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kottke.org posts about Estelle Caswell

The Origin of 8-Bit Arcade Fonts

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2020

Aided by Toshi Omagari, who wrote Arcade Game Typography, Vox’s Estelle Caswell explores the origins and history of 8-bit arcade fonts. From the description of the book:

Video game designers of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s faced color and resolution limitations that stimulated incredible creativity. With each letter having to exist in a small pixel grid, artists began to use clever techniques to create elegant character sets within a tiny canvas.

As the creator of a tiny pixelated typeface, I find this stuff infinitely fascinating.

Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1, Deconstructed

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2020

The Prelude in G Major to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of music. You’ve likely heard Yo-Yo Ma play it — he’s been trying to master it for almost 60 years now. In a new episode of Earworm, Estelle Caswell and cellist Alisa Weilerstein break the song down to see what makes it such an effective and interesting piece of music.

In the early 1700s, Johann Sebastian Bach did something few, if any, composers had ever done. He composed six suites for the cello — a four stringed instrument that, at the time, was relegated to the role of accompaniment in larger ensembles.

Each suite consists of movements named for various dances, and they all begin with a prelude — an improvisatory movement meant to establish the key of the suite, as well as reoccurring themes and motifs. These suites are all masterpieces in music and considered a rite of passage for cellists to study and master.

But there’s one movement in particular, the Prelude in G Major, that has taken on a life of its own in the minds of musicians and music lovers alike.

If you hear the first few measures you’ll likely recognize it. A simple G major arpeggiated chord played expressively on the cello opens a short, but harmonically and melodically rich, 42 measures of music. Bach makes a single instrument sound like a full ensemble. How does he do it?

A Night at the Opera

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2020

One of my favorite video series is Estelle Caswell’s Earworm for Vox — you can check out my posts about it here. It had been a few months since the last episode, so I went to see if she’d made any other videos in the meantime and, lo, Caswell produced a video about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of the opera Akhnaten by Philip Glass, one of my favorite composers.

The video above gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Akhnaten. We follow Anthony Roth Costanzo, who plays Akhnaten, through the various phases of rehearsal, from working with his vocal coach in a Manhattan apartment to taking the stage for a dress rehearsal in a costume covered in doll heads.

I’ve only seen one opera at the Met (years ago) and was blown away by the production. I remember walking out of there thinking, “Do people know how good this is? Why isn’t opera a massive thing?” (Although I guess I answered my own question by not ever going back?)

Wicker Musical Chairs

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2019

I bet you don’t think about wicker furniture that much, but Estelle Caswell does. In this video, which proves that almost anything can be interesting if the right person looks at it from the right angle, she explores how the peacock wicker chair became an unlikely pop culture icon.

The golden age of album cover design doesn’t have a specific start and end date, but many regard the late 1960s to 1970s as one of the field’s most exciting times. From the psychedelic rock covers of the ’60s to glistening airbrush covers of the ’70s, the era was a kaleidoscope of colors worthy of placement in modern art museums.

But there’s one genre of cover so ubiquitous it almost flew under the radar. The covers typically featured a wide shot of the artist sitting on a throne-like wicker chair, like a king or queen. Usually, the artist looked casual and relaxed; sometimes props would sit around them to decorate the scene. No matter what, the oversized woven chair was the main feature. This was the peacock chair album cover, and it was everywhere: Dolly Parton, Al Green, and Cher all sat in it.

Measuring the Popularity of the Falsetto in Pop Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2019

In today’s episode of Earworm, Estelle Caswell teams up with Matt Daniels from The Pudding to track the popularity of the falsetto in pop music from the 50s to today. Caswell has a hunch that falsetto has been getting more popular, so they end up getting a bunch of data from Pandora that tracks the amount of falsetto used in a song and the vocal register of the singer, which they compared against Billboard Top 100 songs. The verdict? You’ll have to watch the video, but just remember all of those soul songs in the 70s and heavy metal & pop songs in the 80s…

Caswell compiled a Spotify playlist of songs with prominent use of falsetto:

In the recommended reading list, I found this Frieze piece from 2010, The Evolution of the Male Falsetto.

By reputation the falsetto voice is both angelic and diabolical, depending on who is singing, and to what purpose. Jónsi Birgisson, vocalist with Sigur Rós, is revered for his keening falsetto, the most ethereal element inside a great wash of sound. Birgisson is openly gay; on the other hand I still remember, at age 13, hearing Robert Plant singing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’ (1971) for the first time, and how its devilish heterosexual lust scared me to bits. Plant is a truly outrageous singer, possessing a voice so alight with desire that he sounds in imminent danger of burning up. He is predatory but vulnerable, a bare-chested rock god who sings from a place of sexual rapture that cancels out the boundaries of his own body. He got there through intensive study of the blues: as with most tropes in popular music, the falsetto is in continual transit between black and white performers and their audiences.

But back to the video, I LOL’d at ~3:30 when they went through the raw data of falsettos, which goes from George P. Watson in 1911 (a yodeler) to contemporary Radiohead. I am a big Radiohead fan. And my kids? Not so much. In fact, my son has been trying to convince me for the past year that Thom Yorke doesn’t so much sing as yodel. I’ve explained falsettos to him but I will invariably hear “ugh, yodeling!” from the backseat when Radiohead comes on in the car. This Watson/Radiohead connection though…maybe he has a point? Maybe I just like yodeling?

Disco’s Revenge: the Birth of House Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

In this episode of Earworm, Estelle Caswell and the gang explore the elements of a classic house track — the disco diva samples, the sounds of the Roland TR-909 drum machine, and pianos — and delve into the origins of house.

House has become one of the most popular forms of electronic music since its inception in the late 80’s. It began in Chicago, when local DJ’s and music producers experimented with remixing disco vocals over hard hitting drum machines. They would soon play a huge role in popularizing the sound and distinguishing house music as a global music genre.

The bit near the end about the influence on Chicago house music by Italian disco records was super interesting.

“Sir Duke” Deconstructed: Stevie Wonder’s Ode to Jazz

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2019

In the latest episode of Earworm, Estelle Caswell and Jacob Collier break down Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, in which he pays tribute to the jazz artists that inspired him, both in lyric and in the arrangement of the music. As someone who isn’t musical but has experience programming, writing, designing, and doing science, it’s fun to see a similar borrow/remix/homage process at work on a virtuoso level.

How Disco Made Pop Songs Longer

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2019

In the latest episode of Earworm, Estelle Caswell notes that the length of a pop single was rarely more than 3m30s because you couldn’t fit any more than that onto a 7-inch 45rpm single without sacrificing audio quality. But in the 70s, DJs in NYC clubs started playing longer songs for a prolonged dance floor groove and eventually the higher-capacity 12-inch single was born.

Fun fact: the bestselling 12-inch single of all time is New Order’s Blue Monday, which was released in 1983 and clocked in at 7m29s long. Take a listen.

The Devil and the Explicit Lyrics Sticker

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2019

In the first episode of season two of Earworm, Estelle Caswell explains where the “Explicit Lyrics” sticker found on many of your favorite music albums came from. The story involves heavy metal, Prince, the rise of the religious right, the Satanic panic, Tipper Gore, and lots of amazing hair.

The very public discussion around the advisory label involved the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group led by the wives of Washington politicians, and a few musicians including Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver.

While the PMRC’s involvement was allegedly sparked by some raunchy lyrics from Prince’s 1984 album Purple Rain, the debate over rock lyrics had been infiltrating American culture and politics for a decade. The driving force behind that debate was the rise of heavy metal, a genre that saw explosive popularity with the launch of MTV in 1981, and the growing influence of the religious right, who saw rock music as a powerful threat to Christianity.

One of the main sources for the video is Eric Nuzum’s book, Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America.

Kenny G and How Smooth Jazz Took Over the 90s

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2018

Jazz crossed over into pop music territory in the 70s, with jazz artists like Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson gaining airplay on the radio but losing the respect of “straight-ahead” jazz critics & peers. One reviewer wrote of a popular album by Benson:

Hearing George Benson on this album is like watching Marlon Brando in the Three Stooges movie. Such is the relationship between the artist and the “art”.

In this third installment of Earworm’s series on jazz, Estelle Caswell charts the rise of smooth jazz from its beginnings in the 70s right on through to Kenny G and the format’s eventual crash in the 2000s. There’s also a Spotify playlist of smooth jazz standards in case you’re in the mood to hear more.

Also, how perfect is it that the term “smooth jazz” was coined by a participant during a focus group convened by a market research firm? That’s so smooth jazz.

The Iconic Jazz Album Covers of Blue Note Records

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2018

In part 2 of Earworm’s series on jazz, Estelle Caswell talks to producer Michael Cuscuna about the iconic album covers of Blue Note Records.

Inspired by the ever present Swiss lettering style that defined 20th century graphic design (think Paul Rand), Blue Note captured the refined sophistication of jazz during the early 60s, particularly during the hard bop era, and gave it a definitive visual identity through album covers.

The covers were the work of Reid Miles, who was paid $50 per cover but later landed a gig making ads for the likes of Coca-Cola to the tune of $1 million per year. Here are a few of the covers designed by Miles for Blue Note:

Miles Blue Note

Miles Blue Note

Miles Blue Note

Miles Blue Note

Jazz Deconstructed: John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

A new episode of Estelle Caswell’s Earworm series is always cause for celebration. In this one, Caswell examines the title track off John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” album and what makes it so challenging to play & rewarding to listen to.

John Coltrane, one of jazz history’s most revered saxophonists, released “Giant Steps” in 1959. It’s known across the jazz world as one of the most challenging compositions to improvise over for two reasons - it’s fast and it’s in three keys. Braxton Cook and Adam Neely give me a crash course in music theory to help me understand this notoriously difficult song, and I’m bringing you along for the ride. Even if you don’t understand a lick of music theory, you’ll likely walk away with an appreciation for this musical puzzle.

This is me actually walking away with that new appreciation.

Aretha Franklin’s soul roots and gospel power

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

In this video for Vox, Estelle Caswell explores Aretha Franklin’s unique blend of pop, soul, and gospel, particularly in her cover songs and live performances.

Aretha Franklin will always be the Queen of Soul. In the 1960s songs like “Respect” became the symbol for political and social change. It’s likely the reason her music moved so many people wasn’t necessarily the lyrics, but the way she delivered them.

Aretha was raised in the church, and her life and music was rooted in gospel music. You can hear this so clearly in her live performances and covers, where every musical decision she made was in the moment.

Listen to any one of Aretha’s songs and you’ll understand the power of gospel music, but her live performance of “Dr. Feelgood” and her cover of “Son of a preacher man” are a great place to start.

Holy moly, what a voice.

The fascinating history of the “orchestra hit” in music

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2018

I’m a big fan of Estelle Caswell’s Earworm series for Vox, and this most recent one might be my favorite. It’s about the “orchestra hit” sound that became super popular in the 80s…but which has its origins in an unauthorized sample of Igor Stravinsky included with an influential digital audio workstation invented in the late 70s.

If you listen to the first few seconds of Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” (hint: listen to the Cardi B remix) you’ll hear a sound that immediately creates a sense of 80s hip-hop nostalgia. Yes, Cardi B’s flow is very Roxanne Shante, but the sound that drives that nostalgia home isn’t actually from the 1980s.

Robert Fink and the inventor of the Fairlight CMI, Peter Vogel, help me tell the story of the orchestra hit — a sound that was first heard in 1910 at the Paris Opera where the famed 20th century Russian composer Stravinsky debuted his first hit, The Firebird.

Here’s the isolated sound from the original sample:

I love that all these musicians in the 80s got excited about a bit of classical music composed for a 1910 ballet, to the point where it became perhaps the signature sound of the decade.

The popularity of the orchestra hit is also a good reminder about the power of default settings. The musicians and producers who used the Fairlight CMI could record and sample any sound in the world but they ended up using this one included with the machine. Even the heavyweights — Herbie Hancock, Afrika Bambaataa, etc. — went with a default sample.

Caswell made a playlist of songs that feature the orchestra hit, with songs from Keith Sweat, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, U2, and The Smiths. Not included is the song it was sampled from…you can listen to that here.

Where did rap’s now-ubiquitous “Migos flow” come from?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2017

Contemporary rap music has come to be dominated by a style called the “Migos flow” (after the group Migos, who made the style famous in a song called Versace). This video looks at where the style originated and why it’s become so popular.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m loving these music-deconstruction videos by Estelle Caswell (the most recent ones are part of a Vox series called Earworm), especially the ones about rap & hip-hop because a) I am listening to more and more of it and know relatively little about it, and b) the more I learn, the more I feel that the people making this music are/were goddamn geniuses.

P.S. Caswell made a playlist of songs that use the triplet flow.

P.P.S. Here’s Migos rapping the children’s book Llama Llama Red Pajama over the beat of Bad and Boujee:

The hidden rhythm in Radiohead’s “Videotape”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2017

In her first installment for a new Vox series called Earworm, Estelle Caswell takes a look at some weird musical stuff happening with Videotape, a song off of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. According to a longer video by Warren Lain referenced by Caswell, Radiohead has hidden a syncopated rhythm in the song that even the band members have trouble keeping straight when they’re trying to play it. Videotape is my favorite song on that album…maybe this is a reason why?

Also, don’t miss the short explanation of how “rhythmic sound synchronizes the brain waves of groups of people”. !!!

Kanye deconstructed: The human voice as the ultimate instrument

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 01, 2016

Kanye West is not a great singer. But he packs his songs and albums full of the human voice. Estelle Caswell explains how Kanye uses the human voice as the central instrument in his music.

The evolution of how rappers construct their rhymes

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2016

In this video, Vox’s Estelle Caswell and Martin Conner break down how rappers construct their rhymes and how it’s changed and evolved since rap’s early days. As someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about music and even less about rapping but appreciates both, this was super entertaining and informative.