Monday, February 25, 2013

Thank you!

Thank you to everyone who pledged during our show and throughout the 2013 WCBN Fundraiser. The station raised $35,216.65! Your support allows us to continue serving you with interesting and unique programming found nowhere else.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

WCBN Fundraiser: February 8–17

Join us for our 2013 On Air Fundraiser!

Dead White Guys will produce two fundraiser shows: February 10th and February 17th. Enjoy the music, and please consider making a monetary donation to maintain our program's offbeat approach to classical music.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Joseph Martin Kraus, the Swedish Mozart

It's an unfair characterization, of course, but when Joseph Martin Kraus's name is mentioned, the comparison to Mozart usually follows. Superficially, there is some justification; the two were born five months apart in 1756, and died a year apart. Stylistically, though, Kraus's symphonies more resemble Haydn's than Mozart's in their conciseness and humor.

Kraus was born in Germany and moved to Stockholm, Sweden in 1778, where King Gustav III was busy putting an end to the Age of Liberty, a period when the monarchy was minimized and power entrusted to a parliament. Gustav promoted instead the benevolent monarchy, enacting economic and social reforms, and spending lavishly on the arts. Kraus benefited from the King's artistic bent and began composing for the Swedish court. His symphonies were written during his employment there. Many of the symphonies are either lost or mis-attributed. The ones that survive are mostly three-movement works—another difference with Mozart, whose most famous symphonies have four movements—and are not widely known.

I'm on a mission to introduce more classical music fans to the music of Joseph Martin Kraus. Petter Sundkvist and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra have recorded a dozen of Kraus's symphonies, and I will be featuring them in episodes of Dead White Guys that I host on a rotating basis.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Profile: Robert Ashley

The union of words and music is a subject of much discussion in music philosophy, and as a “problem,” it has provided millennia of creative exploration and reinvention.  There are hundreds, thousands of works that comment some way or another on the variety of ways speech is employed in music.  Our Western musical tradition – let’s not get concerned with cavemen and bone flutes yet – began with the Greeks, whose use of music was primarily as an amendment to, an enhancement of speech in ways that reflects and imbues in the listener a moral character (according to Aristotle, anyway).  The most popular trend since then, as exemplified by, well, songs in any of their forms, is to depart from the natural inclinations of spoken speech into drastically, unnaturally contorting it into pitches, pacing, inflections, melisma, intervals and all that that don’t crop up in normal conversation.  Nobody normally talks with a robust vibrato, or spans two octaves recounting a bad meal they had at a restaurant.  Song is an invention.  Otherwise, speech in musical work is typically reserved it for simple narration in programmatic or dramatic works.

Ahem.  Moving on.  It’s a subject that annoys me persistently, so we’ll leave the larger discussion about that for another time, and here get to my real subject, a gentleman named Robert Ashley.  As concerns the spoken word in music, he is a remarkable person for purposefully un-musicalizing musical speech, or parodying it, really, kind of making musical speech a deliberately unnerving experience.  Whereas other contemporary composers, enamored of speech sampling and spoken text though they are, still tend to exaggerate the cadences, rhythm, and melody of spoken speech for positive emotive reflection or representation of the text, or just to be nutty and modern, Robert Ashley’s libretti are almost entirely spoken with some odd quality of inappropriate dispassion, often through a spacey synthesizer. It comes close to baroque-classical recitative, as an analogy, but sometimes he goes to extremes to restrict the cadences, rhythm, and melody of spoken speech towards producing a strained, psychedelic, emotionless declamation.  Ashley’s voices are bizarre, and when set to alternately banal and hallucinatory and violent and philosophical prose, almost as run-on sentences, undermine any certain idea of what you’re supposed to feel about either the speaker or the text. All I can say is that when it’s not sounding anhedonic, or goofy (chalk this up partially to his often-used Blade Runner synths), it’s really, really creepy.  For something that by all musical means is not very formally intricate or profound or emotional it certainly gets a profound emotive response from me, of perplexity and languor and sometimes something like curious horror, like looking at a photograph of a murder.  It is disturbing to hear people speak like this ever in normal life.  It is the speech type of a sociopath.   We can normally forgive narrative or poetical songs of their musical conceits.  We know that it’s artistry, not actual talking.  It’s music.  It sounds pretty or dramatic.  But with Ashley’s music, that bridge over to song, or recitative even, is very often hardly crossed, and to eerie effect.  His characters can describe how a homeless friend got his legs blown off and was given morphine by a pizza delivery boy, and in the next minute talk about French fries, fast cars, and flirting with guys, and then not far after that riff for nine minutes on a story of kids witnessing gay sex in the park (Dust, 1998), all in a fatalistic “so it goes” manner.  I mean...what?

Enough talking about it.  Here’s a video of perhaps his most notable work, the television opera Perfect Lives (1978), to just show you what I mean.  (Actually, he is kind of credited with creating the genre of a television opera, though I think he wasn’t the first to do it.  I’ll look this up later.)  This evidently made John Cage and Spalding Gray pee their pants with delight.

As an experimental musician and avant-garde dramatist, now eighty-plus years old and still composing, Robert Ashley continues to command attention.  He’s a somebody. But of incidental concern to us is to know that he is a product of Ann Arbor.  Or, perhaps, Ann Arbor today is in some small degree a product of his.

Robert Ashley was born in Ann Arbor, and stuck around long enough to get a bachelor’s degree in music theory in 1952 from the University of Michigan.  After getting a graduate degree from the Manhattan School of Music, he came back to Ann Arbor to work in U-M’s Speech Research Laboratory, a now evidently defunct branch of the college.  Combined with a self-awareness of his mild form of Tourettes (note: I can’t find much corroborative primary evidence for this), I can’t help but speculate that his intimacy with the minutia of speech and its interaction with the mind of the speakers and the spoken-tos influenced Ashley’s artistic style.  His music is almost entirely vocal, and he is smitten with its delivery in modern artistic forms. He has even tried to incorporate Tourettes events in performances of his works (again, I think this evidence may be anecdotal and I’ll still look this part up, but it’s fun to think about for the time being).  To perform with a neurological disorder as an instrument.  Yeah, weird. And he may have left a bit of that weirdness behind, too.

I’m a youngin, but I might understand the progressive Ann Arbor of today is the residue of the late 1950s and 1960s. Its character today is pretty benign and Bobo compared to the radicalism of the anti-Vietnam, liberal, anti-segregation, youthful activism back then, which also spilled into fervent experimentation in the arts.  Partially, the culture events that began back then were purposeful counter-culture political statements, especially in the featuring of progressive jazz and blues artists in the spirit of cultural outreach in opposition of segregation.  The avant-garde art scene, vestiges of which might be inferred in Ann Arbor’s arts culture today – and so I do because I can – had its origins in the ONCE Festival, a gathering of new performance art, film, and music, orchestrated by Robert Ashley and several others native Ann Arborites under the name of the ONCE Group, as they called themselves from 1954-1959.  (Let me emphasize that Ashley was not alone in this, but had the most artistically popular career afterwards.)  Ashley cites his time in the ONCE Group as formative on his career.  During their time together they toured the US, performing improvised theatrical and musical works, and works on homemade electronic instruments in an age where the Moog synthesizer had only just come into being, and Ashley remained continually an early adopter of electronic manipulation and unconventional use of media, such as the aforementioned television opera.  The ONCE Festival ran annually for six years beginning in 1961, and was the progenitor of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which began in 1963. 

Neat history, hm?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Event: NIME Conference 2012, Concert 2

Energy and attention waning a bit, I'm thankful at the moment that the profusion of media on the Internet can give me an excuse to neglect the play-by-play of last night's concert.  Instead, you can experience, at home, in your dressing gown, the program yourself through the magic of videos and links.  Commentary, if coming at all, will come later.

Of Dust and Sand – Per Bloland

Jack Walk – Scott Deal

Desamor IRoberto Morales-Manzanares
 No media available for this one, but my Wii reference in the last post came true!  RMM had strapped to each arm a Wii controller, used to modify sounds played on and in the piano, through the microphone, and brass singing bowl.

Flue – Bill Hsu

Vocalise – Sergei Rachmaninoff, Medley – Brian Wilson (arr. for theremin cello)
Thought.ProjectionRobert Alexander, David Biedenbender, Anton Pugh, Suby Raman, Amanda Sari Perez, Sam L. Richards

Check out their website, which includes video, at  This particular performance does deserve a description, especially for its spectacular projection work, but later.

Eigenspace – Mari Kimura, Tomoyuki Kato

Where Are You Standing? – Bongjun Kim, Woon Seung Yeo

The version performed last night differed from this in two ways.  First, instead of the performer's icon chiming when having located a target performer, it is the target performer's icon chiming at having been located.  Second, the stage environment was blocked into concentric rings like a bulls-eye, also projected on the board.   Each of those rings corresponded to a tone, a drone activated when the performer stands in it, so that absolute position mattered to the overall background sounds as well.  If I remember correctly, the outer rings were higher pitched and the center lower.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Event: NIME Conference 2012 Concert 1, Part 1

Good fellows, forgive me.  While my goal is not journalistic excellence, I perhaps let my imagination and hopes as expressed in the last post supersede reasonable expectations of a conference.  And, having neglected to do my homework on it (and leaving aside those other minor factual errors that I’m too lazy to correct) missed the one sadly relevant thing this conference shares with many others: it’s really expensive.  Therefore, no conference for me.

But the evening concerts are cheap, so I went to the concert last night at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater and have much to say about it.  Unfortunately, the experience tempered my previous enthusiasm quite a bit.  But, contrarian as I am, my new favorite emotion is ambivalence.  Let me talk it out through the descriptions and critiques of the night’s works.

Floating Points II – Matthias Schneiderbanger, Michael Vierling

This work is what they called a “collaborative performance” of two performers, one enclosed by a Sensor-table and the other gloved in a Chirotron, both uniquely created instruments, of a kind.  The Sensor-table is a table with upward-pointing sensors that detects object ranges, here the hands of the performer, and the object motions are then translated through a computer into sound.  (I assume the principle is the same as in this sensor LED table below).

It appeared that each sensor corresponded to a different suite of synthesized sounds, of booms, crashes, metallic jingling, that the performer commanded all around his body. A direct downward fall of the hand resulted in a percussive activation with decay, a hovering hand a sustain, and most interestingly, an upward pinch, as if gingerly plucking grains of sand from a beach to let them fall, sucked the sound away like a percussive strike reversed.  I am not sure whether the flat area of hand-object had any relation to the sound created.

The Chirotron is a glove that very literally the direction the sound from the Sensor-table comes from.  Wherever the operator pointed, the sound would appear from the speakers in that area of the room, surround-sound to the max.  The performance involved both of those, and the Chirotron’s performer would sweep his hand across the room and the sound would travel as well, but of course without the Doppler effect of an actual traveling sound-producing object.  The Chirotron is a neat analogue to the conductor, who points to a part of the orchestra to get that section to respond.  However, in this case it’s the actual performance environment that responds and not the activation of the instrument itself. 

Floating Points II demonstrated a fun kind of manipulation; still, together the Sensor-table and Chirotron represent an evidently persistently capturing idea of playing through gesticulation and body movement without any actual physical contact that is still, well, kind of old.  I mean, remember the Theremin?  That was an instrument of essentially translating gesticulation through a magnetic field while this is infrared.  The medium is different, the concept the same.  And the analogue of a conductor mentioned before is evident, although what is new is the idea of conducting of electronic sound live.

As a performance, while the Chiro-tron showed a very literal and concrete role to play, it was very difficult to understand what control the Sensor-table’s performer held.  The raw classes of sounds apparently were synthesized pre-performance, and the performer’s job was to activate them (that’s a word I’m going to use a lot – activate) but with very little real control.  There appeared no ability to manage pitch, just the timing of strike and decay.  The appearance of a many wires and a Macbook showed that the origin of the sounds themselves came from elsewhere, and even in performance the performer seemed disconnected in more than one way from the actual making of music.  It didn’t help very much that the sounds they chose to perform were ugly and the composition itself had nothing like structure, much less architecture, to it.  While an interesting a demonstration of technology, it does not work so much as an effective medium for music yet.

Still, I must give much credit to a very effective demonstrating of how manipulation of sound direction and performance space vastly changes how we could experience performances, if only they were composed to make advantages of sound origins than the stage just in front you. 

Oh wait, that’s also an old idea, dating back to the Italian Renaissance and the era of Ars Nova, where cathedral acoustics and balconies were exploited to have separate sections of performers that would have call-and-response concertos from across the rooms and thus a directional perfomance.

You can watch a performance of Floating Points below and judge for yourself.

Violent Dreams – Hans Leeuw, Diemo Schwarz
Uh oh.  Another Macbook.  I have a feeling that the most used musical instrument here is going to be a computer.

Double uh oh.  The word “improvisation” in the program.  It’s going to be a long night.

The electrumpet, performed by Hans, appears to have two mouthpieces and two functions, one as a trumpet making acoustic trumpet sounds, and with the other attached set of buttons an instrument that senses the column of air produced and translates that into electric signals.  While making many ugly noises, as a concept it is still interesting that it seems that some physical elemenets of the original physical vibrating column of air are still retained in the electronic interpretation, and it’s not just a matter of button-pressing.

The other “instrument” suite was an array of tablets and programming called CataRT which Diemo operated by touch, again appearing to really be controlling the initiation and manipulation of sounds pre-recorded on that damn Macbook.  As would make sense, taps produced percussiveness, swipes of the finger across trackpads produced swipes of sound, etc.  Here, through his iPad-like device we evidently see now the introduction of the accelerometer; instead of operating by touching the pad or by the pad sensing movement of the performer, the pad manipulated sounds by translating its own movement.  Sometimes this did produce analogous imitations of manipulations.  Jiggling the pad wavered the noises, shifting it one way shifted the timbre, shifting it the other did something else, like he was playing tilt ball in secret.  More on accelerometer use in the next performance.

Yet, and this will be a persistent problem throughout, the performance was not of a musical piece but a demonstration of musical instruments, and an improvisation of displeasing noises played on two seemingly ridiculously complicated new instruments was hardly an endorsement of their potential to play controlled, composed music.  What would the sheet score look like for CataRT, for instance?  Probably like a cheat-code for Mortal Combat.  Up-up-down-left-A-down-B-B-Up, and then destroy your audience by ripping their spines out.

Again, you can check out a similar performance below.

4 Hands iPhone – Atau Tanaka, Adam Parkinson
Each of the two performers holds in each hand an iPhone, again using them as the interface with which to manipulate pre-recorded sounds.  The main medium here was motion, and now I get to talk about accelerometers.  These sensors sense the force of acceleration on its object in all directions, though I think people would prefer to call them the axes x, y, and z.  The object set in motion or coming to a stop exerts forces in those axes, which can then be translated as instructions to the sound to wiggle around, crescendo, change timbre and such.  Set flat and still, gravity forms a baseline so that accelerating force from gravity alone also sends a signal when the sensor is tilted, its pitch and roll and the position of the object can be known and, again, translated as instructions to the sound.  I’m not sure if the spatial position of the sensor has itself any effect, for instance if the same motions 1ft off the ground produce the same sounds as 10ft off the ground, but I don’t think it does.  In any case, the concept of being able to translate physical forces experienced by an object – not inflicted on the object, like striking a string or blowing into a tube – into signals is really cool.  I feel it’s analogous to being able to hear physics, as if (synesthetes know about this) color could be translated into taste, or light into smell, or temperature into sound. 

Oh, but wait.  Where have I seen this tech before?

Sigh. Yet again the performance itself was not a ringing endorsement of the technology, and the technology not a ringing endorsement of its creator’s attunement with pop culture.  First, there are enormous complications of performance.  The motions of the performers don’t always translate reliably, so, again, the performer often looks disconnected from the sounds produced by his device.  Then, in this case, any motion at all is a signal, even if unintended, so the performer is limited to very delicate and cautious motions.  No fiery performance here.  (Of course, there could be a computer program, or say, a console and software, maybe call it Nintendo, which can determine the acceptable range of motions and sounds in any instance.)  And also, because the performer only has so much space and ability, the accelerometers are confined foremost by the performer’s own range of motion and movements.  What happens if you want to accelerate upwards but are already holding the device above your head?  You have to move downwards first even if you don’t want to.  Really, the performance space is the reachable sphere around the performer and good old physical ability.  In this case, then, it seems really ironic to see such a massive amount of computing power in ones hands and then limit it to such a cumbersome and circumscribing and clumsy method of having to handle it. 

Plus, and the pre-recorded sounds they were manipulating were, once again, at dangerous volumes and deadly horrifying to listen to.

Aphasia – Mark Applebaum
I’ll leave you with this.  It’s a piece of performance art, this one, and does not actually demonstrate live creation of sound.  Mark performs his own gesticulations, a sign-language of sorts, in-time with a recording of vocal chop-suey. I think it shows the sort of control music engineers wish to aspire to with gesticulated performance that has not nearly yet been achieved with previous efforts.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Event: NIME Conference 2012

During the Events Calendar on Dead White Guys last Sunday, I mentioned the New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference coming to U-M next week, and would now like to tell you more about it.  Hopefully, you’ll be convinced you should attend, because if you don’t attend it will prove one of the great mistakes of your life, one of the great missed opportunities you’ll tearfully recount to your only, reluctant, there-because-s/he-would-feel-bad-otherwise friend while decaying on your deathbed after a disappointing existence spent shunted off from intellectual exploration.  Trust me, go and your corpus callosum will thank you for it.

Did I say conference?  That’s unfortunate, because most conferences aren’t fun.  The presenters usually compete with Saltines for dryness. Everyone in attendance seems as if instead of Sports Illustrated there’s the Proceedings of the American Society for Plant Husbandry in their toilet-side magazine racks, and people only really go to wipe sweat on each other’s hands and get blind drunk on business expenses afterwards.  But I hope and expect this one is different.

NIME is three days worth of presentations, papers, and posters by visiting boffins and U-M affiliates on new ways to perform, produce, listen to, analyze, and interact with music and sound creation.  For music geeks like you and me, that’s already promising, because dear heavenly Hostess we really don’t need to hear anything more about the influence of the metronome on late classical-Romantic performance practice, or what actually killed Mozart.  (Answer: aliens.)  There’s the future and experimentation to think about, and the future is really, really interesting, and what people did to innovate with interfaces in musical expression in the recent past is still incredible.

And now, a digression.  For thousands of years, up through the 19th century, musical technology was confined to the tangibly physical, and most physical innovations to sounds and instruments were innovations and refinement of shapes, materials, and mechanical processes – better alloys, piston and cylinder valves, slowly perfecting resonance chambers and such. And in fact, most of these innovations (along with other reasons I won’t go into here) were accompanied by a narrowing diversity of instruments and sounds in art music.  Think about how few instruments actually appear in most acoustic music, and how many became extinct in the meantime.  There’s a reason we don’t hear traditional crumhorns and glass harmonicas and melodeons anymore.  They didn’t live up.  They were crap to play and crap to listen to and far too limiting in performance compared to what replaced them.

The addition of electricity and electric recording media reversed this trend significantly.  Electric pickups, synthesizers, soundboards, software, tapes, synthaxe drumitars, all these things popping up in the last century and dominating how we create and process sounds.  It’s freaking amazing to think what the possibilities can be, limited not by chemistry and physical laws and physical abilities so much but now by computing power, creativity, and the limits of the human hearing.  (Even that last one is debatable.  Would a symphony written in the range above human hearing still be music?)

And these last – no, latest – frontiers are what NIME appears to explore.  If you hadn’t suspected, yes, I did wet myself a little while writing that last paragraph.

Here’s a sampling of the titles of posters, papers, and demonstrations listed in the programs for this year:
“Temporal Control in the EyeHarp Gaze-Controlled Musical Interface”
“A New Keyboard-Based, Sensor-Augmented Instrument for Live Performance”
“SenSynth: a Mobile Application for Dynamic Sensor to Sound Mapping”
“The Planetarium as a Musical Instrument”
“Movement to Emotions to Music: Using Whole Body Emotional Expression as an Interaction for Electronic Music Generation”
“Tweet Harp: Laser Harp Generating Voice and Text of Real-time Tweets in Twitter”
“AuRal: A Mobile Interactive System for Geo-Locative Audio Synthesis”
“FutureGrab: A wearable synthesizer using vowel formants”

Why aren’t you excited?!?!  I’m excited.

Best yet, there are two sessions of concerts each night of the three days, which appear to be demonstrating these amazing things.  Heck, the nighttime concerts for Tuesday and Wednesday are at Necto for goodness sake.  Maybe they want to keep the tradition of having the opportunity to get blind drunk at these things.  I will do my best to be in attendance for the conference and concerts and, if feeling enterprising and sober enough, will post retrospectives after each day to this blog.  Stay tuned.

The conference is all day Monday-Wednesday, May 21-23, largely held on U-M's North Campus with concerts at the Lydia Mendelssohn theater.  I’ll leave you with links to the website and some videos of NIMEs past.