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kottke.org posts about Music

A guide to the musical leitmotifs in Star Wars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2018

In the New Yorker, Alex Ross points to Frank Lehman’s Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in ‘Star Wars,’ Episodes I-VIII, which has been updated to include The Last Jedi. Ross goes on to note that composer John Williams did some of his strongest work for the film, deftly employing musical themes called leitmotifs to supplement (and sometimes subvert) the on-screen action. (Spoilers, ho!)

In early scenes set at a remote, ruined Jedi temple, we keep hearing an attenuated, beclouded version of the Force motto: this evokes Luke’s embittered renunciation of the Jedi project. As the young heroine Rey begins to coax him out of his funk, the Force stretches out and is unfurled at length. Sometimes, the music does all of the work of explaining what is going on. In one scene, Leia, Luke’s Force-capable sister, communicates telepathically with her son Kylo Ren, who has gone over to the dark side and is training his guns on her vessel. Leia’s theme is briefly heard against a dissonant cluster chord. Earlier in the saga, we might have been subjected to dialogue along the lines of “Don’t do this! I’m your mother!” Williams’s musical paraphrase is more elegant.

If you’re looking for a primer/refresher for the use of leitmotif in film, Evan Puschak’s video on Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings films is a good place to start. (via anil dash)

The soundtrack for Jane by Philip Glass

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2018

Despite the glowing reviews, I haven’t seen Jane, the National Geographic documentary about Jane Goodall…hopefully this week. But I discovered the soundtrack on Spotify this morning, composed by Philip Glass:

It’s also available on Amazon and iTunes.

Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key is an upbeat pop-punk song

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2018

This bent my brain a little: if you re-tune Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key, it sounds like an upbeat pop-punk song. Like, Kurt Cobain actually sounds happy when he says “oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile” and the pre-chorus — “Hello, hello, hello, how low” — is downright joyous. Although I guess it shouldn’t be super surprising…in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, Cobain admits that the song was meant to be poppy.

I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles]. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.

“Teen Spirit” was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or “Louie, Louie.” When I came up with the guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, “That is so ridiculous.” I made the band play it for an hour and a half.

Like me, if you don’t know a whole lot about music, here’s the difference between major and minor chords & scales.

The difference between major and minor chords and scales boils down to a difference of one essential note — the third. The third is what gives major-sounding scales and chords their brighter, cheerier sound, and what gives minor scales and chords their darker, sadder sound.

You can also listen to the song on Soundcloud.

See also this falling shovel sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Update: I heard from a few people that the changes made to the song aren’t as straightforward as shifting from minor to major. See this series of tweets by Jesse Appelman.

This is fun and well-executed, but it’s not just Smells Like Teen Spirit transposed as-is from minor to major. They changed the chord progression (from 1-IV-bIII-bVI to I-V-vi-IV) and altered the melody to better fit the chords…

If they had just switched all the minor stuff to major it would sound, well, pretty hilarious but less like a radio-ready pop song. This is not to take away from the joy of this clever reimagining…

…but it’s not quite as simple and miraculous as “change from minor to major and voila!” It’s more like “write new changes and melody while preserving the rhythmic phrasing and general contours/directionality of the original.” Still great stuff and sorry if I un-blew your mind.

And to appreciate the difference between major and minor keys, this six-minute video of Chilly Gonzalez is highly entertaining and worth your time. (via @karolzyk)

Update: On his YouTube channel, Oleg Berg has reworked dozens of songs from major-to-minor or from minor-to-major, including Don’t Worry, Be Happy in a minor key, Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World in a minor key, and the Game of Thrones theme in a major key. Surprisingly, the comments of the GoT theme are pretty good:

Meet Brienne, the beautiful maid of Tarth. Meet Jon, the legitimate son of Ned Stark. Meet Cersei, the queen of hearts. All these characters meet at the Blue Wedding and vow eternal friendship.

Spring is coming

If the plot ran backwards, this would be the theme.

You know everything, Jon Snow.

(via @volapuk)

Music video for Jay-Z’s Family Feud, directed by Ava DuVernay

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2018

The latest video from Jay-Z’s 4:44 is for Family Feud, directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time).

The Ava DuVernay-directed short film spans more than 400 years, beginning in the year 2444 with a Shakespearean tale of infidelity, politics and murder before working its way backwards through different generations. The video, scored by Flying Lotus, finishes in a church in 2018, with Blue Ivy Carter watching parents Jay Z and Beyonce perform in confessional booths and pulpits.

Besides Jay-Z and his daughter Blue Ivy, the video features Beyonce, Jessica Chastain, Michael B. Jordan, Thandie Newton, Brie Larson, Rosario Dawson, Rashida Jones, and Mindy Kaling.

The history of New Jack Swing, from Keith Sweat to Mary J. Blige

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 05, 2018

tony toni tone.jpg

Bruno Mars is amazing: a shapeshifting artist seemingly engineered to synthesize the history of pop music and overcome all critical resistance. His latest single with Cardi B, “Finesse,” is a perfect pastiche of the aesthetics of early 1990s pop radio R&B, from TLC videos to In Living Color’s Fly Girls and that Bell Biv Devoe snare drum.

I should say, it’s a pastiche of a particular subgenre of R&B — remember when R&B was dominant enough to have subgenres? — and hip-hop, one called New Jack Swing. New Jack Swing sort of emerged from the Minneapolis sound of Prince and Janet Jackson in the late 1980s, borrowing turntable scratching, stop-start percussive beats, and especially dancing and dance beats from hip-hop.

New Jack Swing helped break R&B out of its respectability ethos — think Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, etc. — and its reliance on tropes from soul, funk, and gospel music. It also had a transformative effect on hip-hop, helping it find a place on R&B radio, then dance shows, MTV, and the Top 40 charts. It was arguably even more successful at changing pop music in that period than alternative and grunge music were. And it’s some of the best pop music you’ve ever heard, music that turned producers like Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle, Babyface and LA Reid, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis into stars.

Inspired by Mars’s callback, MacArthur genius Lin-Manuel Miranda and Prince superfan Anil Dash teamed up to create a short primer to New Jack Swing. It’s a Spotify playlist, and despite its overlooking the later Teddy Riley work with Wreckz-n-Effect and Blackstreet, it’s magnificent. It certainly gives you all the tools to properly appreciate / hate on Mars’s appropriation of the genre.

The best of my media diet for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 01, 2018

EOY Media 2017

In 2017, I kept track of almost everything I read, listened to, watched, and experienced. I don’t know about “the best”, but as the year draws to a close, these are the things that I thought about the most, that made me see things in a slightly different way, or taught me a little something about myself. I marked my very favorites with a (*). (Above, my #bestnine images of 2017 from Instagram.)

Books. I don’t know how many books I read this year, but it was fewer than I wanted. My work demands a lot of reading online, so when I’ve finished with that most days, reading for leisure or enrichment is often not enticing.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann were perhaps the best books I read…you’ll hardly find anyone who speaks ill of either one.

Wonderland by Steven Johnson pulls together technology, culture, and science in a way that I aspire to.

I enjoyed Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem when I read it early on in 2017 but it grew in my esteem as the year went on. Crazy, but I might reread soon?

The Devil in the White City. A masterful dual tale of two men who seized the opportunity due to cultural and technological changes in late 1800s America, told through the events of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

I reread Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote…no recent book has helped me more in figuring out a path forward in life.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 2 blew my doors off. I have never felt so uncannily like a writer has been rummaging around in my brain. *

Television. What even is television anymore? To paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. And I saw a lot of it this year. And much of it was excellent.

The Crown (season two). I kept expecting this to falter as it went on, but it never did. A keen portrait of changing times and a dying empire.

Mad Men. Rewatched it all the way through for the first time since it aired. One of the all-time great TV shows.

Halt and Catch Fire (season four). Very strong finish to a great series. I kind of want a season five in about 5 or 6 years that’s set in 2002. Still can’t believe I got to be on the show for like 2 seconds.

The Vietnam War. I feel like this didn’t get the attention it deserved. Along with OJ: Made in America, one of the best documentaries of recent years in terms of understanding the United States culturally and politically.

Wormwood. What the hell is even a documentary anyway? Errol Morris is at the top of his game with this one.

The Handmaid’s Tale. My favorite drama series of the year. So hard to watch but also essential and so well done. *

Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Incredible. Aside from the eclipse, these are the best things on this list. *

Honorable mentions: I anticipated Game of Thrones more than anything each week, but I’ve already forgotten most of what happened. There were dragons? Big Little Lies was very solid and enjoyable, but the last episode was some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Zoom out a little, and The Defiant Ones was actually about creativity, collaboration, and management.

Movies: Though I haven’t seen many of the end-of-the-year movies yet, I felt like this was a strong-ish movie year. But only four films stuck with me.

The Handmaiden. I don’t even know how to classify this film, but I wish they’d make more like it.

Maybe Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t great, but I saw it twice and have thought about it often since. Amazing visual experience.

Paths of the Soul. A window into the lives of people very unlike mine. Underscores how much living “the simple life” in wealthy countries is made possible by good infrastructure, social safety nets, and privilege. The simple life in most of the world is neither a choice nor easy.

Dunkirk. Absolutely thrilling. My favorite movie of the year. *

Music. Let’s be honest, Lemonade was probably the album of the year. But I guess some good music came out in 2017 as well. Oh, and I’m old so I still listen to albums.

Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples got the most airplay in my car this summer and fall. Early fave track was Crabs in a Bucket but BagBak came on strong later in the year.

DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar. Probably my favorite album of the year…every track hits the mark. *

4:44 by Jay-Z. The contrast between his last album (lazy, full of swagger) and this one (introspective, urgent) could not be more stark. This wasn’t the best or even my favorite album of the year, but I thought about it more than any of the others I listened to this year. Worth noting this album was only possible because of Beyonce’s superior Lemonade…imagine the hypothetical Jay-Z album had she not slammed him to the wall with that.

Experiences, etc. As I said on Instagram, I prioritized experiences over things this year. But because things like books, movies, and TV shows are easier to summarize and review, I kept most of the experiences for myself. You have to hold some things back or you lose your edges.

Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists and I’m grateful I got to spend a few hours witnessing how his career came together and his life fell apart. One of the best museums I’ve ever been to.

D3 Traveller. I travelled quite a bit this year, and it would have been more difficult without this bag. Worth the huge splurge.

Sainte-Chapelle. I am not religious at all, but you can’t help but feel something in this wonderful building.

iPhone X. A remarkable machine.

Rijksmuseum. I keep going back to two works I saw here: Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (I spent a good 15 minutes with this one) and this early self-portrait by Rembrandt (the lighting! the curls!).

The total solar eclipse. By far the best thing that I witnessed this year…or maybe in my life. It still gives me chills just thinking about it. *

My recent media diet, special Star Wars edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I’ve been busy with work, so leisure reading time has been hard to come by…but I’m still working my way through Why Buddhism is True. Lots of great TV and movies though.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’ve been watching Star Wars for almost 40 years, and I can’t tell if any of the movies are any good anymore. At this point, Star Wars just is. Even so, I really enjoyed seeing this and will try to catch it again in a week or two. This is a favorite review that mirrors many of my feelings. (A-)

Wormwood. Errol Morris is almost 70 years old, and this 6-part Netflix series is perhaps his most ambitious creation yet: is it a true crime documentary or a historical drama? Or both? Stylistically and thematically fascinating. See also Morris’s interview with Matt Zoller Seitz. (A)

Flipflop Solitaire. Oh man, this game sucked me waaaaay in. My best time for single suit so far is 1:25. (B+)

The Hateful Eight. I liked this way more than I expected based on the reviews, but it lacks the mastery of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino at his self-indulgent best though. (B+)

Our Ex-Life podcast. A divorced couple, who live almost next door to each other in a small town, talks about the good old days, the bad old days, and co-parenting their three kids. (B+)

Paths of the Soul. A documentary about a group of Tibetan villagers who undertake a pilgrimage to Lhasa that has a genre-bending scripted feel to it. I’ve been thinking about this film since watching it…it’s full of incredible little moments. What do I believe in enough to undertake such a journey? Anything? (A)

Stranger Things 2. The plot of this show is fairly straight-forward, but the 80s vibe, soundtrack, and the young actors elevate it. (B+)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. As I was saying… (A-)

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Huge Errol Morris fan (see above), but I was a bit bored by this. (C+)

The Crown, season two. This is one of my favorite new shows. I know she’s not the actual Queen, but I still want to have Claire Foy ‘round for tea. (A)

Blue Planet II. Just as good as Planet Earth II. Incredible stories and visuals. Premiering in the US in January. (A+)

The Moon 1968-1972. A charming little book of snapshots taken by astronauts on the Moon. (B+)

Donnie Darko. This one maybe hasn’t aged well. Or perhaps my commitment to Sparkle Motion is wavering? (B)

Part-Time Genius: Was Mister Rogers the Best Neighbor Ever? Yes, he was. (B+)

The Circle. This hit way way way way too close to home, and I couldn’t finish it. Also, not the best acting. (C)

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. Really interesting, but I stopped listening to the audiobook because I wasn’t in the mood. (B)

A Charlie Brown Christmas. You know, for the kids. (B)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Charming, perhaps my favorite holiday short. (B+)

xXx. An un-ironic favorite. Sometimes, dumb fun is just the thing. (B)

Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Tim’s recent post about smell reminded me of this book, which is a masterclass in criticism. (A-)

Young Frankenstein. I’d only seen this once before, but I wasn’t feeling it this time around. (B-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Would you rather be “smart and sad” or “dumb and happy”?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

National political opinion polls are usually fairly staid affairs involving Presidential approval ratings, healthcare, and religious beliefs. Over the course of a year in partnership with a professional research firm, Cards Against Humanity is running a different sort of opinion poll with more unusual questions. The early results are at Pulse of the Nation.

They asked people if they’re rather be “dumb and happy” or “smart and sad”. The “dumb and happy” respondents were more likely to say human-caused climate change is not real:

Pulse Nation Poll

The majority of black people surveyed believe a second civil war is likely within the next decade:

Pulse Nation Poll

65% of Democrats surveyed would rather have Darth Vader as President than Donald Trump:

Pulse Nation Poll

And one’s approval of Donald Trump correlates to a belief that rap is not music:

Pulse Nation Poll

And farts. They asked people about farting. Jokes aside, the results of this poll bummed me out. Many of the responses were irrational — Darth Vader would be much worse than Trump and Democrats believe that the top 1% of richest Americans own 75% of the wealth (it’s actually 39%)…and people with more formal education guessed worse on that question. The divide on rap music is racial and generational but also points to a lack of curiosity from many Americans about what is perhaps the defining art form of the past 30 years. But the worst is what Americans thought of each other…Democrats think Republicans are racist and Republicans don’t think Democrats love America. The polarization of the American public continues.

Black Thought’s ten-minute freestyle

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 15, 2017

Warning: this is the best thing you’re going to see today, even if you already saw it yesterday.

In this clip, The Roots’ MC dishes out an album’s worth of rhymes from memory, while hardly stopping to breathe.

For once in his life, Sean Combs may not be exaggerating:

But as his bandmate Questlove pointed out, Black Thought has been doing this for years:

And Genius fulfilled its one true purpose, with fans getting the freestyle transcribed and available the same day.

Update: Aaaaand Genius took the post down, without explanation. So the quoted lyrics you’re about to get are as close to definitive as we have.

What I love about Black Thought’s freestyle is that it does everything hip-hop at its best does. He has the technical virtuosity and improvisation, both of which are first-rate. He toasts, boasts, and roasts. He plays with words, and the words play right back.

But he also tells stories, including this striking one about his mother:

My mother was a working class very lovin’ woman
Who struggled, every dinner could’ve been the last summer
I come home, chasing good-for-nothing half-cousins
And then walk in the crib to the smell of crack cookin’
She was introduced to that substance abuse
On some of the strongest drugs that the government produced

He gets philosophical and abstract. Like, real abstract.

I made the 21-pound for some a new found religion
When money’s put down, it’s only one sound to make
OGs and young lions equally proud to listen
The secret amalgam is an algorithm
Coming from where only kings and crowns permitted
The darkness where archaeologists found
My image in parchment rolled into a scroll
Holding a message for you, it says
“The only thing for sure is taxes, death, and trouble”
The anomaly swore solemnly, high snobiety
Freakonomics of war policy, dichotomy
That’s Heaven and Hades
Tigris and Euphrates
His highness
The apple of the iris to you ladies
As babies, we went from Similac and Enfamil
To the internet and fentanyl
Where all consent was still against the will

He pays homage to rap history:

Maybe I’m the new Rakim
Maybe I’m fat Pharaohe
Undergarments of armor be my intimate apparel
Pre-Kardashian Kanye
My rhyme-play immaculate
Same cadence as D.O.C Pre-accident
Maybe my acumen on par with Kool G Rap and them

And to his own discography:

I hate to say I told y’all, but I told y’all
Things fall apart when the center too weak to hold y’all
I’m just collecting what you owed to my old jawn
You ‘bout to get swooped down on and stoled on

He charms and disarms:

You in the residency of the one they call
King Dada
Ali Baba
The Talented Mr. Trotter
Inside of my right palm, the mark of the stigmata
Big Poppa wig chopper
Emperor Joffrey Joffer
Motherfucka, I’m stronger than the coffee out in Kaffa
All y’all niggas vagina-hop
Remind me of Icona Pop
I step in the booth, I’m a bull inside a China Shop
Mollywopper
Watch another cotton-pickin’ body drop
Every time we rock
Yo they actin’ like it’s Mardi Gras
‘Til the party stop
Skirt off like she that Ferrari drop
So psyched he pumpin’ that Earth, Wind and Fire body I
Cool a product doc
A la Marina, hard-body yacht
You seen another rapper cleaner? Mami, probably not

And sometimes, he just kills it:

How it feel to be the best that did it, I admit it
I’m visiting from planet bring these niggas death in minutes
And y’all know I’m exquisite
Wicked as Wilson Pickett
The sickness I exhibit
I’m too legit to quit it
I don’t fake it ‘till I make it
I take it to the limit, and break it
Never timid, what I’m about, I represent it
Infinite just like Chace is
Been a million places
Conversation is how beautiful my face is
People hating on how sophisticated my taste is
Then I pulled up on these motherfuckers in a spaceship

Even reading this, it’s just too good.

I am a walking affirmation
That imagination
And focus and patience
Get you closer to your aspiration
And just cuz they give you shit
Don’t mean you have to take it
My words capture greatness
Sworn affidavits

Meanwhile, the talented Tariq Trotter himself kept it humble:

The making of Burial’s Untrue

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

Ten years ago, electronic musician Burial released his second album, Untrue, which went on to be quite influential.

Where would UK dance music be without Burial’s Untrue? The South Londoner’s second album, released ten years ago this month on Hyperdub, has arguably done more than any other record in recent history to shape electronic music, presenting not only novel production techniques but the power of rooting a record in a specific time, mood and place.

This video from Resident Advisor explores that influence and how Burial’s novel production methods contributed to the album’s success. For one thing, instead of using music software that everyone else used to build and layer beats, Burial used Soundforge, which only shows the waveforms.

So I thought to myself fuckit I’m going to stick to this shitty little computer program, Soundforge. I don’t know any other programs. Once I change something, I can never un-change it. I can only see the waves. So I know when I’m happy with my drums because they look like a nice fishbone. When they look just skeletal as fuck in front of me, and so I know they’ll sound good.

Basically, he eyeballed it, which makes the whole thing feel more natural (and makes it difficult for DJs to mix). (via @pieratt)

My recent media diet, special Amsterdam edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past three weeks or so. I was in Amsterdam recently to speak at a conference. I had some free time and as it was my first time there, I took in some obvious sights. No books this time…Scale is currently on hold (and perhaps abandoned permanently) while I read Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True and listen to Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook.

Thor: Ragnarok. Henceforth, all superhero movies should be as fun as this. (B+)

Mindhunter. This one had a slow burn to it and got better as the season went on. Also, now that I know what to look for, the David Fincher camera thing was impossible to ignore. (B+)

Requiem for a Dream. The last 30 minutes of this movie is relentless. (A)

The Book of Life. I tried to steer the kids away from this one to no avail. (C)

On Margins with Kevin Kelly. The bits about how much of the world used to be pre-industrial until fairly recently and how most people only took 20-30 photos per year in the 70s were especially interesting. (B+)

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel (season two). Not quite as good as the first season, but my kids are still riveted. (B+)

Doctor Who. I’ve been slowly introducing the kids to Doctor Who, which I watched as a kid with my dad. So far, we’ve seen Jon Pertwee’s final episode and a handful of early Tom Baker episodes…probably the show’s sweet spot. I didn’t want to throw them into the deep end with William Hartnell right off the bat. (B+)

The Dark Knight Rises. A parable for our times: a white, female Bernie supporter (Selina Kyle) votes for Trump because she believes the system needs a reset but comes to appreciate what a terrible fucking idea that was. (A-)

Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum. Kevin Kelly recommended this impressive little magazine shop to me…they must have carried over 1000 different titles. (B+)

Whisky Café L & B. They stock more than 2300 whiskies (!!)…but the space is so small that I don’t know where they keep it all. (B+)

Van Gogh Museum. Maybe the best small museum I’ve ever been to? Utterly fascinating to see how his entire life and career unfolded. (A)

Rijksmuseum. I missed a lot of this one, but what I did see was great. Gaping at the impossibly exquisite lighting in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid for 15 minutes was itself worth the price of admission. (A-)

Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Really conflicting feelings on this. On the one hand, there were hordes of drunken men walking the streets literally shopping for women’s bodies…anyone unclear on what the male gaze means only need spend a few minutes in De Wallen on a weekend night to fully grasp the concept. On the other hand, it can be empowering, economically and otherwise, for women to engage in sex work. Is the RLD sex-positive? I… (-)

Schiphol. Much faster wifi than at my house. Really lovely airport…it would get an “A” if it weren’t actually an airport. (B)

Amsterdam (generally). Visit if you’re a process and infrastructure nerd. Van Gogh Museum and a boat ride in the canals are musts. Didn’t have enough time to sample as much food as I wanted, but I will definitely be back. (A-)

Michael Clayton. I liked this a little less than I remember, even though its star has been on the rise lately. (B+)

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. I knew next to nothing about Didion before watching this — aside from her hiring Harrison Ford when he was a carpenter. It’s probably better if you’re already a fan? (B)

Heavyweight: Jesse. One man in a car hits another man on a bike and both are changed forever. And for the better? (B+)

Arrival. Maybe my fourth time watching this? A friend commented on the economy of the storytelling…not a second is wasted. (A)

iPhone X. Most of my early impressions still hold. Still don’t like the notch, it is ridiculous. (A-)

Transparent (season four). The recent allegations against Tambour took the shine off of this season for me, but this is still one of the best TV shows in recent years. (A-)

Coco. I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did, and I don’t know why. (B+)

The 21-minute Frozen “short” that played before Coco. Total unimaginative and cynical garbage. This is what happens when marketing has too much pull. (F)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. The music is the best part of the show IMO. (A)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

A record player that plays slices of wood

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2017

For his project called Years, Bartholomäus Traubeck specially modified a record player to make piano music from the patterns of ringed growth on the cross-sections of trees.

A tree’s year rings are analysed for their strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music. It is mapped to a scale which is again defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently.

A digital album of recording from seven different trees (spruce, ash, oak, maple, alder, walnut, and beech) is available on Bandcamp.

Classical music scores as colorful data visualizations

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2017

Off The Staff

Off The Staff

Nicholas Rougeux, who describes himself as a “designer, data geek, fractal nut”, designed a process to turn musical scores into ultra-colorful images. He outlined his process here.

Rougeux also made video versions where you can see the visualizations form as the songs play. Here’s Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons:

Posters are available.

Jimmy Iovine and most bomb record in the solar system

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2017

While preparing for a conference talk/conversation I’m doing in Amsterdam this weekend, I was reading about the Golden Record that NASA sent along as a potential greeting from Earth to alien civilizations who might run across the Voyager probes in interstellar space millions of years from now. For the 40th anniversary of the Voyager launches, science writer Timothy Ferris (author of the Pulitzer-nominated Coming of Age in the Milky Way) wrote about the production of the Record for the New Yorker.

In the winter of 1976, Carl was visiting with me and my fiancee at the time, Ann Druyan, and asked whether we’d help him create a plaque or something of the sort for Voyager. We immediately agreed. Soon, he and one of his colleagues at Cornell, Frank Drake, had decided on a record. By the time nasa approved the idea, we had less than six months to put it together, so we had to move fast. Ann began gathering material for a sonic description of Earth’s history. Linda Salzman Sagan, Carl’s wife at the time, went to work recording samples of human voices speaking in many different languages. The space artist Jon Lomberg rounded up photographs, a method having been found to encode them into the record’s grooves. I produced the record, which meant overseeing the technical side of things. We all worked on selecting the music.

Carl Sagan was project director, Ann Druyan the creative director, and Ferris produced the Record. And the sound engineer for the Golden Record? I was surprised to learn: none other than Jimmy Iovine, who was recommended to Ferris by John Lennon.

I sought to recruit John Lennon, of the Beatles, for the project, but tax considerations obliged him to leave the country. Lennon did help us, though, in two ways. First, he recommended that we use his engineer, Jimmy Iovine, who brought energy and expertise to the studio. (Jimmy later became famous as a rock and hip-hop producer and record-company executive.)

Lennon, Springsteen, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Interscope, Dre, Snoop, Death Row Records, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Beats By Dre, Apple, *and* The Golden Record? Iovine is like the record industry’s Forrest Gump or something. How was this not in The Defiant Ones?

How generative music works

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2017

From software developer and writer Tero Parviainen, an interactive presentation on how generative music works. (Roughly speaking, generative music is “about making music by designing systems that make music”.)

The presentation includes many examples — Terry Riley’s In C, Brian Eno’s recent app, Listen to Wikipedia, Steve Reich’s work, neural nets for generating music — and a few interactive generative music toys you can play around with. (via waxy)

Google’s impractical voice experiments

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2017

Google has launched a series of voice experiments that work with Google Home and also in the browser. For example, Mystery Animal is a 20 questions style game in which you attempt to guess the identity of a particular animal. Here’s how it works:

Another of the experiments, MixLab, helps you make music with simple voice commands (“add a club beat”, etc.). The experiments use AI to understand what people are asking them.

Nicole He, who worked on Mystery Animal and another experiment called Story Speaker, explains why it’s an interesting time to be goofing around with voice technology.

Talking out loud to computers has always felt more science fiction than real life. But speech recognition technology has come a long way, and developers are now making lots of useful things with voice devices. These days, you can speak out loud and have your lights turn on, or your favorite music played, or the news read to you.

That’s all nice and good, but there’s something clearly missing: the weird stuff. We should make things for voice technology that aren’t just practical. We should make things that are way more creative and bizarre. Things that are more provocative and expressive, or whimsical and delightful.

We’re in what I’m going to call The 1996 Web Design Era of voice technology. The web was created for something practical (sharing information between scientists), but it didn’t take very long for people to come up with strange and creative things to do with it.

I am terrible at 20 questions, so of course Mystery Animal stumped me. My last guess was “are you a zebra?” when the animal was actually a panda bear.

My recent media diet, special French edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two weeks or so. I recently took a trip to France to visit friends and log some time in one of my favorite places on Earth, so this particular media diet is heavy on Parisian museums and food. If you take nothing else away from this post, avoid The Louvre and watch The Handmaid’s Tale at the earliest opportunity.

Dial M for Murder. This Hitchcock film, with its relatively low stakes and filmed mostly in one room, is more suspenseful and thrilling than any of the “the world/galaxy/universe is in peril” movies out today. (A-)

Musée des Arts et Métiers. Before ~1950, you could look at a machine and pretty much know what it did and how it worked. After the invention of the digital computer, everything is an inscrutable black box. (A)

Manon des Sources. This movie feels much older than it is. (B+)

Marconi. The chef from my favorite NYC restaurant recently opened this place in Montreal. Best meal I had during my trip (Paris included). (A)

The Big Sick. It may have been a little predictable, but I really liked this movie. Lots of heart. (B+)

Le Chateaubriand. The skate tartar and a dessert with a smoked cream were the highlights, but the whole experience was top-notch and chill. (A-)

Candelaria. You will never feel cooler in Paris than having an excellent cocktail in a bar behind a hidden door in the back of a taqueria. (A-)

Musée Picasso. Not much else to say about Picasso at this point, is there? That creep can roll, man. (A-)

Women in Physics. My daughter is pretty interested in science and scientists (she’s a particular fan of Marie Curie), so books that highlight women scientists can always be found around our house. (B)

Café de Flore. You will never feel cooler in Paris than sitting outside at Café de Flore at night, reading a book, and drinking a Negroni as Hemingway might have done in the 20s. (Tho Hemingway probably didn’t have a Kindle.) (A-)

Stacked. I recently rediscovered this hour-long mix by Royal Sapien. The two-ish minutes starting at 32:00 are sublime IMO. (A-)

The Devil in the White City. A gripping tale of architecture and serial killing. Chicago 1893 is definitely one of my hypothetical time travel destinations. (A)

Sainte-Chapelle. My favorite church in Paris. Literally jaw-dropping, worth the €10 entry fee. (A)

Rough Night. I will watch anything with Kate McKinnon in it. But… (B-)

Balanchine / Teshigawara / Bausch. An amazing building. (I got to go backstage!) The third act of this ballet was flat-out amazing. (B+)

The Louvre. The best-known works are underwhelming and the rest of this massive museum is overwhelming. The massive crowds, constant photo-taking, and selfies make it difficult to actually look at the art. Should have skipped it. (C)

100 Pounds of Popcorn. Forgettable kids book. (C-)

Kubo and the Two Strings. A fun thing to do is tell someone halfway through that it’s stop motion animated. (A-)

Musée d’Orsay. The building and the art it contains elevate each other. Probably the best big museum in Paris. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. This is both a not-implausible future of the United States and a metaphor for how many women and LGBT+ folks feel about how our society treats them. Excellent, a must-watch. (A)

Musée de l’Orangerie. Two rooms of huge Monet Waterlilies? Yes, please. (A-)

Brasserie Lipp. The steak frites was so-so, but the people watching from my table near the entrance was fascinating. You’ll never feel cooler…etc. etc. (B+)

Monograph by Chris Ware. This thing is *huge* (like it weighs almost 9 pounds) and beautiful. (A-)

D3 Traveller. I bought this on sale, but even so it was an epic splurge for me. Now that I’ve been on 4-5 trips with it, I can say I love love love this bag. Will likely last a lifetime. (A)

Blade Runner 2049. Rewatch, this time on a smaller screen. Despite its flaws, I definitely like this more than the original. (A-)

Stranger Things season 2 soundtrack

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2017

One of the best parts about Stranger Things is the music. 80s tunes, the opening title music, and the synth-heavy scores. The second season of the show is out on Netflix and with it are the score and the soundtrack from the first season (featuring the likes of Corey Hart, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, and Scorpions).

Add to this volume one and volume two of the season one soundtrack, baby, you’ve got yourself a stew going.

Bill Callahan, the only sad man worth loving

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

I used to be darker
Then I got lighter
Then I got dark again
Something too big
To be seen
Was passing over and over me

— Bill Callahan, “Jim Cain”

Bill Callahan is my favorite living, active musical artist. It’s been three years since his last album, Have Fun With God; until then, he’d released an album of all-new material every year or other year since 1990, mostly under the name band Smog [or “(Smog)”].

Since 2007, he’s toured under his own name. Like other Drag City artists, he’s not on Spotify or most streaming services. (Update: Drag City made a deal with Apple Music this summer, although it’s still missing from most of the other players.) This means his legacy risks being eclipsed for a whole cohort of fans. I find this unacceptable.

At one time or another, Bill’s managed to channel almost every deep-voiced, literary-minded, hard-knocks storyteller in popular music. You can hear bits of Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Gil-Scott Heron, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash; you hear resonances of contemporaries like David Berman, Will Oldham, Mark Everett, or Jim O’Rourke (who produced four of Bill’s albums).

But he’s stranger than any of them. You get autobiography, direct address, dialogue, and narrative, but also surreal tableaux, where the singer/author stands at a remove. His characters talk like Cormac McCarthy’s, but think like Albert Camus. Overtly or covertly, he’s been the model for every sad man in the new generation of indie rock. I like some of them; I don’t like some of them. But all of them offer so much less than he does.

His work has gone through a number of phases. “A Hit” was his home-recorded, low-fi manifesto:

It’s not gonna be a hit
So why even bother
With it

I’ll never be a rock n’ roll saint
I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno
I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno
I’ll only ever be a Gary Numan

In the 90s, he moved into the studio and became a more recognizable indie folk artist. The apex of this phase might be “I Break Horses,” a disarming, alarming anthem for men who can’t (or won’t) make a relationship work:

“To Be Of Use” could be written by the same character as “I Break Horses,” but it’s much more musically and lyrically abstract. He’s crossed over from a singer who has practical problems dealing with humans to one who has philosophical problems with humanity.

Most of my fantasies are of
Making someone else come.
Most of my fantasies are of
To be of use—
To be of some hard,
Simple
Undeniable use.

Oh — like a spindle.
Or oh — like a candle.
Oh — like a horseshoe.
Or oh — like a corkscrew.

1999’s Knock Knock, his last collaboration with producer Jim O’Rourke, was his fifteen minutes of fame. “Cold Blooded Old Times” was on the High Fidelity soundtrack: he loaned the movie album a level of indie cred (of course Rob would love Smog), and eighteen years ago, a movie or TV commercial appearance was enough to launch an indie band into the indie stratosphere — i.e., modest, ephemeral fame.

There are so many good songs on Knock Knock, in every indie rock style, but my sentimental favorite is another simple arpeggiated tune that sounds a lot like “To Be Of Use.” “Teenage Spaceship” breaks my heart every time I hear it.

Landing at night
I was beautiful with all my lights
Loomed so large on the horizon
So large, people thought my windows
Were stars

Bill, or Bill’s personae (it’s hard to nail him down), is always worried he’s been mistaken for something he’s not. It’s the most peculiar but totally recognizable kind of butch vulnerability. “You will never know exactly how far I have let you in.”

The hallmark of a good Bill Callahan song is its deceptive simplicity. Later, he’d add orchestration and sometimes work with fuller bands, but even then, there’s generally not a whole lot going on that’s extra.

“Dress Sexy At My Funeral” is the best Lou Reed song Lou never wrote, two chords and a bridge. The concept is jokey, but the execution is compelling:

2003’s Supper is Bill’s most beautiful album, and “Truth Serum” (with Sarabeth Tucek on vocals) may be its most beautiful song.

This is really the hinge in his career. He’d split up with Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, a few years before (see the cat struck by lightning on the cover of Knock Knock?). He would soon be dating Joanna Newsom, another brilliant young folk singer and songwriter. A River’s Too Much to Love is really his first solo album, but still under the Smog name; the alarmingly upbeat Woke on a Whaleheart the first Bill Callahan album proper. It seemed like good times were ahead. [Narrator: They were not.]

“Sycamore” is the song I played for my son when he was born.

Callahan and Newsom went through a messy breakup. They both wrote great songs about it. They both didn’t seem fully over it. She ended up with Andy Samberg, essentially Bill Callahan’s tonal opposite.

Bill married filmmaker Hanly Banks, who’d directed a documentary of his “Apocalypse” tour. And he wrote “Small Plane,” which is awfully close to perfect.

He still tours. He still writes. His fans still wait for his next work, wondering what it all means.

Amanda Meyncke is a television writer and director, and the biggest fan of Bill’s I know. I asked her to try to explain his appeal.

He’s my favorite musician of all time, followed closely by David Byrne and Bob Dylan — both performers who are startlingly easy to get to know, to research, to understand in time. Not so with Bill.

Bill is like so fucking infamously enigmatic. He makes a wonderful billboard to project your own theories onto as well as a safe home for your feelings to live, since it is unlikely any stories behind the music will ever emerge. Also you get the feeling he’d lie to your face about his own work, or somehow be amused at your insistence on infusing it with meaning beyond the obvious.

I’ve seen him perform perhaps 10 times, I’ve flown to other states for the singular purpose of seeing him. I’ve seen him multiple times on the same tour and he performs the exact, precise set list at every stop of the tour, never altering or adding. He doesn’t seem to like performing, doesn’t seem to like the limelight.

About ten years ago I posed as a promoter and wrote his record label to find out what it would cost to get a solo Bill show. Turns out it will cost $10,000, so I’ve been saving up ever since. I bet it’s close to $15,000 now.

One of my friends said he and Joanna Newsom were engaged in the slowest rap battle of all time, warring records being released every three years.

Mostly it’s just the most goddamn beautiful music and vocals I’ve heard. A vision of love that feels more like a New Yorker short fiction from decades ago. A two-step with isolation that is both self-imposed and rejected.

He married the woman who made a documentary about him and they had a kid a year or two ago. Bill as a dad, the family man. What a world.

Four versions of “A House Is Not A Home”

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 25, 2017

The first, of course, is by Dionne Warwick. It’s a 1964 live version of the Bacharach and David arrangement she’d already made a hit. It’s the first track from her third album: she’d made all three in a year and a half.

Dionne’s performance is all about funneling emotion through control. It’s like shooting an explosive bullet through a rifled barrel, for maximum velocity, accuracy, and impact.

Almost all of Hal David’s lyrics are all about loss and unfulfilled dreams, but he/they always find an objective correlative that roots those feelings in specific places, scenes, and experiences. It’s a phenomenology of loss — and “A House Is Not A Home” is maybe the purest example of this.

Burt Bacharach is Burt Bacharach, a composer with a perfect combination of brains and swag. Everyone sounds like him, and nobody sounds close. (Also, Paul Griffin is maybe the best session piano player in the history of pop music. Someday, he deserves his own post.)

This BBC documentary gives some of the history between Warwick, Bacharach, and David (check around 10:45):

And this terrific clip shows Warwick and Bacharach at work on “Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets”:

The second version of “A House Without A Home” is by Luther Vandross, from his first proper album, Never Too Much. It’s more than twice as long as Dionne’s version. (From here on out, I’m going to call Dionne and Luther by their first names, because they are my best friends.)

Instead of opening with “House,” Luther closes with it, and by god, does he close. He closes it, sets it on fire, collects the insurance money, and spends it all on you.

My friend Zach Curd is a musician, singer, and composer (with a brand new album out!), and most importantly, a fellow Luther fan. He recently put Luther’s cover of “House” on a playlist of “perfect songs,” and agreed to share some thoughts about what makes this version so good.

The things I love about “A House Is Not a Home”:

This is the thing about Luther: casual fans remember the slowed-down crooning, but forget that he sets up that framework just to play against it. This leads to otherwise intelligent people saying crazy things in public like “Luther doesn’t slap.” It’s okay. Everyone gets a chance to be completely wrong.

The third version of “A House Is Not A Home” is my very favorite. It is Luther singing Dionne’s song to Dionne at the 1986 NAACP Image Awards. The orchestration’s a little fuller, splitting the difference between Dionne’s original and Luther’s studio version. And it is just a goddamn showcase for what one man can do with his voice. Just watch:

At this point, if you’re still with me, set aside an hour and watch this terrific documentary about Luther. It’s about his childhood, his early career, his first encounter with Dionne Warwick’s music [he patterned his entire style on hers], his appearances on Sesame Street, his struggles with weight, and what to me is frankly an admirable “I will never confirm, I will never deny, because I don’t owe you assholes EVERYTHING” attitude about publicly discussing his homosexuality.

I hate the closet and wish Luther could have been free to be who he was with all of us, but my god, did anyone make more out of his life in the closet than Luther Vandross?

The fourth version of “A House Is Not A Home” is from Luther’s 2003 concert at Radio City Music Hall. As Zach points out, it is somehow even slower than his studio version, a full ten minutes long. I don’t even know how you make a drummer play that slow without medication. When Luther says “I’m gonna take my time and sing this thing — can I do that?” he means it.

This song is outer space, and Luther’s voice is a gravitational wave. It’s radiating from colliding stars millions of miles away. It bends spacetime. We might be farther away from Dionne’s tightly channeled emotion and David’s carefully charted physical details. But nowhere else are we closer to the godhead.

Three Little Birds

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 25, 2017

It’s been years since we first heard it, and I have no idea if my little boy still loves it like he did then, but I can’t get enough of this acoustic version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” from the kids’ album B Is For Bob:

This song and its video presentation drive home the importance of a literary frame for meaning. I never much liked the other versions of this song, in part because the frame was obscured. The cartoon and the flattening of the song’s structure help draw it out again.

Bob Marley and (forgive me) a bunch of college hippies singing “every little thing’s gonna be all right” as an anthem is insipid. But Bob Marley singing a song to children about three birds who tell him (apocryphally, fleetingly) that everything will be all right? That is inspired.

If I Were/Was Your Girlfriend

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

It’s tempting to treat Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” as a genderscrambled version of Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman” or Janet Jackson’s “If.” It’s really not. All three songs are great, but thematically and grammatically, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is way more complicated than the others, and more intricate than almost any other song Prince wrote.

Prince is not just saying you’d be better off with him; he is not just saying that he wants to get in your pants. He’s not not saying those things, but Prince has written dozens if not hundreds of songs with that as his theme, and none of those songs are “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

Prince is up to something. Even the usual interpretive trick for Prince’s songs — imagine that he is singing them to and about himself — doesn’t get you very far here.

Let’s start with that “Was.” We use the simple past “was” instead of the subjunctive mood “were” all the time, mostly because the subjunctive in English almost only shows up for a few irregular verbs like “were.” But there’s a songwriting tradition here; Prince knows it; every word is carefully chosen; we should take that “Was” seriously.

If I was your girlfriend, would U remember

To tell me all the things U forgot when I was your man?

The song is built on a series of conditional clauses, all of which are firmly set in the past. Was, would, could, sometime. Over and over again. Even when the singer lapses into something that seems like a present or present continuous tense, we get a counterpoint placing it in the past conditional again.

Sugar
Sugar, do you know what I’m saying 2 U this evening?
(If I was your girlfriend)
Maybe U think I’m being a little self-centered
But I, I said I want to be all of the things U are to me
(if I was your girlfriend)
Surely, surely you can see

That “this evening” is deixis — it’s pointing to say, “I am speaking these words HERE and NOW.” And it gets completely wiped away by the conditional past “If I was your girlfriend” and the conditional future “I want to be” and “surely you can see.”

This is an amazing song about intimacy, fantasy, the limits of gender roles, the limits of gender flexibility, a man’s full catalog of shortcomings and possibilities. This is also a breakup song, about heartbreak and desperation. It’s a song about a man putting the pieces of the past together and hoping they can add up to something more than they were.

Breakup songs are not exactly plentiful in the Prince catalog, although the ones he wrote were amazing. He wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U” for The Family because it didn’t fit the brand of progressive party pop he’d established for Prince and the Revolution. Sinead O’Connor covered it in 1989, after Prince had shifted his image with Sign O’ The Times, and everyone marveled (again) at his songwriting.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” gets smuggled in as a Prince song at the right place and time. (Principle: every song on “Sign O’ The Times” is doing something other than what it seems to be doing.) The song is sexy because Prince is sexy. But the singer is losing the thread between past, present, and future. All those nesting dolls are collapsing. Even the marvelous, sensual come-on at the end, a desperate throw of the dice that pulls the song into the full future tense for the first time, gets framed as a dream:

And would you, would you let me kiss you there
You know, down there where it counts
I’ll do it so good, I swear I’ll drink every ounce
And then I’ll hold you tight and hold you long
And together we’ll stare into silence

And we’ll try to imagine what it looks like
Yeah, we’ll try to imagine what, what silence looks like
Yeah, we’ll, we’ll try to imagine what silence looks like
Yeah, we’ll try

The song seemed to evolve for Prince himself. In early live shows and the song’s official video above, Prince is the sexy seducer. Of course he talks his ex into bed. He’s Prince — the one and only — and his fans came to see a Prince show.

Later, he can’t do the splits any more. He’s sitting at the piano. The BPM is slowed down to about 80 percent. His eyes are closed. It’s a Joni Mitchell ballad.

Anil Dash, CEO of Fog Creek software, blogging pioneer, and Prince superfan, told me about these late performances of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”:

In his final shows, Prince would do the song in medley with Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain”, a song he only started playing very late in life, that seemed to have a lot of meaning for him.

[“Wait(ing) In Vain is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, even in Bob Marley’s bouncey version. Prince’s cover on solo piano is devastating.]

In his last set of concerts, he’d pause the song to bring up a still of Streisand and Redford in “The Way We Were”, after the part where he says “if somebody hurt u, even if that somebody was me.”

[This was at Prince’s second-to-last show, in Atlanta.]

It was one of the most honest and unexpected and sincere and heartbreaking things I think I ever heard him do. I was listening to audio of that in an airport in Tokyo a few months before he passed, and it brought me to tears, and it was one of the first things I returned to after I heard about his death. Was just as purely empathetic as I’d ever heard a straight man be in pop culture, and taught me a lot.

For me, losing Lou Reed was like losing a great teacher; losing Bowie was losing a hero; losing Phife was losing a best friend. But losing Prince, for many of us, was like losing the love of your life.

Dot Piano

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2017

Dot Piano

Dot Piano is a web-based visual piano that works with a MIDI keyboard peripheral or with your regular computer keyboard. As you play, colorful dots dance across the screen in a variety of ways. Hit record and you can easily save and share your composition with others. This one is fun to watch. (via prosthetic knowledge)

Here’s why we like, really like, repetition in music.

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2017

Pop music songs have become increasingly repetitive in recent years — think Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, Beyonce’s 7/11 or Formation, and just about anything by Rihanna — and there’s a good reason for this: we like repetition. When people repeat words, it stops sounding like speaking and starts sounding like singing. Lyrical repetition makes songs sound more musical.

My media diet for the past two weeks

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 13, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two weeks or so. I’ve been working and traveling, so there have been fewer books and more podcasts in my life. On the way home from NYC, I started The Devil in the White City on audiobook and can’t wait to get back to it.

From Cells to Cities. Sam Harris podcast interview of Geoffrey West, author of Scale. Two genuinely mind-blowing moments can’t quite salvage the remained 2 hours of rambling. (A-/C-)

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I much prefer the book. (C+)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Entertaining enough. I’ll give the new one a try. (B+)

Philip Glass Piano Works by Vikingur Olafsson. This is relaxing to listen to in the morning. (A-)

Luciferian Towers by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This sounds very much like all their other albums and I am not complaining. (B+)

mother! An intense film but it was too overly metaphorical for me to take any of the intensity seriously. (B)

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. “A fun, high-quality, serial mystery that can be described as Goonies meets Spy Kids meets Stranger Things for 8-12 year olds.” My kids and I listened to season one over the course of a week and they could not wait to hear more. (A-)

The Vietnam War original score. By Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. An unusual choice for the score to a Ken Burns film. (B+)

Blade Runner 2049. Seeing this in IMAX (real IMAX not baby IMAX) really blew my doors off. Visually and sonically amazing. At least 20 minutes too long though. (A-)

New Yorker TechFest. I hadn’t been to a tech conference in awhile because the ratio of style to substance had gotten too high. The caliber of the speakers set this conference apart. My full report is here. (B+)

Items: Is Fashion Modern? Great collection of items, but I’m not sure I’m any closer to knowing the answer to the question in the title. (A-)

LBJ’s War. A short, 6-part podcast on Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, consisting mostly of interviews and audio recordings from the period in question. A good companion to the PBS series on the war. (B+)

Driverless Dilemma by Radiolab. Revisiting an old episode of Radiolab about the trolley problem in the context of self-driving cars. (B)

Max Richter: Piano Works by Olivia Belli. Short and sweet. (A-)

Jerry Before Seinfeld. This felt pretty phoned-in. Some of these old jokes — “women, am I right?” — should have stayed in the vault. (B-)

Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack. A critical part of the movie that also stands alone. (A-)

Spielberg. A solid appreciation of Spielberg’s career, but more of a critical eye would have been appreciated. Also, was surprised how many of his movies referenced his parents’ divorce. (B+)

Universal Paperclips. Ugh, I cannot ever resist these incremental games. What an odd name, “incremental games”. Aren’t most games incremental? (A-/F)

A thrilling Line Rider track synched to music

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2017

Remember Line Rider, the drawing/sledding game we were all obsessed with 11 years ago? YouTuber DoodleChaos drew a Line Rider track by hand that is synchronized to Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King (which you will recognize when you hear it). Make sure your sound is on and watch the whole thing…it gets almost poetically thrilling near the end. (via @neilhalloran)

Eminem blasts Donald Trump in new freestyle

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2017

In a freestyle rap that aired at the BET Hip Hop Awards last night, Eminem blasted Donald Trump for his racism, false patriotism, deceit, and disrespect of military veterans, among other things. Watch it if you haven’t…the man is angry, as are many of us. The lyrics to the freestyle are on Genius:

He says, “You’re spittin’ in the face of vets who fought for us, you bastards!”
Unless you’re a POW who’s tortured and battered
‘Cause to him you’re zeros
‘Cause he don’t like his war heroes captured
That’s not disrespecting the military
Fuck that! This is for Colin, ball up a fist!
And keep that shit balled like Donald the bitch!
“He’s gonna get rid of all immigrants!”
“He’s gonna build that thing up taller than this!”
Well, if he does build it, I hope it’s rock solid with bricks
‘Cause like him in politics, I’m using all of his tricks
‘Cause I’m throwin’ that piece of shit against the wall ‘til it sticks
And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his
I’m drawing in the sand a line: you’re either for or against
And if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split
On who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this:
“Fuck you!”
The rest of America stand up
We love our military, and we love our country
But we fucking hate Trump

As you can read, Eminem is really calling out his white fan base here, something that Elon James White mentioned in this Twitter thread:

So basically Trump, a grade A troll just got trolled by a bigger more experienced troll. Eminim trolls every album & he chose 45 this time. White dudes who thought Eminem was [their] voice, all angry and White at home right now like [What do I doooooooooooo!?] And y’all know Eminem is petty. If 45 responds he’ll have 3 diss tracks in a week. If 45 doesn’t he will be shat on as weak AF & a punk. And a lot of White folks who may have been sitting this whole shit storm out just had their fav rapper call them dafuq out.

White also addressed the misogyny and homophobia in Eminem’s music:

And as for his music catalogue of misogyny and homophobia…
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That empty space is called me not defending ANY of it one bit. Notice I didn’t say “everyone should go buy Eminem albums!” “SUPPORT THIS ARTIST!” I was commenting on the freestyle & how it will play. I haven’t bought an Eminem album since I was a young punk. But my support or lack thereof doesn’t negate his skill or his platform.

A blueprint of hip hop history

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2017

Dorothy Hip Hop

Dorothy Hip Hop

Design studio Dorothy has released this poster of a map of hip hop history, featuring notable rap and hip hop artists and groups laid out in the style of a circuit diagram for a classic turntable.

The print pays homage to the godfathers of hip-hop (Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets) but takes its starting point as DJ Kool Herc’s Back to School Jam in August 1973 — a block party in the Bronx, New York which is widely regarded as the birthplace of hip-hop.

The print weaves it way through many different scenes and record labels including early old-school innovators (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Cold Crush Brothers), golden age heroes (Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, KRS-One, Eric B. & Rakim), the collective Native Tongues (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Monie Love), politically charged hip-hop (Public Enemy, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Lauryn Hill), legendary East Coast artists (The Notorious B.I.G, Nas), legendary West Coast artists (Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre), gangsta rap (Ice-T, N.W.A, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg), hardcore (Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep), Southern rap (Lil Wayne, T.I., Outkast) underground hip-hop (Company Flow, MF Doom, Aesop Rock), turntablism (Invisibl Scratch Piklz, The X-Ecutioners), trip-hop (Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead), UK grime (Wiley, Skepta and Stormzy) and legendary producers (DJ Premier, J Dilla and Madlib).

Pairs well with Tim Carmody’s Introduction to Hip Hop playlist.

Band uses video delay to create “a mesmerizing visual loop sampler”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2017

A band called The Academic cleverly took advantage of the slight broadcast delay in Facebook Live to construct a loop sampler out of video, so that at any given moment, each member of the band is performing with their past and future selves and bandmates.

We rearranged each instrument on “Bear Claws” to fit Facebook Live’s delay, with each loop getting more complex, adding instruments, rhythms, and melodies. Additionally, by projecting the video live from a soundstage we created an infinite tunnel consisting of all the previously recorded loops.

OK Go is probably kicking themselves for not thinking of this first. See also Piano/Video Phase, David Cossin’s performance of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase with himself. (via clive thompson)

Spotify’s Time Capsule personalized playlists

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2017

Spotify has made a Time Capsule playlist for each of its users, “a personalized playlist with songs to take you back in time to your teenage years”. It’s a little tough to find…you can search for it, find it under “Decades” on the Browse page, or use the website. Here’s my Time Capsule:

I’d heard from friends how eerily accurate their playlists were, but mine’s not that great. I grew up in a small town with limited access to music. Everyone I knew listened to country, metal, or top 40. I didn’t really care that much for metal or country, so top 40 it was. My musical taste took a right turn in college and it was only much later that I circled back to the sort of music that I would have listened to in the 80s had I been aware of it. Also, it looks as though Spotify thinks I’m 8-10 years younger than I actually am. The playlist should be crammed with Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, George Michael, and other 80s MTV staples, not stuff that came out in the mid 90s.

However, I have no idea how the hell it knew about Cum on Feel the Noize, Wishing Well, and Eye of the Tiger. I’ve never listened to any of them on Spotify but young Jason was obsessed with each of these for a brief period. I can still hear Casey Kasem saying Terence Trent D’Arby’s name with his distinctive America’s Top 40 cadence. Freaky!