kottke.org posts about Music
From Genius, a short review of Beyonce Knowles’ life and career, from an appearance on Star Search — I wonder what Skeleton Crew is up to these days? — to Lemonade, one of 2016’s few genuine bright spots. The greatest entertainer of the century so far? A friend recently went to see Beyonce and Kanye concerts about two weeks apart. I asked her who was better and she just rolled her eyes.
Here’s a playlist of snippets of five Kanye West songs that contain samples played at the original tempo of those samples. (A couple of the songs are his and some he was featured on or produced.) (thx, brant)
From a new Kickstarter publication called The Creative Independent, Philip Glass was interviewed about the importance of artists owning their work and getting paid for it.
My personal position was that I had wonderful parents. Really wonderful people. But my mother was a school teacher. My father had a small record shop in Baltimore. They had no money to support my career. I began working early. You’re too young to know this, but when you get your first Social Security check, you get a list of every place you’ve worked since you began working. It’s fantastic! I discovered that I was working from the time I was 15 and putting money into the Social Security system from that age onward. I thought it was much later. No, I was actually paying money that early.
The point is that I spent most of my life supporting myself. And I own the music. I never gave it away. I am the publisher of everything I’ve written except for a handful of film scores that the big studios paid. I said, “Yeah, you can own it. You can have it, but you have to pay for it.” They did pay for it. They were not gifts.
A lot in this interview resonates, including this:
It’s never been easy for painters, or writers, or poets to make a living. One of the reasons is that we, I mean a big “We,” deny them an income for their work. As a society we do. Yet, these are the same people who supposedly we can’t live without. It’s curious, isn’t it?
And this bit about making work vs performing (italics mine):
What happens, is that the artists are in a position where they can no longer live on their work. They have to worry about that. They need to become performers. That’s another kind of work we do. I go out and play music. The big boom in performances is partly because of streaming, isn’t it? We know, for example, that there are big rock and roll bands that will give their records away free. You just have to buy the ticket to the concert. The cost of the record is rather small compared to the price of the ticket. It’s shifted around a little bit; they’re still paying, but they’re paying at the box office rather than at the record store. The money still will find its way.
Then you have to be the kind of person who goes out and plays, and some people don’t.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the economics of writing online. Making a comfortable living only by writing is tough and very few independents are able to do it. More successful are those who are able to get away from writing online by speaking at conferences, writing books, starting podcasts, selling merchandise,1 post sponsored tweets and Instagram photos, building apps, consulting for big companies, etc. This stuff is the equivalent of the band that tours, sells merch, composes music for TV commercials, etc. But as Glass said, what about those who just want to write? (And I count myself among that number.) How can we support those people? Anyway, more on this very soon (I hope).
Photo is of a Chuck Close painting of Philip Glass taken by me at The Whitney.
A cool brace from Tycho this week. First was the chill Burning Man set and now a brand-new album called Epoch. My Friday is allllll set.
An unexpected gift from Tycho this morning; he just uploaded this year’s installment of his annual Burning Man sunrise set. Check out the sets from last year and 2014 as well.
When you open the glove compartment on this car, it sounds like light jazz. And with that, it’s time inaugurate a new tag on the site: things that sound like other things, which includes my all-time favorite, this shovel falling sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit. (via @kepano)
Steve Wiles is a band director from Oklahoma who is a extremely talented whistler. Wiles can whistle two melodies at the same time.
Competitive whistler Christopher Ullman is pretty good too — he doesn’t kiss before competitions and his best friend is a tube of Chapstick.
When Roger Whittaker whistles, he sounds like a damn bird! Pavarotti was also not too shabby a whistler.
Watch Sarah Tubert perform the opening number from Hamilton in ASL. You might want to put on some headphones to hear some of the signs Tubert performs (snaps, claps, etc.)
Just launched on Kickstarter: a gorgeous reproduction of the Golden Record that was included on the Voyager space probes when we shot them into space almost 40 years ago. The records contained images and sounds from Earth that some extraterrestrial civilization may someday view and listen to.
The Voyager Golden Record contains the story of Earth expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth’s greatest music from myriad cultures and eras, from Bach and Beethoven to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry, Senegalese percussion to Solomon Island panpipes. Dozens of natural sounds of our planet — birds, a train, a baby’s cry — are collaged into a lovely sound poem. There are spoken greetings in 55 human languages, and one whale language, and more than one hundred images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are.
This is so cool. When I was doing the packages with Quarterly, one of the ideas I had on my list was to replicate the Golden Record. The production values would have been a lot more limited than this effort and the rights issue is ultimately why I never pursued it:
The overwhelming majority of the funds raised from this historic reissue will go directly to the high production costs, licensing, and royalties incurred in creating this lavish box set.
See also the Contents of the Voyager Golden Record and The sounds of Voyager’s Golden Record.
The series of Marvel movies — X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, etc. — is the highest grossing film series of all time but the films’ music is largely forgettable and bland in a way that it isn’t in Star Wars, James Bond, or Harry Potter. In this video, the Every Frame a Painting gang explores why that is: partially a trend toward movie music not designed to be noticed and also the use by directors of temporary music that unduly influences the final score. All the Marvel movies run together for me (aside from Guardians of the Galaxy, which had distinctive music in it, I can’t recall a single scene from any one of the more recent films) and perhaps the music is one reason.
There’s a follow-up video to the one above composed of clips of movies played with their temp music followed by the same clips with the final music, which is nearly identical.
They’ve also started a Twitter account highlighting the influence of temp music on final scores.
These videos have me wondering…was Carter Burwell’s score for Carol influenced by temp music, specifically Philip Glass’ score for The Hours? This interview in Rolling Stone and the FAQ on his site suggest not:
It’s his ability to make music that compliments a scene rather than eclipse it that has made him an invaluable creative partner to filmmakers who work in such intense melodramatic registers, and Burwell is emphatic that his scores aren’t responsible for all of the emotional heavy-lifting. “As a listener, I do not like being instructed,” he says, emphatically. “It riles me when the music tells me something before I can figure it out for myself. In fact, I enjoy the discomfort of not being sure how to take something.” It’s the reason why he loathes listening to the temp music that directors often attach to rough cuts in order to point composers in the right direction.
But the similarities are there, so who knows?
Update: I forgot to mention that Stanley Kubrick ended up ditching the original score written for 2001 and sticking with the temp music, which were the classical compositions by Strauss et al. that we’re so familiar with today.
Update: In a video response, Dan Golding shows how temp music is not a recent Hollywood obsession…even the famous Star Wars theme was greatly influenced by temp music:
He questions that the pull of temp music by contemporary directors and composers is sufficient to explain why movie music is now so uninspiring:
Film music is an embrace of rampant unoriginality, and to think about how film music works, we need to think of new ways to talk about these questions, rather than just saying, “it’s a copy”.
Golding pins the blame primarily on technology but also on composers and filmmakers drawing from fewer and less diverse sources. Interestingly, this latter point was also made by Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou in a recent chat with Anil Dash, albeit about originality in video essays. A lightly edited excerpt:
My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art.
If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off but it was someone 50 years ago. It rejuvenated the field to be reminded of the history of our medium. And I sincerely wish more video essayists would rip off the other great film essayists: Chris Marker, Godard, Agnès Varda, Thom Andersen. Or even rip off non-video essayists. I would kill to see someone make video essays the way Pauline Kael wrote criticism. That would be my jam!
ps. Also! Hans Zimmer — composer of film scores for Gladiator, Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight, etc. — was the keyboard player in the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star music video. WHAT?!
This is fun: the Ramsophone is a music box you can play around with on the web. Push buttons to make it do stuff and refresh for a new box that sounds/works differently. Design inspired by Dieter Rams and music inspired by the Stranger Things theme.
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.
This is a video of Nirvana playing Smells Like Teen Spirit in a small club just two days after Nevermind came out in 1991. There’s a freight train bearing down on those boys and they don’t even know it. (via digg)
See also The Notorious B.I.G. freestyling on a Brooklyn corner at 17 and LL Cool J plays to a mostly empty gymnasium in Maine…he was also just 17.
Update: And here’s 40+ minutes from the same show at which they played Drain You, Polly, and Breed. (via @fimoculous)
Beyonce performed a 15-minute medley of songs from Lemonade Sunday night at the MTV Video Music Awards. Whether you didn’t catch it the first time around or have seen it 20 times, it’s worth watching with your full attention. This is Exhibit A in How to Be a Performer in 2016. Masterful.
BTW, have we talked about how unprecedentedly great Beyonce is? After four years with Destiny’s Child, she’s 14 years into her solo recording career and Lemonade is her sixth solo studio album. And it’s her best album…as was the album before that when it came out. She’s always been a wonderful singer and entertainer, but with the last three albums, she’s pushed her output toward the artistic (very successfully, I would say). How many other musical artists, bands, or groups who met early massive success are making their best stuff 14 years and 6 albums in? The list is not long. The Beatles. Radiohead (both In Rainbows and A Moon Shaped Pool are among their very best albums). The Rolling Stones? Who else? Even if there are a few others on the list, it’s still rarified company.
See also this list of iconic VMA moments.
Patrick Metzger noticed that a huge number of pop songs from the past few years use a musical trope that Metzger has dubbed The Millennial Whoop. The video above contains a number of examples. Warning: once you hear it, you will perhaps not be able to enjoy listening to pop music without noticing it.1
I like to call this melodic snippet the “Millennial Whoop.” It’s a sequence of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth. The rhythm is usually straight 8th-notes, but it may start on the downbeat or on the upbeat in different songs. A singer usually belts these notes with an “Oh” phoneme, often in a “Wa-oh-wa-oh” pattern. And it is in so many pop songs it’s criminal.
Some prominent Millennial Whoop songs include Katy Perry’s California Gurls, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Good Time, and even The Mother We Share by Chvrches.
Speaking of DJ Shadow, his 2-hour Essential Mix that aired in early July is really hitting the spot right now.
This video for Nobody Speak by DJ Shadow feat. Run The Jewels is one of the best music videos I’ve seen in a long time.
Says DJ Shadow: “We wanted to make a positive, life-affirming video that captures politicians at their election-year best. We got this instead.”
Says Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike: “It’s such a dope video. It’s what I really wish Trump and Hillary would just do and get it over with…And even in that fight I think Hillary would win — and that’s not an endorsement.”
The album is one of my faves so far…you get listen to it here or here.
The Playlist has compiled a list of the top film scores of the 21st century (so far).1 Tron: Legacy should be much higher than #49…it is perhaps my favorite Daft Punk album. And I don’t know how they left Philip Glass’ fantastic score for The Hours off. Glad to see Upstream Color, There Will Be Blood, and Requiem for a Dream so high on the list though.
I love film scores — I listen to them while I work — so here are a few of my favorites that are available on Spotify:
Not available on Spotify but worth seeking out elsewhere: The Fog of War, Sunshine, and Her.
Jamie xx keeps a playlist on Spotify of the tracks he plays in clubs and on the radio. It’s currently 15 hours long and very entertaining. That’s today’s work playlist sorted then.
Frank Ocean dropped his long-awaited album the other day and to go along with it, he gave away a magazine called Boys Don’t Cry for free at four pop-up locations in LA, NYC, Chicago, and London. Kanye West contributed to the album and magazine, penning a poem about McDonald’s for the latter. Here’s the poem:
The French fries had a plan
The French fries had a plan
The salad bar and the ketchup made a band
Cus the French Fries had a plan
The French fries had a plan
I know them French fries have a plan
I know them French fries have a plan
The cheeseburger and the shakes formed a band
To overthrow the French fries plan
I always knew them French fries was evil man
Smelling all good and shit
I don’t trust no food that smells that good man
I don’t trust it
I just can’t
Them French fries look good tho
I knew the Diet Coke was jealous of the fries
I knew the McNuggets was jealous of the fries
Even the McRib was jealous of the fries
I could see it through his artificial meat eyes
And he only be there some of the time
Everybody was jealous of them French fries
Except for that one special guy
That smooth apple pie
Man, I can’t help but like Kanye. Just when you think he takes himself way too seriously, he does something like this and you can’t tell if he’s taking himself way WAY too seriously or not seriously at all. McDonald’s, man. Kanye drawing courtesy of Chris Piascik. (via @gavinpurcell)
Ah, my Friday is off to a bit of a rough start, but a phone chat with a friend and the soundtrack for Halt and Catch Fire dropping on Spotify is patching things up nicely.
P.S. Season 3 starts on Aug 23rd. Here’s a clip from the new season:
And another one. I am excite. (via @aaroncoleman0)
I don’t have a PS4 or Windows machine, so I can’t play No Man’s Sky (which seems to deliver on the long-ago promise of Will Wright’s Spore), but through the magic1 of Spotify, I was listening to the soundtrack this morning.
Other video game soundtracks I enjoy include Monument Valley and FTL.
Update: See also Robin Sloan on the appeal of No Man’s Sky and how it is like reading.
A compilation of all the unusual noises — henh! hwuah! masanoonaa! eescrong! — Kanye West makes in his songs.
At the EyeO Festival in June, Anil Dash did a talk about Prince, “immigration & migration, artistry & technology, grave injustices & profound triumphs”. The talk is an examination of the past century of American history through the lens of Dash’s family history and one of the world’s greatest artists…well worth the 55 minutes it takes to watch.
Like many of you, I have been watching Stranger Things on Netflix. My 80s movie fixations tilted towards the War Games/Explorers/Goonies end of the spectrum rather than the supernatural/horror/Steven King end so I’m not obsessed, but I am definitely enjoying it. You can watch the first 8 minutes of the show to judge for yourself.
But I love the opening credits, especially the music. (Both remind me of the opening credits for Halt and Catch Fire.) The title song was composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, members of Austin synth band Survive. Someone did a 10-minute extended version of the song and put it up on Soundcloud:
Currently on repeat for the last hour with no sign of stopping. You may also be interested in a pair of playlists featuring music from the show:
What else? Here’s a deep dive into the font used for the opening credits (which was also used for the Choose Your Own Adventure books back in the 80s). Alissa Walker wrote about the free-range children on display in ST, something that also grabbed my attention. When I was a kid, I rode my bike everywhere. On summer weekends, I typically ate breakfast at my house and was gone until dinnertime. My parents had no clue where I was or what I was up to…and none of my classmates’ parents did either.
Update: Garrett Shane Bryant made a 50-track playlist of songs that sound like the score of the show. Outstanding. (via @dozens)
Update: From the NY Times, The ‘Stranger Things’ School of Parenting.
Still, “Stranger Things” is a reminder of a kind of unstructured childhood wandering that — because of all the cellphones, the fear of child molesters, a move toward more involved parenting or a combination of all three — seems less possible than it once was.
The show’s references to beloved films of the ’80s have been much remarked upon, but “Stranger Things” also calls to mind all those books and TV shows — from “The Chronicles of Narnia” to “Muppet Babies” — where parents are either absent or pushed into the background.
These stories let children imagine breaking the rules, but they also allow them to picture themselves solving mysteries or hunting down monsters all on their own. Often it’s only when the parents aren’t watching that a child can become a hero.
Update: The official soundtrack for the show is available on iTunes. It’s the score though, not the classic 80s tunes.
Update: Vox spoke to a creative director at Imaginary Forces about their process for designing the opening titles.
Update: And the score is now available on Spotify. This is my working music for the day.
Until their first show at Madison Square Garden in NYC last week, Radiohead hadn’t played Let Down off of OK Computer in concert since 2006. I was lucky enough to be in attendance and some collective shit was lost over this, I tell you what. They’ve since played it at all three of their subsequent shows. (They’ve also played Creep twice in the past week, which is also rare.)
Here’s the full set list from that night, which is mainly just for me in 28 years when this is the last remaining page on the internet with this info.
Burn the Witch
Desert Island Disk
The National Anthem
Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
2 + 2 = 5
Everything in Its Right Place
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Update: Here’s a video from when they played it in 2006 in Wolverhampton:
On a recent episode of Song Exploder (the podcast where musicians dissect their songs), host Hrishikesh Hirway talks to Grimes about how she made Kill V. Maim for her latest album, Art Angels, which is one of my favorite albums from the past year.
To determine which words are the most “metal”, this data scientist wrote a program to sift through more than 22,000 albums to find the words most frequently used in heavy metal songs compared to their use in standard English. “Burn” is the most metal word, followed by “cries”, “veins”, “eternity”, “breathe”, and “beast”. The least metal words?
If you were to run an analysis on what I’ve written at kottke.org, I doubt it would be particularly metal. \m/
From Jamie xx’s In Colour. Directed by Romain Gavras. Best at fullscreen with headphones.