, with the two-year-old “Big Brother” as a B-side. (MESSAGE!) Two days later, Nixon resigned.1 By November, the song was a Billboard number one.
And that’s why you don’t mess with Stevie Wonder.
(There was even a Trump-themed remix of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” that came out last year, but I’m not really a fan. I’d rather listen to Stevie sing with the Jackson 5 than hear his music all mixed up with Trump quotes.)
The next album that would come in the sequence is Songs In the Key of Life. Out of all of Stevie’s albums, this is the hardest for me to listen to right now. It touches too many personal memories, hopes and fears and dreams.
Songs in the Key of Life tries to reconcile the reality of the post-Nixon era — the pain that even though the enemy is gone, the work is not done and the world has not been transformed — with an inclusive hope that it one day will be, and that faith, hope, and love are still possible.
It’s what makes the album such a magnificent achievement. But I’m not there. I don’t know when I will be. So for now I’m keeping Songs In the Key of Life on the shelf. An unopened bottle of champagne for a day I may never see. But I’d like to.
To celebrate Marquee Moon’s 40th (!) anniversary, Damien Love has posted an extended interview with guitarist Richard Lloyd. Lloyd describes meeting Richard Hell (then Richard Meyers) and Tom Verlaine (then Tom Miller), forming a band, making some singles, Hell leaving to form the Voidoids, and then recording what would slowwwwly turn out to be one of the greatest albums ever.
Tom and I, our guitars meshed together immediately. I had studied a kind of classic rock guitar, where you do whole step bends, half step bends. When I was a teenager, I had a friend who knew Jimi Hendrix, and Jimi gave this guy lessons, who passed them on to me, and I met Hendrix and watched him play, so that’s where I was coming from.
Tom played with a completely different style. He used the classical vibrato. It’s technical to describe, but it’s like on a violin: you move your wrist back and forth, the finger doesn’t move, but the pitch goes up and down. I don’t know where he got it. It was more like a sitar player, but that was Tom’s style, this magnificent classical vibrato. He’d never do whole step bends, always micro-bends. But our two styles just suited each other beautifully. Between the two of us, we had all the different guitar aspects you could want. I was playing much more classical rock, Tom was playing his odd, in-between thing. But if Tom would show me something, I could play it.
The next thing was convincing Richard Hell to play bass. Tom couldn’t do it. Richie said, “I’m not a musician. I can’t do it.” When Tom wasn’t around, I asked him what the problem was. He said, “Listen. Playing with Tom is like going to the dentist. Except you’d rather go to the dentist.”
Like a lot of kids with a lot of cult rock bands, I didn’t hear about Television until I went to college. I really liked Talking Heads, and in the liner notes of their greatest hits comp Sand in the Vaseline, David Byrne says that when their band first got together, they sounded a lot like “early Television.” I was intrigued.
Then VH1 (this being the glory days of VH1) put out a “100 Greatest Albums” special and threw in Marquee Moon at #83. They showed clips of the band and their songs, and people I knew like Sonic Youth and Henry Rollins talking about how beautiful and influential it was.
It didn’t sound like anything else on that list, besides maybe The Velvet Underground & Nico. (At the time, I thought VU was a totally obscure band that I was a genius for discovering and liking.) It still doesn’t. It didn’t sound like the other punk albums, and the only other indie rock album that made the cut was The Replacements’ Let It Be, which has a totally different vibe. It was this little constellation of Gen X diamonds hidden in a list otherwise dominated by aging boomers and young pop-worshippers, with a few undeniable golden age hip-hop albums thrown in to mix it up.
I think I went out and bought Marquee Moon, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, and Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power the next day. Television helped get me to Big Star, The New York Dolls, My Bloody Valentine, and the hundred other record-store guitar bands that made me a sweetly happy, insufferable, twentysomething cliché, now fully prepared to crap all over VH1’s or any other list of 100 Greatest Albums.
But while my pleasure in debating greatest-ever lists has faded, as has my joy in digging through album crates and filesharing sites to find new bands everyone else has already heard of, my love and appreciation for Marquee Moon remains pretty much the same.
Great sound, great songs, great gossipy soap-opera stories — what else could you want?
More than a year ago, before the Iowa caucuses, the story of folk singer/songwriter/activist Woody Guthrie’s hatred for his landlord, Fred Trump (father of Donald) started to circulate. (I believe the first piece was this nicely done essay at The Conversation, by Will Kaufman.)
The story goes like this: Between 1950 and 1952, Guthrie lived in a Federal Housing Administration-funded low-income apartment building in Brooklyn’s Coney Island built by Fred Trump. But Trump (who already had a history of bigotry, including an arrest at a Klan parade that turned into a riot in 1927), quickly worked to segregate even his federal developments, prohibiting black tenants from renting in majority-white complexes or neighborhoods.
Guthrie moved out of the Trump building when his two-year-lease was up, but wrote a song about it called “Old Man Trump”:
I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
And in fact, Donald and his father Fred would eventually be sued for housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act of 1968; this was 1973, and was the first time Donald Trump ever appeared in the New York Times (“Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City”). They settled the lawsuit in 1975.
But that’s not the end of the story. The present-day Trump slogan “America First” is a direct callback to the America First Committee, an isolationist antiwar group that formed after the outbreak of World War 2 in Europe. It included pacifists and farmers and students and socialists and businessmen and a lot of wealthy, anti-Semitic, pro-German, pro-fascist Americans, notably its main spokesman Charles Lindbergh.
As it happens, one of Woody Guthrie’s best protest songs, “Lindbergh” (or “Mister Charlie Lindbergh”) is about America First. It criticizes Lindbergh and the group, but also the devil’s bargain socialist and other workers’ groups across the midwest had made in partnering up with pro-Nazi capitalists:
Hitler said to Lindy: “Stall ‘em all you can,
Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.”
In Washington, Washington.
Then on a December mornin’, the bombs come from Japan,
Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.
In Washington, Washington
Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let him in,
Afraid he’d sell to Hitler a few more million men.
In Washington, Washington
So I’m a-gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,
The common workin’ people has got to take the seat
In Washington, Washington.
And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:
They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next!”
In Washington, Washington.
Easy enough to remember.
The United Kingdom’s Royal Mail is releasing a limited edition of ten stamps honoring David Bowie, available on March 14 (although you can preorder now).
The images include Bowie in concert on the Ziggy Stardust tour of 1973; the famous zigzag lightning bolt across his face on the “Aladdin Sane” cover; and the covers of his “Heroes” (1977), “Let’s Dance” (1983) and “Earthling” (1997) albums. An image from Bowie’s final LP, “Blackstar,” released days before his death, is also part of the set…
The Royal Mail said that this will be the first time it has dedicated a full set of stamps to a single musician. Philip Parker, the stamp strategy manager at the Royal Mail, said in a statement that the stamp issue honored Bowie’s “many celebrated personas.”
He said: “For five decades David Bowie was at the forefront of contemporary culture, and has influenced successive generations of musicians, artists, designers and writers.”
I would love for the USPS to do something similar for Prince. I don’t know if we have any other stamps that honor royalty. (Besides maybe Wonder Woman.)
Lin-Manuel Miranda recently released the early drafts of eight Hamilton songs on Soundcloud. Miranda sings all the parts himself and they’re a lot less showtuney and more hip-hoppy than the finished product. Worth a listen for fans of process.
In a 45-minute video called Riding Light, Alphonse Swinehart animates the journey outward from the Sun to Jupiter from the perspective of a photon of light. The video underscores just how slow light is in comparison to the vast distances it has to cover, even within our own solar system. Light takes 8.5 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, almost 45 minutes to Jupiter, more than 4 years to the nearest star, 100,000 years to the center of our galaxy, 2.5 million years to the nearest large galaxy (Andromeda), and 32 billion years to reach the most remote galaxy ever observed.1 The music is by Steve Reich (Music for 18 Musicians), whose music can also seem sort of endless.
If you’re impatient, you can watch this 3-minute version, sped up by 15 times:
The Recording Academy has produced a series of three short and breezy videos on the history of recorded music, from the wax cylinder phonograph to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s. Interest piqued, I went to read more about the history of the CD. When developing the disc, the physical size of it was dictated by Beethoven:
The two companies argued about what size, shape and technology the CD should support. It was eventually settled on a disc of 115 millimetres in diameter and 74 minutes worth of storage. Why 74 minutes? To fit Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, of course.
When the format was released in 1982, players cost $900 and CDs themselves were $30 ($2270 and $75 in 2016 dollars)1 and fewer than 100 individual titles were available for sale.
A Canadian musician called TRONICBOX is taking contemporary pop songs like Katy Perry’s Firework, Baby by Justin Bieber, and Somebody I Used To Know by Gotye and remixing them so they sound like they came out in the 80s. The effect is unnerving for someone like me who grew up immersed in 80s pop music. Even though it’s impossible, I can almost remember listening to some of these songs back in my bedroom, probably taped off the radio during Casey Kasem’s top 40 countdown. Total time travel paradox nostalgia bombs. (via digg)
Beyoncé Knowles recently interviewed her sister Solange Knowles for Interview magazine.
And, as far back as I can remember, our mother always taught us to be in control of our voice and our bodies and our work, and she showed us that through her example. If she conjured up an idea, there was not one element of that idea that she was not going to have her hand in. She was not going to hand that over to someone. And I think it’s been an interesting thing to navigate, especially watching you do the same in all aspects of your work: Society labels that a control freak, an obsessive woman, or someone who has an inability to trust her team or to empower other people to do the work, which is completely untrue. There’s no way to succeed without having a team and all of the moving parts that help bring it into life. But I do have — and I’m unafraid to say it — a very distinctive, clear vision of how I want to present myself and my body and my voice and my perspective. And who better to really tell that story than yourself?
This exchange just made me laugh out loud:
BEYONCÉ: Well, it brought tears to my eyes to hear both of our parents speak openly about some of their experiences. And what made you choose Master P to speak on the album?
SOLANGE: Well, I find a lot of similarities in Master P and our dad.
BEYONCÉ: Me, too. [laughs]
I loved the simple mic drop bio for Beyoncé at the bottom:
BEYONCÉ IS A 20-TIME GRAMMY AWARD-WINNING RECORDING ARTIST. HER SIXTH STUDIO ALBUM AND COMPANION FILM, LEMONADE, WAS RELEASED LAST YEAR.
And Beyoncé is right about Solange’s wedding photo (above), it is indeed “the dopest wedding photo of all time”. (via @caseyjohnston)
French visual effects artist Maxime Causeret took a track from Max Cooper’s album Emergence and created these wonderful biologically inspired patterns and interactions.
Maxime also shows us a section of animated reaction-diffusion patterns, where simple chemical feedback mechanisms can yield complex flowing bands of colour — these forms of system were originally thought up by Alan Turing, and were part of the early seeds of the field of systems biology, which seeks to simulate life with computers, in order to better understand the systems producing the complexity we see in the living world. They were also the starting point of my main research area many years ago before I got lost in music! (where I began with the question of what patterns could be produced via reaction-diffusion forms of system as opposed to gene-regulatory network controlled patterning).
There’s a blue brain coral pattern at the 1:30 mark and a neuron-ish pattern at 2:30 that I wish would go on forever. Headphones recommended, psychoactive drugs optional. (via colossal)
One of my favorite art experiences this year was seeing Bruce Conner’s short film Crossroads at The Whitney. (It’s part of the Dreamlands exhibition, on view until Feb 5, 2017.) The film pairs slow-motion clips of the 1946 nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll with music from composers Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. The result is mesmerizing…the film’s 37 minutes long and I sat through the entire thing and will likely go back once more before the show closes. Riley’s portion of the music was particularly memorable for me…I would love to have a recording of that. Neither the film or the music is available online, save for the short clip at the bottom of this page, so you’ll have to go to The Whitney or SFMOMA, where it also happens to be showing.
Update: It’s not an exact match, but this 51-minute song from Riley called Descending Moonshine Dervishes is quite close to the music he did for Crossroads.
808 is a feature-length documentary film on perhaps the most important musical instrument of the past 30 years, the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. The soundtrack includes songs by Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy, and Jamie xx. The film will be available exclusively on Apple Music sometime in the next week but will likely be available elsewhere at some point after that.
See also a browser-based emulation of the 808.
Russian illustrators Alexei Lyapunov and Lena Ehrlich use the notes, staffs, and other musical notation marks on vintage sheet music as a framework to create these inventive illustrations of everyday life and nature. Prints are available. (via colossal)
A singing group delivers a tight six-minute mashup of songs by Beyonce and the hit Broadway show Hamilton. It starts a bit slow but gets better as it goes along.
This is pretty simple: 8 songs from the Beastie Boys remixed using beats and samples from Daft Punk. If you need further prompting, it’s probably not for you.
A pair of greatest hits albums by David Bowie have been released.
The album collects together a selection of Bowie’s most popular tracks and singles, from 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’, through to the final singles ‘Lazarus’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, issued earlier this year.
BOWIE - LEGACY will be available as a 1 CD and a Deluxe 2 CD from November 11th. These will be followed by a double vinyl album version on January 6th, 2017.
The album is available in a shorter 1-disc length and as a double album (embedded above). 2016 took Bowie from us, but maybe a little Bowie can help us through the rest of the year.
According to a marketing study conducted by Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson, the most relaxing song in the world is Weightless, by ambient band Marconi Union. The song was produced by the band in collaboration with the British Academy of Sound Therapy.
The song makes use of many musical principles that have been shown to individually have a calming effect. By combining these elements in the way Marconi Union have has created the perfect relaxing song. The study found this to be the world’s most relaxing song. It contains a sustaining rhythm that starts at 60 beats per minute and gradually slows to around 50. While listening, your heart rate gradually comes to match that beat.
Many songs were tested and found to relax the participants, but Weightless stood out:
In fact, listening to that one song — “Weightless” — resulted in a striking 65 percent reduction in participants’ overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates.
This is a “neuromarketing” study conducted on behalf of a company that makes bubble bath and shower gel so grain of salt and all that, but it is a remarkably relaxing song. Here’s a Spotify playlist of ten of the most relaxing songs from the study:
And right now I’m listening to this 10-hour version of Weightless on YouTube:
Awwwww. Much better than the Black Mirror music from this morning.
Perhaps listening to the pulsing, creepy, and foreboding music from Black Mirror is too much at a time like this, but in case you’d really like to wallow, there are several albums of music from the show available on Spotify: Be Right Back, White Bear, White Christmas, Nosedive, and Men Against Fire. I’ve added all five albums to this Black Mirror playlist.
I hadn’t realized while watching, but the show used some top-shelf composers for the music, including Clint Mansell, Max Richter, and Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury (who did the Ex Machina soundtrack).
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker also put together a playlist of 80s music from the stand-out episode of season 3, San Junipero.
The playlist includes “tracks from the episode, tracks which didn’t make it in (for rights/other reasons)…and a couple which inspired elements of the story”.
Music is an essential aspect of Wes Anderson’s films. Michael Park has created a 9-hour playlist of music from Anderson’s movies, from Bottle Rocket (Artie Shaw & Chet Baker) to The Royal Tenenbaums (Elliott Smith & Nico) to Fantastic Mr. Fox (Burl Ives & The Rolling Stones) to The Grand Budapest Hotel (mostly by Alexandre Desplat).
The original cast recording of Hamilton has been on heavy rotation in our house since the early summer. The kids know several of the songs by heart and Minna can get through Aaron Burr, Sir in about 45 seconds, so watch out Daveed Diggs.
As an accompaniment to the main album, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his collaborators are releasing The Hamilton Mixtape. It features a couple of unused songs and the rest of the album is covers of songs from the musical by rappers, pop artists, and hip-hop stars like Kelly Clarkson, Usher, The Roots, Alicia Keys, and Chance the Rapper. I mean, check out the track listing…what an all-star cast. Available for pre-order now, it’ll be released on Dec 2.
Update: Two of the songs from the album were on Spotify but they got pulled. Except that if I go to this playlist, I can still play them. Maybe they’re cached somehow?
Update: The two songs are available on YouTube (My Shot & It’s Quiet Uptown) and Apple Music/iTunes. (via @mattgrieser & @scojjac)
Update: The entire mixtape is now out. Huzzah!
I haven’t quite figured out if HBO’s new show Westworld is any good or not,1 but I’m sticking with it at least through the first season. One of the fun things about the show — ok, maybe the only fun thing, Westworld takes itself pretty seriously — is the western-style covers of rock songs by the likes of Radiohead, Soundgarden, and The Rolling Stones. There’s a mini playlist of the main theme and some of the covers — Paint It Black by the Stones and Radiohead’s No Surprises — up on Spotify.
Oh, and here’s one of the most popular fan theories out there: the multiple timeline theory.
Update: The entire “two-disk” album from season 1 is up, which includes original music as well as covers like Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film). LOL.
At a recent concert in Chicago, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong noticed a kid in the audience holding a sign saying “I can play every song on Dookie” and pulled him up on stage to prove it. Aside from a slightly slow tempo, he did pretty well on When I Come Around.
P.S. Was thinking about this the other day: I don’t know that I would have picked Green Day as one of the 90s bands that has stuck around, still touring, still recording, still attracting new fans.
Soundcloud user kmlkmljkl took the Stranger Things opening title song and mixed it with Childish Gambino’s Bonfire. [fire emoji] [fire emoji] [fire emoji]
(Will they have Lando sing in the upcoming young Han Solo movie? That would be a brave move.)
From Genius, a short review of Beyonce Knowles’ life and career, from an appearance on Star Search — I wonder what Skeleton Crew is up to these days? — to Lemonade, one of 2016’s few genuine bright spots. The greatest entertainer of the century so far? A friend recently went to see Beyonce and Kanye concerts about two weeks apart. I asked her who was better and she just rolled her eyes.