Can the computer be an improvisation partner? Can it generate musical ideas of its own in real time that aren’t the product of random number generators or nonsensical Markov chains?
In Joel Chadabe‘s “Settings For Spirituals,” he uses pitch-tracking to perform various effects on a recording of a singer: pitch shifting, chorus, reverb. The result is effectively an avant-garde remix. It isn’t exactly my speed, but I like the spirit of the piece – remixing existing recordings is a central pillar of current interactive electronic music. I’m less taken with Chadabe’s 1978 “Solo” for Synclavier controlled by theremin. The idea of dynamically controlling a computer’s compositions is an intriguing one, and I like the science-fictional visual effect of using two giant theremin antennae to control note durations, and to fade instrumental sounds in and out. Chadabe set the Solo system up to intentionally produce unpredictable results, giving the feeling of an improvisational partner. He describes “Solo” as being “like a conversation with a clever friend.” Who wouldn’t want such an experience?
For those of you curious about what I’m up to in grad school, this is the big thing. Pardon the stilted language, but, you know, academia. See the slideshow!
Update: I now have a functioning prototype of my app. If you’d like to try it, get in touch.
The Drum Loop: a Self-Guided Tutorial System for Programming Dance Rhythms
Dance music production software has never been more accessible. However, even “beginner-oriented” programs like Apple’s Garageband presume significant musical knowledge. Would-be dance producers who have access to formal music education are ill served by Eurocentric teaching methods and curricula. By and large, those wishing to learn drum programming are largely left to their own devices. This is unfortunate, because learning how to create beats does not only benefit electronic dance musicians. The ability to actively create and alter rhythms and to match their visual notation with the resulting sounds in real time sharpens the rhythmic abilities of any musician.
There is a popular game, sometimes called Pong, which simulates on a television screen a perfectly elastic ball bouncing between two surfaces. Each player is given a dial that permits him to intercept the ball with a movable “racket”. Points are scored if the motion of the ball is not intercepted by the racket. The game is very interesting. There is a clear learning experience involved which depends exclusively on Newton’s second law for linear motion. As a result of Pong, the player can gain a deep intuitive understanding of the simplest Newtonian physics – a better understanding even than that provided by billiards, where the collisions are far from perfectly elastic and where the spinning of the pool balls interposes more complicated physics.
Big question! First, a little philosophical throat-clearing: I don’t believe that modern/contemporary art is as radical a break with the past as it likes to think. I had an art professor in college argue that, really, all abstract art is representational, and all representational art is abstract. Any abstract art has to refer to particular sensory impressions that the artist has had, because there’s nothing else we have to draw on for material. No matter how crazy the art is, we can’t help but look for signs of the physical world in it. Meanwhile, even the most photorealist painting is still abstract. You’d never be fooled by a painting into thinking you were looking out a window. Ultimately, it’s just static blobs of color on a flat surface; you have to do quite a bit of interpretive work to be “convinced” by the illusion.
For my grad school thesis, I’m designing an intro-level music education app. I’m operating within the techno/hip-hop paradigm, with an Afrocentric rhythm-oriented approach. Electronic dance music production software had brought me much joy over the years, joy that I’m eager to spread to more people. I firmly believe that everyone is a potential musician, and that the right interface can draw beginners in and motivate them. So as I ponder this project, I’m naturally giving a lot of thought to electronic music interfaces, both software and hardware. And because all interfaces on a screen necessarily involve some music visualization, I’ve been exploring that too. For example, here’s a particularly attractive music interface/visualization, the pitch correction program Melodyne:
I’ve toyed around with several iPhone and iPad music apps. Many are intriguing and fun, but few have inspired me into making “real” music. In preparation for the next Disquiet Junto project, I downloaded Nodebeat and tried some improvisation. I like the result:
The app combines randomness and control in an intriguing way. I also like the fine microtonal control it gives you. You can also use it as a MIDI controller for other software, though I haven’t given that a try yet. If you want to try it for yourself and you don’t have an iOS or Android device, you can snag the desktop version, for free no less.
Joshua Pablo Rosenstock. Free Play Meets Gameplay: iGotBand, a Video Game for Improvisers. Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 20, pp. 11–15, 2010.
Guitar Hero, Rock Band and games like them have done a wonderful service to non-musicians. The games give a good sense of what playing an instrument in a band is like. The interface is simplified, but the overall experience is qualitatively remarkably similar. The games also change their players’ listening habits. A non-musician friend told me that until he played through Beatles Rock Band as Paul McCartney, he had never paid attention to a song’s bassline. Now he hears all those familiar Beatles songs in a new and richer way, and generally has learned to listen like a musician.
There is one crucial difference between the games and real music-making, however, and that is the absence of improvisation. The player moves through the song like a train on a track, and the games penalize any variation from the prescribed notes. Not all real-life music is improvisational either, but there is usually some element of personal expressiveness. Not so in Guitar Hero. Mimicry is the only way to play.
I’ve always been more of a Beatles guy than a Stones guy, but respect where respect is due, “Gimme Shelter” is a classic.
It’s on my mind because Dangerous Minds posted the isolated tracks, and they’re a lot of fun. It’s fascinating to hear the separated vocals, guitars, bass and drums. The Youtube videos containing the tracks were swiftly taken down by the Stones’ lawyers, of course, but as of this writing you can still download the stems in multitrack Ogg format. You can open and edit the Oggs in Audacity, and export pieces in other formats.
Whenever a guy like me hears “isolated tracks” I know it’s remix time. So here are some samples from “Gimme Shelter” along with various other sounds, enjoy.
My taste in video games mostly runs to the cartoony Japanese stuff: Mario, Zelda, Katamari. But I had access to an Xbox and a copy of Halo for a while, and I couldn’t rest until I finished it. I walked around thinking about it whenever I wasn’t playing. Every aspect of it was familiar, except for the fact of all of the sources being giddily combined together without any concern for logic. It’s like a perfect nerd mixtape.
My family does not, as a general rule, dance. Maybe individually. Very rarely together. It takes a wedding or bar mitzvah or other major state occasion to get even some of us on the dance floor. When left to our own devices, it doesn’t happen spontaneously. At least not until last Thanksgiving, when we tried out Dance Dance Revolution.
Every Thanksgiving, or every other, the whole mishpokeh gathers at my mom and stepdad’s place in Vermont. We have a good time eating and hanging out, watching football on TV and taking walks on the dirt roads. In the past couple of years we’ve started reintroduced video games into the mix. Katamari Damachy was a hit with some of my younger cousins. But Dance Dance Revolution turned out to be the really big smash. It was my sister’s then-boyfriend, now-fiance who had the idea, and he deserves mad props for thinking of it. The whole clan got involved, from the toddlers up to the seniors.