Thile records Bach

July 8th, 2014  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Mandolinist Chris Thile recorded some of the Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas last summer, and the result is just great; I’ve been listening to the album for the last month. Read a review at the New Yorker or the Nonesuch press release.

(You may also want to check out Enrico Baiano’s Scarlatti recordings.)

  • Tim Rutherford-Johnson does a spectacular job of tracing the elements of contemporary popular music that are commonly ascribed to Steve Reich’s influence and teasing out what Reich’s influence may really have been — and where these elements may have ultimately come from. If you’ve ever wondered, among other things, what Donna Summer has to do with Philip Glass, read on. (via Steve Hamann on Twitter)

  • This interview with Sigur Rós is over a decade old and the gear-specific details might not be of general interest even if they were current, but I thought the discussion of their aesthetic and the unusual steps they take to serve it — for example, recording in swimming pools and other large, untreated spaces — was fascinating.


Really impressive polyphonic dictation

March 5th, 2013  |  Tags: ,  |  2 Comments

I bought and started downloading the upgrade to Ableton Live 9 after it was released this morning and had a chance to play with it after work. (Happy birthday to me!) I’ve used Live since version 4, and it has been my first choice for producing electronic and electroacoustic music in the last few years. So far, Live 9 seems like a good upgrade overall, but I think the killer feature for my workflow is its ability to take polyphonic audio and transcribe a MIDI sequence for further arrangement or manipulation.

I was skeptical that this would work all that well (even monophonic audio-to-MIDI converters have been more “interesting” than “useful” in the past), but I plugged in a guitar1 and hastily recorded the hook from the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark”2. The results from using Live’s MIDI extraction were really quite impressive. This audio clip consists of the hook three times: first, with my original guitar recording, then crossfading between that and a synthesized electric piano driven by an extracted MIDI sequence, and then finally just the synthesized piano.

While this output is usable and surprisingly faithful, it’s not perfect. Live misses the appoggiaturas, but that’s absolutely forgivable (especially since I suspect that discarding appoggiaturas is the result of a tradeoff that also discards, e.g., the vast majority of fret noise). I’m optimistic that it’s good enough to use for transcribing reasonable recordings of many real instruments. As a terrible keyboardist (even worse, one who owns a crummy keyboard controller), I’m excited about the prospect of using my fretted stringed instruments as input devices for generic musical ideas (and not merely as things that make fretted-stringed-instrument and processed-fretted-stringed-instrument sounds).

1 Specifically, I was running both pickups of a stock Epiphone Wildkat into a Tech21 Blonde pedal with neutral but realistic settings and then recording that through a passive direct box.
2 It was a good day, but I’m not sure whether the Lakers even played the SuperSonics, let alone beat them.

Massive produce attack

March 2nd, 2013  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

This delightfully nerdy exercise turns fresh produce into custom electronic music controllers:

Things go better with vihuela

February 25th, 2013  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

This is a beautiful performance of Miguel de Fuenllana’s intabulation of Claude Sermisy’s “Tant que vivray.” It is absolutely worth a few minutes of your time.

(My six-year-old son, upon seeing that a single YouTube had given this the thumbs-down, said “I really don’t understand how anyone could not like this, Dad.”)

When genres become zombies

December 20th, 2012  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Has any word used to describe commercial music had such a tremendous decline as “dubstep?” In 2005 it referred to the music made by loose collection of producers with diverse sounds and styles.1 But by 2009 it had become a descriptor for a paint-by-number style that only admitted tracks that allowed a few facile, predictable, and ridiculous musical elements to grow until they choked out everything else. In four years, “dubstep” went from being a big tent containing some of the most interesting popular electronic music of the day to being a mark of philistinism — a pejorative to anyone except bros who skew lowbrow and are a little too enthusiastic about horticulture.

I suspect in this case, the decline was due primarily to the diverse group of innovators moving away from what became the rigid characterization of dubstep while a large group of second-tier musicians and bedroom producers (and glorified bedroom producers) were happy to play in a narrow style and to use draconian genre constraints as absolute guidelines rather than as a starting point for creative exploration. (To be fair, the genre’s increased popularity probably was due to new fans who demanded the same halfstep beat, a wobble bass drop exactly 16 or 32 measures in, &c.) No matter why it happened, though, this amusing video pretty well captures the current state of the genre:

(Chase it with something a little more interesting, like Burial’s “Untrue.”)

1 Even I produced some of the old-definition, broadly-construed “dubstep.”

Dirty minimalism

October 15th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I’ve long been interested in the Disquiet Junto music-making assignments, and have even started efforts at some, but haven’t gotten anything actually presentable until this week’s assignment: “Produce an original piece of music that fits the genre “‘dirty minimalism,’” which benefited from just the right combination of inspiration and a few rare blocks of contiguous free time.

My song, “the concept ‘horse’ is a concept easily understood” is available on SoundCloud or as an AAC download.

My basic idea was to do something in a rock or post-rock idiom that nonetheless has many of the hallmarks of what I consider minimalism: ostinati, shifting polyrhythms, and gradual introduction of pitch classes, new timbres, and layered sounds. Of course, minimalism-influenced rock is nothing new, but most such work (like this track) is necessarily temporally compressed when compared to minimalist concert music. Bitcrushing, phasing, frequency-shifting, and general sloppy technique (which I’ve been working on perfecting for some time) contribute to the “dirty” aspect. (I considered introducing a sparse bowed-guitar solo over the top of this — after all, I like those a lot — but didn’t think I’d have time to introduce it and maintain the minimalist aesthetic.)

This was a lot of fun.

  • Avid’s death spiral continues and has claimed the development team for Sibelius. This is terrible news. I was very good with Finale in college but switched to Sibelius for my (presently very limited) music-typesetting needs after I got my first Mac in 2002. The notation software world, which is not a likely candidate for disruption, will absolutely suffer without spririted competition.


Teachout on DFD

May 25th, 2012  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Terry Teachout discusses the controversies surrounding Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s approach to performing, as well as what made him so great:

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s style of singing was so individual, even idiosyncratic, that it left some people cold. Unlike the generation of recitalists that preceded him, he sang like an actor, not a storyteller. In his hands, each song became a first-person monologue, a confession of supreme intensity. Individual phrases, sometimes individual syllables, were subtly inflected so as to bring out their meaning. The effect was almost kaleidoscopic in its richness of dramatic nuance, and a listener who was used to the “simpler” style of an older singer like, say, Lotte Lehmann or Richard Tauber might easily find it oversophisticated, even—yes—mannered.

Read the whole thing, especially for Teachout’s reflection on his own changing evaluation of DFD’s work over time. And then listen to this, which is outside of what we might imagine as the typical Fischer-Dieskau oeuvre but excellent nonetheless:

The sweeping clarity of rock criticism

May 21st, 2012  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I often enjoy Pitchfork‘s reviews of popular and semi-popular music, but a description of subpar verse as having “the sweeping clarity of a dissertation, the galvanizing fire of a sermon, and the forcefulness of a hurled brick … [with the] the cleansing power of a confession” is the sort of thing that someone can only write if they have never before encountered any of those nouns in the real world — or if they mean to lampoon pretentious rock writing.

  • DFD, RIP. What a gift that his entire career was within the recorded-music era.


Beauty of tone is of secondary importance

September 15th, 2011  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

If you need any further evidence that internet commenters are, in the aggregate, philistines, note that this video has received thumbs down from 60% of YouTube voters:

(See also “Scarlatti eruption,” a post about Enrico Baiano’s excellent interpretations.)

Transcending ideology on Twitter

September 9th, 2011  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I follow Twitter users representing a wide range of vocations, political philosophies, and creeds, but they all have one thing in common: visceral hatred of mediocre rock band Nickelback. I base this assertion on the sheer number of people who’ve approvingly retweeted the following message:

WARNING: if you see posts offering free clip of the new Nickelback album DO NOT CLICK. It links to a free clip of the new Nickelback album.

The variety of people gleefully expressing Nickelback-related animus actually gives me great hope for a harmonious future. Nickelback’s universally hated oeuvre may have the potential to help people of diverse concerns find common ground — and, ultimately, to bring the world together in peace. In this sense, they are the inverse of fictional rock band Wyld Stallyns, whose music was so widely loved that it led to the eventual establishment of a 27th-Century utopia.

Be excellent to each another, my Nickelback-hating internet friends.

Disappointing musical texture stunts

August 4th, 2011  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

A few months ago, I purchased a download of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra. (The preceding link is to What follows is a brief review, although careful readers may be able to infer the general verdict from the title of this post.

Mr. Prokofiev was a prolific dance music producer in the UK before branching out into concert music. Unfortunately, this piece, which combines a live orchestra with a turntablist scratching records of a recorded orchestra, relies too heavily on gimmicks to be really effective. Some parts are more successful than others (there are some sections which would make excellent film cues or incidental music for the theatre). However, it really seems that the most interesting thing about this piece is the central idea — “let’s combine some contemporary orchestral music with turntable scratching” — which is insufficiently clever to carry a whole recording by itself. (Some gimmicks, like the Hilliard Ensemble’s musical palimpsest, are clever enough to make the merely excellent sublime, but I suspect we’re past the era in which novel instrumentation alone can make a piece of concert music interesting.)

The failure of Mr. Prokofiev’s Concerto comes from what I believe is a common problem with compositions adopting unorthodox musical textures: all too often, the textural innovations merely crowd out and smother any good musical ideas in the piece. When there are few good ideas to begin with, as in Uri Caine’s bizarre free-jazz take on Mahler, the Hilliard Ensemble’s execrable Machaut-meets-Kenny-G collaboration with Jan Garbarek, any student composition ever scored for “X and tape,” or this Concerto, the gimmicks become truly oppressive. It needn’t have been this way: so many people have made great music by reworking other music (in general) and by repurposing and rearranging recordings of other music (in particular). Still worse, Mr. Prokofiev apparently has some talent for composition and facility with contemporary music production; he is precisely the sort of person who should have been able to do something special with this technique.

Instead, this pretentiously-titled work suffocates a few mildly interesting moments in a sonic tarpit. It tries to make art solely from debatable mechanical novelty and Mr. Prokofiev’s surname (his grandfather is rather famous). After listening for a few minutes, I began wondering about whether or not DJ Shadow has a dog, what kind of a record DJ Shadow’s dog might make, and how much more I might enjoy that record.

Copyright protip

May 18th, 2011  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

If you’re concerned about the “moral rights” to your copyrighted work, don’t license it to someone in a country that doesn’t recognize these. This linked case concerns the children of Egyptian songwriter Baligh Hamdy, who licensed Hamdy’s song “Khosara, Khosara” to Jay-Z, who turned it into the vulgar-but-catchy earworm “Big Pimpin” in 2000. One of Hamdy’s children sued Jay-Z and EMI in 2007, alleging that Mr. Carter’s license to use the work only covered unmodified reproduction. Looks like they should have consulted the Creative Commons! (Honestly, though, what did Hamdy’s heirs expect Jay-Z was going to do with a copyright license to a song if not “sampling it, looping it and adding his lyrics?”)

The first song is always the hardest

February 8th, 2011  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I thought I’d try the February Album Writing Month challenge this year for the first time in a while. One week in, and I’ve got one song done and (only) thirteen to go. The first song is called “like lions breathing fire”; you may read the liner notes or just listen to the mp3.

The first thing you bought from Amazon

May 4th, 2010  |  Tags: , , ,  |  4 Comments

Several writers I enjoy (e.g. Meghan McArdle and Joseph Bottum) have been posting about the first order that they ever placed at Since I’m on a first-name basis with my UPS guy, I thought it would be fun to do so myself.

Unfortunately, the first book I ever bought from Amazon is pretty embarrassing: on March 1, 1998, I bought a translation of Theodor Adorno’s Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy. I had hoped that Adorno’s interpretation of Mahler’s oeuvre would prove useful for some research I was doing at the time. It did not.

(The first audio recording I bought from Amazon was this Norman/Boulez recording of Bluebeard’s Castle.)

What’s the first thing you bought from Amazon?


May 1st, 2010  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

I’ve enjoyed music for the viola da gamba since college, when the viol consort was regularly the least hilarious part of early music concerts. (For the other end of the spectrum, check out the krumhorn — it’s like a kazoo with a geocentric concept of the cosmos, and spawns hilarity even when performed expertly.) Since I don’t currently have the time or opportunity to spend a few hours in the recital hall each week, most of my experience of early music these days is through recordings; here are a couple of recommended releases.

Last summer, I picked up Fretwork’s recording (Amazon link) of the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, a codex of secular songs published by Petrucci. I was pretty confident that it would be excellent, since I love the Franco-Flemish style and many of the composers represented in the codex in particular. This recording actually surpassed my high expectations on every meaningful dimension: performance, interpretation, and engineering. If you appreciate the works of composers like Josquin, Ockeghem, and Obrecht (or are interested in an unorthodox introduction to this style), then this is an easy buy, even as an undiscounted full-priced release.

A still easier buy is Fretwork’s “English Music for Viols” (Amazon link), which is a budget collection consisting of several reissued releases; my copy arrived earlier this week. Collectors of art music recordings know that “budget” can be applied both as a genuine description and as an ironic twist of marketing. In the case of this set, “budget” is almost an understatement, since this collection spans five discs and lists for $17. The performances are superb and recordings are clear and dynamic.

(If you’re not familiar with the historical styles represented above and are merely interested in some exposure to the viol, I expect that the English consort repertoire will prove less challenging to contemporary ears. Both recordings, however, will reward careful and casual listening alike.)

Amazing solo violin arrangement

April 28th, 2010  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” for solo fiddle:

Two things always strike me about these kinds of arrangements: just how conventional the harmonies and voice-leading are in the best rock songs, and how much polyphony one can squeeze out of a single melodic line with occasional double-stops. Neither of these is a particularly new insight: after all, Duke Ellington’s songs have a great deal in common with Schubert lieder, and Bach wrote plenty of “polyphonic” music for solo violin. (I have even able to name-drop some of the latter while discussing concurrent programming.)

(Via 37signals.)


April 20th, 2010  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Amazon used to consistently offer excellent prices on art music CDs, typically selling full-price releases for 70% or less of their (inflated) MSRP. Then they started selling digital music downloads. Since then, anything that Amazon offers on physical media seems to go for awfully close to list price if it is also available as a download, e.g.:


I’m sure this is simply a freak coincidence.

RIYL: Scarcity (in 2008)

Pop music notes (8/2009)

August 25th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

I enjoy Rodrigo y Gabriela‘s classical guitar cover of Metallica’s instrumental “Orion” (get the cd or mp3 from far more than I should admit. I will resist the temptation to point out how extensively mid-period Metallica and similar artists have borrowed the melodic and vertical materials of flamenco and just note that — except for some ill-advised signal processing during the bridge (on the recording, that is, not in the live video) — this song is wholly entertaining.

Scarlatti eruption

August 7th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  2 Comments

Keyboardist Enrico Baiano is apparently known for flexible tempi and unconventional interpretations. His live recording of Scarlatti’s sonata K.119 at the 2007 Scarlatti Music Festival in Japan (iTunes link; it is not in print on physical media as far as I can tell) is pretty over-the-top, in a great way. K.119 is one of Scarlatti’s more guitaristic works, and Baiano’s performance dramatically accentuates this element, presenting Scarlatti as a sort of proto-Romantic, Iberian Eddie Van Halen. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard in a while.

I’ve attached a video of a slightly less incendiary Baiano performance of this piece; it, too, is excellent.

The field guide to madcap ontic

July 20th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  5 Comments

Yesterday — as Tim, Greg, and I were heading back from an epic road trip — Greg mentioned that he had been meaning to listen to my song “An exciting film” from the first FAWM compilation (more info and an amusing story here; the song itself is available as a download from iTunes or Amazon). While this probably has the most exposure of any pop song I’ve written, I don’t regard it as my best work.

I haven’t had time to finish any productions in a while, but I’ve written some stuff that I’m still pretty happy with. Here’s a list of what I believe are the best songs of the madcap ontic and William Afham catalogs so far, in roughly chronological order and with some RIYLs; song title links are generally to MP3s:

  1. natural lemon flavor (archery target mix)” I wrote this while waiting for students to show up to my office hours one day when I was teaching CS 537 in the summer of 2005; as such, it probably has the highest bang-for-buck ratio of any time-wasting I did as a graduate student. Production info is here.
  2. akvavit” is probably the best of the William Afham songs; it’s more ambient and abstract than most of the madcap ontic material. Production info is here. (If you like this sort of thing, you may also want to check out the drone-based “exophora.”)
  3. I wrote “grains of snow” for FAWM 2008; the idea was roughly: “what would a lament aria for synthesizer sound like?” I like the way it draws on my hip-hop, dub, and glitch influences while remaining melodic and accessible. Production info is here.
  4. Recently, my productions have been influenced more and more by dubstep artists. “twilight” is probably the best of my dubstep tunes. (If you like dubstep, you may also want to hear “sometimes you are not so fond of me” and “provocations, too,” both of which are more cinematic and less dystopian.)

You can listen to the madcap ontic tracks mentioned above if you have Flash installed:

Of course, I welcome listener feedback, even if it’s just to say that you enjoyed (or hated) one of these songs.


June 25th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

One of the finest achievements of western art is Bach’s d minor Partita for solo violin (BWV 1004); in particular, the Chaconne is technically dazzling, emotionally loaded, and sublime. (For a fun middlebrow musicological excursus on the piece and its relation to German chorales, check out the Hilliard Ensemble’s amazing Morimur album — but be sure to get it on a physical disc; the liner notes explain the project and are spectacular.)

Below are a few beats of Antonio Sinopoli’s guitar transcription of the Chaconne. Unlike Segovia’s famous and idiosyncratic arrangement, Sinopoli eschews scordatura and transposes to e minor; he is otherwise far more faithful to the original. The score I have was published by Ricordi Buenos Aires; it identifies the piece as “Chacona” and the author as “Juan S. Bach” (!)


RIYL: Music for the rest of your life.

Revisiting “digital audio quality” and minidiscs

March 19th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

John S. Gray writes, in a comment on one of my all-time favorite posts, to share an endorsement of Sony’s ATRAC3Plus codec for classical music recording. As far as I can tell, Gray is the audio archivist for the Canadian Music Centre, so I’m inclined to accept his perceptions as sound. I also find Gray’s claim that a high-capacity Minidisc beats a slow tape for fidelity on long recordings extremely plausible.

I am rather dismayed that solid-state and hard-disk based recorders seem to have displaced the Minidisc from its former prominence. The media were cheap, the devices were small and convenient — and more than suitable for field (and performance) recording as well as mobile listening. (The ubiquity of iPod-like players that can handle days of music in AAC or lossless formats certainly reduced the utility proposition of MDs for playback.) In fact, the only inconveniences I experienced with my minidisc player over many happy years were political, not technical.

Revisiting this post also reminds me that it has been a long time since I’ve had a friendly argument with Pliable — like the one that led to the “digital audio quality” post in the first place. Perhaps it’s time to write more about music.

RIYL: what Jerry Bruckheimer teaches you about digital signal processing — a pet peeve so well-documented that my close friends form mirth vortexes at the mere mention of “enhance.”

Euclidean rhythms

January 15th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

“The Euclidean Algorithm Generates Traditional Musical Rhythms” (pdf link) is a fascinating paper by Godfried Toussaint at McGill. Friends of this site will likely guess that I was powerless to resist reading the whole thing after glancing at the first paragraph:

What do African bell rhythms, spallation neutron source (SNS) accelerators in nuclear physics, Sturmian words and string theory (stringology) in computer science, Markoff numbers and two-distance sequences in number theory, drawing digital straight lines in computer graphics, calculating leap years in calendar design, and an ancient algorithm […] for computing the greatest common divisor of two numbers, originally described by Euclid, have in common? The short answer is: patterns distributed as evenly as possible. For the long answer please read on.

Touissant shows that the Euclidean greatest-common-divisor algorithm has the same structure as an algorithm, due to Bjorklund, for evenly scheduling n pulses in k units of time. (Bjorklund’s application was scheduling high-voltage power over intervals.) He then demonstrates that this algorithm can be used to generate musical rhythms that have appeared in music throughout recorded history; for example, scheduling three pulses over eight units of time results in the tresillo, or 3+3+2/8 rhythm. (This rhythm is familiar in African and Caribbean music; Touissant notes that it is also the rhythm of the bass part in Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.”)

This discussion alone would make for an excellent read, but it represents only the first fifth of the paper! Touissant also identifies a wide range of actual rhythms from world music that can be generated using this technique; compares rhythms generated using this technique to rhythms categorized in the aksak system of rhythms (which I first encountered, but not by that name, in the music of Bartók); and finally, makes convincing analogies with finding leap years, drawing straight lines on grids of pixels, and several other problem domains.

I haven’t had so much fun reading a research paper in ages. If you are reading this site, you will probably enjoy Touissant’s paper.

  • Max for Live?” Sounds exciting. Is it possible for Gerhard Behles to break his own company’s press-release embargo?


The other amplifier

November 5th, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Thomas is fascinated by the guitar, and despite my best efforts with Bach transcriptions on the classical guitar, he seems to love the electric (“the orange guitar,” as he calls it, in particular) more than anything. A couple of days ago, I moved my amp up from its exile in the basement to the home office so that Thomas and I could play together, and we’ve since spent some time making sounds with the guitar in the evenings after I come home from work.

When I was just about to put him to bed tonight, he said “Downstairs, Daddy! Downstairs!” I asked him what was downstairs, suspecting that he heard the furnace or wanted to watch TV or something. Nope. “The other amplifier, Daddy. And the bass.” Oh, right. Should I bring that upstairs tomorrow, so we can play the bass together? “Yes.”

I guess if WT turns into a superdork, we’ll know who to blame. Sorry, sweetie.