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kottke.org posts about music

Music and depression

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

Consuming media when you’re depressed is a delicate business. Too much emotion, too much novelty, too much engagement can be overwhelming. You want familiarity, but you don’t want to spiral into rumination on your own past. You want reassurance, you want escape, you want meaning and meaninglessness. You want something that can square the circle of proximity and distance when your own thoughts feel all too unfamiliar, yet too close.

For me, it’s doo-wop, and/or old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But writer Blair Thornburgh loves sea shanties, and she makes a compelling case for why they were so moving to her during her own depression.

In the shanties, there are gals: the gals o’ Dublin Town, the gals o’ Chile, New York gals, Spanish ladies, the girl in Portland Street, Maggie May, Lucy Long, Susiana Brown. There is food—salt beef, salt bread, oatcake, codfish—and (of course) there is drink: grog, rum, whiskey, lime juice, beer. There are ports in Quebec, Bonnie Scotland, South Australia, ‘Frisco Bay. There is longing, there is forward motion, there is purpose; a shore behind and a shore before.

But there is also endlessness, the futility of a horizon that spills wave over wave. A life adrift is the only life that can endure, one journey after another the only way to earn your keep. There is certainty without stability, there is solid ground only briefly under your feet. Then poor old Jack must understand / There’s ships in docks all wanting hands; / So he goes on board as he did before, / And bids adieu to his native shore. / For he is outward bound, hurrah, he is outward bound.

The language of depression can be curiously maritime. It comes in waves; it drowns us; it’s the Mariner’s albatross around our necks. We long for smooth sailing, for hope on the horizon, an even keel. And the summer I stopped taking Seroquel, my depression was a riptide. I could see the shimmering okayness of everything around me, all the way to the edge: I was employed, insured, well-fed, loved. And yet it was useless to me: I was either plunged into hopelessness, or dying slowly of thirst.

The artist who paints music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 26, 2018

Melissa McCracken

Melissa McCracken

Melissa McCracken

Melissa McCracken has synesthesia and experiences seeing the music she listens to as shifting colors. In an old artist statement, McCracken explained how she sees the world differently than many people:

Basically, my brain is cross-wired. I experience the “wrong” sensation to certain stimuli. Each letter and number is colored and the days of the year circle around my body as if they had a set point in space. But the most wonderful “brain malfunction” of all is seeing the music I hear. It flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements, shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song.

Great Big Story did a short video profile of McCracken a couple of years ago:

I like how she says she dislikes how some songs sound but likes how they look. What a cool way to be able to experience the world.

McCracken is a bit coy on her site and Instagram about which songs inspired which paintings, but the paintings above are titled Love Is Touching Souls (from a Joni Mitchell lyric), Life on Mars (David Bowie), and Wasn’t It Kind of Wonderful (lyrics from a Lianne La Havas song?).

My media diet for early Summer 2018, special roadtrip edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”,1 so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the two months or so. My summer has been a little slow, media-wise…the World Cup, my roadtrip, and time spent enjoying the outdoors have conspired to limit my reading and watching time. This is not a bad thing. I’m still working my way through The Odyssey w/ the kids (now on hold b/c they’re at camp) and David Christian’s Origin Story. I wanted to get way more reading done this summer than I have…maybe I can pick up the pace in August. (Ignore the letter grades. Or don’t!)

Solo: A Star Wars Story. The movie was fine, but I liked the branding for it more. I would watch an Enfys Nest movie though. (B)

The Dave Chang Show w/ Helen Rosner. Chang is an engaging interviewer, and Rosner is a great guest. (B+)

RBG. What an extraordinary person. (B+)

American Innovations. Engaging and informative podcast hosted by Steven Johnson. (B)

Ocean’s 8. Pretty good but would have benefitted from a slightly more clever plot and direction by Soderbergh. (B+)

ye. As I’ve heard from more than one person: I hate that I like this album. (B+)

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This book contains a valuable central message and several fascinating insights but the constant ad hominems, irrelevant tangents, stereotyping, and general antagonistic tone of the writing makes for tough reading. I wish Taleb were a more generous writer. (B)

Incredibles 2. A solid sequel. Kids gave it two thumbs up. (A-)

Everything is Love. Ok, “The Carters”, but they smartly made this a Beyoncé album feat. Jay-Z. This has been on heavy rotation in my car. (A-)

The Disaster Artist. Gave up on this about 30 minutes in…zero interest. (-)

Justice League. Not as terrible as I was led to believe. But maybe DC can trade Wonder Woman to Marvel? (C+)

Caliphate. Finished this…what a great and important series. I know a lot of people think Serial is the podcast gold standard, but this was better and more significant. (A)

Seabiscuit. This one always gets me right in the feels. (B+)

Scorpion. Kanye’s latest album is 23 minutes long while Drake went for a full 90 minutes. I know there’s some controversy about it, but it was genuinely great hearing new music from Michael Jackson. (B)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The remainder of the second season was brutal. (A-)

A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin. An epic story of adventure and discovery, expertly told. (A)

Sharp Objects. This one is a slow burn, but I will watch Amy Adams in anything…she is mesmerizing. (B+)

Star Trek: Voyager. Still making progress on this…I’m about 70% of the way through. It’s better in the middle seasons than a lot of people give it credit for. (B)

Solo roadtrips. The world is a fascinating place…get out and explore it if you can. (A+)

Pacific Rim Uprising. They could have done more with this, but they didn’t. They really didn’t. (C+)

The 2018 FIFA World Cup. I missed most of the knockout stage because I was traveling, but I still loved every minute of this World Cup. (A-)

Jaws. My first time seeing it. (Yes, yes, I know.) Amazing to see so many of Spielberg’s filmmaking techniques on display so early in his career. (A-)

Westworld. This show asks, over and over again, “Is any of this real?” The result is a complete inability on my part to suspend my disbelief…I’m always very aware that what I’m watching is fake. (C-)

Hot Fuzz. Will watch this anytime. (A-)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

  1. You probably dislike the use of the word “consume” when it comes to media. So do I. It conjures up an image of mindlessly feeding on things that talented and artistic people have worked hard on. (See also “media diet”.) But different forms of work have different verbs associated with them: TV shows & movies are watched, books are read, podcasts are listened to, theme parks are experienced. What one word works for all of those? Enjoyed? I surely don’t enjoy all the stuff I watch/listen to/watch/experience (see!!). Experienced? That suggests a passiveness that doesn’t apply to how I watch/read things. “Consumed” works, for better or worse. Does anyone have a better suggestion? I am ready to consume it…

What a musical conductor actually does on stage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2018

I love hearing people talk about how they work. In this quick video, conductor James Gaffigan explains what it is he does on stage and how different composers like Leonard Bernstein shape and enhance the performance of the musicians they’re leading.

If you’ve ever seen an orchestra perform you’ve probably had a difficult time looking away from the person dead center on the stage — the conductor. It’s hard to miss someone as they swing their arms around pointing at the musicians that seem to be focused instead on their music stands. So what exactly is the conductor doing?

An orchestral take on Ibiza club hits

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2018

Gosh, I don’t know what micro-fraction of regular readers are going to be interested in this, but I sure was! In 2015, DJ Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra (under director Jules Buckley) collaborated on a performance of a bunch of Ibiza club hits from the likes of Moby, Fatboy Slim, Orbital, Brainbug, and Daft Punk. Here’s a Spotify playlist of the songs they covered.

Did I get goosebumps when the violins started in on Robert Miles’ Children? Possibly! Some of this stuff was the soundtrack to my web design work & play in the late 90s. kottke.org circa 1999 was at least 20% Fatboy Slim, Orbital, BT, Robert Miles, The Orb, and Daft Punk.

Update: And here’s an album of the performance itself on Spotify as well as a subsequent album featuring different club tracks. Tong and the orchestra are also touring the show around England, Ireland, and Scotland.

Album covers designed by Andy Warhol

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2018

Of course you know he designed the album cover for The Velvet Underground & Nico…Warhol’s name (and not the band’s or the album’s) is right there underneath the electric yellow banana. But he also designed covers for the likes of Paul Anka, John Lennon, The Rolling Stones, Count Basie, Diana Ross, Kenny Burrell, and Aretha Franklin.

Warhol Covers

Warhol Covers

Warhol Covers

Warhol Covers

You can see more covers by Warhol here, here, and here. All of the covers he designed are collected in this book, Andy Warhol: The Complete Commissioned Record Covers.

Trombone + loop machine

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 08, 2018

The golden age of live looping (self-accompanying by performing with one or more instruments using a loop machine) was probably ten years ago or so. The first performer I saw use a loop machine live was Andrew Bird, opening for The Magnetic Fields in 2004. Starting around then, he became famous for them, and other groups (Feist, Pomplamoose, etc.) turned it into something of a middlehighbrow indie-twee staple.

But it’s still one of my favorite bits of musical wizardry, perfect not just for creating an illusion of a whole orchestra, but for making familiar instruments sound deeply unfamiliar. That’s what trombonist John Sipher does so well in this clip for Colorado Public Radio.

(Via Boing Boing.)

The 100 best one-hit wonders

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2018

Today’s playlist is The 100 Best One-Hit Wonder Songs:

You can read the rationale behind all 100 picks on Consequence of Sound.

The standard definition (determined by who, Right Said Fred?) of a one-hit wonder is a band who has cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 only once. What, you had a late-career single make 41? Sorry, thanks for playing, but charting 41 isn’t the same as 40, right? Um, no … maybe? It gets no easier when you have to wade through dozens of other Billboard charts that count for everything except, apparently, determining a one-hit wonder. And what about all those charts in other countries — yeah, we ignored them. Great, this list is making us xenophobic now.

But that’s getting pretty damn technical, and we’re not numbers people here. Because, technically, Beck is a one-hit wonder. As are the Grateful Dead and even Radiohead if they hadn’t snuck in at 37 with “Nude” back in 2008. Very lucky, Mr. Yorke. Can you imagine if you scrolled through a list of the 100 Best One-Hit Wonder Songs and found Beck sitting at the top spot? You’d collectively crash our site’s server in a contest to see which commenter could say the cruelest thing about our music knowledge, mothers, and cats.

“Technically, Beck is a one-hit wonder.” Also, I feel that Sir Mix-a-Lot should have made the list.

My media diet for Spring 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

I’ve been keeping 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 or so. I went to Florida with my kids and we did the Harry Potter thing at Universal & visited the Space Coast. I stopped watching Mr. Robot s03 after two episodes. Still making my way through Star Trek: Voyager when I want something uncomplicated to watch in the evening. (Ignore the letter grades, they suck.)

The Americans. This season, the show’s last, has been fantastic. It’s idiotic to say The Americans is the best show on TV with like 50,000 shows on Netflix alone, but after five strong seasons and this finish, they’ve earned it. (A)

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: The Podcast. I wrote an appreciation of this a few weeks ago. (A-)

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew. I love Andrew’s Instagram feed but even so, her book surprised me with timeless and universal themes woven into her life story. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The first season of this show was great and season two picks up right where it left off. I binged the first six episodes of this across two nights and came away shellshocked. (A)

Wild Wild Country. Not sure why anyone followed the Bhagwan anywhere, but Sheela on the other hand… There were several interesting threads in this documentary that didn’t quite get pulled together in the final episode. (B+)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida. The tickets for this were incredibly expensive and worth every damn penny. This was very nearly a religious experience. (A+)

Downsizing. I wanted more from this about the implications of the evolution of humans into nano sapiens. Still, better than many critics & audiences suggested. (B)

Brain It On. I saw my daughter playing this physics puzzler on her iPad and basically grabbed it away from her and played for 24 straight hours. (A-)

Westworld. Watching this every week feels like a chore. Even though the safeties are off, everything that happens in the parks feels consequence-free. I don’t care about the robots. Should I? (C+)

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Stop-motion animation might be Anderson’s natural medium because he can shoot everything *exactly* like he wants. (A-)

Isle of Dogs. Loved this. The style of it made me want to design something amazing. I could have watched the sushi-making scene for like 15 more minutes. (A)

On Margins - The Making of Rebel Girls. Craig Mod talks to co-creator Elena Favilli about how Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls came about and came to be so successful. (B+)

L’Express. A classic Montreal restaurant. Best steak frites I’ve had in a long while. (A-)

Babylon Berlin. Super stylish. The dance scene in the second episode is amazing. The best things about the show are the music and the world-building in the first few episodes. (B+)

Death of Stalin. I love that people still make films like this. Most of the audience I saw this with had no idea what to make of it or why a few people were laughing so hard at some parts. (B+)

Kennedy Space Center. The solar eclipse last summer awakened the space/astronomy nerd in me, so this visit was incredible. We saw a Space Shuttle, a Saturn V rocket, the VAB, and a whole mess of other great things. Thinking of going back for their Astronaut Training Experience. (A+)

Avengers: Infinity War. The ending of this left me stunned…it broke the fourth wall in a unique way. (B+)

A Quiet Place. This entire movie is a metaphor for trying to keep small children quiet on a long plane flight. (B)

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. This book demonstrates that telling the story of technology, programming, and the internet mainly through the many women who helped build it all is just as plausible and truthful as telling the traditionally women-free tale we’ve typically been exposed to. (B+)

Songs of the Years, 1925-2018. So glad this playlist is back in my life. (A-)

The Avengers. I’d forgotten where all the Infinity Stones came from, so I’ve gone back and watched this, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the first Thor movie. Fascinating to see the changes in the filmmaking and pacing. If Infinity War had been made with the pace of Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh!), it would have been 5 hours long. (B+)

Caliphate. Gripping and disturbing and very nearly a must-listen. But I keep showing up places shellshocked after listening to it in the car. (A)

AWB OneSky Reflector Telescope. When I looked through this for the first time at the Moon, my first thought was “WHOA”. My second was “I should have bought a more powerful telescope”. Luckily I can just buy more lenses for it… (A)

I’ve been doing this for more than a year now! Past installments of my media diet can be found here.

The Songs of the Years, 1925-2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2018

Back at the end of 2010, Ben Greenman created a playlist for the New Yorker’s holiday party that featured one song from each year of the magazine’s existence ordered chronologically.

At the party, the mix worked like a charm. Jazz and blues greeted the early arrivals, and as the party picked up, the mood became romantic (thanks to the big-band and vocal recordings of the late thirties and forties), energetic (thanks to early rock and roll like Fats Domino and Jackie Brenston in the early fifties), funky (James Brown in 1973, Stevie Wonder in 1974), and kitschy (the eighties), after which it erupted into a bright riot of contemporary pop and hip-hop (Rihanna! Kanye! M.I.A.! Lil Jon!).

After Greenman’s list was published, others created playlists from it on Rdio, YouTube, and Spotify. I listened to this playlist a lot on Rdio back then; it was the perfect way to time travel through the 20th and early 21st centuries in just a few hours.

I was reminded of the list yesterday after Laura Olin asked about favorite Spotify playlists and discovered that Tom Whitwell’s playlist was still around. He’d created it back in the early days of streaming music services, when Spotify was available only in Europe, so some of the songs had gone missing and others, like those by Michael Jackson & The Beatles, who didn’t allow their music on streaming services then. With Whitwell’s kind permission, I went in and tidied up the list, finding the proper song for every year but 1993 (“Return of the Crazy One,” by Digital Underground, which is available on YouTube…on the playlist it’s represented by “Doowutchyalike”).

Not content to have the list trapped in amber for eternity, I emailed Greenman to see if he had any thoughts on music from the intervening years. Although he’s no longer a staffer at the New Yorker, he generously sent me his selections for 2011-2018.1

2011: “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
2012: “Call Me Maybe”by Carly Rae Jepsen
2013: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk
2014: “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” by Run the Jewels
2015: “WTF” by Missy Elliott
2016: “Hotline Bling” by Drake
2017: “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar
2018: “This is America” by Childish Gambino

You can listen to the full playlist embedded above or here on Spotify. Greenman shared some thoughts on updating the list:

The original list was occasioned by a party: the magazine’s 85th anniversary. Almost a decade has passed, and many things have changed. It feels like a less celebratory time, darker and less hopeful in some ways. But pop music persists. In extending the list from 2010 to the present, I tried to think about how those short bursts of sound still give us moments of joy, and how certain bursts attach themselves to certain moments in history.

I love this playlist and am so glad it’s back and updated. Big thanks to Ben and Tom for making this happen.

P.S. If you duplicate this playlist on Apple Music, Tidal, etc., send me a link. Or even better, if you’re inspired to create your own Songs of the Years playlist, send along those links too. I would love to hear alternate musical journeys through that era — e.g. playlists featuring only black artists or only women would be amazing.

Update: John Stokvis recreated the playlist on Apple Music. Apple had the correct Digital Underground song, but not De La Soul’s “Me, Myself & I”, so Stokvis subbed in “She Drives Me Crazy” from The Fine Young Cannibals. Here’s the Google Play playlist, courtesy of @neuroboy…looks like Google has every song.

A bit off-topic but still within rhyming distance, Aaron Coleman made a playlist of songs with years in the title from 1952-2031. He acknowledges that some of the songs are “terrible”.

  1. I convinced him to put Drake in there, so if you’re not feeling “Hotline Bling” for 2016, you can blame me. (My rationale: Drake was it for those few years, so you have to have him on there somewhere. Besides, it’s tough to pick just one song from “Lemonade” and it’s not on Spotify anyway.)

    Also, May is a bit early to choose a song for 2018, but “This is America” might hold up. If it doesn’t, maybe Greenman can revisit at the end of the year.

Hans Zimmer’s clever use of the Shepard scale in Dunkirk

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

I’ve written before about the Shepard scale and its use by Hans Zimmer in the soundtrack for Dunkirk.

Zimmer and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan achieved that effect by utilizing an auditory illusion called the Shepard tone, a sound that appears to infinitely rise (or fall) in pitch — the video above refers to it as “a barber’s pole of sound”.

The effect is apparent throughout the soundtrack as a seemingly never-ending crescendo. But as Ed Newton-Rex explains, Zimmer was a bit more clever in the way he used the Shepard scale in the music:

So Zimmer isn’t just using the Shepard scale to build tension. He’s using three simultaneous Shepard scales, on three different timescales, to build tension in three storylines that are moving at different paces. The bottom part represents the week of the soldiers; the middle part the day of the men on the boat; and the top part the hour of the pilots. All start in different places, but build in intensity to the same point.

In short, he’s taken the idea of the Shepard scale, and applied it to the unique structure of Dunkirk.

Cool!

Optimism

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

For the Universe in Verse 2018 poetry event, Kelli Anderson created this wonderful papercraft stop motion animation to accompany Jane Hirshfield’s reading of her short poem, Optimism.

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.

The music is by Zoë Keating…a song called Optimist. Here’s more on the project from Maria Popova.

The fascinating history of the “orchestra hit” in music

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2018

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

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

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

Here’s the isolated sound from the original sample:

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

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

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

The cultural shift from not selling out to blowing up

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2018

In an essay called After Authenticity, Toby Shorin writes:

I haven’t heard about anyone selling out in a long while. Sometime between 2008 and 2018, capitalizing on your success as an artist to build a skate brand went from being reprehensible to being the thing that everyone is doing.

This reminds me of something Jonah Peretti used to talk about all the time, the indie rock mentality vs. the hip hop mentality. From this 2010 New Yorker article:

“Remember, you’re not selling out,” Jonah Peretti, a co-founder of the Huffington Post, told Denton. “You’re blowing up. Think in terms of hip-hop, not indie rock.”

And in this 2012 interview with Sarah Lacy (partial transcript):

I think hate is good way to build community among a small group. It’s like, “We read Gawker, and we hate those fuckers at Conde Nast and we hate the person who is just a blowhard and drives around in a car and makes more money than me. We hate the celebrity at the party, but I was at a party with a celebrity.”

That’s good for creating an in-group of “we’re the cool kids”, and I see it more as like an indie rock mentality. It’s like “my band is good and all the other bands suck”. That builds a close feeling. Contrast indie rock to hip hop, where it’s like you don’t sell out you blow up.

For me, I grew up listening to hip hop, I grew up in Oakland. It’s a little bit more like, “let’s try to make something that doesn’t suck, let’s try to do great stuff, let’s try to make big things”. But it’s a little bit less of, “let’s create an in-crowd and define all the things that that in-crowd hates so that we all feel closer to each other”.

Over the last decade, hip hop won and indie rock lost (culturally speaking) and as a result, blowing up has become preferable to not selling out.

New music from Sigur Rós

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2018

In 2016, Sigur Rós drove around Iceland for 24 hours, streaming the journey on YouTube backed by a soundtrack made by generative music software. They packaged some of the best bits onto a limited-edition vinyl release last year and have just recently made it available on streaming services as well.

The song titles are GPS coordinates and one listener has already created a map of the locations.

Also from the Sigur Rós universe, SR lead singer Jónsi, Alex Somers, and Paul Corley debuted their Liminal playlist on streaming.

The playlist is an extension of the soundbaths the trio have been hosting. They promise they’ll be adding to the playlist frequently…an endless mixtape.

Jónsi, Somers, and Corley’s Liminal soundbaths include solo work, remixes, film score excerpts, AI, and generative music, according to a press release. “Sigur Rós played live a lot during the last two years,” Jónsi said in a statement. “And inevitably you end up playing the rockier, more focussed songs, which means that loads of other stuff gets ignored. ‘Liminal’ tries to do something different. It’s just me, Paul, and Alex in a dark room manipulating and mucking around with recordings, FX and vocals. We play and sing sparsely and focus on the atmosphere coming together. There’s a sound-reactive light sculpture and everyone can sit or lie down. It’s all very cosy and people seem to like it.”

In addition, a 2009 EP by Jónsi and Alex Somers called All Animals was also recently added to streaming.

Somers also did the soundtrack for an episode of Black Mirror featuring music by Sigur Rós (which you can find on my Black Mirror playlist on Spotify).

BTW, I am still waiting for one of the streaming services to offer an album-oriented playlist feature. I want to be able to add entire albums to playlists and then shuffle the playback not by song but by album. I listen to a lot of music (like Sigur Rós) that works much better as whole albums; having to dip back into Spotify after one album ends and hunt the next one down in my list of albums or in a regular playlist is a pain in the butt. Does anyone do this?

“I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2018

Kanye West has a new solo album coming out soon (as well as a collaborative album with Kid Cudi) and so has been out in the world saying things, things like expressing his admiration for Donald Trump and suggesting that slavery was a choice. In a piece at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, an admitted fan of his music, writes that West’s search for white freedom — “freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant” — is troubling.

Nothing is new here. The tragedy is so old, but even within it there are actors — some who’ve chosen resistance, and some, like West, who, however blithely, have chosen collaboration.

West might plead ignorance — “I don’t have all the answers that a celebrity is supposed to have,” he told Charlamagne [Tha God]. But no citizen claiming such a large portion of the public square as West can be granted reprieve. The planks of Trumpism are clear — the better banning of Muslims, the improved scapegoating of Latinos, the endorsement of racist conspiracy, the denialism of science, the cheering of economic charlatans, the urging on of barbarian cops and barbarian bosses, the cheering of torture, and the condemnation of whole countries. The pain of these policies is not equally distributed. Indeed the rule of Donald Trump is predicated on the infliction of maximum misery of West’s most ardent parishioners, the portions of America, the muck, that made the god Kanye possible.

Coates suggests that Kanye, also like Trump, has been telling us who he is all along:

Everything is darker now and one is forced to conclude that an ethos of “light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands,” of “mutts” and “thirty white bitches,” deserved more scrutiny, that the embrace of a slaveholder’s flag warranted more inquiry, that a blustering illiteracy should have given pause, that the telethon was not wholly born of keen insight, and the bumrushing of Taylor Swift was not solely righteous anger, but was something more spastic and troubling, evidence of an emerging theme — a paucity of wisdom, and more, a paucity of loved ones powerful enough to perform the most essential function of love itself, protecting the beloved from destruction.

This Is America

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2018

Over the weekend, Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) released a video for his new song, This is America. If you watch it — and you should if you haven’t, even though it isn’t the most Monday morning thing in the world — please know there’s some upsetting scenes…which is the whole point. There’s a lot going on in the video (here’s one thread by LK that explains some of the imagery), but the aspect that jumped out to me is white America’s exuberant acceptance (and co-option) of African American culture and entertainment — hip hop, rap, NBA, movies, TV (like Glover’s own Atlanta), social media memetics — while turning a blind eye to racial injustice and violence inflicted upon black America. As Jon Spence succinctly noted on Twitter:

The fact that Childish Gambino’s “This is America” tackles police brutality, gun violence, media misdirection, and the use of African Americans as a brand shield, all while dancing in Jim Crow-style caricature, shows a transcendence of mere performance and demands attention.

Update: Nereyda wrote a short thread about why they didn’t like the video.

As someone very into Diasporic dance, which literally saved my life, Glover’s video misses its mark completely for me. Graphic images of mass Black murder layered over by Black dance as a minstrel distraction? That’s what y’all are getting from this? Issa no for me dawg.

(via @tsell89/status/993609185223938048)

Update: From Spencer Kornhaber’s take on This is America (italics mine):

The defining of a nation is the essential task of politics, and Glover’s definition has now been made clear. America is a place where black people are chased and gunned down, and it is a place where black people dance and sing to distract — themselves, maybe, but also the country at large — from that carnage. America is a room in which violence and celebration happen together, and the question of which one draws the eye is one of framing, and of what the viewer wants to see.

Philip Glass: “I expected to have a day job for the rest of my life”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

I enjoyed reading Lolade Fadulu’s interview with Philip Glass about the composer’s early life and how he made a living in NYC before being able to fully support himself with his music (which didn’t happen until he was in his early 40s). As a boy, his mother made sure he got a musical education and his job at his father’s record store exposed him to the idea that people paid money for art:

To this day, among my earliest memories was someone would give my father $5 and he’d hand them a record. So the exchange of money for art, I thought that was normal. I thought that’s what everybody did. I never thought there was anything wrong about making money.

As an adult, Glass worked odd jobs (plumber, mover, cab driver) to have the independence to work on his music:

I had an ensemble at the time. I would go out and play for three weeks. We would come back from the tour, and we usually had lost money so I had to make money immediately. I put an ad in the paper. My cousin and I ran the company, and I moved furniture for about three or four or five weeks. Then I went on tour again. Again, we lost money.

That went on for years. I thought it was going to go on for the rest of my life, actually. It never occurred to me that I would be able to make a living, really, from writing music. That happened kind of by accident.

I was interested in jobs that were part-time, where I had a lot of independence, where I could work when I wanted to. I wasn’t interested in working in an office where everything would be very regimented.

As his musical career took off, Glass continued to take his other work seriously. From a 2001 profile of Glass in The Guardian:

Throughout this period, Glass supported himself as a New York cabbie and as a plumber, occupations that often led to unusual encounters. “I had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in SoHo,” he says. “While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

But after Einstein on the Beach dazzled critics at the Metropolitan Opera, Glass’s days in the driver’s seat of a cab were limited:

The day after the performance, Glass was back driving his taxi: “I vividly remember the moment, shortly after the Met adventure,” he says, “when a well-dressed woman got into my cab. After noting the name of the driver, she leaned forward and said: ‘Young man, do you realise you have the same name as a very famous composer’.”

Glass is my favorite composer, but as much as I love his music, I might appreciate the way he has approached his work and career almost as much.

20 Years of Lauryn Hill

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Yesterday, hip hop legend Lauryn Hill announced The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill 20th Anniversary Tour 2018.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of seminal hip-hop album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, and Lauryn Hill is marking the occasion with a special anniversary tour dedicated to the album. Hill will be performing Miseducation in full, and each stop on the tour will feature “special guest performers” that haven’t been named yet. Plus, a portion of ticket sales will be donated to Hill’s MLH Foundation, which backs a huge group of charities built to help people all over the world-including the Africa Philanthropic Foundation, Appetite For Change, Apps & Girls, and the Equal Justice Initiative.

And Nerdwriter’s Evan Puschak, always with his ear to the ground (or perhaps with his ear to Drake’s Nice for What), just came out with this mini-doc celebrating of Hill’s music, influences, and people she’s influenced:

This might be one of the best Nerdwriter videos yet: no commentary, just clips of Hill performing and talking, music she was influenced by, and people & music that were influenced by her…an impressionistic portrait of a significant and uncompromising artist.

The Westworld season two soundtrack covers Kanye & Nirvana

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of HBO’s Westworld is the music, particularly the acoustic covers of modern rock and pop songs, many of which sound like they could be coming from a player piano in the show’s Old West saloon. The first season’s soundtrack, composed by Ramin Djawadi, featured covers of songs by Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, and the Rolling Stones. The second season is starting in just a couple of weeks, but they’ve already released two new covers from this season’s soundtrack: Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana and Kanye West’s Runaway.

Djawadi, perhaps best known as the composer of the Game of Thrones theme song, spoke to Pitchfork about the rationale behind the cover songs:

What I love about that is it just comes out of nowhere and you don’t expect it at all. You see the settings and the way people are dressed and even though you know it’s robots and it’s all made to be modern entertainment, you would think the people in control would make everything authentic, including whatever is played on that player piano. It would be from that time period. And when it’s not, it’s that subtle reminder that, ‘Wait, there is something not right. This is not real.’ It’s just such a powerful tool that only music can do.

An animated “music video” of similar satellite imagery

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2018

Arena is a video created by Páraic & Pearse McGloughlin constructed from different structural forms (roads, stadiums, center-pivot irrigation circles) in satellite images of the Earth animated together into a kind of music video. (It’s hard to describe it. Just watch and you’ll see what I mean.) The first part of the video, with the roads, reminded me of the screensaver on a computer or DVD player where a ball or logo bounces around the screen.

McGloughlin did an interview with Director’s Notes about how the video was produced.

I put a lot of focus on imagery containing flat lines, symmetry and grids as they are so different to the patterns/shapes made by nature, and hoped in turn that this would be most effective. It wasn’t until I started messing with some images that I thought to allocate the idea of the game of life — “Arena” to the theme as it fit perfectly in my opinion. I wanted to create a retro-like video game effect out of the images and I knew I wanted to start with flat roads ‘bouncing’ off the sides of the screen with an element of growth, a focus on the abundance of life on earth as well as some kind of evolution idea.

(via bb)

The New Yorker’s musical magazine cover

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

New Yorker Audio Cover

The New Yorker has a fun cover this week from cartoonist Tom Gauld. The New York street scene shows bits of music being played and listened to by people and birds and if you click through to the interactive version, you can listen to what each snippet of musical notation sounds like.

In his early sketches, Gauld had only vague notions of the music he’d like to include, and “placeholder nonsense” in the speech bubbles. “If, like me, you’re musically illiterate, then the notes give a suggestion of what’s going on sonically,” he said. “But I also wanted the scores to make sense to those who can read music.”

To achieve that goal, he enlisted the help of fact checker Fergus McIntosh, a veteran chorister. Together, the duo struck upon a repertoire that includes Vivaldi’s “Spring”; Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”; Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata”; the folk song “One Morning in Spring”; and birdsong from the American robin, which tends to appear in springtime after local migration.

Found this via Austin Kleon, who remarks that Charles Schulz was similarly faithful in using accurate musical notation in Peanuts cartoons.

Peanuts Music

When Schroeder pounded on his piano, his eyes clenched in a trance, the notes floating above his head were no random ink spots dropped into the key of G. Schulz carefully chose each snatch of music he drew and transcribed the notes from the score. More than an illustration, the music was a soundtrack to the strip, introducing the characters’ state of emotion, prompting one of them to ask a question or punctuating an interaction.

Schulz used music so extensively in some of his strips that they didn’t really make much sense if you didn’t know how to read music:

Peanuts Music

When Beethoven gave the Hammerklavier to the publisher, he bragged, “Now you will have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when it is played 50 years hence.” In this Sunday strip, Schulz most fully develops the idea of the preparations required to storm “Mount Everest.” Before marching to the piano with determination, Schroeder prepares himself for this mighty undertaking with seven different kinds of exercise and a “carb-loading” bowl of cereal, almost as if he were preparing to climb a mountain!

Music from Babylon Berlin

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2018

I’ve been watching Babylon Berlin on Netflix for the past week and the scene that got me hooked was the time-bending dance number in the second episode, one of the most energetic, vibrant, and sexy scenes I’ve seen onscreen in a long time. The song in the scene, Zu Asche, Zu Staub, is a 20s/30s swing number put through a modern filter of EDM. You can hear it on the show’s soundtrack (Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon):

The original music for the show was composed by Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer, who have worked together since Tykwer’s breakout Run, Lola, Run and have done the music for Cloud Atlas, Sense8, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

My recent media diet for March-ish 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I was out of town for a few days so there are more books on here than usual. I’m trying to keep it up…reading right now but too early to call: Broad Band, Am I There Yet?, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet. Oh and I’m really glad The Americans is back on, even though it’s the final season. (As I’ve said before, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades. They are subjective and frequently wrong.)

Star Trek Voyager. Not in the same league as Next Generation, but it hums along nicely after they get going. (B)

Mr. Robot. I watched the first episode of season three and then got distracted by other things. Anybody watch the whole season? Is it worth circling back? (TBD)

Annihilation. I enjoyed this more than many people I know, but not as much as Matt Zoller Seitz. Eager to watch it again since reading the book (see below). (B+)

Lincoln. I love this movie. One of Spielberg’s best. (A)

Ugly Delicious. I wanted to hate this, but it’s really interesting and David Chang wears you down with his, well, I wouldn’t call it charm exactly. The episode that really hooked me was the Thanksgiving one, when he’s wandering around a massive supermarket with his mom, who’s mockingly calling him “David Chang” (you can almost hear the appended ™ in her voice) and then refers to him as the “Baby King”. Also, for a chef, Chang is weirdly incurious about food but harangues people for not appreciating kimchi. I really should write a longer post about this… (A-)

Murder on the Orient Express. Better than I had heard, if you choose to embrace its slight campiness. I really enjoyed Branagh’s Poirot. (B+)

Geostorm. I love disaster movies like this, but I kept checking my phone during this one and a day or two later I couldn’t have told you a single plot point. That will not stop me from watching it again because (see first sentence). (C)

Sunsets. I recommend them, particularly on the beach. (A)

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. “I recommend that you read The Wizard and the Prophet”. (A)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Great book, deserving of all its accolades. (A-)

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is likely an unpopular opinion, but I liked the movie more. Upon finishing, I was not inclined to read the sequels. (B)

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. As I mentioned here, I’m reading this aloud to my kids, which feels a little like a time machine trip back to antiquity. (A)

An Incomplete History of Protest. Inspiring collection of objects related to the protests of everything from the AIDS crisis to Vietnam. Fascinating to see how the disenfranchised leveraged art and design to counter their neglect by the powerful. (A-)

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Fun to see American Gothic up close, but I was more impressed by some of Wood’s other work, particularly his illustration-like landscapes. I showed the kids a photo I had taken of one of the paintings and Ollie said, “that looks like a 3D rendering!” (B+)

Stephen Shore at MoMA. I’d label this a “must see” if you’re into photography at all. Shore’s shape-shifting career is inspiring. (A-)

Red Sparrow. I was texting with a friend about how cool it would be if J. Law’s character in Red Sparrow was Paige Jennings from The Americans all grown up, but the timelines don’t match up. (B-)

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. I don’t play a lot of board games so maybe this is a common thing now, but I really like how all the players have to work together against the game to win. But once you get past the first couple of decks, the games take *forever*. (B+)

The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore will always be my sentimental Wes Anderson fave, but Tenenbaums is right up there. (A)

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. I have been listening to the audiobook version while in the car, and Wallace’s reading of the first story, Big Red Son (about an adult video awards show), made me laugh so hard that I had to pull of the road at one point. (A)

Logan Lucky. Much better on the second watch. I don’t know why I didn’t appreciate it the first time around…I love Soderbergh and this is basically Ocean’s 7/11. (A-)

Moon. I saw this when it originally came out but didn’t like it as much the second time around. Great soundtrack though. (B+)

Sleep. An 8-hour-long album designed to be played while you sleep. I listened to the entire album while working, and it’s pretty good for that purpose as well. (A-)

Simon and the Whale. Wonderful room and service. Really good cocktails. I know the kitchen crew and they still blew me away with the food. (A)

Girls Trip. I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie since I don’t know when. Bridesmaids maybe? Can’t wait to watch this again in a few months. (A-)

Ready Player One. I very much enjoyed watching this movie. Spielberg must have had fun going back through the 80s pop culture he had a large part in shaping. (A-)

Electricity. I’m writing this not from my usual home office but from the lobby of the local diner/movie theater. We had a wind storm last night, which knocked the power out at my house. That means no heat, no water, no wifi, and very poor cell reception. And a tree came down across the road I live on, so I was “stranded” for a few hours this morning until someone showed up with a chainsaw. I unreservedly recommend electricity (and civilization more generally). (A+)

The Philharmonic Turntable Orchestra

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2018

A turntable orchestra that includes several past DJ world champions recently performed Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor, which was the first LP released back in 1948.

I love everything about this: the history, the music, and the aesthetic of the performers sitting on the floor with their shoes off, wearing tuxedos with optional non-fancy headwear.

Hip Hop All Stars on The Arsenio Hall Show

posted by Aaron Cohen   Mar 22, 2018

For the final show of The Arsenio Hall Show, Queen Latifah organized a huge amount of hip hop talent for a tribute. It’s amazing. Some more details here. The segment features Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Fu-Schnickens, CL Smooth, Guru from Gang Starr, Das EFX, GZA and few others from Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, and Mad Lion, and, as mentioned previously, is amazing. (via @mattwhitlockPM)

Max Richter’s Sleep, an 8-hour album designed to be listened to while you sleep

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2018

Composer Max Richter released Sleep in 2015, but it only recently became available on streaming platforms: Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, Tidal. The album is 8 hours and 24 minutes long and was designed by Richter as a sleep aid/accompaniment. The composer worked with neuroscientist David Eagleman to align the music with the brain & body’s natural sleep rhythms.

A snack-sized version of Sleep is also available: From Sleep, which clocks in at a mere hour long.

Stevie Nicks sings “Wild Heart” on set

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 09, 2018

Thanks for following along this week while I filled in here! As my final post, it seems important to share the best YouTube video ever*.

Here you have songbird Stevie Nicks, every makeup artist’s worst nightmare, belting out an early version of her song “Wild Heart” during an Annie Leibowitz cover shoot for Rolling Stone in 1981. If this sends you down a rabbit hole of live versions of “Silver Springs” and corresponding levels of emotion between Buckingham and Nicks, I don’t blame you.

*Feel free to tell me otherwise or to keep in touch on Twitter.

Van Morrison and the Boston counterculture in 1968

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 08, 2018

van-morrison-boston-common-1968.jpg

Van Morrison wrote his spare, stringed magnum opus Astral Weeks during his time among the late 60s LSD-fueled counterculture in Boston. Ryan H. Walsh’s new book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 covers the nine months Morrison spent in Cambridge, as well as a cast of characters both known and not. Among those orbiting Morrison were commune/cult leader Mel Lyman, members of the Velvet Underground, who played the Boston Tea Party club 15 times that year, and Carly Simon’s younger brother, Peter.

The common thread among the myriad personalities and communities profiled by Walsh is a yearning for transcendence and rebirth. These are also the central themes of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” Morrison’s route to the spiritual plane was through music, not drugs. (A notorious drunk during his time in Boston, he is said to have eschewed dope after “burning [his] brain on hash” when he was younger.) The singer seems to have been guided by his subconscious in creating “Astral Weeks.” Some of the songs emerged from dreams and reveries. Morrison was a student of the occult who believed in automatic writing.

From stories of gigs on Cape Cod where Morrison and his band improvised what became “Moondance,” to him quietly crooning about Cambridgeport “like he’s talking about a misty hobbit village,” Walsh’s book seems to give context for Boston being more culturally significant within the late 60s era than most people give it credit for.

(Image of Van Morrison performing at Spring Sing on Boston Common in 1968 via WBUR.)

Spike Jonze is very good at making ads

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 06, 2018

Huh, weird. Spike Jonze made a video of me in my living room last night.

I’m fully here for FKA Twigs being the face of dancing your way out of depression.