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kottke.org posts about music

Measuring the Popularity of the Falsetto in Pop Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

A Fresh Guide To Florence With Fab 5 Freddy

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2019

Music pioneer Fab 5 Freddy is most well-known for hosting the seminal Yo! MTV Raps, but his earliest public attention came because of his art.

In the late 1970s, Freddy became a member of the Brooklyn-based graffiti group the Fabulous 5, known for painting the entire side of New York City Subway cars. Along with other Fabulous 5 member Lee Quiñones, under his direction they began to shift from street graffiti to transition into the art world and in 1979 they both exhibited in a prestigious gallery in Rome Italy, Galleria LaMedusa. In 1980, he painted a subway train with cartoon style depictions of giant Campbell’s Soup cans, after Andy Warhol.

Freddy is back on the art scene as the host of a BBC2 documentary, A Fresh Guide To Florence With Fab 5 Freddy.

Hip hop pioneer Fred Brathwaite — aka Fab 5 Freddy — goes on a quest to uncover the hidden black figures of Italian Renaissance art. “Not only were Renaissance artists making art that defined high aesthetic ideals, but they were also groundbreaking in showing an ethnically diverse, racially mixed Italy in the 15th and 16th century. You just have to look at the art.”

Pairing a hip hop legend with Renaissance art might seem like a bit of a stretch, but NYC in the 70s and 80s was a place that a curious kid could get into all sorts of things: hip hop, graffiti, and Caravaggio.

“When I was a kid,” he says, “I would cut school to travel around Manhattan museums.” The Metropolitan was his favourite because of its lax entry policy. “I would show up and toss a nickel in the admissions box then spend a day in fantasy land, going from English armour to Renaissance paintings, pop art to expressionism.”

It was an unusual interest, not one he could share with “the kids on the corner from the hood”. But it sparked his own artistic career as a subway graffiti artist and led to a lasting bond with Basquiat, who he met as a teenager. “He would spend a lot of his childhood at the Brooklyn Museum just as I did at the Met,” he says. “Finally, there was someone I could talk to about Caravaggio and Rothko. We were both so impressed with the radical nature of modernist manifestos like futurism. They gave us — two young, black kids — the capacity to articulate what we wanted to say.”

There doesn’t seem to be a trailer or any clips available online and I don’t know if this will be released in the US at all, but I would love to see this show up on Netflix or Amazon at some point.

See also Susan Orlean’s 1991 profile of Fab 5 Freddy for the New Yorker.

One 8-Second Sample Yields 800 Radically Different Songs

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2019

Last year, music software company Ableton gave music producers a challenge: take an 8-second sample of audio and make a track out of it in just 12 hours. They received almost 800 submissions, which you can listen to here. At the company’s conference, three producers working under the same conditions debuted their tracks onstage and talked about their creative process; here’s a highlight reel:

Included in a blog post about the challenge are several playlists that show the common approaches to sampling, including the use of acoustic instruments, using the sample as texture, and of course using the sample as percussion.

While listening back to this huge volume of material we noticed something interesting; above and beyond each track’s individual sound and overall character, we were able to make out a few trends and tendencies in the ways that people were working with the source material. And so we’ve assembled a few playlists with prime examples of some of the main approaches we were hearing.

You can watch the entire panel here. And if you’d like to try your hand at making your own, the sample can be found here. (via digg)

Sony’s Proto-Walkman that Went to the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2019

50 years ago, the Sony TC-50 cassette player and recorder accompanied the Apollo 11 crew to the Moon and back. (Here’s what they listened to.) Ten years later, the company came out with the Walkman, the first portable cassette player that struck a chord with consumers. In this video, Mat of Techmoan shows us the TC-50 and shows how similar it is to the later Walkman. I found this video via Daring Fireball, where John Gruber remarked on the iterative nature of design: “You get to a breakthrough like the original iPhone one step at a time.”

Disco’s Revenge: the Birth of House Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

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

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

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

Relax to the Sounds of Tibetan Singing Bowl Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 17, 2019

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but if you’re in need of some relaxing sounds, a meditative moment, or a chill work soundtrack, I recommend this 71-minute video of Tibetan singing bowl music.

See also Hours and Hours of Relaxing & Meditative Videos.

A Demonstration of 16 Levels of Piano Playing Complexity

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2019

Watch, listen, and learn as pianist and composer Nahre Sol plays what you might think of as a very simple song, Happy Birthday, in 16 increasing levels of complexity. She starts out using a single finger and ends by playing an original composition that seemingly requires 12 or 13 fingers to play. This gave me, a musical dunce, a tiny glimpse into what a composer does.

Sol has a popular YouTube channel where she posts videos of her musical explorations, including Improvising in the Style of Different Classical Composers and The Blues, As Digested by a Classical Musician. (via open culture)

Christopher Walken Can Dance

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2019

This is an older clip so maybe you’ve seen it before, but if you need something a little bit fun & joyful today, you can’t do much better than this video of Christopher Walken dancing in dozens of his movies, edited together to C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat”.

Walken is, of course, a wonderful dancer…a throwback to the “Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, dance on air” era of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. See also Walken dancing in Spike Jonze’s video for Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice.

The Forgotten Women Pioneers of Rock & Roll

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2019

Women in Rock & Roll’s First Wave is a project by Leah Branstetter that uncovers and highlights the women who pioneered rock & roll in the 50s.

For sixty years, conventional wisdom has told us that women generally did not perform rock and roll during the 1950s.

In every decade, you can find someone commenting on the absence of women on the charts during rock and roll’s heyday. Others note that women during that era were typically not so inclined to a wild, raucous style.

The reality is, however, that hundreds — or maybe thousands — of women and girls performed and recorded rock and roll in its early years.

And many more participated in other ways: writing songs, owning or working for record labels, working as session or touring musicians, designing stage wear, dancing, or managing talent — to give just a few examples.

Meet, for instance, Laura Lee Perkins.

Perkins cut several sides there, where she was backed by the same band that accompanied Ricky Nelson (she was thrilled that she also got to meet Nelson). The label did some publicity for her — though they appeared to have listed her under several different stage names — and apparently tried to bill her as the “female Jerry Lee Lewis” because of her skill at the piano. Perkins returned to Cleveland, where she had difficulty promoting her recordings. She recalls that being single and working as a waitress, she couldn’t muster the payola required to break through in some markets. She would play record hops where she would lip sync to her Imperial sides. Some of the other acts at the hops she played included Connie Francis, the Everly Brothers, and Fabian.

And Ruth Brown:

Ruth Brown

Brown’s success for Atlantic was such that the label has famously been called “the House that Ruth Built.” She would eventually cut more than one hundred sides for the label. Initially, Brown recorded mainly ballads and jazz standards. Her first #1 R&B hit, “Teardrops from My Eyes,” marked a firm turn in her style toward the “hot” rhythmic style for which she became famous. Hits including “5-10-15 Hours” (1952) and “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953) are arguably among the first of the rock and roll era. Her first major crossover success came with “Lucky Lips” (1957), which made it to the Billboard Top 100 list. She recalls in her autobiography that the success of that song plus her involvement with rock and roll “supershows” such as Alan Freed’s was that “I sang ‘Lucky Lips’ seven times in one day. And nothing else! It was a fiasco, a rock ‘n’ roll circus, but it was a huge business.”

And absolutely do not miss this Spotify playlist compiled by Branstetter: Women in Rock & Roll’s First Wave Sampler.

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2019

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

The Otherworldly Sounds of a Giant Gong

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2019

Listen in as “Gong Master Sven” plays a gong that’s 7 feet across. (No seriously, listen…it’s wild. Headphones recommended.)

Ok, show of hands. How many of you of thought it was going to sound like that? I had no idea! He barely hits it! The whole thing sounded like a horror movie soundtrack or slowed-down pop songs. Here’s another demonstration, with some slightly harder hits:

The Memphis Gong Chamber looks like an amazing place. Watching this on YouTube, we’re missing out on a lot of the low-end sounds:

And if you were actually standing here like I am, you can feel all your internal organs being massaged by the vibrations from this. It’s really quite the experience.

This guy drags some objects over a large gong and it sounds like whale song:

Ok well, there’s a new item for the bucket list. (via @tedgioia)

My Recent Media Diet, Summer Solstice 2019 Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2019

I keep track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month. I just started reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson; I loved his The Devil in the White City. On the TV front, I’m holding off on season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale and season 2 of Big Little Lies for some reason…don’t want to get sucked into anything right now, I guess. Ditto for catching up on the Historical Cinematic Universe…just not feeling it at the moment. As always, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades…they’re higher in the summer than in the cold, depressing winter.

Deadwood: The Movie. A fitting end to one of the best shows on TV. It was great to be able to spend a little more time with it. (A-)

Booksmart. I loved this movie. Great soundtrack too. (A)

Thermapen Mk4. Finally got tired of my anxiety about overcooking my meat. Been using it with the reverse sear to great effect. (B+)

Serial season 3. I couldn’t make it through more than two episodes of each of the previous two seasons, but I went the distance on this one. Is the American system of justice just? I doubt it. (A-)

Working by Robert Caro. The DVD extras for The Power Broker and the LBJ books. I don’t have time to read a 3000-page biography of Lyndon Johnson right now, but Working made me want to do it anyway. (A-)

Persuasion System. The latest album from Com Truise. Great for working to. (B+)

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. An idiosyncratic and deeply personal little museum. I felt very much at home there. (A)

Small Steps, Giant Leaps. Apollo 11 artifacts paired with historic scientific tomes from the likes of Galileo & Newton go together like chocolate and peanut butter. (A-)

Mary Queen of Scots. Nothing much here to distinguish this from your usual historical drama. (B)

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris. Great show at the MFA. Was not a particular fan of Toulouse-Lautrec before but perhaps I am now. (A-)

Street Food. Interesting to compare this to David Gelb’s other show, Chef’s Table. Same focus on quality ingredients and serving great food, but very different ends of the economic spectrum. (B+)

Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Caught the peak of the cherry blossoms. Beautiful. But crowded. (A-)

Salt Fat Acid Heat. This wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I can see what other people love about it. The final episode is the strongest and I thought Nosrat’s emphasis on shopping as a vital part of cooking was interesting. (B)

Summer in Vermont. It’s been spectacular here lately. (A)

Normal People by Sally Rooney. I burned through this in only two days. (A)

Cumulonimbus Mammatus

Cumulonimbus mammatus. They’re no asperitas clouds, but cumulonimbus mammatus is still one of the best clouds around. (A)

The Ezra Klein Show interview with Alison Gopnik. Gopnik’s ideas about gardeners vs carpenters and explore vs exploit are fascinating frameworks for thinking about human creativity. (A-)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It’s tough to maintain a coherent story told over several generations, but Lee manages it easily. (A-)

No Country for Old Men. Masterful. (A)

Chernobyl. Sometimes bureaucracy is no match for the truth. See also the accompanying podcast. (A-)

The Lives of Others. Got on a bit of a Cold War kick. (A-)

Always Be My Maybe. Strong ending. (B+)

Toy Story 4. Hollywood is often accused of being super liberal, but I thought the values depicted in this movie were quite conservative. (B+)

Anima. Thom Yorke’s solid third solo album. (B+)

13 Minutes to the Moon. There’s lots of Apollo stuff out there right now and some of it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But this podcast from the BBC is substantial, with interviews from key players, including Apollo software engineer Margaret Hamilton, who doesn’t give many interviews these days. (A-)

Bad Times at the El Royale. Rhymes with Tarantino but not that well. This should have been 90 minutes long. (B-)

Long Shot. Why did this flop? It’s not exactly great but it works fine. (B)

Whitney Biennial 2019. Things that caught my eye were Christine Sun Kim’s hand-drawn graphs about “deaf rage” and Jeanette Mundt’s paintings of Olympic gymnasts based on these composite photos in the NY Times. (B)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Daft Punk Live DJ Sets from the 90s

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2019

From the Flow State newsletter — “every weekday, we send out two hours of music that’s perfect for working” — comes a collection of live DJ sets that Daft Punk did in the 90s.

Aside from being masterclasses in DJing, these sets feature a bunch of classic house tracks from pioneers like DJ Deeon, DJ Sneak, Todd Edwards, and Giorgio Moroder. What’s amazing is that these performances happened over 20 years ago, but sound like they could be from last week.

Here’s the playlist for their Headbangers Ball set in 1998 and their Cameo Theatre set in Miami in 1999. I also found additional sets from 1995 and 1997:

And then there’s this: a two-hour mix of songs by artists that influenced Daft Punk’s seminal Homework album.

That should keep you rolling right into the late afternoon.

Two-Hour Mixtape from Boards of Canada

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2019

Boards of Canada haven’t released an album since 2013 so this is a welcome development: a two-hour mixtape by the duo that appears to feature new music from them sprinkled throughout:

You can also listen on YouTube. (via why is this interesting?)

Art Zoom

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2019

Google Arts & Culture, with expertise from music video geniuses La Blogothèque, have produced a series of videos they’re calling Art Zoom. Inspired a bit by ASMR, the videos feature musicians talking about famous artworks while they zoom in & out of high-res images taken with Google’s Art Camera. Here, start with Maggie Rogers talking about Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night:

You can zoom into Starry Night yourself and get even closer than this:

Starry Night Closeup

The other two videos in the series feature Jarvis Coker talking about Monet’s La Gare Saint Lazare and Feist talking about The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Sesame Street Tiny Desk Concert

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2019

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, the Sesame Street gang dropped by NPR for one of their Tiny Desk Concerts. They sang the theme song, People In Your Neighborhood, and four other tunes.

See also this new six-part Jim Henson documentary. Oh and Philip Glass on Sesame Street.

That’s My Jazz

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

That’s My Jazz is a short documentary by Ben Proudfoot about world class pastry chef Milton Abel II, who reminisces about his father, Milton Abel Sr., a world class Kansas City jazz musician. The film is a tender and moving rumination on their relationship and the balance between achieving greatness in the world and being present in the lives of your loved ones.

Rather Than Pay Ransom, Radiohead Puts Stolen Music Up for Sale

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2019

OK Minidisc

According to Jonny Greenwood, someone stole Thom Yorke’s “minidisk archive” recorded around the time of OK Computer, the album that propelled Radiohead into the stratosphere. The thieves demanded a ransom of $150K, the band didn’t pay up, and the audio leaked onto the web. Instead of fighting the pirates and leakers, the band put all 18 hours of the archive up for sale on Bandcamp with the proceeds going to Extinction Rebellion.

as it’s out there
it may as well be out there
until we all get bored
and move on

Here is a detailed FAQ and timestamps for all the songs & snippets in the archive — “holy grail” tracks are marked with a star. On Bandcamp, Tanner Gallella describes the release:

Rarely is the artist’s process presented in such an unfiltered, uncompromising way — especially at this strata of musicianship. Polished mixes are juxtaposed against takes recorded in bathrooms; landmark tracks against distorted noise. A unique and delightful insight into a band in the middle of writing their masterwork.

My Radiohead fandom stops just short of listening to 18 hours of Thom Yorke recording music in bathrooms, but this is certainly a trove for superfans and those interested in the musical process of one of the world’s biggest bands.

Prince Archivist Michael Howe Discusses “Originals”

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 07, 2019

When word came out shortly after Prince’s death that his estate was looking for an archivist, I briefly imagined the position to be like a Prince librarian: documenting papers, facilitating research, etc. Now, maybe some of that stuff is also happening, but the main job of Prince’s archivist Michael Howe so far seems to be facilitating new musical releases from the huge amount of recorded material from over four decades that Prince left at the time of his death. Which is understandable, if less exciting to a nerd like me.

Schkopi.com has an interview with Howe, discussing the forthcoming release of “Originals,” an album of demo material and other recordings of Prince’s original songs which were first officially released as covers by other artists. It’s in French, but there’s some good stuff in there about the process of selecting songs for release, narrowing the album’s focus to concentrate on the 1980s, and dealing with the fact that these songs have been circulating as bootlegs among Prince superfans for years.

Here’s a short section, translated pretty capably by Google Chrome:

We decided to release this record because we think it is of quality and that Prince would have been proud of it. Our primary goal is to release albums that honor his work, and complete his official discography. We want to come out with the values of respect we owe him and the integrity that was his. Open all valves would not be a responsible act and would not meet these requirements. And even if we wanted to do it, there are so many contractual, legal and legal restrictions with the different labels that would condition what could come out, how and when. It is not that simple. We can not say “oh yes, here’s a good idea, let’s do it”.

We know that Prince was very prolific in the 80s and that many songs of this era are in the trunk. The number of unpublished songs found on the net for the following years is gradually decreasing. Was he just as prolific in the studio in the second half of the 90s and the 2000s?

He did not stop working throughout his career and he was extremely prolific during those 40 years. Even during the last third of his life, and if it was not with the same frequency, he was in the same state of mind as in the 80s and 90s.

Hence the likelihood of more archival releases to come.

Hot Wheels Xylophone

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2019

These YouTube goofballs built a xylophone that’s playable with die-cast cars.

Let’s play musical cars, shall we? A total of 374 black-and-white ‘65 Ford Mustangs hit some black-and-white xylophone keys to play the world’s first die-cast song.

Hot Wheels Xylophone would be a great band name too. (via bb)

Still Ill: 25 Years of the Beastie Boys

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2019

Still Ill is a short documentary about the Beastie Boys’ career from approximately Paul’s Boutique to Ill Communication.

The 15-minute documentary tracks the Beastie Boys’ rejuvenation in the years after the release of 1989’s Paul’s Boutique — now considered a masterpiece but at the time a commercial flop — first with 1992’s Check Your Head and ultimately with Ill Communication, which produced the epic single and music video “Sabotage” and returned them to playing arenas.

Featuring interviews with Diamond and Horovitz from this March in Austin, Texas — as well as new interviews with keyboardist Mark “Money Mark” Nishita and producer Mario Caldato and rarely-seen 1990s footage of the band - Still Ill focuses heavily on late Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch and his contributions to Ill Communication. Through footage and the words of his friends, the documentary captures Yauch’s journey into activism, which would blossom with the Tibetan Freedom Concerts later in the decade, as well as his famous denunciation of misogyny in hip-hop on the single “Sure Shot”: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”

If you’re an Amazon Prime member or subscriber to Amazon Music, you can listen to a 40-minute mix of commentary from Mike D and Ad-Rock about Ill Communication and songs from the album.

My Recent Media Diet, The “It’s Not Life or Death, It’s Just Tacos” Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2019

I keep track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two months. I never wrote a proper report on my trip to Mexico City, so I put some of the highlights in here. I’m in the middle of several things right now. On TV, I’m watching Our Planet, In Search of Greatness, Street Food, Chernobyl, The Clinton Affair, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, and This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy. I don’t normally watch 19 different things at one time, but life’s felt a little scattered lately. For books, I’m listening to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond on audiobook and I’m making good progress on Robert Caro’s Working (highly recommended).

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. Hard to summarize but there’s certainly something interesting on almost every page. (A-)

Fleabag. Bitingly funny and poignant, a real gem. (A+)

Skyscraper. Die Hard + the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia + #sponcon for Big Duct Tape. I love a good disaster movie. (B+)

Mexico City. Great food, vegetation everywhere, beautiful architecture, culturally fascinating, super walkable/bikeable/scooterable. I am definitely visiting here again as soon as I can. (A)

Puyol Taco Omakase. Delicious & fun & a great experience, but I’m not sure the food was obviously so much better than some of the best street food I had in Mexico City. I had this same experience in Bangkok years ago…street food is tough to beat when there’s a thriving culture of markets, carts, and stalls. (B+)

The National Museum of Anthropology. One of my new favorite museums in the world. The only thing possibly more impressive than the collection is the architecture of the building. (A+)

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacán. I had high hopes for this archeological site and I was still blown away by it. (A+)

AirPods. This is my favorite gadget in years, the first real VR/AR device that feels seamless (and not like a Segway for your face). The freedom of wireless headphones feels similar to when I first used a laptop, wifi, and dockless bike share. (A+)

Homecoming. So many things to love about this, but one of my favorites is the shots of the audience watching Beyoncé and the rare moments when she watches them back: “I see you.” And also the way they put a cohesive show together while showcasing individual talents and styles. (A-)

Homecoming: The Live Album. Come on, a marching band playing Beyoncé hits? That this works so well is a small miracle. (A-)

Avengers: Endgame. I liked but didn’t love it. It was like the ST:TNG finale and the Six Feet Under finale mashed together and not done as well. It also seemed too predictable. (B)

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now that the Thanos narrative arc is complete, this is an underrated installment. (B+)

Casa Luis Barragán. This was like being in someone’s creative mind. The layering of the garden reminded me of Disney’s use of the multiplane camera in the forest scene in Bambi. (B+)

Gelatin Sincronizada Gelitin (NSFW). I was skeptical of this art performance at first — a bunch of half-naked people painting on a moving canvas using paintbrushes coming out of their butts — but it ended up being a really cool thing to experience. (B+)

Game of Thrones. I’m not quite as critical of the final season as everyone else seems to be. Still, it seems like since the show left the cozy confines of George RR Martin’s books, it has struggled at times. (B+)

Wandering Earth. Based on the short story by Liu Cixin (author of the Three Body Problem trilogy), this disaster movie is a little uneven at the start but finishes strong. (B)

Halt and Catch Fire Vol 2. The music was one of the many great things about this show. (A-)

Running from COPS. A podcast about how media and law enforcement in America intersect to great and terrible effect. (B+)

Eating bugs. I tasted crickets, grasshoppers, and grubs at the market: mostly just salty. I had beef tartare and guacamole with grasshoppers on it. They added a nice crunch to the guac. Wouldn’t exactly go out of the way for them, but they weren’t bad. (B)

Panaderia Rosetta. Did I have one of the best pain au chocolat I’ve ever had here? Yes. Yes, I did. Also extremely delicious: everything else I tried. (A-)

Against the Rules. A podcast from Michael Lewis about what’s happening to the concept of fairness in America. The episode about Salvator Mundi, the supposed Leonardo masterpiece, is particularly interesting. (A-)

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. I have a new appreciation of how much Tolkien did in creating his books: writing, map making, world building, art, constructing languages. (B+)

Frida Kahlo’s Blue House. A striking house with a lush courtyard, but the highlight was seeing Kahlo’s work area much the way she left it when she died. (B+)

Street Food Essentials by Club Tengo Hambre. Mexico City is a huge place with so much to do that I wanted to hit the ground running right away, so I booked this street food tour. Definitely a good idea. We sampled so many different kinds of tacos & gorditas & quesadillas that I lost count. Highlights: huitlacoche quesadillas, al pastor tacos, fresh Oaxaca cheese at the Mercado de San Juan, and the blue corn masa used to make tlacoyos at one of our last stops — probably the best tortilla I’ve ever eaten. (A-)

The Matrix. This came out 20 years ago. I watched it with my 11-yo son the other day and he thought the special effects “held up pretty well”. (A)

Electric scooters. I used the Lime dockless electric scooters for the first time when I was in Mexico City and I loved experience. Easier than a bike and a fun & fast way to get around the city. Cons: the combo of the speed & small wheels can be dangerous and cities generally don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate them yet. (B+)

Paprika. Inventive and visually dazzling. Purportedly an influence on Christopher Nolan’s Inception. (B+)

Oh and just because, here’s a photo I took recently in my backyard that makes it seem like I live in Narnia or The Shire:

Ollie Shed

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Philip Glass on Soul Train

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2019

It turns out that the fourth track off of Philip Glass’ soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi matches up pretty well to the dancers in this clip from Soul Train.

I don’t know whether to like this or hate it. Actually, I think I love it. See also Soul Train dancers backed by Daft Punk. (via @tedgioia)

The Beginning of Recorded Sound

posted by Tim Carmody   May 03, 2019

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Centuries of Sound is a podcast that creates mixtapes by year. So far, that’s pretty standard. The main difference is that CoS’s mixtapes begin in 1853.

That’s as early as we’ve been able to recover recorded audio, mostly from technology that did not work particularly well at the time. The technology of the 1850s recorded sound, but couldn’t reliably reproduce it.

The real start date for us is nearly a quarter of a century [before Thomas Edison], in the studio of French printer and bookseller Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. The year was 1853 or 1854, and he was working on engravings for a physiology textbook, in particular a diagram of the internal workings of the human ear. What if, he thought, we could photograph sounds in the way we do images? (photography was a quarter-century old at this point) He began to sketch a device, a way of mimicking the inner workings of the human ear in order to make lines on a piece of paper.

I cover a plate of glass with an exceedingly thin stratum of lampblack. Above I fix an acoustic trumpet with a membrane the diameter of a five franc coin at its small end—the physiological tympanum (eardrum). At its center I affix a stylus—a boar’s bristle a centimeter or more in length, fine but suitably rigid. I carefully adjust the trumpet so the stylus barely grazes the lampblack. Then, as the glass plate slides horizontally in a well formed groove at a speed of one meter per second, one speaks in the vicinity of the trumpet’s opening, causing the membranes to vibrate and the stylus to trace figures.

Firstsounds.org did the most work in deciphering these early paper recordings, and that story is well told by the radio show Studio 360.

It even has a perfect name, what these people do: archeophony.

Here, then, is Centuries of Sound’s mix of all the recorded audio up to 1860 that they’ve been able to recreate from those early, not-at-the-time-reproducible pre-Edison audio signal recordings.

I wish I had known about this when I was still writing my dissertation (which was, in part, on paper and multimedia in the 1900s). It would have made many things much easier.

When Lost Recordings Get Found

posted by Tim Carmody   May 03, 2019

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Strictly speaking, there are plenty of live recordings of Iggy Pop playing with The Stooges. They’re just all bootlegs. And mostly, not very good ones.

Most vintage Stooges concert recordings sound too awful to interest more than hardcore fans, because incredible performances are sunk in a swamp of low fidelity. Adding insult to injury, all the horrible bootleg covers with cheap fonts make the band look like camp horror rock better at chest cutting than songwriting, which undermines the band’s legacy as visionary rock ‘n’ rollers who set trends for decades. As one fan’s friend put it while listening to a bootleg: “[W]hy does everything you have by Iggy Pop sound like it was recorded up someone’s ass?”

For Longreads (and it is a long read), Aaron Gilbreath writes about a lost live Iggy and the Stooges album that was contracted to be recorded in 1973. However, the label decided never to release the album — and may have never recorded the concert at all.

Gilbreath’s essay turns into a kind of meditation on lost albums: recordings hidden in the archives, that sometimes are rediscovered, and sometimes are never found.

A live 1957 recording of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk sat in the Library of Congress’s archives unnoticed for 48 years, before the library’s Magnetic Recording Laboratory supervisor Larry Appelbaum found it. For 60 years , Verve stored a live recording of Ella Fitzgerald performing at Zardi’s Jazzland in Hollywood, before releasing it in 2017 just after what would have been her 100th birthday. In 2017, a DJ and music historian named Amir Abdullah helped unearth a pristine radio broadcast of Charles Mingus playing a Detroit gallery in 1973. Reels containing previously unknown early live recordings of jazz guitar giant Wes Montgomery sat for decades in peoples’ houses, falling apart.

The demo cassettes for Jimi Hendrix’s Black Gold Suite album project, thought lost for decades, or possibly stolen, were simply sitting in drummer Mitch Mitchell’s house, sealed with Jimi’s headband.

I have less hope for this lost Stooges album, though. Too many people who were in a position to know suggest that it just never happened. Oh well. At least we’ve got bootlegs that were shoved up someone’s ass.

17-year-old Chance the Rapper Performing at a Public Library

posted by Jason Kottke   May 02, 2019

One of the places where Chance the Rapper got his start was at YOUmedia, a youth center at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. In this video, a 17-year-old Chance performs “Nostalgia”, a song that later appeared on his first mixtape. In this 2013 interview, Chance explained how performances like that helped him as an artist:

Another big launch pad for me was YOUmedia. YOUmedia is a sick ass spot. It’s downtown [Chicago] and it’s a youth center, but it’s a part of Harold Washington Library. The entire first floor, if you go to Harold Washington Library, there’s a sick-ass fucking student center, but it’s city funded. The majority of the dope, young artists that are in Chicago came out of that bitch. I came out of there, Vic Mensa, Nico from Kids These Days. So a lot of different people came out of there. You can learn music theory there, they have production software classes, you can take engineering classes, DJ classes.

“The big thing was the open mic. They used to have this open mic there every Wednesday that we would all go to, and it was from 5 to 7 every Wednesday. It would literally be 200 people in there and it was me performing. This was last year, when I was making #10Day. 200 people would come out to see us perform, 200 kids. The list would be super-fucking full, 30 kids trying to perform different poetry pieces, people coming up there footworking and breakdancing, doing standup, singing and rapping, just doing crazy shit.

“It was a really ill thing because it was smack in the center of downtown, so anybody from any school could come there because every train comes to the loop [downtown]. I met damn near all the producers on #10Day through this library. It was the spot. I’m too old now. I don’t go there anymore, but I used to literally go there until after I turned 18, for a minute.”

See also The Notorious B.I.G. freestyling on a corner in Bed-Stuy at 17, 17-year-old LL Cool J playing a Maine gymnasium, and the Beastie Boys rapping “Cookie Puss” in 1983 (when Ad-Rock was only 17).

How Disco Made Pop Songs Longer

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2019

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

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

Cultural Cartography

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2019

In 2017, BuzzFeed’s Publisher Dao Nguyen did a TED Talk about how the company thinks about producing content.

In it, she introduces a system BuzzFeed developed called cultural cartography.

The question I get most frequently is: How do you make something go viral? The question itself is misplaced; it’s not about the something. It’s about what the people doing the something, reading or watching — what are they thinking? Now, most media companies, when they think about metadata, they think about subjects or formats. It’s about goats, it’s about office pranks, it’s about food, it’s a list or a video or a quiz, it’s 2,000 words long, it’s 15 minutes long, it has 23 embedded tweets or 15 images. Now, that kind of metadata is mildly interesting, but it doesn’t actually get at what really matters. What if, instead of tagging what articles or videos are about, what if we asked: How is it helping our users do a real job in their lives?

Last year, we started a project to formally categorize our content in this way. We called it, “cultural cartography.” It formalized an informal practice that we’ve had for a really long time: don’t just think about the subject matter; think also about, and in fact, primarily about, the job that your content is doing for the reader or the viewer.

Here’s what BuzzFeed’s map of their users’ desires looks like:

Cultural Cartography

But as former BuzzFeed employee Matthew Perpetua notes in a post about pop star Lizzo, content can start to feel formulaic if, you know, you use an actual formula to produce it.

I can’t hear Lizzo’s music without recognizing her cultural cartography savvy. A lot of music can achieve these goals without contrivance, often just as a natural side effect of an artist intuitively making resonant work, but Lizzo’s songs all sound very calculated to me. This is not such a bad thing — her skill in expressing herself in relatable ways is a major talent, and I’ve worked with many people who have this natural skill and hold them in very high regard. (I’m much better at telling people who they are rather than asking you to identify with who I am.) Lizzo has a good voice, and her songs range from “pretty good” to “undeniable banger” but I have mixed feelings about all of it because I know the game being played rather well, and because I’m uncomfortable with this self-consciously audience-pleasing approach to content creation becoming the primary mode of pop culture.

All artists who produce work for a large audience (or aspire to) have a method like cultural cartography, though most likely much less formal and more intuitive than BuzzFeed’s system. Some artists are better than others in disguising their methods.

The Beautiful Ones, a Forthcoming Memoir From Prince

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2019

The Beautiful Ones

Before his death in 2016, Prince had begun work on a memoir about his wonderfully creative life. The Beautiful Ones, due out in October 2019, will incorporate the 50 hand-written pages the artist had completed before he died, along with other writings, personal photos, and handwritten lyric sheets.

The Beautiful Ones is the story of how Prince became Prince — a first-person account of a kid absorbing the world around him and then creating a persona, an artistic vision, and a life, before the hits and fame that would come to define him. The book is told in four parts. The first is composed of the memoir he was writing before his tragic death, pages that brings us into Prince’s childhood world through his own lyrical prose. The second part takes us into Prince’s early years as a musician, before his first album released, through a scrapbook of Prince’s writing and photos. The third section shows us Prince’s evolution through candid images that take us up to the cusp of his greatest achievement, which we see in the book’s fourth section: his original handwritten treatment for Purple Rain — the final stage in Prince’s self-creation, as he retells the autobiography we’ve seen in the first three parts as a heroic journey.

The book is being produced in partnership with his estate, which is also behind the forthcoming Netflix documentary series about Prince directed by Ava DuVernay.

The project has the full cooperation of the late artist’s estate, which is providing with interviews, archival footage, photos and archive access. The multiple-part documentary will cover the artist’s entire life.

The book and documentary sound similar…I wonder if they’ll share a title?

BeyoncĂ© Drops “Homecoming”, a Live Album of Her Coachella Performance

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2019

With a tweet at 3:20am this morning, Beyoncé announced her latest album, a 40-track live album of her acclaimed 2018 Coachella performance. You can listen to Homecoming right now on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon, YouTube, and Pandora.

The album is a complement to a Netflix film of the performance, also called Homecoming and also available today. Here’s the trailer for that:

After the Coachella performance last year, the NY Times’ music critic Jon Caramanica wrote:

Let’s just cut to the chase: There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night.

It was rich with history, potently political and visually grand. By turns uproarious, rowdy, and lush. A gobsmacking marvel of choreography and musical direction.