The jazz and blues standard “St. James Infirmary” opens, at least in a version by Louis Armstrong, with this image of a corpse laid out:
I went down to St. James Infirmary Saw my baby there She was stretched out on a long white table So cold, so sweet, so fairAs such, the song all but suggests itself as a subject for musical dissection.
Recently the San Francisco-based programmer and musician Christopher Abad (aka Aempirei) did just that, applying his computer to the gloomy classic, thus joining the ranks of Cab Calloway, Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Django Reinhardt, and countless others (including, yes, Andy Griffith as well as the White Stripes). And as with any proper take on “St. James Infirmary,” Abad’s appears to have originated with an intimation of mortality — in his case, a bike crash.
In late August, Abad wrote in a single post on the blog of the Tenderloin District art gallery he runs, twentygoto10.com, about two separate events: first, that he had been in a bike accident; second, that he’d been “working on a generalized method for note detection on musical instruments.” His goal was to be able to have the computer transcribe what he played on his trumpet. “Needless to say, I inevitably failed,” he writes (at twentygoto10.com), “but I did come up with some novel audio filters during my fruitless research.”
In the manner of jazz musicians and computer programmers alike, he made use of his self-described “failure” and improvised, putting the notes of “St. James Infirmary” through the hombrewed filter and coming up with a version all his own (MP3), one that clocks in at a little longer than nine minutes. The result has the shape of the antique original (that lonesome chordal arc, and the requisite funereal pace) as well as the digital fixings of a contemporary rendition (notably the algorithmic pulses, as well as some glitches that suggest a dog barking). Abad has posted the C++ code of his little program, should you want to compile it and fiddle with the experiment.
And if the digitized jazz of Abad’s “St. James Infirmary” strikes your fancy, then check out a more recent post of his, from mid-September, which features a test run of another classic, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” on a simple synthesizer he wrote (MP3, twentygoto10.com). It sounds like it’s being played on a bass-heavy glass harmonica, these tremulous swells carrying the melody along. Abad posted not only the MP3 and the C++ program, but also the input data of the song. Shown below, it is the digitized corpse of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” laid bare in cold code:
2a3 6f3 2a3 3f3 1f3 1d3 3c3 1f3 1f3 1f3 1f3 1a3 1a3 2c4 6c4 1d4 1c4 6a3 2c4 3f3 1f3 1d3 3c3 1f3 1f3 1f3 1f3 1a3 1a3 2g3 6f3For deep wells of background information on “St. James Infirmary,” visit not one but two blogs focused on the subject: nonotes.wordpress.com (that link goes directly to the “Infirmary”-related posts) by R. Walker, author of the books Letters from New Orleans and Buying In (and an old friend from when we both lived in New Orleans), and iwentdowntostjamesinfirmary.blogspot.com by Robert W. Harwood, author of the book I Went Down to St James Infirmary.
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